Fifty years ago at a nursery school, a professor ran an experiment.
4-year-old children were brought into a room, one at a time, and given one marshmallow. He told them they were allowed to eat it immediately, but if they could wait fifteen minutes without eating it, they’d be given a second marshmallow, and could eat both.
70% of the kids ate the marshmallow right away. Only 30% of the kids could wait the full fifteen minutes to get the second marshmallow. This experiment has been repeated in other countries over the years, and the ratio stays the same. Two-thirds can’t wait. One-third wait.
But here’s the most interesting part:
Fifteen years later, the researchers followed-up and found that those kids who waited for the second marshmallow scored, on average, 250 points higher on their college exams, and were higher achievers in whatever field they had chosen, whether academic, athletic, or artistic. They were all-around happier and more successful.
So your ability to delay gratification is one of the best indicators of future success. When you delay gratification, you’re giving more importance to the future than the present. You give up a little pleasure now to benefit your future self.
Some of us are naturally future-focused. Some of us are naturally present-focused. Some of us are naturally past-focused. Our time focus completely changes the way we see the world. For example:
- future focus
Future-focused people let their long-range goals decide today’s decisions and actions. They ambitiously work, save, and plan for a better life. They have lots of self-discipline and the ability to delay gratification.
Future-focused people are more successful professionally and academically. They also eat well, exercise regularly, and schedule preventative health exams.
But because they’re focused on the next goal, they aren’t as present — like the stereotype of the successful executive on his third divorce because he never makes time for his family.
- present focus
Present-focused people seek excitement, variety, and immediate gratification. They avoid anything tedious, repetitive, or difficult. They’re playful and impulsive, often immersed in leisure activities.
Present-focused people are more likely to gamble and use drugs or alcohol. They’re less likely to eat well, exercise, floss their teeth, or get regular health exams. They are the least likely to be successful.
While some present-focus is needed to enjoy life, too much present-focus can rob life of the deeper happiness of accomplishment.
- past focus
How you view the past is important because we see our lives as having a trajectory. If you remember the past as happy, you predict your future will be happy. If you are haunted by an unhappy past, you probably predict your future to be unhappy, too.
Though we each have a built-in tendency, we can intentionally change our focus.
If you ask a future-focused person to name every background sound they can hear, or where their body is touching their chair, their focus will change to the present.
If you ask a present-focused person to describe their ultimate career, then write down the steps to achieve those goals, their focus will change to the future.
Circumstances change your focus. You need safety and stability to think about the future. Cavemen needed a full present-focus at all times to survive in the wild and find food each day. It was only after the development of agriculture that people could spend more time thinking about the future. People who lived in tropical climates had less future-focus than people who lived in places with cold winters, since winters required planning and saving.
But this doesn’t mean we should all be extremely future-focused. The happiest and most effective people are balanced: equally high in future-focus and present-focus, and viewing the past as positive.
When you have work to do, be future-focused. When your work is done and it’s time to relax, be present-focused. During family holidays, be past-focused to enjoy family customs.
Personally, I find this whole subject fascinating. Not just for noticing my own tendencies, but for helping me understand people with a different time focus than me. If it interests you too, go read a book called “The Time Paradox” by Philip Zimbardo.