In all this work, Mischel has consistently found that the crucial factor in delaying gratification is the ability to change your perception of the object or action you want to resist. Trying to avoid the tasty treat in front of your nose? Put a frame around it in your mind, as if it were a picture or photograph, to make the temptation less immediate.
The key, it turns out, is learning to mentally “cool” what Mischel calls the “hot” aspects of your environment: the things that pull you away from your goal. Cooling can be accomplished by putting the object at an imaginary distance (a photograph isn’t a treat), or by re-framing it (picturing marshmallows as clouds not candy). Focussing on a completely unrelated experience can also work, as can any technique that successfully switches your attention.
while some people are naturally better at cooling than others, both children and adults can learn mental distancing techniques to strengthen their self-control.
“If we have the skills to allow us to make discriminations about when we do or don’t do something, when we do or don’t drink something, and when we do and when we don’t wait for something, we are no longer victims of our desires.” As Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University who studies willpower, put it, self-control is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets. Avoiding something tempting once will help you develop the ability to resist other temptations in the future.