As I stared at a stage spotlight during my daughter’s high school drama competition last weekend, it reminded me of a good article on Edge.org by Jonah Lehrer – “Control Your Spotlight”. He cites a 1960s experiment with 4 year old kids invited to sit in a room and pick from a variety cookies and other treats. The experimenter then made them an offer. They could eat one treat now, or wait while he stepped out of the room for a few minutes, then they could have two treats when he returned. Most of the kids chose to wait.
Psychologists assumed the ability to postpone gratification was based on will power. But the experiment revealed that this assumption was wrong. Kids with strong will power gritted their teeth and lost the battle within 30 seconds, chomping the single cookie. Kids that were successfully able to wait relied on the same mental strategy. They found ways to not think about the treat. They covered their eyes, sang songs, tied their shoe laces over and over, pretended to take a nap – anything to not think about that cookie. This “strategic allocation of attention” is the key to self-control and mental discipline. Willpower is not about strong moral fiber, it’s about directing the spotlight of attention. And this skill is not just useful for resisting food and getting to the gym; it’s the key to success in life. The experimenter followed those 4 year olds for years and the ones who could wait for the two cookies had SAT scores 210 points higher than those who could not.
The mental skill of strategically allocating attention is critical in the information age. We’re exposed to a massive amount of information these days. The Edge article quotes Herbert Simon “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” The ability to focus on important information and ignore bad information is incredibly valuable.
Good financial and estate planning also rely on controlling your mental spotlight. For example, disciplined investors automatically move a portion of their paycheck into savings or retirement without thinking about it. They distract themselves from the cookie so they can get the long-term pay off. Focusing on critical legal documents like a will and powers of attorney (instead of worrying about getting sued by someone or hiding your money from a nursing home) is where the proper estate planning spotlight should be. Your war chest is illuminated by a disciplined mental spotlight focused on what’s important – health, wealth and happiness.