Procrastination, Deferred Gratification, and Success

Author Frank Partnoy has written a new book about the benefits of procrastination. Titled Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, the book discusses why we need to take time out in our fast-paced world to sit back and think before we act. Drawing on research in diverse fields including psychology, behavioral economics, neuroscience, law, history, finance, and even sports, Partnoy makes the case that,

“[G]iven the fast pace of modern life, most of us tend to react too quickly. We don’t, or can’t, take enough time to think about the increasingly complex timing challenges we face. Technology surrounds us, speeding us up. We feel its crush every day, both at work and at home. Yet the best time managers are comfortable pausing for as long as necessary before they act, even in the face of the most pressing decisions. Some seem to slow down time. For good decision-makers, time is more flexible than a metronome or atomic clock.”

Portnoy’s philosophy about making decisions can be summed up in three simple steps:

  1. Figure out how long you have to make the decision
  2. Ponder the decision as long as possible
  3. Act quickly at the last possible moment

Apparently this method is used by top experts in every field – they wait, wait, wait…and then act. Another way of framing this is to call procrastination delayed gratification, or as Partnoy calls it, “managing delay.” In a famous experiment in the 1960s by Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel, the chosen term was “deferred gratification.” Mischel tested the ability of four-year-olds to defer gratification when presented with a choice: they could either eat one marshmallow now, or wait a few minutes and receive two marshmallows. Overall, about 1/3 of the children were able to wait. Long-term follow-up found that the children who were able to defer gratification had better outcomes on a variety of measures as adults (test scores, behavior problems, relationships, etc.). Partnoy summarizes the findings this way,

“[R]esearchers have found, again and again, that children who can delay their reactions end up happier and more successful than their snap-reacting playmates: they are superior at building social skills, feeling empathy, and resolving conflicts, and they have higher cognitive ability. Kids with good preschool-age delay skills have higher self-esteem later in life, cope better with stress, are less likely to use cocaine and crack, and aren’t as fat. Children who can decide to wait do better.”

In a related cross-cultural analysis, motivational speaker Joachim de Posada replicated the Stanford marshmallow experiment with Hispanic children in Colombia. He got the same results as Mischel did in the 1960s: about 1/3 of the children were able to defer gratification. Here’s Mr. de Posada’s TED talk on his study, with some compelling (i.e. hilarious) footage of children trying not to eat marshmallows:

So we know that being able to defer gratification is a key component to success. But we still don’t know why some children (read: people) are better at deferring than others. That is one of the questions Partnoy attempts to answer in Wait. I look forward to reading the book, and may write up a brief review at a later date.

If you want to explore the topic further:

Radio interview with Frank Partnoy.

Wait book review.

– Fascinating New Yorker article about the marshmallow experiment, with more recent data about, and interviews with, the subjects in the original Stanford study.


3 thoughts on “Procrastination, Deferred Gratification, and Success

  1. Thank you for visiting my blog, and for the kind comments. I looked up the books you mentioned, and noticed one reviewer recommended “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow…Yet!” for children in grades 4-8 to help with future money management. I’m always looking for books to recommend to children, so thanks for the tip! And it looks like “Don’t Gobble the Marshmallow…Ever!” will be a good one to keep around for parents ūüėČ I really liked that you replicated the marshmallow experiment with Hispanic children. It would be great to see more cross-cultural studies of this nature. Cheers!

  2. Wonderful blog. Looking forward to reading “Wait”. Thank you for mentioning my TED talk, glad you liked it. For your information, we have two books you may find interesting, “Don’t Eat Marshmallow… Yet and Don’t Gobble the Marshmallow…Ever.
    I will follow your good work. Regards

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