Delaying Gratification: Key to Business, Professional Success

Delaying Gratification is the key to business and professional success, based on over 4 decades of Stanford and Rochester Research.

Delaying Gratification: A Strategy for Business and Professional Success

Over 4 Decades of Stanford and Rochester Research

Last week I learnt this lesson on delaying gratification. The irony is that I had always known about delaying gratification but it did not quite hit home until well, last week!

So here’s a true life story about a Stanford University Professor by the name Walter Mischel in the 1960s.

Mischel had a team of researcher and together they started a series of important psychological studies and experiments.

The Experiment’s Guinea Pigs

Well he and his team tested hundreds of children mostly between age 4 and 5 years old.

The outcome of these studies revealed what is now believed to be one of the most important characteristics for success in business, health, work, and life.


This post is about what Mischel and co found out and better than that how you can use it to be more successful in your life.

Delaying Gratification – The Marshmallow Experiment

In Mischel’s experiment, he invited a child into a private room, sat them down in a chair, and put a marshmallow on the table in front of them.

He then offered the child a deal.

The Deal, The Choice

Mischel told the child that he was leaving the room and the child could eat the marshmallow but if the child did not eat it while he was away, then he would reward them with a second one.

However, if the child ate the first marshmallow before he came back, then they would not get the second.

So the simple choice was to eat one delicious snack right now or get two later.

Then he left the room for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, a camera was recording the children waiting alone in the room and the outcome was entertaining. Several kids jumped up and went straight for first marshmallow immediately the researcher stepped out. Others literally moved about in their chairs as they tried to control their urge to eat the snack, but finally yielded to the temptation some minutes later.

Lastly, few kids managed to wait the entire fifteen minutes.

This experiment was published in 1972, and became popularly known as The Marshmallow Experiment.

However but it wasn’t just the amusement of the struggle in delaying gratification that made it popular. The more important and interesting was to come years later.

The Power of Delaying Gratification

Delaying gratification is important to Success

As the children grew up, the Mischel and his researchers, in follow up studies, tracked each participating child’s progress in several areas of life and their findings were surprising.

The kids who by delaying gratification got the second marshmallow also had higher SAT scores, lower levels of drug abuse, lower chances of obesity, responded better to stress, better social skills according to their parents and were generally better in life.

Outcome of the Marshmallow Experiment

If you are interested in the findings of the follow-up studies, check them out here, here, and here.

The researchers followed each child for over 4 decades and time and time again, those who delayed gratification patiently and got the second marshmallow succeed in every of their endeavours.

The marshmallow series of experiments proved that delaying gratification was critical to being successful in life.

Don’t even look too far; the same thing is all around everywhere…

  • Many doing well financially now did so by delaying gratification and investing money earlier in life.
  • The colleagues in your office who were promoted based on merit did so by delaying gratification and studying for professional exams and certifications.
  • Those who have mastered several languages now, did so by delaying gratification and learning those languages la few years ago.

You can think of many other examples.

You become successful professionally and in life by choosing the pain of discipline in achieving your goals over the pleasure of immediate fun.

These findings beget the question:

  • Do some people naturally have the gift of delaying gratification, thus destined for success?
  • Can anyone learn to master the art of delaying gratification?

What Determines the Ability to Delay Gratification?

To answer this question, some researchers at the University of Rochester replicated the marshmallow experiment with an important twist. See the study here.

Prior to offering the child the marshmallow, the researchers divided the kids into two groups.

Group one was exposed to a series of unreliable experiences

The researcher gave the child a small box of crayons and promised to bring a bigger one, but deliberately did not. Later the researcher gave the child a small sticker and promised to bring a better selection of stickers, but did not again.

Group two had very reliable experiences

In this case, the kids were promised better crayons and got them as well as about the better stickers and also got them.

Impact of the Modified Marshmallow Experiment

These experiences severely affected the results of the marshmallow experiment.

The kids who were disappointed had no reason to trust that the researchers would bring them a second marshmallow and thus didn’t wait for long to eat the first one.

Also, the brains of the kids in group two were trained to see delaying gratification as positive. Each time the researcher promised and kept it, the kids’ brains registered two things:

  • Delaying gratification is worth it
  • I have the power to wait

Outcome of the Modified Marshmallow Experiment

Group two kids waited about four times longer than group one kids.

This proved that a kid’s delaying gratification and displaying of self-control was not a predetermined or in born trait a function of the experiences and surrounding environment.

The impacts of the environment were instantaneous. A few minutes of reliable or unreliable experiences are enough to determine your actions’ directions.

What can you learn and apply from these in businesses and professionally?

How to Be Better at Delaying Gratification


Learn the art of delaying gratification

One thing is clear: if you want to succeed at anything, you need to be disciplined and take action rather than getting distracted and doing what’s easy.

Success in every field demands delaying gratification by ignoring what’s easy in favor of doing the harder but more effective tasks.

If you haven’t learnt the art of delaying gratification, you can train yourself to do so by making a few minor improvements.

Like in the case of the kids in the study, this meant exposure to an environment where promises were made and kept.

I have been training my ability to delay gratification and I find that it is similar to training and stretching my muscles and joints for flexibility.

Set a little goal and promise yourself to achieve it and do so. Do so gradually until your brain forms neural pathways that say

  • Yes, it’s worth it to wait
  • Yes, I have the capability to do this
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