Every Successful Writer Has This Skill – Do You?

Marshmallow Experiment






Let’s do an experiment.

Put five-year-old in a room with a table and chair. The child sits in the chair. On the table is a single marshmallow. Tell the child that if the marshmallow is still on the table in a few minutes, he’ll get an extra marshmallow. If the child eats the marshmallow before you get back, they don’t get anything extra.

Now to you, a single marshmallow might not be a big deal, but to a five-year-old it’s really appealing. The marshmallow is right there in front of him, staring him in the eye. He wants it. He wants it bad.

As a writer, you’re constantly faced the grown-up version of the marshmallow test.

Should you sit down to write or should you read a book instead? You have a few minutes before an appointment – should you jot down a few character notes or play a game on your phone? It’s late and you haven’t met your daily word count – should you tough it out or just put it off until tomorrow?

Let’s face it, sometimes writing isn’t the most appealing option. But successful writers have to get it done anyway, even when they’d rather do something else. Novels aren’t written in fits of creativity… They’re written with steadfastness and consistent effort.

So how do choose work over pleasure? How do you leave that marshmallow on the plate?

I’ve got good news. Working now for future gains (delayed gratification) is a skill, which means you can get better at it. All you need to do is practice.

Luckily, life is full of opportunities to choose between immediate pleasure or delayed gratification.

Like this: It’s the end of the day, you’re tired, and you need to decide whether to do the dishes or plop down on the couch and watch TV. If you choose TV, you’ll have to do the dishes tomorrow, and there will be more of them by then. If you do dishes, tomorrow you’ll start the day with a clean sink.

Or this: It’s bedtime, and the only thing on your mind is how good it’s going to feel when you finally get to go to sleep. You know you’re supposed to floss every night, but maybe it wouldn’t hurt to just skip it this once…

In these situations and a hundred others, you can practice self-control. You can practice delaying gratification, even if it’s just for a few minutes.

Over time, you’ll see improvement. And you’ll notice it in your writing habits, too. It’ll be easier to write when you’re tired or stressed, distracted or uninspired. (Which is good, because if you’re like me, you’re probably at least one of those four things at least 95% of the time).

It’s not easy. At first, you’ll mainly be practicing the “delay” part of delayed gratification, which doesn’t feel gratifying at all. Eventually, though, you’ll get to the “gratification” part. You’ll find an agent. Publish your book. Start getting royalty checks.

Two caveats:

  1. It’s possible to get trapped by this idea There’s ALWAYS another thing you could do, another task you could complete. Hypothetically, you could choose to write all day and all night instead of eating and sleeping and spending time with your family and friends. However, if you are the type of person who struggles to get stuff done in the first place, your risk of becoming a workaholic probably isn’t terribly high.
  2. There’s something to be said for satisfaction with things as they are. If one marshmallow is enough for you, fine. It’s good to be content. But if you do want more success, more productivity, more words on the page… At some point you’re going to have to buckle down and get it done.

No matter what, you need to maintain balance. Sometimes that’s the hardest part of this whole dance.

Do too little (instant gratification), and you feel guilty. Do too much (workaholic), and you’ll burn yourself out. Do the right amount (delayed gratification), and you’ll feel accomplished.

So, if you want to get in the habit of writing even when it’s tough, be on the lookout for opportunities to practice delayed gratification. Eventually the payoff will come, and those marshmallows will start rollin’ in.

Search Google for “marshmallow experiment” to watch the experiment being performed. Those kids are adorable!

Andrew MacFarland has experience writing fiction, marketing copy, academic articles, web content… you name it. He shares unique insights on the process of writing at www.persistencetheory.com.