What can marshmallows reveal about your willpower when it comes to goals? Yes, we know, seemingly nothing much. When you set yourself a new goal, you can bet that willpower, grit and determination will be key components. Enthusiasm can get you started but what happens when the going gets tough? Willpower makes or breaks your dream or goal. But is willpower something that we are born with or can it be developed to help us work towards positive change? We take a look at an iconic marshmallow experiment all about cognitive control (you’ve got to love science that uses marshmallows), three steps to help you develop your willpower along with evidence from the world of neuroscience to help you reach your goal.
Change your habits, change your life we’ve all heard it before, but if it was that easy we’d all be living a life we love. So how do you make those changes reality? Setting powerful goals is the starting point. Goals are a road map, a guide, your blueprint to achieve even the most audacious goals that you can envisage. Got a goal in mind? Here’s our step by step guide to making sure you set a goal that really makes a difference with goal architecture made simple.
Flow, the model of performance introduced to Positive Psychology by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is big news both in the workplace and outside of it. But what is it? Think of a time when you’ve been completely immersed in a task, when distractions were minimized and you lost sense of time and space. Got it? Well that’s flow. If you can answer ‘Yes’ to the following questions whilst undertaking a task, you’ve probably found yourself in flow;
- You’re doing it because you’re motivated
- You’re completely focused on the task
- You lose sense of time, hours feel like minutes
- You’re not worrying
- You have a sense of control
- You forget yourself
- You feel inspired
- You don’t really notice your surroundings
- You’re enjoying it and feel good as you get on with the task, you’re on a roll!
- You feel as though you’re achieving something
Csikszentmihalyi narrows it down to two characteristics that must be present for flow to occur:
- We should know what to do moment by moment whilst participating in the activity or task and utilise feedback instantly
- The abilities of the person undertaking the task match the opportunities for action
Put more simply, he describes it as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from your previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost”
Or, as Lyubmirsky describes it, “being involved in life” rather than being on autopilot.
Surprisingly, adults often report experiencing more flow in the workplace than in their personal life outside of work. This might have something to do with the parameters and guidelines around work, which you’ll see below, are a necessary part of creating more flow in life. But rest easy, flow is an essential element of happiness whether you’re at work or not and can be applied to friendships, relationships, projects, hobbies and sports.
Why does it matter?
Research suggests that people who feel flow experience greater levels of wellbeing. This doesn’t mean that each time you participate in a task you’ll feel euphoric and instant happiness (if only). Instead, studies suggest that after the task has been completed, people feel a sense of accomplishment, a greater subjective sense of wellbeing along with purpose and meaning. All ingredients of happiness and flourishing according to Martin Seligman, the ‘father’ of Positive Psychology. Csikszentmihalyi says it’s one of the secrets to finding happiness in life. In our book that makes creating flow worth a go.
To introduce more flow experiences into your day to day activities, Csikszentmihalyi recommends the following in his book, ‘Finding Flow”.
- Seek out situations where you’re fully involved in the challenge. It’s not too easy for you and there is some ‘stretch’ involved in the task for you, you’re pushing yourself outside of a comfortable level of performance.
- The activity has a set of goals and requires certain actions. The rules help you get into flow because you’re not wondering how to do something. It’s clear.
- Learn to focus your attention. Train yourself to focus on moment to moment awareness so you’re able to concentrate fully. Try practicing mindfulness to hone this skill.
- Apply flow to routine tasks. Lyubmirsky suggests ‘microflow’ experiences created by applying goals and rules to everyday tasks. See how you can apply these to something you do every day, for example, creating a personal best time for completing your administrative tasks or seeing if you can bring your full attention to a conversation.
- Aim for superflow. This is when you’re in maximum flow with the volume turned up. You’ll get there with practice, from small microflow projects, to practicing your moment-to-moment awareness on a regular basis. That’s you rewiring your brain and honing your skills until you’re able to move into superflow with ease.
With a little bit of practice and effort, flow is something that, when cultivated will pay dividends in your wellbeing and happiness. Want to find out more about flow? Here’s the man himself at TedX Monterey, California https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow?language=en
We love to talk about all things positive psychology at Positive Change Guru. Check out our forthcoming events or get in touch to find out more about our suite of courses and discuss bespoke positive psychology training for your organisation.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu
At work, I covered my desk with motivational quotes, my favourite was Goethe, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” But when it came to beginning my dream, I stalled again and again.
I spent several long years dreaming about starting my own business. I longed for the freedom of being my own boss but was daunted by the risk involved. I commuted for four hours every day and spent most of that time daydreaming about running a business but remained overwhelmed when I thought about following my dreams.
A different approach
Eventually I realised that the only way my dream would become a reality was by taking a different approach. Instead of regarding my goal as one huge, life changing event that had to be achieved all at once, I decided to break it down into smaller, more achievable tasks. Each time I accomplished one of my smaller goals, my confidence and self-belief increased and a shift from fear to confidence began to take shape. My fears began to subside and I reached a point where I believed I could succeed. I handed in my notice and continued building my new business, using the same small steps approach to help me achieve my business goals.
Maybe you have a goal that seems so daunting you’re not sure where to start? Don’t be intimidated by the size of your goal, instead, view it as a series of smaller steps or sub goals, this will help you to:
- build confidence and belief in yourself as you work towards your goal.
- maintain motivation and develop momentum.
- acknowledge and celebrate the achievements that mark your progress.
- maintain focus.
- Recognise how small and medium sized changes to your routine and habits can support you to achieve much bigger goals.
Try these seven small steps to help keep big goals on track:
- Break it down. Write down all the different ways in which you can divide your big goal into smaller, achievable tasks. You can tackle your tasks in a specific order, especially if achieving some tasks earlier on will provide you with additional skills you’ll need for tasks further down the line. Alternatively, you can choose a task from the list based on how much time you have available each week. Make sure you commit to achieving one small task every day that will move you closer towards your overarching goal.
