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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Marshmallow Experiment or Taking Control

Taking control of your change project, your stress level, your career, your habits. Who wouldn’t want that? In 1972, legendary psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a study on deferred gratification which is now known as one of the most successful behavioral experiments, one that gained great insights into the psychology of self-control. Mischel demonstrated that kids who could sit down with a marshmallow in front of them and not eat it for a full 15 minutes (and being promised a second one at the end of the 15 minutes) did better in almost every area of life than more impulsive kids who scooped up the treat and ate it right away – in spite of the fact that they were all instructed to wait. As Mischel followed his research subjects for the next two decades, he learned that children who delayed gratification eventually scored hundreds of points higher on standardized school tests. They also had stronger relationships, were promoted more often, and were happier. Mischel showed that the capacity to delay gratification is, indeed, a big deal. But don’t conclude that it’s just willpower that played a role in refraining from eating the marshmallow. We owe it to Mischel and Albert Bandura that what appears will might in fact be more a function of skill. Children in later experiments were taught skills like using distraction and distance to influence their own behavior and refrain from eating whatever treat was offered to them.

As Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan, and Switzler describe in their 2010 book Change Anything –The new science of personal success, the willpower traps keeps you in a depressing cycle that begins with heroic commitment to change, which is followed by eroding motivation and terminated inevitably by relapse into old habits. Mastering temptations is not solely a function of personal motivation. When it comes to changing our behavior, skills play an important role. So, in order to take control, one of your steps is to improve, increase, strengthen your skills. Here’s my take on taking control.


If you want to take control of your life, you better take control of your beliefs.

It’s not people or situations that upset us but our beliefs and thinking about these people and events. This is what Epictetus stated long ago and what forms the foundation for the widely       used cognitive approach to life like Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Training (RET) which hooks into the next one, controlling your thinking.


If you want to take control of your life, you better take control of your thinking patterns.
Increase your self-knowledge on your general thinking style and patterns. Are you a black-and-white thinker, are you a positive thinker, are you a nuance-thinker, are you a doom thinker, anything else or any combination thereof? Before there is any mention of behaving or acting there is perception, interpretation, judging, categorizing, concluding, thinking. Consider psychologist/philosopher William James who stated that many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices. I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t guilty of this at some point in time. The good news: anything related to your beliefs and your thinking can be brought under conscious attention, can be turned from blind spots to self-knowledge, and, if desirable, can be trained to be changed.


If you want to take control of your life, you better take control of your awareness level.

Without awareness of yourself, other people, and your wider environment there is little(self) knowledge, understanding, or connection and cooperation. You can read my earlier posts on awareness called Managing Mindfully and How are you doing as a Leader? but in brief: it’s important to be aware and to turn this awareness into useful action. Your awareness and self awareness form the basis for the use of self as an instrument of change – the most important instrument of change and of taking control! Awareness provides the potential for one’s presence to have a high impact. It is a growing consciousness or comprehension and it’s a basic process that goes on continually, including choosing what to focus on.


If you want to take control of your life, you better take control of your choices.

Before anything happens, there is a choice you make, whether you are aware of that choice or not. These choices are based on your beliefs, your thinking, your priorities, and your purpose and goals, but it remains a choice. If we would all grasp this and act accordingly, the world of responsibility and accountability would look differently, whether we are talking about the economy at large, our personal financial situation, the quality of our relationships or any other topic. You can only hold yourself accountable if you fully live according to the fact that every behavior is a choice, including not acting, and that you are the sole person responsible for that choice. I like to quote psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl in this context who stated that we always have a choice, in every circumstance including a camp. This choice is the choice of attitude towards a person or situation, a choice which, in turn, guides your actions. This belief is described beautifully in Frankl’s book Men’s Search for Meaning.

If you want to take control of your life, you better take control of your surroundings.
With surroundings I refer to people as well as ‘things’. First, who do you surround yourself with? Do these people provide you with support and with honest feedback even if it’s not in line with the ever-happy-you’re-so-great? Are they people who provide you with energy, or do they drain you? Do they support your efforts and endeavors but at the same time provide new perspectives? There are so many questions to be asked when it comes to the people around you, but don’t get me wrong: relationships are there to enjoy and not be part of a totally written out script and plan. Just make sure you feel balance, inspiration, honesty etc. in your circle of relationships. Second, what does your environment look like in terms of stimulation, distractions, relaxation,  structure, inspiration? I think these are self explanatory in regards to change and taking control.

For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently and therefore think and choose differently, whether we’re talking about change management at a telecom company, beating a personal addiction, changing a non-effective habit, or societal change by activists. In order to start acting differently, you have to start believing and thinking differently, relating differently, organizing differently, and choosing differently. Put otherwise: You have to take control and keep your hands off that marshmallow - a skill that can be trained.

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