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Why Being Impatient Is Ruining Your Life

18/10/2016 11:46


Good things come to those who wait

Patience is often described as a virtue, a behaviour of high moral standing but the truth is that there is a lot more benefit to patience than just good manners. The ability to delay gratification, also known as 'cognitive control' is a skill often overlooked and undervalued. The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment in the 60s, was led by psychologist Walter Mischel to study self-control. The test was simple, children were asked to wait in a room with a marshmallow and told that they could either eat it or they could leave the sweet alone for 15 minutes and they would receive double instead. A small number of the children ate the marshmallow immediately, of the remainder that attempted to hold off for two marshmallows a third made it.

Follow ups with the children many years later found that a good ability to control the urge to eat the marshmallow tended to correlate high performance in disparate areas such as academia, health and overall success in later life. Now when I look back I can see some of the metaphorical marshmallows in my life, I can identify the times I opted for the immediate feeling and those when I was able to defer gratification for greater reward later. I'm also able to recognise the effects each of these has subsequently had on my life. If you take a minute to reflect now, can you see the marshmallows in yours?

As an adolescent when my friends were keen to party at the weekend I was very keen to work and save my money. It wasn't that I didn't want to join them, I really did, I knew the fun they were having and was aware I was 'missing out'. It also wasn't that I couldn't have afforded it in the short term but I believed that if I invested my finances in my asset column then eventually I would receive a greater degree freedom and flexibility to enjoy myself in the future. Visiting different countries and experience different cultures is important to me and the vision for my hard work and penny pinching was to be able to travel further and for longer, without worrying about the after effects of spending. Social temptations were often one of the juiciest marshmallows of them all, for me at least.

The same principle is certainly very true in business, I have worked for myself now for a number of years and often hear people flirt with the idea of leaving their job to start their own business. But when the reality of no instant gratification transpires the majority run for the hills. The fact of the matter being that most businesses don't make money for the first year at least. The high turnover of 'start up entrepreneurs' is equivalent to the flash flood of gym goers in January who expect total body transformations in a few weeks, often checking the mirror post workout for as much time as they spent exercising. The bulk of them dwindle when they don't get the rapid turnaround they want, in return never getting that result they desire. Hopping from fad to fad, relationship to relationship, job to job and never satisfied because they didn't spend time on making them develop into something great. In today's 1oomph culture we want our dinner microwaved in 2 minutes, messages sent to the other side of the world instantaneously, inconvenient emotions patched up with drugs and 2.8 million results on 'how to change a spare tyre' at our fingertips in 0.68 seconds.

The million-dollar question then is how do we cultivate an attitude of patience. The answer, ironically, begins with patience. The ability to be patient is like a muscle, the more you use it the stronger you get. The battle of instant gratification and long-term prudence are actually battles between two areas of the brain, the more primitive 'limbic system' and the area that controls our attention and can think about the future, the 'prefrontal cortex'. Thus in life we often experience an internal conflict between our lust and our logic. Mindful practices such as meditation are great for neutralising and adding objectivity to unwanted urges. Just 10 minutes of meditation a day can produce some great results. If you believe you are too busy to do that then I will repeat to you what was said to me, 'if you don't think you have 10 minutes to spare a day to meditate, then you need 30!'

The most effective strategies observed among the young people was shifting focus. Those that looked at, touched or played with the marshmallow caved in way before the ones that turned away or distracted themselves. Later studies showed that the time taken to break multiplied by 10 when a screen was used to block the little one's view of the marshmallow. Of course we can learn from this and elicit a strategy to strengthen our own patience. If we avoid focusing on the thing we are attempting to refrain from then we have a far greater chance of success. The easiest way to do this is to avoid temptation altogether, a bit of pre-planning could save your bacon here. This could mean if you are giving up smoking, it may be beneficial to avoid spending too much time around other people who are smoking or situations where you will be surrounded by smokers. Or if on a Friday afternoon you are easily sold on a night out that you will regret, turn your phone on to flight mode. For those dieting, not keeping unhelpful food in the fridge and so forth.

If all else fails, try taking some deep breaths before leaping into any rash decisions. Once your head is clear play out each future consequence and make your choice based on which outcome appeals to you most.

'Patience is bitter but its fruit is sweet', Aristotle

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