Poor? Maybe it is Your Self Control

So did you ever wonder if we could give a simple test to a young child to determine if they would be successful in life?  Well there is a test that will strongly predict it…really?!?  Yes it is the classic marshmallow test.  The test is simple: put a young kid in a room with a marshmallow and tell them if you don’t eat it while the researcher is gone for twenty minutes they will receive a second one when they get back.  If they can wait, which about 1/3 will be able, they will on average have better health, earn more and save more in life.  Heck the test is such a strong correlation it even trumps what social economic status you were born into.  See here to understand how it works.

This simple test is all about self control, which isn’t always about willpower, but rather also about how well can you distract yourself from temptation.  Today and right now is always way more important than next week and obviously WAY, WAY more important than the next 10 years.  So if you find saving for your retirement hard, it could be an issue with your self control.

So if you failed the marshmallow test as a kid are you doomed to not retire early?  No, not exactly.  While I would wager the vast majority of early retirees have excellent self control, the good news is if you practice it and plan around your temptations it is possible to still be a good saver.  How?  Well in no particular order:

  1. Pay in Cash for High Temptation Items – Everyone has their weaknesses in spending.  For some it is food, others movies, books , shoes…take your pick.  Now if you put yourself on a cash spending for your problem area you trigger an interesting psychological affect called the pain of paying.  We work hard for a money so giving it up can hurt just a little bit.  Cash is the hardest form of payment, unlike credit cards which often can be a little bit more surreal.  Also it provides a handy way to check how much money you have left in a given month for your vice.
  2. Plan for a Lack of Control – So rather than wait to save with what is left over at the end of the month, make an automatic transfer to your savings on payday.  Why?  Because we tend to just deal with what we have in our main bank account, the less there is, the more likely you won’t over spend.
  3. Play Mind Games – When saving for something long term it is hard to keep focused, so plan for the lack of focus and plot out rewards along the way.  They don’t have to be huge, just something to keep you head in the game.  For example, if I save $12,000 in my retirement accounts in the next three months I will buy myself a new DVD that I really want.  This is called reward substitution using something right now to keep you on the path for the long haul.
  4. Plan a Guilt Trip –  There is nothing like guilt some days to keep you on the path. If your kids, your wife, your friends and half you work place know about a short or medium term goal, there is a lot of social pressure to keep to that goal.  So tell the world your plan (or part of it) and keep yourself accountable.
  5. Never Shop When Your Exhausted – Your self control is like a muscle the more you use it during the day the more likely you will have it fail towards the end of a long work out (or day).  So plan your high temptation situations early in the day if possible.  For example, you could do you grocery shopping after breakfast when you are full and in a good mood.

So you might ask, well great, but how do these really work?  Well guess what, I’ve used or am using everyone of those ideas in my own life.  I’m not sure if I would have passed the marshmallow test as a kid, but regardless I’m still on track to do well in life because I learned some self control.   You are not doomed in life due to your birth self control, it can be improved with practice and a few tricks.

How is your self control? Would you have passed the marshmallow test? For fun here are some adults doing the test.

5 thoughts on “Poor? Maybe it is Your Self Control”

  1. Amazing the lessons we can learn as kids. I think I would have been able to pass the marshmallow test, up until I learned another lesson. (I’d forgotten about this until I read this post)

    I was hauled to Sunday school, and the subject was whether we took the longer harder route that would certainly get us there, or the short cut that dangers that may prevent us from reaching the end. These were represented by cinnamon hearts for the hard road, or smarties for the short cut. In my child brain, I figured that doing the hard thing would get me more reward, so I was the only one that chose the hearts instead of the smarties. The end result? The teacher just wanted us to choose and didn’t think about the after effect. The leftover candies were split between us all, but that also meant that the ones that took the easy way, got more of the good stuff (smarties).

    The lesson I learned? I may as well take the easy way, because even if I sacrificed short term for long term reward, I still get screwed. It has taken me a long time to un-learn that.

  2. I’ve often pictured myself as a child in the marshmallow test. The problem is that I don’t really like marshmallows. I think I would have eaten the marshmallow right away, not because I couldn’t control myself, but rather the reward for waiting wasn’t worth it. There is no incentive to wait 20 minutes for something I don’t really want anyway.

    Now if it were a chocolate cake test…

  3. It is so true. When I was five or six I climbed up on a stool, found the candy bar I knew was in the upper cabinet, slid it into my pocket and once I confirmed it fit, I put it back in the cabinet for later thievery. As I closed the cabinet and prepared to climb down, there was my Dad watching me the whole time. He just asked “Did it fit OK?” Busted!

  4. Love the reference to the marshmallow test. I figure I would have failed almost immediately as a child until the 15. No concept of finite resources. That changed when I got a job and started paying for my own everything. The biggest thing with this test is identifying that it is a forced temptation. The children cannot leave the chair let alone the room. This is where the biggest hole in the experiment is. If you know you have weak will power limit your exposure to temptation. Don’t visit the mall the car dealerships , don’t surf the web for those items that tug on you consumer rubber arm. Find something to spend your time on instead of your money. I would guess if those kids would have been able to play with something to distract themselves they would have been able to easily pass the test. So for me the biggest thing is to limit your exposure and know when temptation presents itself. The key is recognizing when this occurs.

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