May 21, 2021

I know what you’re thinking. How can we possibly learn willpower from our children?

Children and willpower are not two words that are normally associated with each other.

We’ve all had that moment where a kid has a breakdown because lunch isn’t ready on their schedule. Or how about when they want something right NOW!

The impatience of children is well-documented, from studies about impulse control to funny memes in mom groups.

But I think those sell children short. They actually have great patience, and they know how to train themselves to have willpower.

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

This was a study completed in the 1970s. In a nutshell, a child was brought into a room that had no distractions (plain walls, no television, nothing to draw with, etc.) The researchers then put a marshmallow (or a pretzel) on a table in front of the child.

The child was told that they could have that treat immediately, but if they could wait 15 minutes, they would get two of the chosen treats. Researchers then watched the children to see how they responded.

Researchers found that the children mostly did everything they could to not think about the reward, knowing that if they waited, they would get a better reward.

Some sang to themselves, some avoided looking at where the reward was on the table, one child even managed to fall asleep. Oh, those kids who can fall asleep on a dime!

So, what does all of that tell us?

We can learn from our children

Clearly identify the prize

Know what you’re aiming for and have a clear picture in your mind. For the kids in the study, it was a marshmallow or pretzel.

For you, it might be a new career or a better position in your current company. It might be healthier eating or a new skincare regimen. It could be a family vacation or opportunities for your kids. Maybe even as simple as a pair of shoes you just have to have.

The point is, figure out exactly what you want to achieve. What is your reward? Once you have that clearly in your mind, the next step is to


I imagine some of the kids in the study had a difficult time with this. Who wouldn’t, if faced with a favorite reward?

The key is to remember what you want the end result to be and wait for it.

The perfect opportunity might not be the first one that presents itself. It might not even be the second or third. By having a clear idea of what your goal is, you can evaluate each potential reward that comes along and determine whether or not it fits your endgame.

Could you sacrifice and accept an earlier opportunity? Absolutely! If it fits enough of your parameters, there’s no harm in taking something that doesn’t completely fit your original goal.

But you may have to be willing to sacrifice. If you can, that’s great! But by waiting for that absolute perfect match, you might find even bigger rewards.


The children in the study used various methods to distract themselves from the reward. This is an easy one to implement. You’ll have it a bit easier because there are plenty of things you can use to help distract yourself.

For example, create a Spotify playlist that soothes you and brings your focus away from the goal. Pick up a hobby that you used to enjoy but maybe haven’t had time for recently.

The important thing is to find something that absolutely distracts you, not just something to keep you occupied for a little while. Fill your brain with something other than the goal. Why?

Because you don’t want to obsess over the end result. Once you have it clear in your mind, you can continue to work towards it and take steps to make it happen, but you don’t have to sweat the small stuff.


This might be the toughest one for a lot of people. We live in an instant-gratification society, where everything from information to food is readily and easily accessible with the click of a button.

The children in the experiment knew that the reward would be bigger if they had the patience to wait 15 minutes.

Now, you’ll certainly have to wait longer than 15 minutes for your reward. But by having patience, you will be so much happier achieving that goal.

Putting it another way, patience itself can also be rewarding.

Long-term benefits

Interestingly, there were a few follow-up studies to the marshmallow experiment that showed learning delayed gratification (via willpower) actually influenced the children’s futures.

Parents reported that at middle-school age, children who had waited for the better reward understood more complex problems and showed more competency. This was also apparent at high school age with higher SAT scores.

What that says to me is that the kids had learned the simple lesson that “good things come to those who wait.”

Now, I’m not saying that if you learn how to use willpower that all good things will come to you. That would be a stretch.

But by having a clear picture in your mind, having the patience to wait for that perfect fit, and knowing how to distract yourself when you start to obsess, you will have a better grip on the steps you need to take instead of overthinking random possibilities.

Clarity, focus…willpower.

Now go out and find your reward!

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