Mashmallows, Discipline & Focus?

By Roshan Thiran|21-01-2014 | 2 Min Read
Strengthen Your Willpower Through Rewards

Last week I read about one of the secrets of billionaire Warren Buffett’s success. He claims his secret is that he “just sits in the office and reads all day”. In fact, Buffett estimates that about 80% of his working hours are spent reading.

Buffett believes his brilliance is a direct result of reading and once urged someone to “read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge builds up, like compound interest.”

As I was sharing this piece of Buffett’s advice to a few of my friends, they asked me how many books I read a week. I started thinking about it and answered “about two to three books a week.”

The next question posed was “how do you find time to read?”

I quickly answered “discipline”. You just have to make time and discipline yourself to do it. But as I further pondered I realised that discipline required giving up many things.

Before we start to do something, we need to stop doing something else. If you want to get healthy, it’s a good idea to stop eating fatty foods before you start exercising. Discipline is as much about stopping as it is about doing. For me, to ensure I read a few books a week, I needed to stop watching TV, stop playing computer games and wasting time on unproductive activities. Discipline is a concept everyone is aware of, but few truly understand. The most successful people in life exert discipline on a daily basis.

It is critical to every living being and without it, the world around us would be in disarray. Restraint is a big part of discipline. Not giving into something you want is a sign of strength.

Mental toughness

Right after the 2012 Olympics ended, I met up with Datuk Lee Chong Wei and Pandelela Rinong, the medal winners from Malaysia at the London Games. As they shared their journey to greatness, there were constant references to sacrifice, hard work and discipline.

This "discipline" that both Lee and Rinong keep talking about is 'mental toughness'. Mental toughness is key to why they push themselves so hard in training and practice sessions. And why they continually force their body through painful agonising training sessions when all their friends were out 'having a good time.' Mental Toughness is what we term as delayed gratification.

Delayed gratification is the ability to suspend gain now to gain a greater and better reward in the future. This requires significant willpower. For most of us, our willpower to delay or suspend a reward now for a future bigger one seems to fail us more often than not. Why is that? The answer may lie in marshmellows!

Watch a video of my discussion with Dato Lee Chong Wei after he won his sliver medal at the London 2012 Olympics below:

Marshmallow Tests

The results of the Marshmallow tests conducted amongst pre-schoolers more than 40 years ago give us some insights into the power of delayed gratification. In the late 1960s, researcher Walter Mischel tested the willpower of hundreds of four-year-olds by placing them in an empty room with a tasty marshmallow.

They were given an option to eat the “treat” immediately or wait 15 minutes and they would get two special “treats” instead of one. Most children said they would wait but many didn’t even last a few minutes. The moment the researcher left the room, they gobbled their marshmallow.

The four-year-olds that actually managed to last 15 minutes and get two “treats” distracted themselves from the treat by focusing on something else. What was most interesting about the test was the follow-up studies conducted years later. They found that the four-year-olds that were good at delayed gratification were much more successful in life, including having better academic results with numerous health and behaviourial benefits.

Discipline requires us to trade today’s joy (playing a computer game, having fun with friends, watching TV) in exchange for tomorrow’s victory (being a great leader or an expert in a field). It requires huge willpower to enable delayed gratification. And this is not only about being successful in sports. In business, you need to practise to become a great leader. You need to learn new skills which takes time and significant energy.

This may mean sacrificing some of your “joys” of today for a better you tomorrow. Are you willing to trade the comforts and joys of today for better results tomorrow? Most of us are unwilling to do so. But if you want to become a great, you will need to increase your willpower quotient. But how do you increase your willpower?

Increasing your willpower

Researcher and willpower expert Roy Baumeister believes willpower to be a finite resource. It not a skill to be learnt but rather a muscle to be worked. The more you work your willpower “muscle”, the stronger it gets. In 1992, a British psychologist conducted experiments on willpower on patients recovering from hip or knee replacement surgery.

The study found that one simple element distinguished patients who recovered fast and were able to walk again from the others who took ages to be up on their feet. The difference: A piece of paper.

All the patients were given booklets to write out their daily recovery plans. Patients who religiously wrote out these plans started walking twice as fast as the ones who did not.

To watch the special interview with Pandela Rinong, click below:


Having a daily to-do list and ensuring you work on your list makes you stay disciplined and focused on your task. Do you have a list of specific items you hope to achieve daily? This is the starting point of willpower. Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment, and instant gratification derails this bridge.

People lacking control are unable to understand the long-term effects of their actions, which leads to a weakened willpower muscle.

Reward yourself

Interestingly, one of the most powerful forces to enable long-term discipline and willpower is to reward yourself.

Research on the most successful dieters (folks who actually accomplish their weight loss objectives) reveal that many of them were driven by envisioning the specific reward they would obtain at the end of their diet – wearing their old, tight clothes back, or a sense of achievement.

We all have cravings and allowing them to be rewards for achieving your goals enables willpower to be enhanced. So, reward yourself each day if you manage to close out all your to-do items. Even a small ice-cream stick (which I generally crave) may be a great enough reward to push you forward to be disciplined and focus to achieve your goals.

Final thoughts

Johnny Lewis said that you need to “be 100% disciplined if you want to have a good chance of success. Without it, you will never reach great heights whether in business or sport.”

Are you a disciplined person? Are you practising delayed gratification in your life? Are you exercising your willpower muscle? If you are not, why not start the day with a simple to-do list. It may just be the start of a more disciplined, focused you. Remember, discipline means that you do what is best for you, regardless of how you feel.

Roshan Thiran is passionate about building the discipline and habit in learning in everyone. He and his team have built a powerful Artificial Intelligence Learning app called Necole that enables everyone to build daily learning as a habit and ritual. . To follow Roshan on Facebook, go to: www.facebook.com/roshanthiran.leaderonomics.

Check out how Necole is helping these Malaysian youngsters become great leaders

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Roshan is the Founder and CEO of the Leaderonomics Group. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe", in their own special ways. He is constantly featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at www.roshanthiran.com
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