THE BLOG
06/11/2014 08:24 am ET | Updated Aug 11, 2014

The Key to Self-Improvement Is Learning to Pass the Marshmallow Test

You've probably heard of the famous 1960s "marshmallow experiment," wherein a Stanford researcher put a marshmallow in front of a child and said that if she could resist eating the marshmallow for 15 minutes, she would receive two marshmallows.

Only 30 percent of the children in the study withstood the temptation to eat the marshmallow -- 70 percent snatched up the marshmallow before the buzzer. In follow-up studies, researchers reported that the children who had resisted the marshmallow experienced better life outcomes (health, SAT scores, interpersonal relationships) than the children who had given into temptation. The researchers postulated that the ability to defer gratification in pursuit of a higher goal (in this case, two marshmallows) was a key component in achieving life goals.

Many of us succumb to the marshmallow in life, whether it's eating a diet-busting treat, surfing the net when we should be studying, splurging when we should be saving, or skipping the gym in favor of brunch. But my personal experience in improving myself through small behavioral shifts -- micro-resolutions -- has taught me that evan an inveterate marshmallow gobbler isn't doomed to give into unhealthy impulses forever.

For years my drastic diet resolutions (resist the marshmallow x 100) ended with me giving up and giving in. Success in losing weight came only when I found that even seemingly intractable eating habits could be mastered when targeted narrowly and given unrelenting focus. One eating behavior at a time, I learned how to pass the marshmallow test. Each of the micro-resolutions below focused on a single behavioral change that allowed me to experience the power and rewards of exercising self-control:

I resolve not to snack while cooking dinner. This resolution created greater appetite and appreciation for the family meal, and eliminated around 200 calories a day from my diet (you know, that little piece of French bread, that extra glass of wine).

I resolve to always leave something on my plate. Leaving a tasty bite of something uneaten shifted the self-control battle to resisting just the last bite, rather than a plateful of seconds.

I resolve only to eat when sitting down. This resolution kept me from eating from my shopping cart, while in line to pay at the cafeteria, and directly out of the refrigerator.

I resolve to wait 15 minutes after lunch before eating something sweet. My overwhelming desire to eat something sugary kicks in right after lunch, but dissipates after around fifteen minutes. By teaching myself to wait, I eliminated the most caloric snack of the day.

I resolve to dine leisurely and to savor my food and drink. Savoring my food showed me that when it comes to eating, strolling is more satisfying than striding.

These resolutions taught me the pleasure of waiting and relishing and led to a permanent weight loss of 20 pounds. Learning to resist the marshmallow did indeed lead to greater satisfaction in dining and the achievement of a long-deferred goal (weight control).

The marshmallow principle applies in almost every area of self-improvement. An evening free of sour rebukes could hinge on resisting the immediate gratification of saying, "I told you so" to your partner. The first step towards mastering clutter could be hanging up your coat instead of giving into the temptation to just toss it on the chair when you come home. Controlling impulse buying might begin with giving up Internet shopping after 10:00 p.m.

Behavioral changes at the margin are the key to getting at the core of any goal. Learning how to delay even a minor gratification helps to build a mindset that can support ambitious personal objectives. It's never to late to teach yourself how to pass the marshmallow test.

Follow Caroline L. Arnold on Twitter, Facebook, and at SmallMoveBigChange.com