Don’t Eat The Marshmallow: Creating a Not-To-Do List

Did you hear about the kids who didn’t eat the marshmallow? Surely you have. Basically, there’s this famous psychological experiment that tested impulse control in children. It was conducted by Stanford University in the 1960s. The kids were presented with one marshmallow and told that if they waited and didn’t eat the marshmallow they would receive two marshmallows. If they ate it, they would only eat that lone marshmallow. The experiment showed that the children who resisted the marshmallow were happier, had better results at school and were generally more successful. But what’s this got to do with productivity?


The main finding of the marshmallow test, according to Joachim de Posada who gave an excellent Ted Talk on the subject, was that the ability to delay gratification was the key to success. He also makes the fabulous point that telling a child to wait for 15 minutes and not eat a marshmallow is equivalent to telling us (“adults”) that your coffee will arrive in two hours.

This success was evident in the follow-up study which was conducted 15 years later. They found that 100% of the children that hadn’t eaten the marshmallow were successful. ‘Successful’ in this sense meant that that they had good grades, were deemed happy and had good relationships with teachers and fellow students. 100%!

So what happened to those who did eat the marshmallow? According to de Posada, “they were in trouble”. They didn’t make it to university, their grades weren’t as good and some of them had dropped out of school. However, some of the kids, he states, had good grades.

Obviously we aren’t all resisting marshmallows on a day-to-day basis but in the workplace we have to resist our own form marshmallows. I’m talking about going on social media, checking your emails and procrastination in general.

It all comes down to weighing the momentary instant gratification with the reality of long-term benefits. This can be applied to anything from weight loss and healthy eating to stopping smoking to checking your emails/phone/Twitter feed less often. In our example it’s linked to productivity both in and out of work. You only have a certain amount of hours during and after work – how best are you going to spend them?

How to Resist the Marshmallow

It’s simple, if you haven’t already tried it out – now’s the time to create a ‘not-to-do’ list. In this list, write down all of the things you are striving not to do. Still not convinced? Mobile-phone revolutionizer Steve Jobs highlighted the importance of recognising the things you shouldn’t be doing:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on.  But that’s not what it means at all.  It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done.  Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”

Stick that on a post-it why don’t you.

So what should you include on your not- to-do list? Well, it’s going to vary for every person. The first step is to consider what you’re wasting time on. If that’s too vague try thinking about what you want to stop doing – this can be further helped by concentrating on the end goal. This could mean spending less time answering emails in the evening, dedicating more time to your hobby or establishing a routine which works for yo

Your not-to-do can work on a day-to-day basis, a week-to-week basis or maybe even longer than that. Get yourself an anti-bucket list! However, in the office day-to-day could be the best. Writing it every morning before starting work can help focus you on what actually needs to be done.

That’s not to say that you only rely on your not-to-do list. It’s still great to organise, prioritise and complete things that you do need to do. It’s just the difference this time is that you hopefully get them done faster – and you get to complete two checklists! Double satisfaction!

What should you include?

I would suggest your biggest productivity drains. The things you do which make you think “I shouldn’t really be doing this right now”. This could include any of the following:

1. Spending longer than an appropriate amount of time reading emails.
2. Going on social media (unless that is your job).
3. Doing the easy or small stuff first. Eat those frogs!
4. Spending time writing an email to someone when you can talk to them.(I bet they sit directly opposite you!)
5. Organising or participating in excessively long or unnecessary meetings. Enforce the stand-up       meeting rule or create an agenda beforehand and stick to it.
6. Eating/reading/drinking etc things which instantaneously fill a specific desire but hours/days/ weeks later you regret.

So basically you could put things like ‘Don’t go on social media today while at work’ or ‘Don’t eat lunch at desk’. Then, at the end of the day you can tick them all off. But don’t worry if you do slip, you’re only human and hopefully you will still have saved some time regardless. However, you could ask yourself ‘was it worth it?’ I’m guessing the answer won’t be a confident “of course!”. A little tip I tell myself when I’m trying to motivate myself to go for my morning run is “You always regret not going for a run, you never regret going for a run”. That gets me off my feet. (I also remind myself that going for a run will allow me to eat more of the food I want i.e copious spoonfuls of Nutella).

There’s something about taking 5 minutes out of your day to sit down and address any potential pitfalls. This technique works to allow you to stop any distractions and setbacks in their tracks. Of course, this will require some willpower (but doesn’t a typical to-do require this anyway?) but, as before with my Nutella example, keeping the end goal in sight will help.

Want to get technical? This can be a great way to adhere to your not-to-do list. Say if you spent 20 minutes each morning checking out social media, then 20 minutes doing the same at 11, then again on your lunch break, then 20 more minutes around 3 and then again at 4.30. Then when you get home you check social media whilst your tea is cooking and again just before you go to bed. How many 20s is that? 7. That would mean you spent 2 hours and 20 minutes out of your waking hours that day reading emails or checking Facebook. That would be 16 hours and 20 minutes across a week. That’s around 65 hours per month and then around 768 hours per year. What could you achieve if you didn’t ‘eat the marshmallow’ and had that time back? A lot, I’d guess.

Increasing your awareness of what actually needs to be done actively puts you back in control of the situation and, most importantly, puts you back in control of your time. Tim Ferriss, author of The 4 Hour Work Week puts it well: “The reason is simple: what you don’t do determines what you can do.”

Next Steps: Watch the Ted Talk by Joachim de Posada, leave a comment below and don’t eat that marshmallow!