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If Self-Discipline Feels Difficult, Then You’re Doing It Wrong

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If Self-Discipline Feels Difficult, Then You’re Doing It Wrong

When I was in college, there were some people on the internet who claimed that you could train yourself to sleep as little as two hours per day. Keep in mind, this was back in the early 2000s when we all still believed random shit we read on the internet.

Here’s how the story went: There was a hyper-productive sleep schedule that had been discovered by military scientists. They were testing the limits of sleep deprivation on soldiers and made this startling discovery. Supposedly, great historical figures like Napoleon and Da Vinci and Tesla followed the same sleep schedule and it’s why they were so productive and influential in history. Supposedly, anybody (i.e., you and me) could achieve this state of daily hyper-productivity. Supposedly, all we needed was enough willpower to barrel through days of sleep deprivation and “acclimate” to this new superhuman schedule. Supposedly, this was all true and verified and somehow made sense.

Supposedly.

The scheme was called “The Uberman Sleep Schedule,” and here’s how you did it:

  • Sleep follows the 80/20 Rule—that is, 80% of your recovery comes from 20% of the time you’re unconscious. Conversely, 80% of the time you’re asleep, you’re a lazy piece of shit.
  • This uber-efficient portion of sleep is called REM sleep and only lasts approximately 15-20 minutes at a time. That means for every two hours that your body is asleep, really only the last 20 minutes or so is “useful” sleep. Thus, when you sleep eight hours during the night, only 80-100 of those minutes are actually causing you to feel rested and restored.1 People on the internet decided this was inefficient and needed to be fixed.
  • What the military scientists (supposedly) discovered is that if you’re severely sleep deprived, your body will immediately fall into REM sleep the second you pass out. It does this in order to compensate for its lack of rest. People on the internet decided this was incredibly efficient.
  • The idea of the Uberman Sleep Schedule was that if you took 20-minute naps, every four hours, around the clock, for days and weeks on end, you would “train” your brain to fall into REM sleep instantly the moment you laid down. Then, once your REM sleep was over, you would feel rested and restored for the next 3-4 hours.
  • As long as you continued to take 20-minute naps every four hours, you could effectively stay awake forever. Congratulations, you were now an Uberman. Here, have a gold star.
  • But there was a catch: supposedly it took 1-2 weeks of intense sleep deprivation to properly “adjust” to the Uberman Sleep Schedule. You had to stay up all night, every night, forcing yourself to only sleep for 20 minutes at a time, six different times per day. And if at any point you screwed up and overslept your nap, all would be undone and you would have to start over.
  • PS: Caffeine is not allowed. And alcohol might as well be suicide.
  • Therefore, the Uberman Sleep Schedule became this kind of decathlon of willpower among internet self-help people—an ultimate test of one’s self-discipline with the ultimate pay-off: an extra 20-30% of productive waking hours per day, every day for the rest for your life. That’s like having an extra two days each week, or an extra three-and-a-half months per year. That’s insane! Over the course of one’s life, that’s over a decade of extra waking hours. Imagine everything you could accomplish with an extra decade of life, all while everyone else is asleep.

Like an idiot, I tried to do this. Multiple times. For years, I obsessed with achieving the Uberman Sleep Schedule. And for years, I continually failed at it.

You have probably pulled an all-nighter before. Not sleeping for one night is not that difficult. Especially if there are deadlines and/or drugs involved.

What’s difficult are the second and third and fourth nights. Extreme sleep deprivation is a crash course on how fragile our mind actually is. By day three, you will start falling asleep standing up. You will doze while walking down the street in broad daylight. You forget basic facts like your mother’s name or whether you had eaten that day, or—fuck, what day is it?

