Jonah Lehrer wrote a piece in The New Yorker titled Don’t! that offers a beautiful explanation of an ongoing longitudinal study looking at delayed gratification and future success. This study, conducted by Walter Mischel, a Stanford professor, suggests that raw intelligence isn’t the most important variable when determining future success in life. In fact, what he suggests is that “intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control: even the smartest kids still need to do their homework.” The key, it appears, to delaying gratification is teaching the brain to be distracted and shifting the focus of your attention. This, Mischel argues, allows children to find ways to make situations work for them. The good news is that delayed gratification is a skill we can teach our children. But what is so important is that it gets practiced throughout childhood.
According to Mischel, even the most mundane routines of childhood — such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning — are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we’re teaching ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires.