Waiting for the marshmallows: on patience & delayed gratification

Waiting / Photo by Paul Chiorean (under CC licence)

It is sometimes ironic and almost amusing how life will surprise us with challenges in the areas where we struggle most. Patience has never been my forté, and while I have improved myself in that regard over the course of a decade or so, I admit that I am often incapable of waiting the remaining three seconds for the microwave to heat up a bowl of meat for my cats.

And now that I’m in a long-distance relationship, I’ve been challenged with a lot of waiting and longing before my partner and I can settle together in one place. And while this can be hard to endure at times, I have learned to treat it as a training of patience, for, as Lisa McKay says in an article for Lifehack, “When you are being patient in your long-distance relationship you are not just nurturing love, you are developing your character”.

This training is indeed very valuable, since waiting is something we generally struggle with in the modern age. We are surrounded by an increasing number of things advertised as “instant” which not only take away the need for self-improvement, but make us even more impatient. Instant delivery, instant nail varnish, instant meal, instant coffee, instant download, instant sex. In his article Instant gratification is making us perpetually impatient for the Boston Globe, Christopher Muther quotes Ramesh Sitaraman, a computer science professor at UMass Amherst, who examined the viewing habits of 6.7 million internet users. Sitaraman discovered that people started displaying impatience only after two seconds of waiting for the video to load and would abandon it if it didn’t start loading after – yes – mere two seconds. He is genuinely worried that “someday people will be too impatient to conduct studies on patience.” Compared to that, my inability to wait for the microwave to do a full 2.5 min cycle without me interrupting a few seconds before the end, seems entirely normal, for impatience seems to be the norm these days.

Maruchan Akai Kitsune instant udon / Photo by Richard Masoner  (under CC licence)

But impatience takes its toll on our perception abilities. How often do we keep multiple tabs open in our browsers and rather than read one article from start to finish, we merely scan it and skip between several webpages, reading snippets of completely different pieces, without giving either of them our full attention and focus? Darrell Worthy, an assistant professor of psychology at Texas A&M University who studies decision making and motivation, cited in Christopher Muther’s piece, says that we’re turning away from reading books and magazines, and spending more time with quick fun in the form of mobile apps and games (i.e. Angry Birds on the iPhone). Which is hardly surprising, given how much more time and focus a book demands over an online article. According to Worthy, immediate gratification is the default expectation, and overcoming these urges is becoming increasingly more difficult.

We are hooked on instant gratification, even though we have very clear data demonstrating how the exact opposite helps us achieve success. The most important study on this topic is of course the famous Stanford experiment (often referred to as the “marshmallow experiment”), conducted 50 years ago by Walter Mischel on hundreds of children around the age of 4 and 5 (here is an excellent in-depth piece from The New Yorker on both the experiments and Mischel himself). Each child was offered a choice between one small reward (a marshmallow, cookie or a pretzel) provided immediately or two small rewards (i.e. two marshmallows) if they waited for approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester would leave the room and return with the reward. Among the 600 children who took part in the experiment most attempted to delay the gratification, and one third of that group deferred gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow. Over the course of forty years following the experiment, the researchers conducted follow up studies and tracked each child’s progress in a number of areas. What they found out was that those kids who were willing to wait for the second marshmallow ended up having “higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures”, as James Clear writes on his blog.

Heavy Traffic / photo by Vera & Jean-Christophe (under CC licence)

It’s often easy to fall for the trap of thinking that deferring making a decision and giving oneself more time to ponder stuff will inevitably lead to missing out on opportunities and falling behind those who act and respond instantly. But patience doesn’t necessarily mean missing the boat. Distance, be it time or spatial, facilitates a deeper reflection, appreciation, and gratitude. As Elle Kaplan writes in How the Simple Power of Waiting Can Radically Improve Your Life and Your Wealth for The Medium “Science has proven that even 50 millisecond delay can drastically improve our decision-making abilities. And as the old saying goes, ‘don’t make a permanent decision out of a temporary emotion’.”