By day four you become delirious, imagining that people are speaking to you when they’re not, believing that you’re writing an email when you’re not, and then discovering that you don’t even remember who you were supposed to be emailing. I used to walk in circles around my living room for an hour, just to keep myself awake. When nap time came, I would crash, falling unconscious instantaneously, and proceed to have intense, fucked up dreams that seemed like they lasted for five hours. Then, 20 minutes later, my alarm would wake me up, where I would spend the next three hours and change desperately lying to myself, trying to convince myself that I felt rested and couldn’t wait to get back to—wait, what was I supposed to be doing again?

In the end, I could never make it through the fourth day. Each time I failed, I felt intense disappointment at my own lack of willpower. I believed this was something I should be able to do. It pissed me off that some random people on the internet could supposedly do this thing that I couldn’t. I felt like it meant there was something wrong with me. That if I didn’t have the self-discipline to sleep deprive myself for weeks on end, then what the fuck, Mark? Get your shit together!

So I tortured myself. And the more I tortured myself, the more unrealistic my expectations for myself became.

***

Chances are, at some point in your life, you’ve tried to change your behavior through sheer willpower. And chances are, you also failed miserably. Don’t feel bad! This is what happens most of the time.

Most people think of self-discipline in terms of willpower. If we see someone who wakes up at 5 AM every day, eats an avocado-chia-fennel-apricot-papaya smoothie each meal, snorts brussel sprout flakes, and works out for three hours before even wiping their ass in the morning, we assume they’re achieving this through straight-up self-abuse—that there is some insatiable inner demon driving them like a slave to do everything right, no matter what.

But this isn’t true. Because, if you actually know anybody like this, you’ll notice something really frightening about them: they actually enjoy it.2

Seeing self-discipline in terms of pure willpower fails because beating ourselves up for not trying hard enough doesn’t work. In fact, it backfires. And, as anyone who has ever tried to go on a diet will tell you, it usually only makes it worse.

The problem is that willpower works like a muscle, if you work it too hard, it becomes fatigued and gives out. The first week committing to a new diet, or a new workout regimen, or a new morning routine, things go great. But by the second or third week, you’re back to your old late-night, cheeto-loving ways.

The same way you can’t just walk into a gym for the first time and lift 500 pounds, you can’t just start waking up at 4 AM on a dime, much less do something ridiculous like an Uberman sleep schedule. To have a chance of success, your willpower must be trained steadily over a long period of time.

But this leaves us in a conundrum: if we view self-discipline in terms of willpower, it creates a chicken-or-the-egg situation: To build willpower, we need self-discipline over a long period of time; but to have self-discipline, we need massive amounts of willpower.

So, which came first? What should we do? How do we start? Or, more importantly, where the fuck is the Ben and Jerry’s?

Viewing self-discipline in terms of willpower creates a paradox for the simple reason that it’s not true. As we’ll see, building self-discipline in your own life is a completely different exercise.

Why Pure Willpower is Bad

Our behaviors are not based on logic or ideas. Logic and ideas can influence our decisions, but ultimately, our feelings determine what we do.

We do what feels good and avoid what feels bad. And the only way we can ever NOT do what feels good, and do what feels bad instead, is through a temporary boost of willpower—to deny ourselves our desires and feelings and instead do what was “right.”

Throughout history, virtue was seen in terms of this sort of self-denial and self-negation. To be a good person, you had to not only deny yourself any pleasure, but you also had to show your willingness to hurt yourself. You had monks hitting themselves and locking themselves in rooms for days and not eating or even speaking for years on end. You had armies of men throwing themselves into battle for little or no reason. You had people abstaining from sex until marriage, or even for life. Shit was not fun.

This classical approach is where our assumption that “willpower = self-discipline” originally comes from. It operates on the belief that self-discipline is achieved through denying or rejecting one’s emotions. You want that taco? BAD MARK! YOU DON’T WANT SHIT! YOU ARE SHIT! YOU DESERVE TO STARVE YOU INGRATE!

Self-discipline tacos
The root of all evil.

The classical approach fused the concept of willpower—i.e., the ability to deny or reject one’s desires and emotions—with morality. Someone who can say no to the taco is a good person. The person who can’t is a failure of a human being.

