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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Step Away From the Marshmallow and No One Gets Writer’s Block

Have you seen the Marshmallow Test? Four-year-olds are given a marshmallow and told that they can eat the marshmallow whenever they want, but if they wait until the researcher comes back, they can have a second marshmallow.

The videos are sometimes funny, sometimes poignant as the kids devise different strategies to avoid the temptation or delay getting the treat. As it turns out, whether the kids see the task as avoiding temptation or delaying a treat may be the essential factor that determines not only their success in the experiment, but their success throughout their lives.

Two out of three kids eat the marshmallow within minutes, sometimes within seconds. One out three are able to delay eating the marshmallow long enough to earn the promised second marshmallow. Years later, the kids who could delay did much better on their SATs (an average of 210 points better), got along better with peers, have fewer behavior problems, were overall happier and more successful.

Is Will Power Key to Success?

On the surface it might appear that kids who have will power are more likely to succeed, so the corollary to writing is that writers who have self-discipline will be better equipped to deal with resistance (or even experience less resistance altogether). But this isn’t about will power, at least not will power as most people think about it. This is about attention (and it’s this attention connection that brings this whole thing back to multitasking).

According to Walter Mischel, lead researcher in the original Marshmallow Experiments at Stanford, “What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control. It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”

We want more writing time, but how can we get it?

It’s All About Attention

Don’t look at the marshmallow! Don’t even think about the marshmallow!

The kids who couldn’t wait to eat the marshmallow focused their attention on it. They seemed to think that the marshmallow was the problem, a temptation to be avoided.

The kids who were able to delay did not focus on the marshmallow; they covered their eyes, pushed the marshmallow out of sight, sang songs and tried other tactics to not think about the marshmallow.

Writers who can’t get time for their writing typically focus their attention on the resistance they feel, the rejection they fear, what their Saboteur is telling them or all the other things they need to do before they can write.

Writers who overcome resistance find ways to not think about reasons not to write.

Are you focusing on the marshmallow-reasons not to write or have you found ways to focus only on the writing itself? Please share your tricks for keeping your attention on your writing instead of on your resistance.

The next post will bring all this back to multitasking and its effects on attention and writing.

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