Willpower, learning and the Marshmallow Experiment

Willpower, learning and the Marshmallow Experiment

Willpower is something everyone has to a certain degree. How strong each person's willpower is, can affect things like their productivity and achievements. In turn, it can affect a person's ability to learn.

But what is willpower exactly?

Willpower, also known as self-control, is a person's ability to delay short-term gratification to achieve a long-term goal. It is a person's ability to avoid any distractions and focus on the task at hand until it is completed.

Why Does This Make Willpower An Important Skill In Learning?

Having strong willpower and self-control is often associated with higher levels of success, especially academically and in people's careers.

This link between willpower and success makes sense, those who can ignore distractions can then focus on 'the big picture'. Whether that is forgoing parties to attend a study session, or giving up a few weekends to secure a promotion.

By having the self-control required to resist the temptations of things like parties or social media, this allows people to prioritise the next steps needed to better themselves.

This can be an invaluable skill for students, having the strength to say no to any distraction allows them to spend more time studying and concentrating on their subject material. Which in turn helps them in achieving a higher grade.

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

One of the most infamous studies done on will power, is the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. The study was started by a man called Walter Mischel in 1970, though the most well-known version of the study occurred in 1972.

Mischel's study revolved around delayed gratification, how early it developed in children, and how it affected them later on in life. The study coined its name because of the use of marshmallows as prizes.

The researchers started by gathering a group of children, and placed them individually into a room with no distractions. In the room was a table which had a predetermined treat on it, either a marshmallow or a pretzel stick depending on the child's preference.

The researchers then explained to the child that they could eat the treat whenever they wanted to, but if they could wait for 15 minutes, then they could have a larger treat. This was explained until they were certain each child understood fully, before leaving them alone with the snack.

Once the initial test was concluded, they followed the children for the next few years.

A survey done during their later years showed that those children who waited before eating the food, to receive the larger and more satisfying treat, actually did much better in their education than the children who had not waited.

These results showed an interesting conclusion; our ability to ignore an immediate reward in favour of a larger one can greatly impact what is achievable. And this starts from a young age.

Since the initial study in the 70s, the concept has been repeated a handful of times. The modern results differ slightly, and strongly suggest that there are other factors which also come into play. But overall, willpower can still give people a step-up on their peers!

Can Willpower Be Improved?

Knowing that willpower can potentially increase a person's chance of success, brings forward the question 'can willpower be improved?'

And the answer is yes! To an extent willpower can be improved.

When broken down, willpower is much like a skill or a habit. The more it is used, or practised, the better it becomes. And while there will be limits to each individual, this does apply to everyone.

If a person wishes to strengthen their willpower, one of the best places to start, is by setting up a system which works for them personally.

This system should have regular 'small' treats, toward the long-term goal. Whether that is a social media break, going for a walk, grabbing a snack, or something else.

How these rewards are spaced also depends on the individual, they may prefer the pomodoro technique and class their breaks as the reward, or they may use it at the end of an assignment, or chapter.

Other things which can help improve willpower;

Meditation: Researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center suggest that meditation can improve focus and memory, as well as reducing stress and anxiety! All things beneficial to learning.

And the University isn't the only place that these results have been found. Another study published in 2011 found similar increases in productivity when meditation was introduced.

As little as 10 minutes a day can have a positive effect on a person's wellbeing, making it an easy practice to implement for just about everyone.

Create Deadlines: If a person doesn't have any deadlines set by their school or tutor, it can be difficult to find situations where willpower is necessary. In these instances, creating their own deadlines, and rewarding themselves for completion can often be just as helpful, if not more so!

This is because it is far more challenging for a person to set themselves a deadline, and stick to it. Especially when there may not be any repercussions. So self-imposed deadlines can actually pose more of a 'mental workout', than any other.

Reduce Stress: Willpower is all about logic, and thinking about whether a long-term reward, outweighs an immediate one. Which is why stress and willpower do not mix well.

When a person is stressed their body releases adrenaline, sending the body into a 'fight-or-flight' response. This response is all about instinctual responses, and so the logic of willpower is often left behind.

So for willpower and self-control to be effective, it is important to keep stress and anxiety as low as possible. Which is where meditation may actually help.

How The Pomodoro Technique Can Help To Build Willpower?

The Pomodoro technique is where a person divides their task into timed sections of work and breaks. Typically, the work portions continue for 20-25 minutes, with short breaks in between, and then for every full hour of work a longer break is taken.

Once a person reaches their rest periods, this is their chance to 'indulge' themselves for completing their work. They may decide to check social media, or their emails, or something else.>

This method of working and taking a break can be great for strengthening willpower, as it constantly provides a short amount of time for indulgence while still building towards a bigger goal.

It is this ratio of work to reward that allows people to train their minds to focus faster, which in turn leads to more effective output. All while allowing the individual to avoid burnout.

Things Which Can Have A Negative Impact On Willpower

When it comes to things, which can have a negative effect on willpower, there are a few things to avoid.

First and foremost, is 'burnout'. When a person delays gratification for too long and doesn't allow themselves any form of indulgence or break, their willpower will suffer. Think of it like when a muscle is overexerted and the person's performance decreases, when a person's willpower is overexerted, it begins to suffer.

This exertion happens when a person delays their gratification for too long. Which is why it is important to find a balance, and why the Pomodoro technique can be a great method for this.

Another thing to avoid is excessive distractions. If a person's phone is constantly receiving notifications while they try to study, it will become much harder to remain focussed on the task at hand. By taking actions, such as putting their phone into flight mode, they can increase their chances of staying focussed.

Lastly, as was mentioned earlier, high stress levels can have a negative impact on willpower, as the adrenaline causes the brain to rely more on instinctual decisions than logical ones. Stress has the potential to render delayed gratification useless, so it can be invaluable to ensure that a person is calm and relaxed before beginning their study session.

Many people have been in a position where they are so stressed they cannot concentrate on their work. The goal is to avoid being in this situation!


Willpower can be a crucial aspect in achieving the success that so many of us dream of. Having the self-control to put aside short-term desires to work for something bigger instead takes a lot of internal strength.

But this control is available to anyone who is willing to put the work in, and make an effort to improve themselves, and their future.