THE CLASSICAL APPROACH TO SELF-DISCIPLINE

Self-Discipline = Willpower = Self-Denial = Good Person

This fusion of willpower and morality had good intentions. It recognized (correctly) that, when left to our own instinctive desires, we all become narcissistic assholes. If we could get away with it, we would eat, fuck, or kill pretty much anything or anyone within a ten-meter vicinity. So the great religious leaders and philosophers and kings throughout history preached a concept of virtue that involved suppressing our feelings in favor of rationality and denying our impulses in favor of developing willpower.

And the classic approach works! …kind of. Well, okay, while it makes a more stable society, it also totally fucks us up individually.

The classic approach has the paradoxical effect of training us to feel bad about all the things that make us feel good. It basically seeks to teach us self-discipline through shaming us—by making us hate ourselves for simply being who we are. And the idea is that once we are saddled with a sufficient amount of shame about all the things that give us pleasure, we’ll be so self-loathing and terrified of our own desires that we’ll just fall in line and do what we’re told.

In Case You Didn’t Know: Shame Fucks You Up

Disciplining people through shame works for a while, but in the long-run, it backfires. As an example, let’s use perhaps the most common source of shame on the planet: sex.

The brain likes sex. That’s because a) sex feels awesome, and b) we’re biologically evolved to crave it. Pretty self-explanatory.

Now, if you grew up like most people—and especially if you’re a woman—there’s a good chance that you were taught that sex was this evil, lecherous thing that corrupted you and makes you a horrible, icky person. You were punished for wanting it, and therefore, have a lot of conflicted feelings around sex: it sounds amazing but is also scary; it feels right but also somehow so, so wrong. As a result, you still want sex, but you also drag around a lot of guilt and anxiety and doubt about yourself.

This mixture of feelings generates an unpleasant tension within a person. And as time goes on, that tension grows. Because the desire for sex never goes away. And as the desire continues, the shame grows.

Eventually, this tension becomes unbearable and must resolve itself in one of two ways.

The first option is to overindulge. The tension has become so great that we feel the only way to resolve it is by going all out in a spectacular way. Hooker orgies. Compulsive masturbation for days on end. Rampant infidelity. And, sadly, often sexual violence.

But indulgence doesn’t really resolve the tension. It just kicks the can down the road. Because after you put the cock rings away and the hookers have gone home, the shame and guilt come back. And they come back with a vengeance.

So, if indulgence doesn’t work, what about the other option?

Well, the only other option to escape that internal tension is to numb it. To distract oneself from the tension by finding some larger, more palatable tension. Alcohol is a common one. Partying and drugs, of course. Watching 14 hours of television each day can be another option. Or just eating yourself half to death.

Sometimes, people do find productive ways to distract themselves from their shame. They run ultra-marathons or work 100-hour work weeks for years on end. These are, ironically, many of the people we come to admire for having inhuman willpower. But self-denial comes easy when, deep down, you fucking hate yourself.

Because shame can’t be numbed away. It just changes form. The person who exercises religiously to escape their self-loathing will eventually find ways to loathe themselves for their exercise habits. And soon, what started out as a remarkable work ethic in the gym morphs into some form of body dysmorphia, like those guys who inject synthol into their arms to make themselves look like Popeye.

self-discipline-Valdir-flexed-his-huge-biceps
Image: Barcroft

Similarly, the businessman who transmutes his shame into stellar work at the office eventually develops shame about his productivity to the point where he literally can’t go home. He’s terrified to do it. Any non-productive minute feels like an untenable failure. And while the rest of his life falls apart around him, he’s only worrying about spreadsheets and quarterly numbers.

