The Marshmallow Test
In the early 1970s, a psychologist named Walter Mischel conducted an experiment involving four-year-olds. He placed each child in a room, where they sat down at a table. In front of them, a marshmallow. Mischel then made each child an offer. He could eat the marshmallow right away or wait for a few more minutes and receive another one. Almost everyone decided to wait. Mischel then left the room for twenty minutes.
While a few of the four-year-olds were able to resist the temptation for up to fifteen minutes, many lasted less than one minute. Others just ate the marshmallow as soon as Mischel left the room.
This was a test of self-control. If the child wanted to achieve the goal of receiving another marshmallow, then he needed to temporarily ignore his feelings and delay gratification for a few more minutes. What this study showed was that some children at the early age of four were much better at this than others.
What I found interesting are the strategies the successful children employed in order to endure the experiment. They kept themselves distracted. Covered their eyes, played with their hands or just entered a trance-like state where it seemed they were lost in their thoughts. Their attention was elsewhere.
The failed strategy of the unsuccessful children was the complete opposite of that; in essence, they fixated on the marshmallow almost as if attempting to stare it down, actively fighting the temptation.
How does this translate to the various strategies used by the fitness crowd?
When some people are dieting, they are DIETING. They treat it like a full-time job and they’re in the gym every day, sometimes twice a day. Their spartan diet is meticulously planned and carefully dispensed throughout the day. They are the ones that fixate on the marshmallow.
Others take a more balanced approach. Diet and training is part of their life, but it blends in beautifully. They are the ones that tries to forget about the marshmallow. It’s background noise to them.
I’ll give you a concrete example to show you what I mean. Some people schedule a weekly cheat day, which usually involves a day on the weekend when they can eat what they want. In practical terms, this often means that they pig out and end up on the couch in a torpor-like state. This day becomes the high point of their week. They restrict calories severely throughout the week in order to allow themselves the cheat day. Their training typically includes hours of cardio. On Thursday they start planning their shopping list for Saturday and on Friday they lie sleepless in giddy anticipation of the forthcoming food fest. They are fixating on the marshmallow, making it the center of the world.
I could give you a similar example when it comes to training. The overly enthusiastic young guy embarking on a 6-day-split that ends up overtraining and sick or hurt. He too was fixating on the marshmallow.
The solution then is to stay distracted.
You shouldn’t buy into the myth of what it takes to achieve your goals. Don’t get me wrong, it takes dedication. Sweat, yes. But that needs to be maintained as a regular, long-term commitment. And that’s impossible to do if you’re constantly thinking about it. It needs to be part of your daily routine, but it needs to blend in. Again, background noise and balanced. Or else you won’t last.
If you’re too fixated on the marshmallow, you’ll eat it sooner or later. In this context it means you’ll screw up your diet and/or training, burn out and lose all motivation. The more physical and mental energy you invest in your training and diet, the more likely you are to fail.
And that’s why some of the busiest people are the most successful ones when it comes to reaching their physique goals. They have other things to think about.
Guidelines and attitudes to live by
* Spend too much time focusing on your goal and you will end up sabotaging yourself. This may not hold much ground in other areas of life where, in order to be successful, focus and time investment is of critical importance; such as building a business, managing a large corporation or becoming a highly-competitive elite athlete. But it’s definitely one that applies to diet and strength training for the average Joe. Stay distracted. Have hobbies. Have a life. If diet and training become the sole focus of your daily routine, the road to your goals will feel like a very long road indeed.
* Commitment and dedication dispensed over a longer time period is superior to more focused efforts. The latter has a higher rate of failure and greater chance of backfiring on you and is why people fall off the wagon. This is my personal experience, but it’s also backed up by studies. A good example of this are the numerous reformed health enthusiasts that pop up after New Year’s Eve. They go at it hard for a few weeks, but are often back into their old patterns of sporadic training and a sub par diet by February. Another example is the rebound that many competitors experience after contest dieting. Avoid this with a balanced approach without extremes.
* Most people will not benefit from more than four training sessions per week when attempting to gain muscle mass.
* The great majority shouldn’t be in the gym more than three times per week when cutting. You don’t need the gym for cardio. Go outside.
* Use checkpoints.
* Never attempt to train yourself into a caloric deficit. Don’t spend hours on the treadmill. Diet comes first, cardio second. The dumbest fat loss strategy ever devised is used by people that wake up early in the morning before going to work to do cardio and follow that up with “recovery shake.” Congratulations, you just wasted two hours of your life. Cardio is good for cardiovascular health, but most people use cardio as a fat loss tool – and force themselves through regimens that aren’t very conducive to their daily routine (or mental sanity). Next time, skip the shake and the cardio. Sleep two hours longer, but skip breakfast and fast until lunch time. This way you can create the same caloric deficit with the added bonus of feeling more rested and having saved more time. You’ll be much better off.
* Intermittent fasting is an easy way to create a calorie deficit. Your “cardio” is to stay productive during the fast and work. If you don’t have a job, work on projects that are important to you. Learn. Read books. Write. Don’t sit around and brood about your diet or what you have in the fridge.
Final note: I first learned about the marshmallow test in How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. A good read if you’re interested in human behavior and psychology. It’s interesting to note that the marshmallow test predicted future success in many other areas of life. When a follow-up study on each child was done twenty years later, it was found that children who waited longer also had better academic success and less behavioral problems than the ones who ate the treat sooner.