Count to 10 before burning down the office


  • Stick a little kid alone in a room with nothing but a marshmallow.
  • Tell the kid they can eat it now or, if they wait 15 minutes, they get 2.
  • Then you leave the kid alone.

This is one of the most famous psychology experiments from the 1970s: the so-called self-control Test, or Stanford marshmallow experiment by Walter Mischel. Some children ate the marshmallow immediately, others wait and earn two.

Even though it seems a meaningless test, in reality it’s a huge deal. To be precise, it has been found to be a predictor of adult financial success and health. And it’s all about willpower.

You will find out shortly why I am telling you about Mischel and his experiment in a blogpost on how to deal with anger and irritations at work.

The deepest, darkest workplace irritations

Sometimes we all dream about poisoning our boss, smashing the computer through the window or burning the office to the ground. Samsung Electronics held a poll of over 1.500 office workers in the UK to hear their deepest, darkest, dislikes in the office. It turns out that offices are hotbeds for high blood pressure, hidden hatred and hysteria. Here is the top ten:

  1. Slow IT systems (68%)
  2. Print delays caused by jams (42%)
  3. Unnecessary email traffic (39%)
  4. Colleagues talking too loudly on their phones (34%)
  5. Colleague leaving the printer tray empty (27%)
  6. Annoying mobile ring tones (23%)
  7. Being told to re-boot by IT support (20%)
  8. Eating smelly food in the office (19%)
  9. IT not working in meetings (19%)
  10. Colleagues that never offer to make tea/ coffee (12%)

It's clear IT and colleagues are the major causes of distress.

So before turning the workplace into a bloodbath, some science-backed Tips & Tricks on how to deal with anger and irritations effectively.

Don’t suppress your feelings

Even if you don’t show you’re angry, you’ll feel worse inside. It prevents the anger from getting out, but when you fight your feelings they only get stronger.

An experiment showed that when subjects are told of an unhappy event, but then instructed to try not to feel sad about it, they end up feeling worse than people who are informed of the event, but given no instructions about how to feel. In another study, when patients who were suffering from panic disorders listened to relaxation tapes, their hearts beat faster than patients who listened to audiobooks with no explicitly ‘relaxing’ content.

Don’t vent

Not suppressing you feelings is not a carte blanche to start ranting over your irritations to friends and colleagues. Communication and sharing you feelings in a constructive way is good, for sure; but venting your anger doesn’t reduce it. Venting intensifies emotions.

What to do instead: Reappraisal

Reappraisal is usually the best option. Think to yourself, “It’s not about me. They must be having a bad day.”

In order to have such a rational reaction, and put events into perspective, distraction is a powerful tool.

Distract yourself

Willpower is tied to attention. Focusing on something else increases self-control.

And here is where Mischel and the Marshmallow experiment come into the picture. After testing so many kids, Mischel learned a good deal about what does and what doesn’t improve willpower.

"How we focus holds the key to willpower," says Mischel. His hundreds of hours of observation of little kids fighting off temptation reveal “the strategic allocation of attention,” as he puts it, to be the crucial skill. The kids who waited out the full fifteen minutes did it by distracting themselves with tactics like pretend play, singing songs, or covering their eyes.

The well-know “count-to-ten” tactic is therefore a way delay the impulse and focus your attention. Instead of counting to ten, you can also:

  • whistle a song
  • tighten your muscles
  • sit up straight
  • cross your arms

Once you have refocused your attention, you will be able to put the situation into perspective and think to yourself, “It’s not about me. They must be having a bad day.”

Wish you a calm and gentle week