How to Teach Yourself Restraint

The screaming started a few minutes before breakfast. As far as I could tell, our 2-year-old son Daniel took our seven-year-old daughter Isabelle’s markers from her while she was drawing. And if you don’t think that’s a big deal you don’t have kids.

I tried my typical parenting monologue: “I can see you’re very upset; he’s two years old sweetie, he doesn’t know any better; the picture is beautiful just as it is; you needed to stop drawing anyway, it was time for breakfast; you have lots of other markers; OK it’s enough — stop crying.” Nothing worked.

And then I recalled some research I had read.

“Isabelle,” I asked, “is that a new t-shirt you’re wearing?”

“Yes,” she said, still crying.

“Who’s that on the front?”

She looked at her shirt. “Obama.” She wasn’t crying now.

“What? No way. It’s a woman! Does Obama wear a pearl necklace?” I asked.

She laughed.


The research I recalled was the famous marshmallow experiment conducted on four-year-old children in the 1960s by Walter Mischel, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. He put a marshmallow on a table in front of a child and said he needed to leave the room for a few minutes. She was welcome to eat the one marshmallow while he was gone but, if she could wait until he returned, he would give her two marshmallows. Then he left and the hidden video camera captured the rest.

He was interested in what enabled some children to delay gratification while others surrendered to it. Most kids succumbed in under three minutes. Some, however, made it the full 20 minutes until the researcher returned. And, as it turns out, they were rewarded with more than just an extra marshmallow. As follow up research later discovered, these kids had better relationships, were more dependable, and even scored an average of 210 points higher on their SATs than the children who couldn’t resist the marshmallow.


So what’s the secret of the ones who held out? Did they have more willpower? Better discipline? Maybe they didn’t like candy as much? Perhaps they were afraid of authority?

It turns out it was none of these things. It was a technique. The same technique I used with Isabelle.


Rather than focusing on not eating the marshmallow, they covered their eyes, sat under the table, or sang a song. They didn’t resist the urge. They simply avoided it.


We face two challenges as we try to manage our behavior: the challenge of initiative (exercise, make one more sales phone call, work another hour on that presentation, write that proposal) and the challenge of restraint (don’t eat that cookie, don’t speak so much in that meeting, don’t yell back, don’t solve your employee’s problem for him).

If we’re good at the challenge of initiative it means we’re good at applying ourselves, at focusing, at breaking through resistance using sheer willpower. In other words, we’re good at avoiding distraction.

Which, as the experiments show, is exactly what leads us to fail in the challenge of restraint. Focusing on resisting the temptation only makes it harder to resist. In the case of not eating the cookie, using willpower only makes it more likely that we’ll eat the cookie. Or speak too much in the meeting. Or yell back.

Try this experiment: for the next ten seconds, don’t think about a big white elephant. Impossible, right? The trick is to distract yourself by focusing on something else entirely.

The rule is simple: when you want to do something, focus. When you don’t want to do something, distract.


Distraction has a bad rap. It’s seen as something that prevents you from achieving your goals. We get distracted. Focus, on the other hand, is seen as positive and active — something you do to achieve your goals.

But the skill of distraction is important now more than ever. We are living in an age of fear — swine flu, terrorism, global warming, child kidnappings, the economy — that reduces our productivity at best and destroys our health, relationships, and happiness at worst.

Unfortunately, the more we feel afraid, the more we read about the source of our fear as we try to protect ourselves. Afraid of losing your job or your nest egg? Chances are you’re following the market closely and reading more articles about the economy than ever before. According to a recent poll released by the National Sleep Foundation, one third of Americans are losing sleep over personal financial concerns and the poor condition of the US economy.

The solution? Distraction. Read a great book. Watch a movie. Play with a 4 year old. Cook and eat a meal with good friends. Go for a walk. Throw yourself into work.

Distraction is, in fact, the same thing as focus. To distract yourself from X you need to focus on Y.


Recently the CEO of a midsized company complained to me about one of his direct reports, a senior leader we’ll call John who was micromanaging his team.

“Does John have any particular passions you know about?” I asked.

“The environment,” he responded.

I asked him if that issue was also important to the company and he said it was.

“Great,” I said. “Start a task force to address environmental issues and opportunities at the company and ask John to lead the effort.”

He looked worried. “Won’t that distract him from his day-to-day responsibilities?”

I smiled. “I hope so.”