Don’t Stare At the Marshmallow

By Fatmanur Erdogan, Hurriyet Daily News (click here for Don’t stare at the marshmallow)

When you’re stuck in a rut, it’s hard to get out. You feel hopeless, like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. The economy might be bad, maybe your sales are down, your customers aren’t renewing their contracts, and you’re losing money left and right. Maybe you’re looking for new customers, but they want products you don’t have, and you’re out of the cash you need to invest in new ones. It’s clear to you that there’s a problem, but the solution isn’t coming to you, and you feel like you’re just banging your head against a wall. In fact, the more you focus on the problem, the worse it gets. Finding a way out has become an obsession.

Next time you feel like that, remember the marshmallow experiment. Walter Mischel of Stanford University was testing the mental processes behind delayed gratification, self-control and will power. In the test, he would give a child a single marshmallow, and then leave the child alone in the room with it. Before he left the room, though, he’d make the kid an offer: eat the marshmallow immediately, or wait for him to return, and then get two marshmallows.

Mischel found that the kids who ate the marshmallows immediately, the ones who couldn’t delay gratification, had lower SAT scores, a higher incidence of behavioral problems, and generally struggled more in stressful situations. More importantly, they would think that the best way to resist temptation was to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. “But that’s a terrible idea,” Mischel said in an interview with The New Yorker magazine. “If you do that, you’re going to eat the marshmallow before I leave the room.” Mischel pointed out that “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it … The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

So the kids who passed the test and got the extra marshmallows, what did they do? They diverted their attention, doing something else like closing their eyes, playing hide and seek, or joking around. Distraction, says Mischel, is actually a very effective away of exerting willpower. When you turn your attention to something else, it becomes easier to see alternatives you would be unable to see otherwise. When you stare at the marshmallow, all you can see is the marshmallow, not the best way to get it.

In the same way, if you are stuck in a business rut and you can’t figure out how to get out of it, try distracting yourself. Stop looking for a solution, and give your attention to something else. It may feel counter intuitive, but give it a try. After all, you have nothing to lose – you’re not getting anywhere anyway. While you’re looking away, the problem might solve itself, or you might start seeing it through different eyes, or you may end up freshening your skills and approaching it from another angle.

Consider the example of Marco Occhilupo, the Australian surfer and winner of the 1999 World Champion surfing title. At age of 17, Occhilupo was one of the hot young stars of the surfing world, setting performance standards that no one else could match. He fell into a depression, though, losing his focus and his desire to surf. He disappeared from the surfing world, becoming obese and emotionally unstable. After 10 years, however, Occhilupo began climbing back to the top of the sport, even claiming the world title in 1999 at age 33. The minute he stopped focusing on whatever was holding him down, he was able to get up from his couch, turn his attentions back to competing, and return to the top.

The next time you’re in a rut, remember the marshmallow lesson. The best way to forget about something is to stop staring at it. Stop looking at your rut, and distract yourself with something else. Go pay attention to some other aspect of your business, something that has nothing to do with the problem you’ve been hammering away at. Or do something completely unrelated to work, perhaps taking a vacation in a place you’ve never been to before. When you eventually turn your attentions back to the original problem, time will have passed without you even noticing, and you’ll sort things out with a fresh mind.

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