Find a child and place them in a room with a table. Go into the room and place a marshmallow on the table. Tell the child that if they wait until you come back into the room to eat the marshmallow that they will get two marshmallows. Leave the room and don’t come back. Measure how long it takes for the child to eat the marshmallow on the table. This, in a nutshell, is the marshmallow experiment.
It turns out that the longer a child is able to wait before eating the marshmallow is one of the strongest predictors of long-term success we’ve found. In essence, the experiment tests the ability of the participant to delay gratification – the idea that if I endure temporary discomfort or inconvenience, I will be even more rewarded in the long run.
I’ve found that this principle has generally made sense to me throughout my life. I went to graduate school because I believed the experience would be valuable in the long run. I watched my peers who went directly into their careers out-earn me by a factor of four. After graduate school I found my way into the startup world. Again, an area where one must believe that long-term bets will pay off more than the immediate returns of working at BIGCO.
Now, the marshmallow experiment has found its way into my diet. In my mid-twenties I found myself becoming more and more interested in cooking, cuisine, and food in general. Where it comes from, how to prepare it, and what makes it delicious. I came to a few obvious conclusions: duck fat is delicious, eating healthy means eating fresh, and umami is the greatest thing ever; but also some less obvious conclusions.
I became acutely aware of how the circumstances around the food you’re eating can be just as significant a factor of enjoyment as the food itself. Eating a food truck burrito after a long run can enhance the perceived enjoyment just as much as the finely crafted plating and decor found in a fine dining restaurant. Similarly, I’ve found that eating a meal after intermittent fasting is especially gratifying.
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I started intermittent fasting, eating one meal a day on weekdays, because I read about the health benefits and wanted to try it for myself. What I found was fascinating. A simple bowl of spaghetti and meatballs is transformed when you haven’t had anything to eat for the previous 18 hours. In comparison, giving up the cafeteria-style workday lunch didn’t seem like a huge loss.
I wouldn’t say that I eat less than I did before I started intermittent fasting, but I would say that I eat differently. It’s much more deliberate, thoughtful, and enjoyable. And my experience with intermittent fasting aligns with science. I give my body time to digest and process my meal of the day and can feel that I am truly ready for my next meal when the hunger pangs begin in the early afternoon. The marshmallow experiment is right, instant gratification is overrated.