Is Will a Skill?


This is too cool not to share.  During my Influencer training, we watched a video on delaying gratification.  Apparently, people that can delay gratification can do better in school, get more promotions, have better relationships and lead a more successful life.  Rather than do what they want in the moment, they choose what’s right for the long run.  That’s the will part.

In the study, kids are given a marshmallow and told that if they don’t eat it for 15 minutes, they’ll get another marshmallow.  Of course, most kids ate the marshmallow before the 15 minutes was up.  Those that didn’t became easy to spot.  They had self-discipline.

O.K. great.  So some people are born with willpower.  What about the rest of us?  Well, the good news is, will’s a skill. They repeated the experiment, but this time they told the kids they could use a technique.  Whenever they wanted the marshmallow, they could just think of their favorite moment or imagine their Mom or Dad watching.  Almost every kid got to his second marshmallow.

Here’s the lesson.  Before you act or react, take a pause.  You already know what you want to do, now ask a different question — “what’s in your best interest?”  Now choose your most effective response.  It’s the power of the pause.

Photo by Rob with Twobs.


  1. A punchy one!
    It worked for me but i never realized i could use it with my kids.
    From now on I expect my kids are going to have tons of second marshmallow 😉
    Thank you!

  2. Congrats on the Jannie tagline winner status! Took me awhile to get over here. Great advice here- good blog to read, I’ll be back-

    I’ve spent alot of years waiting n not settling for less than what I want. Still waiting for the rewards… May take forever!
    Quit coffee, Ciggs, ect- after realizing I wanted to live as long as possible, n didn’t want these things to have power over me.
    Still tho, now I want those marshmellows I got! Still a slave to the sugar… Darn

  3. Thanks JD! Delayed gratification is great and surprisingly easy to teach kids with or without marshmallows. Such a useful skill to have as well – how else can we motivate ourselves to do anything without the prospect of a little treat after all the hard slog. Personally I’d never get out of bed in the morning if I didn’t know that a couple of squares of chocolate, a good book and a warm bed would be lined up for me at the end of the day. All the best to all of you, Annabel

  4. I’ve often thought about doing some writing around the fact that our will power is really the only thing that separates us from animals. It’s really the only “super power” we have. The key is learning how to use it 🙂

  5. Along with that pause you probably want to ask ‘what is in the people I am going to interact with best interests?’.

    The people of people working together for everyone’s benefit is incredible.

  6. Hi —

    The New Yorker ran an excellent article about this recently. It dives into the depths of this exact experiment. In brief, the punchline was that self-control centered around the ability to distract yourself. How easily can you distract yourself about not thinking about the marshmellow? Do you sing yourself a song? Stare at the lights? Look outside? Children who were successful distracted themselves. Those who were not successful just stared at the marshmellow.

  7. I think some people are born with more will than others, but I do think it can be learned. This was such an interesting post and I’m so glad you shared it. I LOVE the picture. What a cute pup! 🙂

  8. Very motivating indeed. But now I fear I’ll be craving and perhaps even succomb to munching marshmallows as I go about my housework later. But I’ll take a whirl at imaginging the marshmallow police watching me and note my results.

  9. Hello J.D.

    I agree with Frank’s thoughts here.
    Self-discipline/willpower a necessary characteristic.

    People are always tempted by one thing or another.

    I can see where it would be a good exercise to teach kids.Making them aware at a young age is a benefit for them when they reach adulthood.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting the other day:)

  10. Hi JD,

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve seen a similar report which also says that self-discipline is a key ingredient to success in life.

    But nowadays, partly due to the Internet, instant gratification has eroded people’s patience and consequently, self-control.

    Meditation is one great way to introduce a pause between our thoughts and actions. With meditation, self-discipline can be instilled over time.


  11. Love it! Delayed gratification – like saving the best for last. I do that all the time. Just thinking about it, I swear I can smell chocolate. Or is that marshmallows?

  12. I think I would have made it to the second marshmellow, I never really liked then all that much. 😉

    This is a good skill to cultivate if you don’t have it already JD.

  13. @ Alik

    Get ’em while they’re young!

    @ SnaggleTooth

    Thank you.

    I know what you mean, but I finally realized how to make the reward instant. Reward yourself for taking the right action in the moment. It’s like a good deed done.

    @ Annabel

    It sounds like you have a great routine for capping your day. I would look forward to that too.

