Friday, December 5, 2014
I recently attended a lecture by Dr. Walter Mischel, who is known for administering “The Marshmallow Test” to young children as a researcher at Stanford. As many of you are aware, the test consisted of children sitting in a room with a single marshmallow (or another sweet treat) while being asked to delay eating it. If they delayed their gratification, the child would get a greater reward at a later time (typically two marshmallows). The experiment produced interesting and, at times, comical responses from the children being observed. You can check out some Marshmallow Test videos on YouTube to watch the eye rolling, seat squirming, and general agitation exhibited by the children.
While the underlying experiments were amusing to watch, the conclusions drawn from the initial experiments and the long term studies were quite insightful. Essentially, by understanding our impulses and how we can retrain ourselves in order to have greater willpower, we can make better choices and be more productive. Many of us believe that human nature rules whether the child would take the marshmallow instead of waiting (or whether the student would study for another 2 hours before watching an episode of their favorite show or checking their Facebook page). While some are more inclined to eat the marshmallow right away, many are able to resist for a limited amount of time.
As Dr. Mischel pointed out, we can all learn how to control our impulses (kids with marshmallows or adults with other enticements). For example, if you know that when you go to holiday parties, you rush the dessert table and do not leave that table until you have sampled two of each type of dessert, you can put a plan in place in order to limit your dessert intake. If you have no plan in place or if you arrive to the party hungry, you are more likely to fall into the dessert vortex. If plan ahead, to first spend some time at the crudité and also allow yourself a bite from three different sweets over the course of the event, you are more likely to be successful in limiting your impulses. Alternatively, if you instead plan to abstain completely from eating dessert at the party, you will likely fail. Thus, deliberate and premeditated change in small increments helps create a new practice that is easier to successfully adopt and sustain.
How does this apply to law students? Law students often succumb to and/or are ambushed by procrastination. It is difficult to delay gratification no matter what age. I learned from the marshmallow studies and from Dr. Michel’s presentation that we can all learn how to control our impulses if we understand what drives our impulses and if we are committed to making one small change at a time. In my example above, an individual knows that they struggle with overindulging in dessert. The willpower is harder to maintain without a clear and doable strategy in place. However, recognizing the temptation, adopting a realistic alternative, and planning ahead create a method for success. If law students try to more fully understand their impulsive triggers, they are better positioned to generate a plan to resist or avoid them.
Thus, law students can follow this strategy to use their time more effectively and more efficiently. Here are a few ideas:
- They can begin by writing out typical time stealers and creating targeted goals to reduce them. (Examples: When I study in groups, I am easily drawn off topic. When I turn on the television, I end up watching it for longer than I expected. If I turn my phone on while I am studying, my social media becomes a huge distraction.)
- They can purchase or create calendars in order to plan and track their time. Hard copy calendars visualize their priorities much better than a computer version.
- They can turn off their electronic devices while they study for a continuous block of time. (Example: I will study Torts for 3 hours in the library and leave my computer and phone in my locker.)
- They can disable their Wi-Fi while in class or while reviewing notes on their computer.
- They can establish a reward system that motivates this continued behavior. (Example: If I complete my stated study goal, I will get a night off or an extra hour of sleep, or more time for a special activity.)
Once an effective time management plan is established and the inherent benefits are apparent, students are more apt to fully adopt these new strategies by continuing to buck their impulses. After all, two marshmallows later are better than one marshmallow now.
(Lisa Bove Young)