The trick is not just to learn to wait, but to learn to wait well. Or, as Petrus Spronk puts it, to “use the time waiting in a positive way, rather than getting upset, which is the negative version and uses far too much energy.” In her lovely piece The Art Of Patience And Inner Guidance for The Huffington Post, Joan Borysenko describes a conversation she had with a friend dying from AIDS whose plants she was looking after, which gave her an incentive to take a critical view at her own impatience. Having noticed that one of the plants, a large Christmas cactus, was about to start losing its already drying blossoms, and wanting to spare her friend the need to go on his knees to clean the fallen bits, Joan began pinching off the dying flowers. That’s when her friend said to her: “Everything has its own destiny. People, trees, plants, clothes, even stones. And the cycle isn’t done for these flowers yet. I know they’re kind of ratty looking and that they’ve passed their peak. But please, let them finish life on their own timetable. I’m happy to pick them up off the floor.” She admits that she will still occasionally get annoyed with traffic, or that she will want to hurry through conversations and meals but has now a lot more willingness to let her life unfold at its own pace.

World Class Traffic Jam 2 / Photo by joiseyshowaa (under CC licence)

My willingness to wait to be with the person I love, to have a work schedule and lifestyle that I dream of, is not just a response to the Marshmallow experiment or other studies. I have a deep conviction that good things are worth waiting for. Which doesn’t mean waiting idly and passively, but working towards our goals with the acceptance that they won’t happen overnight.

The process of waiting is also useful in helping to establish the level of our passion for something or someone, as opposed to a temporary spark of enthusiasm. As Kim Quindlen writes in her article on long-distance relationships, “LDR’s involve a lot of coordination – asking for days off, saving up money for flights, knowing when you’re free to talk on the phone. It requires even more work than a regular relationship. So you can’t help but be very open with yourself about whether or not you see a future with this person and what it is about them that makes you willing to drive or fly hundreds of miles to be with them for forty-eight hours.” If the relationship can survive long distance, it can survive most other things as well, thanks to all the skills developed in the process of building it when being physically apart: trust, communication, commitment, appreciation.

In the work area, patience and perseverance can mean a lot more than talent, skills, connections etc. Seth Godin wrote about persevering and pushing through “dips” – the periods between starting a project and successfully finalising it – which weeds out one’s competition, for most people are likely to give up after the initial excitement has worn off and there are no signs of success on the horizon. As one reviewer summarises the idea, “If you can make it through the Dip, you’ll come out on the other side as one of a very small number who can call themselves the best in their chosen field. And being the best carries big rewards. Microsoft, Stephen King and Starbucks all survived the Dip.”

Hugh MacLeod also wrote about patience in his excellent book, Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Ways to Creativity (first published on his blog, Gaping Void):

I get asked a lot, “Your business card format is very simple. Aren’t you worried about somebody ripping it off?”

Standard Answer: Only if they can draw more of them than me, better than me.

What gives the work its edge is the simple fact that I’ve spent years drawing them. I’ve drawn thousands. Tens of thousands of man hours.

So if somebody wants to rip my idea off, go ahead. If somebody wants to overtake me in the business card doodle wars, go ahead. You’ve got many long years in front of you. And unlike me, you won’t be doing it for the joy of it. You’ll be doing it for some self-loathing, ill-informed, lame-ass mercenary reason. So the years will be even longer and far, far more painful. Lucky you.

Delayed gratification is nothing other than choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of distraction, to quote James Clear again. And while I have no problem with discipline, thanks to years of working and learning from great books that came my way, I know that waiting well is a skill I need to improve on. Therefore, being aware of my shortcomings in this area, I welcome opportunities to learn how to be patient. Even if the “training” is simply not getting annoyed when stuck in the longest queue to a till. Or patiently waiting for that microwave beep.