    @ Frank

    That’s the key right there. The ability to pause and choose a thoughtful response. Reacting is for the birds.

    @ Jarrod

    Good point. Along those lines, I like to ask, “how’s it gonna land?”

    @ Vi

    Nice article. The secret of distracting yourself is changing focus. The secret of changing focus is changing the question … or wiggling your right toe 🙂

    @ Positively Present

    I think so too and I’m finally connecting the dots. It’s all about the power of the pause.

    I bet that pup uses its cuteness to get away with way too much.

    @ Fred

    At the end of the day, skill really levels the playing field. I see this time and again where technique trumps natural talent. I think the lesson is that it’s not what you got, but how you use it.

    @ Jannie

    Great, now I got the munchies for the marshmallows too. The stay puff marshmallow man better keep his distance.

    @ Bunnygotblog

    I think keeping clarity on your outcome really helps. Where there’s a will, it’s easier to find a way.

    @ theconsciouslife

    I think meditation is a great way to master your thoughts and get more mindful. It’s the perfect way to change from by default to by design.

    @ Melissa

    You nailed it – it’s save the best for last. Of course now I could go for some hot chocalate with marshmallows.

    I just remembered Covey’s one-liner he uses …”thinner tastes better.”

    @ Louisa

    You know what they say, the more marshmallows the merrier. I do think it’s like Tom Petty says, “the waiting is the hardest part.”

  14. I just read about this study elsewhere a few days ago too – fascinating. When at college, you can really pick out the people who will do well in life and those who will be left behind – all by how much of this “skill” they display.

  15. It’s really interesting to see that will may be a skill rather than something some people are born with and some are not. That gives us more of a fighting chance! Also, I love how the kids did better when they imagined their parents were watching, that’s pretty funny.

  16. This is definitely a truth. Instant gratification is the rule its seems and now is too late!

    I like the thought “what’s in your best interest?”. I would add to add to that “What’s in the best interest for me and those affected by this choice?” Not as quick and to the point but it could still work.

    The key is the pause and thought before an action. Take a breath and evaluate your actions before they are reactions you can not take back.

  17. Yes! The power of the pause is a great technique. I’ve been trying to do this more in my working life. I have made the mistake of giving in to my emotions as soon as they occur. By taking a moment to pause I have an easier time dealing with my feelings and making the best choice for the situation.

  18. @ Sean

    I think I finally get it. I underestimated self-discipline, but it really is about choosing your best response, despite what you might *want* to do. The little pause is powerful.

    @ Scott

    I’ve seen the right techniques level the playing field time and again. While I wish I had more of the right abilities “out of the box,” it’s great to know the right skills win in the end.

    @ Sean

    I like that. It’s a quick check on “the greater good.”

    @ Karl

    It really is the key. I thought acting on impulse was how I would stay in touch with my emotions, but that’s not the right answer. Instead, I need to check my input (mind, body, emotions) and choose what’s right for the long run.

  19. Hi J.D.

    I think people who can do delaying gratification do better in life. They have the power to go the long run and not quit too soon.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  20. Of course it’s a balance here. I think having the awareness and ability to choose is the important part. Just realize the effects of the choice. If we just pay attention to the results of our actions, awareness results and often we naturally start to choose the better result. And if we keep principles in mind, it helps to guide us.

    Personally, I’ve beaten addictions this way. Just watching myself while in the addiction cycle and seeing why I was there. Knowing what I was after, but noticing the gap.

    I’ve also tried delaying gratification for 10 years. Overtime, I realized that the “do it now” mantra makes sense in many cases as well. Sometimes choosing the chocolate is perfectly fine. I’ve almost lost my mate to sickness many, many times. There are things we keep putting off and then suddenly they can’t occur because she’s sick. It’s made me aware of the balance necessary. There is no guarantee that any of use will be tomorrow either. But we have to make somes assumptions to live in the moment and for the future at the same time.


  21. In traditional Chinese martial arts there is an entire art devoted to the development of will. The art is called Xingyiquan which can be translated (loosely) as “Intent/Will Boxing”.

    The basic premise of this Chinese martial art is that “will” can be developed and that there are specific steps that can be taken to do so. “Will” is in fact an extremely important part of martial arts (including the “martial art” of life!).

    take care,
    Brian Kennedy

  22. @ see here — That’s a tangent to the point, but if you to follow the study, it’s Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Experiment.

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