This is why the most hardcore, uncompromising people are usually the ones who are most compromised. It’s why the most fundamentalist religious leaders who rail against the immorality of the world are always the same leaders who are ordering fuckboys off Craigslist.3 It’s why the most “spiritually enlightened” gurus are also the ones blackmailing and extorting their followers. It’s why the politicians most vocal about party loyalty and patriotism are always the ones shooting up meth in the airport bathroom. They are running away from their demons. And one way to do that is to create shinier, more socially acceptable demons.

Self-discipline based on self-denial cannot be sustained in the long-run. It only breeds greater dysfunction, and ultimately results in self-destruction.

THE TRUTH ABOUT THE CLASSICAL APPROACH

Self-Denial = Emotional Dysfunction = Self-Destruction = -(Self-Discipline)

Here’s the problem with all this—and it’s so obvious once you hear it, I can’t believe we have to say it. You can will yourself to go to the gym if you don’t feel like it for a few days. But unless the gym ends up feeling good in some way, you will eventually lose motivation, run out of willpower and stop going. You can will yourself to stop drinking for a day or a week, but unless you feel the reward of not drinking, then you will eventually go back to it.

This is why my polyphasic sleeping nightmare consistently ended in disaster. Staying up all night and sleep-depriving myself produced no tangible benefits. It produced no good feelings. It produced nothing but misery and delirium. It was an exercise in self-abuse. Therefore, my willpower eventually ran out and my emotions took over, driving me to pass out for about sixteen hours straight.

Any emotionally healthy approach to self-discipline must work with your emotions, rather than against them.

Ultimately, self-discipline is not based on willpower or self-denial, but it’s actually based on the opposite: self-acceptance.

Self-Discipline Through Self-Acceptance

Let’s say you’re trying to lose weight and your big hang up is that you run through about three liters of ice cream each week. You’re an ice cream fiend. You’ve tried stopping through willpower. You’ve tried diets with your friends. You’ve told your partner to never ever buy ice cream again in a desperate attempt to blame them for your own shortcomings.

But nothing’s worked. Not a day goes by that you don’t down about a thousand calories of creamy goodness.

And you hate yourself for it.

And that’s your first problem. Step one to self-discipline is to de-link your personal failings from moral failings. You have to accept that you cave to indulgence and that this doesn’t necessarily make you a horrible person. We all cave to indulgence in some shape or form. We all harbor shame. We all fail to reign in our impulses. And we all like a good fucking bowl of ice cream from time to time.

This sort of acceptance is way more complicated than it sounds. We don’t even realize all of the ways that we judge ourselves for our perceived failings. Thoughts are constantly streaming through our heads and without even realizing it, we’re tacking on “because I’m a horrible person” to the end of a lot of them.

  • “I fucked up that project at work, because I’m a horrible person…
  • “The whole kitchen is a mess and my parents will be here in 20 minutes, because I’m a horrible person…
  • “Other people are good at this, but I’m not, because I’m a horrible person…
  • “Everyone probably thinks I’m an idiot, because I’m a horrible person…

Hell, you might even be tacking on these self-judgments right now while reading this! Man, I judge myself like this all the time… because I’m a horrible person.

Self-discipline - Batman slapping Robin Meme

Here’s the thing: there’s a sick sort of comfort that comes from these self-judgments. That’s because they relieve us of the responsibility for our own actions. If I decide that I can’t give up ice cream because I’m a horrible person—that “horrible person-ness” precludes my ability to change or improve in the future—therefore, it’s technically out of my hands, isn’t it? It implies that there’s nothing I can do about my cravings or compulsions, so fuck it, why try?

There’s a kind of fear and anxiety that comes when we relinquish our belief in our own horribleness. We actually resist accepting ourselves because the responsibility is scary. Because it suggests that not only are we capable of change in the future (and change is always scary) but that we have perhaps wasted much of our past. And that never feels good either. In fact, another little trap is when people accept that they’re not a horrible person—but then decide that they are a horrible person for not realizing that years ago!

But, once we’ve de-coupled our emotions from our moral judgments—once we’ve decided that just because something makes us feel bad doesn’t mean we are bad—this opens us up to some new perspectives.

