Some people focus on long-term goals, some people want immediate gratification, but few of us focus on both. As entrepreneur Derek Sivers explains, always sticking to one pattern of thought is detrimental. The greatest success comes from overriding your natural tendencies to find a balance of the two.
Image remixed from liseykina (Shutterstock).
The Marshmallow Experiment
Forty years ago, at a nursery school at Stanford University, psychology professor Walter Mischel ran an experiment.
A bunch of 4-year-olds were brought into a room, one at a time. They were given one marshmallow, and told they were allowed to eat it immediately, but if they could wait 15 minutes without eating it, they'd be given a second marshmallow, and could eat both.
70% of the kids ate the marshmallow right away. Only 30% of the kids could wait the full 15 minutes to get the second marshmallow. This experiment has been repeated in other countries (Brazil and Japan) over the years, and the ratio stays the same: two-thirds can't wait, one-third wait.
But here's the interesting part:
15 years later, the researchers followed-up and found that those kids who waited for the second marshmallow scored, on average, 250 points higher on the SAT test, and were higher achievers in whatever field they had chosen (academic, athletic, artistic). They were all-around more successful and happier.
So the ability to delay gratification is one of the best indicators of future success.
Your Time Focus
So what are you really doing when you delay gratification?
You're giving more importance to the future than the present. Willing to give up a little pleasure in the present, to benefit your future self. A great book, The Time Paradox, notes that we all have a different time-focus that greatly shapes how we think and act.
For future-focused people, long-range goals fuel today's decisions and actions. This keeps them ambitiously working, saving, and planning for a better life. Self-discipline and the ability to delay gratification are key.
Future-focused people are more successful professionally and academically. They also eat well, exercise regularly, and schedule preventative health exams.
But by always looking through the present to the next goal, they often do not fully appreciate the present. Think of the stereotype of the successful executive who is always too busy for his family. (Friends and family require your attention to be in the present.)
Present-focused people actively seek activities and relationships that bring pleasure, variety, immediate gratification and short-term payoffs. They avoid anything tedious, requiring effort, maintenance or routine. They're playful and impulsive, engaging in leisure activities (until it becomes boring).
Present-focused people are more likely to gamble, use drugs and alcohol. They're less likely to exercise, eat well, floss, or get regular health exams. They are the least likely to be successful.
While some present-focus is needed to enjoy life, too much present-focus can rob life of the deeper happiness of accomplishment.
How you view the past is also important because we see our lives as having a trajectory. If you remember the past as happy, you predict your future will be happy. If you are haunted by an unhappy past, you probably predict your future to be unhappy, too.
What Causes Or Changes Your Focus?
Though the experiment with 4-year-olds shows that we each have a built-in tendency, we can intentionally change our focus.
Ask a future-focused person to name every background sound they can hear, or where their body is touching their chair. Their focus will change to the present. Ask a present-focused person to describe their ultimate career, then brainstorm step-by-step ways to achieve those goals. Their focus will change to the future.
Circumstances change focus. You need safety and stability in the present to start thinking about the future. Cavemen needed a full present-focus at all times to survive in the wild and find food each day. It was only after the development of agriculture that people could spend more time thinking about the future. People who lived in tropical climates had less future-focus than people who lived in places with cold winters, since winters required planning and saving. Political and economic instability also cause people to focus more on present survival than long-term investing of time or money.
Balance is Best
Please don't think this means we should all be extremely future-focused. The happiest and most effective people are balanced: equally high in future-focus and present-focus, and viewing the past as positive. When you have work to finish, be future-focused. When your work is done and it's time to relax, be present-focused. During family holidays, be past-focused to enjoy family customs.
Which leads to the most colourful example of this need for balance...
Ghana Football (Soccer) Team
The Ghana national football team always played beautifully and creatively but were at the bottom of the league because they often lost for not adhering to the disciplined rules of the game. In the context of this story, let's say they were very present-focused.
In 2004, they brought in a tough new coach from Serbia: Ratomir Dujković. He relentlessly focused on discipline, toughness, goal-scoring and punctuality. He set high expectations for future success, telling them they could get into the semi-finals for the world cup if they worked hard.
Sure enough, in 2006, with their great combination of present-focused creativity and a new future-focused desire to win, they almost won the World Cup, only losing to Brazil in the final game. They did win the FIFA "Most Improved Team of the Year" award.