Be it that desire to instantly respond to a colleague who said something rude, or reply to your manager’s emails with ideas, within 15 minutes of receiving it – we all have the urge to gratify our needs instantly. It’s so tempting! Sometimes, managers even hire people in a hurry, to meet the need for a new employee. Psychologists believe that the outcome of all these situations can be improved by delaying gratification, and building the skill of self-control or will power.

One of the most popular studies that validates this claim, is Stanford Psychologist Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Study. He showed that when preschool kids could pass up a temptation in the short run—in this case, a marshmallow sitting right in front of them—for something better down the line, they experienced surprising outcomes. It included better SAT scores years later and better stress management skills, than their peers who couldn’t help eating the marshmallow.

What is will power though? It is a reaction to an internal conflict, an ability to resist temptation, make decisions, and see them through. You want to do one thing, such as eat fried chicken, but know you shouldn’t. This process is controlled by the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, and even if we don’t exercise our will power consciously, it gets used when we ignore distractions or manage emotions.

The good news – self-control can be learnt, and will impact your performance outcomes positively. Here are two simple mental exercises to help you strengthen that muscle:

  • Daydream a little. A hyper-focused mind is a bane for self-control. It primes us to stay fixated on one thing, and lose sight of the bigger picture. Just as Mischel observed with the preschool kids: “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it. The key is to avoid thinking about it.” There are further studies that prove mind-wandering helps in successful management of long term goals. Researchers Smallwood and Singer say, “Although immersion in the here and now is undeniably advantageous, the capacity to let go of the present and consider more pertinent goals has benefits.”

    Thus, once you complete a task that consumes a large amount of cognitive energy, allow your mind to take a break before jumping to your next to-do. It could be as simple as staring at something other than your computer screen.

  • Have a gratitude practice. An attitude of gratitude is known to help us focus on possibilities. Especially when we can find something positive in our failures. We can then make a new action plan that is more fool proof. Researchers have correlated the feeling of thankfulness with a person’s tendency to prefer waiting longer for better rewards. That’s true even for material rewards, not just abstract or emotional ones. Practicing gratitude can even help subjects tough it out for more money as opposed to opting for less cash right away.

And if these suggestions seem a little far-fetched, just focus on getting enough nutrition and sleep. You’ll have better tolerance for stress, which in turn will give your pre-frontal cortex more energy to spend on will power! Ready? Go!

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