Eliminate Bad Habits with a Simple Question

In the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, toddlers were given a marshmallow. If they waited for fifteen minutes without eating the marshmallow, they would receive a second one.

Some of them couldn’t make it to the end of the fifteen minutes without eating the treat. Some of them could.

The success of the children in different life areas such as SAT scores and body-mass index was measured later in their lives.

Children who could wait for fifteen minutes were more successful in life compared to the children who couldn’t delay gratification.

The marshmallow experiment has a symbolic value. It’s easy to understand and remember. Its results are relevant to all of us. And it teaches an important lesson to all of us.

Self-control is the biggest predictor of success in life.

Are You Doomed If You Don’t Have Self-Control?

If you have poor self-control, you might feel bad. You might identify yourself with the children who gave in to their temptation and didn’t receive the second marshmallow.

The good news is that you can improve your self-control. All you have to do is to adopt the growth mindset and exercise your self-control muscles every day. You’ll build world-class self-control in a year even if you improve it 1% per day.

What Are Your Marshmallows?

At this moment, you might be facing several self-control challenges. You might be wasting time online. You might be consuming more calories than you burn. You might not be exercising at all. And so on.

Each of those habits might keep you from getting a reward in the future, success in your career, a healthy life, a fit body.

The trick here is to associate each habit with a reward in the future. Start with a list of behaviors that you want to eliminate and the reward that you would receive if you eliminated it.

  • Wasting time online vs. success in career.
  • Consuming more calories than I burn vs. a healthy life.
  • A sedentary lifestyle vs. a fit body.

You can either have the first now or the second later. You can’t have both.

When you have that list, focus on a single item at a time until you eliminate that behavior.

Contrast Questions

Every time you feel like indulging in the activity you want to eliminate, ask yourself the following question.

“Do I want to do this now, or do I want to achieve that in the future?”

I call this a contrast question. You need to adapt that question to your particular challenge. Here are some examples.

  • Do I want to waste time online now, or do I want to succeed in my career?
  • Do I want to eat these chips now, or do I want to have a healthy life?
  • Do I want to spend the afternoon watching TV, or do I want to have a fit body?

You have to focus on a single behavior at a time until you eliminate it.

Ask yourself your contrast question often until it comes up automatically in your mind every time you feel the temptation.

Consequence Questions

As an alternative, you can also come up with consequence questions.

  • Do I want to waste time online now, and get stuck in my career?
  • Do I want to eat these chips now, and stay fat for the rest of my life?
  • Do I want to spend the afternoon watching TV, and have poor health?

You need to come up with your own version of these questions and make sure they resonate with you at an emotional level.

Your contrast and consequence questions should cause psychological pain. To achieve that focus on the contrast between where you are vs. where you want to be.

You need to force yourself to a choice. Do you want to feel happy now or do you want to achieve success later?

Let that psychological pain motivate you so that you pass the unwanted behavior every time you ask the question to yourself.

Conclusion

Self-control is the best predictor of success, and you can develop your self-control. All you have to do is to improve 1% a day.

You can do that with the following steps.

  1. Make a list of the behaviors you want to eliminate or adopt.
  2. Associate each behavior with a future reward or consequence.
  3. Formulate each pair as a contrast or consequence question.
  4. Repeat the question to yourself every time you feel the temptation.
  5. Focus on a single behavior at a time, and don’t move to the next behavior before you eliminate or adopt one.

When you engage in your bad habits, you feel good at the moment but terrible afterward. To overcome that, you need to feel terrible at the moment of engaging in them as well. You can do that by formulating the questions in a way that they cause psychological pain.

Let go of the illusion of happiness now and achieve great success in the future!

Burak Bilgin
Software developer with a Ph.D. and 15 years of experience. I write daily on personal development and life lessons. Sign up to my email newsletter to receive a weekly roundup of my latest posts.

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