- Timeframes. Give each task a timeframe for completion. Mastering each smaller task is a milestone towards achieving your big goal. A timeframe enables you to maintain focus and see how your big goal is starting to take shape.
- Know your motivators. Think about your motivation for each step, why is it important to you? What will be gained when you’ve achieved this task? Create a list of your motivations for making this change and keep it to hand. Spend time envisioning how great it will feel when you’ve achieved each step.
- Savour your successes. We’re all guilty of ticking an achievement off the list and quickly moving on to the next thing without considering what the achievement means. Allow yourself time to savour success and consider the lessons you learned along the way. Savouring success is essential for building confidence and developing your self belief.
- Be compassionate to yourself. You’d be compassionate with a friend if their efforts didn’t go to plan and you’re no less deserving of that same level of compassion. There’ll always be times when, for whatever reason, things go off track. Refuse to beat yourself up, instead adopt a positive focus and consider what you can do differently next time you’re faced with a similar challenge.
- Celebrate achievements. Celebrating your achievements is a great way to recognise the progress you’ve made and will provide motivation for the next milestone on your journey towards the big goal.
- Review progress. A weekly review of your progress helps to keep you focused on what needs to be done and allows you to consistently prioritise your goal. Reviews also enable you to establish what’s working well, check timeframes remain realistic and consider any changes that you need to make to the remaining tasks in the light of what you’ve accomplished so far. Most importantly, time spent reviewing your hard work will help you to recognise how the small and medium sized changes you’ve made to your routine and habits are supporting you to achieve your bigger goals.
Begin your journey of a thousand miles today!
When we set ourselves goals, we know that willpower is going to come into play at some stage of the process. Enthusiasm can fire us into action initially but when the going gets tough willpower may be the make or break of achieving a dream or goal. So is willpower something that we are born with or can it be developed to help us work towards positive change?
Marshmallows reveal a lot about willpower
Psychologist, Walter Meschel, carried out a longitudinal study focusing on cognitive control (or willpower) with 1,037 children born in one year of the 1970s. The research took place in the beautiful city of Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island. Each child was given a variety of tests to complete, the most famous of which was the legendary marshmallow test.
In the marshmallow test the children were instructed that they could have a marshmallow straight away or they could wait a mere fifteen minutes and be rewarded with two marshmallows. Meschel found the results of the test divided the children into three groups. The first group was comprised of children who ate the marshmallow on the spot. The second group of children waited a while longer but couldn’t resist temptation for the full fifteen minutes and the third group waited the full quarter of an hour before receiving their two marshmallows.
The effects of willpower thirty years on
What makes Meschel’s research even more interesting is that he was able to re-visit the children from the study almost three decades later. Now in their thirties, Meschel discovered something fascinating about the children. The group who waited the full fifteen minutes were significantly healthier, more successful and more law abiding than the group of children who ate the marshmallow straight away. Meschel and his team took these results and factored for social class and IQ. They found that the level of willpower the children had at an early age was a greater predictor of financial success than either IQ or social class.
It’s clear from this study that our level of cognitive control or willpower is a big factor in our ability to achieve our dreams and goals. Even though Meschel’s test involved the small task of waiting fifteen minutes to gain an extra marshmallow, it demonstrates that the everyday decisions we make to resist temptation can build or deplete our capacity to manage challenge or temptation when bigger decisions present themselves over a longer period.
3 tips to develop willpower
The good news is that we are all able to develop our level of willpower. Meschel describes three sub-types of cognitive control that are required to successfully use willpower and overcome instant gratification:
1. Voluntarily remove your focus from the object of desire.
The fact that you are choosing to remove your focus away from temptation is important here. Think about your motivation for resisting and make sure that it’s powerful enough to fire your determination. Write down your main motivations and keep them close to hand so you can remind yourself of the important reasons you have chosen to make this change.
2. Prevent distraction and avoid being drawn back towards temptation.
Draw up a list of activities that you know will be effective in helping you to avoid distraction. The list should contain activities you enjoy, some may have been successful strategies in the past for avoiding temptation. Examples could be meeting with friends, engaging in a favourite exercise, listening to music, playing with a pet, focusing on a hobby. The list should contain plenty of activities that you find fun or challenging in some way.
3. Focus on the future goal and imagine how good it will feel when the goal is achieved.
This future focus is essential to ensure willpower remains strong. Visualise every aspect of achieving your goal, how it will look and feel and the benefits for you and those around you.
Small steps can make a big difference
Research from neuroscientists, including that of Richard J. Davidson, has demonstrated that we are able to develop our level of cognitive control through any activity that prompts us to stop and focus before resisting temptation and concentrating our focus elsewhere. Just making the decision to resist instant gratification and waiting moves our brain processes into the pre-frontal cortex, activating the brain centres required for cognitive control. This means that even the smallest of steps to exercise willpower will have a big impact in the long term by developing the brain circuitry responsible for cognitive control.
So the next time you are presented with a small decision that provides the option to exercise your cognitive control, seize the moment and regard it as an opportunity to strengthen your willpower.
Setting Goals Template in 4 Steps
Psychologist, Viktor Frankl, observed that,
“Life can be pulled by goals just as surely as it can be pushed by drives.”
When you are committed to making a change in life, strategic goal setting is crucial to success. Setting goals in life is always the first step to serious change. Time spent on goal setting will, as Frankl described, help pull you towards your goal. Once you appreciate how crucial effective goal setting is for success you will want to utilise the power of goal setting every time you decide to make a change. So if you’re setting goals at work or setting goals for 2018 full stop, we’ve got the perfect goal setting template for you.