The marshmallow method: a new technique to increase productivity

Marshmallow moments… we all face hundreds of them every day. Making the right decisions in these moments, guided by the marshmallow method, can boost your productivity to a whole new level.

What is a marshmallow moment?

At Stanford University, in the 1960s and 1970s, a psychologist named Walter Mischel led an experiment called the Marshmallow Test. The test was as follows.

A child was placed in a room alone. On a plate in front of the child, the psychologist placed one marshmallow. He then said to the child…

“You can either eat this one marshmallow now… or, if you wait for 15 minutes, you can have two marshmallows instead.”

…and then he left the room.

The child was left alone to contemplate this torturous test, for they had to decide whether to take the instant treat or hold back for 15 minutes, at which point, they would receive a double treat for their abstinence.

Delayed Gratification

This experiment measured what psychologists refer to as delayed gratification.

Years later, further studies were carried out on the same children. These studies showed correlations between the ability to delay gratification and some key human metrics such as IQ, SAT scores and BMI.

But this test isn’t just for kids and it doesn’t just happen with marshmallows. In fact, every day, we all face hundreds of marshmallow tests in disguise.

They are often in disguise because, although the original marshmallow test challenged the ability to delay gratification (left-hand chart below), in day-to-day life, many of the marshmallow tests we face challenge our ability to prevent delayed dissatisfaction (right-hand chart below).

The left-hand chart is the original marshmallow test. The right-hand chart is one where we are challenged to prevent delayed dissatisfaction.

But the overall concept of the two charts is the same: do something now, which may not be easy, because you understand the delayed benefit of it.

The anatomy of a marshmallow test

We can break down any marshmallow test we face into three parts.

One marshmallow: The worse-in-the-long-run-but-really-tempting-right-now option.

Two marshmallows: The better-in-the-long-run-but-right-now-a-distant-reality option.

Marshmallow moment: The moment you are tested.

In each marshmallow moment, you always have a choice between the two options.

Marshmallow moment 1: The alarm goes off

One marshmallow: Urghh, I’m gonna snooze my alarm, I feel sooooo tired this morning. I deserve another ten minutes in bed.

An hour later…

This rush hour traffic is awful, my face is in someone else’s armpit.

Two marshmallows: I’m gonna push through this grim feeling of morning-ness because I know, in half an hour’s time, I will be on an empty tube, reading my Kindle, feeling on top of the world.

An hour later…

I love it when I can do my emails before 9 o clock!

Marshmallow moment: Will you get out of bed?

Marshmallow moment 2: Getting ready for the day

One marshmallow: I can’t be bothered to make a packed lunch today. To be honest, I haven’t even taken my dirty Tupperware out of my bag from yesterday. I will just buy lunch today…

4 hours later…

Woah, I just spent 13 pounds on my lunch. I cannot keep doing this!

Two marshmallows: I’m gonna wash up my Tupperware, and, even though it still looks a bit yellow from yesterday’s lunch, I’m gonna fill it up with some raw veg and some pre-prepared lentils and hit up that empty tube!

4 hours later…

That was healthy and delicious and I haven’t spent any money on lunch today!

Marshmallow moment: Will you bother to make that packed lunch?

Marshmallow moment 3: Going to the shops

One marshmallow: I’m gonna go to the shops and buy some food.

5 mins later in the shop…

Ah shoot, I forgot my bag for life.

Two marshmallows: I’m gonna go to the shops and buy some food, and I mustn’t forget my bag for life!

5 mins later in the shop…

I’m saving turtles, one plastic bag at a time.

Marshmallow moment: Will you remember your bag for life?

Marshmallow moments at work

Starting a startup, there are many marshmallow moments every day. And it is so easy to go for the one marshmallow. Tech debt, design debt and CRM debt are all just the results of bad choices in marshmallow moments.

One marshmallow: What a great meeting. I am just gonna write her name down in my notebook and add her to our CRM system later. Actually, you know what, my notebook is in my bag, I’m sure I can just remember her name.

One week later…

Hmmm, what was her name again? And have I sent her that email? Where did I write her name down… oh, I didn’t.

Two marshmallows: I am gonna stop what I am doing and immediately add her details to our CRM system, because, otherwise, this could result in a serious headache down the line!

One week later…

Ah, there she is, in the third grouping in our CRM system. She is moving through the sales funnel just as planned.

Marshmallow moment: Will you bother to put her into your CRM system?

Similar examples clearly hold for design debt and tech debt, and, in fact, most processes at work.

And it isn’t just startup founders that face marshmallow moments…

Jeff Bezos is very two marshmallow-y

It took Amazon years to first make a profit, because Jeff Bezos recognised the value in reinvesting all their profits into new research areas, thus delaying gratification… but look at him now!

No one is a pure two marshmallow-er or a pure one marshmallow-er

In Daniel Kahneman’s famous book Thinking Fast and Slow, he talks about our experiencing self and our remembering self. These two alter egos tie in closely with the two options in a marshmallow moment.

The experiencing self will always go for the best option right now. What is the quickest or ‘laziest’ way I can do this? What is my body currently telling me to do? This side of us will always pick the one marshmallow.

The remembering self-thinks about the long term. It is the remembering self, the two marshmallow-er, who makes new year’s resolutions and cycles into work.

We all have these two alter egos, the first one reaching for the instant gratification and the second one thinking more long term.

Becoming more two marshmallow-y

Those who claim to be pure two marshmallow-ers have usually put a lot of work into getting themselves to that esteemed position.

This is because being a pure two marshmallow-er doesn’t come easily or naturally. To become one, you have to make a conscious effort to analyse your worst and most frequent marshmallow moments. Then you have to work out ways to ensure you invariably pick the two-marshmallow option in these moments.

For me, I do this with a technique called the marshmallow method.

Marshmallow method

  1. Write down 5 things you have a tendency to do in the moment, things which cause you problems later on.
  2. Think about the exact marshmallow moment for each one, the moment when you have the choice to delay gratification or not (equally, to prevent delayed dissatisfaction or not).
  3. Think about exactly why you tend to choose the one marshmallow in these moments.
  4. Try to create mental associations between your marshmallow moments and their undesired consequences. This can help you to choose the better option when facing these moments in the future.
  5. Write down changes you could make, based on these mental associations, to make sure you don’t keep eating that one marshmallow! These are your “marshmallow hacks”.

Marshmallow hack examples

  1. Set an alarm that shouts “Get out of bed now, because the train in 45 minutes will be full.” This associates the marshmallow moment with the undesired consequence.
  2. Put a reminder in your calendar to make a big pot of lentils on Sunday evening with the note “save money all week by making some lentils now, they don’t take long.”
  3. Store your bag for life in your handbag, by the front door or by the fridge, wherever’s best to build the required mental association between bags for life and going to the shops.
  4. For the CRM system example, I actually don’t know a really good marshmallow hack. I have found that even with the best CRM system in the world, you still just have to be really two marshmallow-y and force yourself to enter data into the system. If anyone knows a good marshmallow hack to make sure everything goes into your CRM system, please comment below.

And finally… go for some instant gratification sometimes!

Really productive people recognise the important marshmallow moments, the ones where the two marshmallow option must be chosen.

But they also recognise the moments when a little bit of instant gratification isn’t going to be too costly!

Originally posted by Patrick Woodhead on The Startup


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