For one, it suggests that emotions are merely internal behavioral mechanisms that can be manipulated like anything else. Just like putting your floss next to your toothbrush reminds you to floss every morning, once the moral judgments are removed, feeling bad because you relapsed on the cookies and cream can simply be a reminder or motivator to address the underlying issue.

We must address the emotional problem the compulsion is trying to numb or cover up. You compulsively eat tubs of ice cream each week. Why? Well, eating—especially sugary, unhealthy food—is a form of numbing. It brings the body comfort. It’s sometimes known as “emotional eating” and the same way an alcoholic drinks to escape her demons, the overeater eats to escape his.

So, what are those demons? What is that shame?

Find it. Address it. And most importantly: accept it. Find that deep, dark ugly part of yourself. Confront it, head on, allowing yourself to feel all the awful, icky emotions that come with it. Then accept that this is a part of you and it’s never going away. And that’s fine. You can work with this, rather than against it.

And here’s where the magic happens. When you stop feeling awful about yourself, two things happen:

  1. There’s nothing to numb anymore. Therefore, suddenly those tubs of ice cream seem pointless.
  2. You see no reason to punish yourself. On the contrary, you like yourself, so you want to take care of yourself. More importantly, it feels good to take care of yourself.

And, incredibly, that tub of ice cream no longer feels good. It’s no longer scratching some internal itch. Instead, it makes you feel sick and bloated and gross.

Similarly, exercising no longer feels like this impossible task that you’ll never be up for. On the contrary, it replenishes and enhances you. And those good feelings start showing up that make it feel effortless.

***

But you don’t necessarily have to do this deep therapeutic work to gain self-discipline. Simply understanding and accepting your emotions for what they are can allow you to work with them rather than against them.

Here’s one way to do this: call up your best friend and tell them to come over. Take out your checkbook. Write a check for $2,000 to them, sign it, and give it to them. Then tell them that if you ever eat ice cream again, they can cash it.

Done.

Eating ice cream will now cause a much greater emotional problem than the one it solves. And, as if by magic, refraining from eating ice cream will begin to feel really fucking good.

Social accountability works in the same way. It’s much easier to meditate for a long time when you’re in a room full of people than it is to do it by yourself. Why? Because when you’re in a room full of people, you don’t want to be the lone asshole who gets up and walks out after three minutes, like you do at home! The social pressure makes it so that not meditating causes a bigger emotional problem than meditating for the full amount of time.

You can also do this through positive reinforcement: find ways to reward yourself for doing the correct behavior. Research shows that this is actually how new habits are formed: you do the desired behavior and then reward yourself for it.

Result: Self-Discipline Without Willpower

Once you resolve much of your shame, and once you’ve created situations to provide greater emotional benefits from doing the desired behavior than not doing it, what you end up with is the appearance of airtight self-discipline, without actually putting forth any effort. You end up with discipline without willpower.

You wake up early because it feels good to wake up early.

You eat kale instead of smoking crack because it feels good to eat the kale and feels bad to smoke crack.

You stop lying because it feels worse to lie than to say an important truth.

You exercise because it feels better to exercise than it does to sit around, covering yourself in a thin layer of Cheeto dust.

It’s not that the pain goes away. No, the pain is still there. It’s just that the pain now has meaning. It has purpose. And that makes all the difference. You work with the pain rather than against it. You pursue it rather than run from it. And with every pursuit, you get stronger and healthier and happier.

And eventually, from the outside, it will look as though you’re putting forth monumental effort, that you have this endless reservoir of willpower. Yet, to you, it will feel like nothing at all.

Footnotes

  1. Turns out this is bullshit. Who would have thought?
  2. See: Tom Brady.
  3. This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with finding fuckboys on Craigslist. It’s the hypocrisy that is the problem. I actually respect Craigslist fuckboys way more than any fundamentalist religious leaders.
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