In more recent versions of the Marshmallow Test, Walter Mischel tells children to pretend the marshmallow is only a picture of a marshmallow or a fluffy cloud. The children who employ their imagination could wait three times longer than kids who didn’t use their imagination.
“Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it,” Mischel observes.
Habits More Powerful than Will Power
In The Social Animal, David Brooks explains that children who could delay eating the marshmallow were able to trigger what he calls “cool ways” of perceiving the marshmallow. He writes “The children who could not [delay eating the marshmallow] triggered hot ways: they could only see it as the delicious temptation it really was. Once those in the latter group engaged these hot networks in their brain, it was all over. There was no way they were not going to pop the marshmallow into their mouths.”
Brooks explains “The implication of the marshmallow experiment is that self-control is not really about iron willpower mastering hidden passions. The conscious mind simply lacks the strength and awareness to directly control unconscious processes. Instead, it’s about triggering…People with self-control and self-discipline develop habits and strategies that trigger the unconscious processes that enable them to perceive the world in productive and far-seeing ways.”
A commitment to show up for 15 Magic Minutes of Product Time five times a week is one of those habits that trigger unconscious assumptions and associations. People who write regularly are far more likely to perceive themselves as writers and to perceive writing time as a necessity, not a luxury. They are more likely to focus on their writing, not on their resistance.
Research at University of Michigan with adults who faced the marshmallow challenge as children shows that “high delayers” (adults who could delay gratification when they were children) are better at focusing their attention on two words they are asked to remember and away from two words they are asked to forget. “High delayers” choose what to focus their attention on.
Frequent multitaskers, on the other hand, are terrible at choosing what to pay attention to. They are easily distracted and attend to whatever is new, whether that is something they planned to notice and respond to or not.
As Stanford professor Clifford Nash says, “They are suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.”
Researchers are careful to point out that without longitudinal studies, we can’t assign causality. That is, we can’t say for certain whether multitasking causes the decreased capacity to control attention. But I think it’s a safe bet that it does. Research has shown again and again that the brain is plastic and changes in response to what we experience.
When you multitask, you’re looking for the dopamine hit that something new will give you. You are essentially training your brain to constantly shift focus and to pay attention to everything. You lose your ability to sort relevant from irrelevant, meaningful from meaningless. You lose the ability to focus your attention for any length of time, which is essential to analyzing information and making the new connections and associations that are at the heart of creativity.
Create Your Perception Triggers aka Habits
The best thing you can do for yourself as a writer is to create habits that support you in regular writing sessions where you focus only on your writing. Turn everything else off when you write. Stop trying to slip writing in when you get “extra time” or as you’re doing something else. Give your writing the focused, scheduled time it and you deserve.
Develop the habits, strategies and practice that will, as Brooks says, “trigger unconscious processes that enable you to perceive the world in productive ways.”
Process, Self-Care and Product Time are those kinds of habits. You can learn more about these habits by exploring other past posts (just click on Recommended Practices in the Categories box on the right) and subscribing to this blog. If you want more one-on-one encouragement, support and accountability, I invite you to my Writing Habit and Around the Writer’s Block classes. Or check out creativity coaching with me or another coach.
Find your ways to step away from the marshmallow.