2 proven ways to increase your willpower — courtesy of the Cookie Monster

This blue puppet was actually practicing cutting-edge research

Willpower is destiny

Haven't we all heard of Mischel's Marshmallow Self-Control Test by now? If not, here's a quick summary:

  1. Stick a little kid alone in a room with nothing but a marshmallow.
  2. Tell the kid they can eat it now or, if they wait 15 minutes, they get two.
  3. Then you leave the kid alone.

Some children eat the marshmallow immediately, others wait and earn two.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Big deal, right? Wrong.

It's a huge deal.

Check with those kids 20 years later and you find this silly test of self-control predicts who gets good grades, goes to jail, or gets rich.

The big shock: Statistical analysis found that a child's level of self-control is every bit as powerful a predictor of her adult financial success and health (and criminal record, for that matter) as are social class, wealth of family of origin, or IQ. Willpower emerged as a completely independent force in life success — in fact, for financial success, self-control in childhood proved a stronger predictor than either IQ or social class of the family of origin. [Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence]

Watching the kids during the experiment is pretty cute:

So how do you use this to teach kids (and blog readers, for that matter) about improving self control?

Enter Sesame Street.


Sesame Street's Cookie Monster underwent a similar trial:

The above was just a promo. In the episode there was more of a detailed lesson for Cookie Monster about fighting temptation.

How did Sesame Street assemble such a lesson? They consulted Mischel, of course.

To get the self-regulation strategies right in this segment, says Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president for education and research, they consulted with none other than Walter Mischel, the mastermind behind the marshmallow test. [Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence]

After testing so many kids, Mischel had learned a good deal about what does and doesn't improve willpower. So what's really important? Attention is one of the most essential elements of self-control. Distraction is a powerful tool.

How we focus holds the key to willpower, says Mischel. His hundreds of hours of observation of little kids fighting off temptation reveal "the strategic allocation of attention," as he puts it, to be the crucial skill. The kids who waited out the full fifteen minutes did it by distracting themselves with tactics like pretend play, singing songs, or covering their eyes. If a kid just stared at the marshmallow, he was a goner (or more precisely, the marshmallow was). [Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence]

So Mischel gave Sesame Street a few strategies related to attention that might help Cookie Monster.

One was a type of refocusing: "Think of the cookie as something else."

Mischel proposed teaching Cookie cognitive control strategies like "Think of the cookie as something else" and reminding himself of that something. So Cookie sees the cookie is round and looks like a yo-yo, and dutifully repeats to himself over and over that the cookie is a yo-yo. But then he gobbles anyway. [Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence]

So that didn't work for Cookie Monster.

But then they tried another method: Delay and focus on reward.

To help Cookie take just a nibble — a major triumph of willpower — Mischel suggested a different impulse-delay strategy. Alan tells Cookie, "I know this is hard for you, but what's more important: this cookie now, or getting into the club where you'll get all kinds of cookies?" That did the trick. [Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence]

Success! Cookie Monster was able to hold out for the bigger plate of cookies.

How this can help you

I'm seriously hoping you're already more disciplined than a five-year-old or a blue puppet.

Meaning if these methods worked for them, they'll definitely work for you.

What are the effective strategies you can start using immediately? To review:

  1. Distract yourself. Willpower is tied to attention. Focusing on something else increases self-control.
  2. If you can't distract yourself, just delay the impulse and focus your attention on the reward ahead.

For more tips check out my round up of self-control research and my interview with NYT bestselling author and willpower expert, Roy Baumeister.

(After all these years, how does Cookie Monster still make me smile like that every time I see him devour a cookie?)

Join 45K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

More from Barking Up The Wrong Tree...

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us