Blog psychology Self-discipline

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

Once I was in school, there have been some individuals on the web who claimed that you may practice yourself to sleep as little as two hours per day. Be mindful, this was again in the early 2000s once we all still believed random shit we learn on the internet.

Here’s how the story went: There was a hyper-productive sleep schedule that had been discovered by army scientists. They have been testing the bounds of sleep deprivation on soldiers and made this startling discovery. Supposedly, nice historic figures like Napoleon and Da Vinci and Tesla followed the same sleep schedule and it’s why they have been so productive and influential in history. Supposedly, anybody (i.e., you and me) might achieve this state of every day hyper-productivity. Supposedly, all we would have liked was sufficient willpower to barrel by way of days of sleep deprivation and “acclimate” to this new superhuman schedule. Supposedly, this was all true and verified and by some means made sense.


The scheme was referred to as “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 known as REM sleep and only lasts approximately 15-20 minutes at a time. Meaning for every two hours that your body is asleep, really solely the last 20 minutes or so is “useful” sleep. Thus, once you sleep eight hours in the course of the night time, only 80-100 of these minutes are literally inflicting you to feel rested and restored.1 Individuals on the internet decided this was inefficient and needed to be fastened.
  • What the army scientists (supposedly) discovered is that should you’re severely sleep deprived, your physique will immediately fall into REM sleep the second you move out. It does this with a purpose to compensate for its lack of relaxation. Individuals on the internet decided this was extremely efficient.
  • The thought of the Uberman Sleep Schedule was that in case you took 20-minute naps, each four hours, across the clock, for days and weeks on finish, you’d “train” your mind to fall into REM sleep immediately the second you laid down. Then, as soon as your REM sleep was over, you’d really feel rested and restored for the subsequent Three-4 hours.
  • So long as you continued to take 20-minute naps each 4 hours, you possibly can effectively keep awake perpetually. Congratulations, you have been now an Uberman. Right here, have a gold star.
  • However there was a catch: supposedly it took 1-2 weeks of intense sleep deprivation to correctly “adjust” to the Uberman Sleep Schedule. You had to keep up all night time, every night time, forcing yourself to solely sleep for 20 minutes at a time, six totally different occasions per day. And if at any level you screwed up and overslept your nap, all can be undone and you would need to begin over.
  • PS: Caffeine isn’t allowed. And alcohol may as nicely be suicide.
  • Subsequently, the Uberman Sleep Schedule turned this type of decathlon of willpower amongst web self-help individuals—an final check of one’s self-discipline with the last word pay-off: an additional 20-30% of productive waking hours per day, each day for the remaining in your life. That’s like having an additional two days every week, or an additional three-and-a-half months per yr. That’s insane! Over the course of one’s life, that’s over a decade of extra waking hours. Imagine all the things you may accomplish with an additional decade of life, all whereas everyone else is asleep.

Like an fool, I tried to do that. Multiple occasions. For years, I obsessed with attaining the Uberman Sleep Schedule. And for years, I regularly failed at it.

You might have in all probability pulled an all-nighter earlier than. Not sleeping for one night time just isn’t that troublesome. Particularly if there are deadlines and/or medicine concerned.

What’s troublesome are the second and third and fourth nights. Extreme sleep deprivation is a crash course on how fragile our mind truly is. By day three, you will begin falling asleep standing up. You’ll doze whereas strolling down the road in broad daylight. You overlook primary details like your mother’s identify or whether you had eaten that day, or—fuck, what day is it?

By day 4 you develop into delirious, imagining that individuals are chatting with you once they’re not, believing that you simply’re writing an e mail if you’re not, and then discovering that you simply don’t even keep in mind who you have been alleged to be emailing. I used to walk in circles around my front room for an hour, just to keep myself awake. When nap time came, I might crash, falling unconscious instantaneously, and proceed to have intense, fucked up goals that seemed like they lasted for 5 hours. Then, 20 minutes later, my alarm would wake me up, where I might spend the subsequent three hours and change desperately lying to myself, making an attempt to persuade myself that I felt rested and couldn’t wait to get again to—wait, what was I purported to be doing once more?

In the long run, I might by no means make it by way of the fourth day. Every time I failed, I felt intense disappointment at my very own lack of willpower. I believed this was something I ought to have the ability to do. It pissed me off that some random individuals on the internet might supposedly do that thing that I couldn’t. I felt prefer it meant there was something incorrect with me. That if I didn’t have the self-discipline to sleep deprive myself for weeks on finish, then what the fuck, Mark? Get your shit collectively!

So I tortured myself. And the extra I tortured myself, the extra unrealistic my expectations for myself turned.


Likelihood is, sooner or later in your life, you’ve tried to vary your conduct by way of sheer willpower. And likelihood is, you also failed miserably. Don’t feel dangerous! This is what happens most of the time.

Most people consider self-discipline when it comes to willpower. If we see someone who wakes up at 5 AM daily, eats an avocado-chia-fennel-apricot-papaya smoothie every meal, snorts brussel sprout flakes, and works out for three hours before even wiping their ass in the morning, we assume they’re attaining this by means of straight-up self-abuse—that there’s some insatiable internal demon driving them like a slave to do the whole lot proper, it doesn’t matter what.

However this isn’t true. As a result of, should you truly know anyone like this, you’ll notice one thing actually scary about them: they actually take pleasure in it.2

Seeing self-discipline when it comes to pure willpower fails as a result of beating ourselves up for not making an attempt exhausting enough doesn’t work. In truth, it backfires. And, as anybody who has ever tried to go on a food regimen will inform you, it often solely makes it worse.

The problem is that willpower works like a muscle, in case you work it too exhausting, it turns into fatigued and provides out. The first week committing to a new weight-reduction plan, or a brand new workout regimen, or a brand new morning routine, things go great. But by the second or third week, you’re again to your previous late-night, cheeto-loving methods.

The same approach you’ll be able to’t just stroll right into a fitness center for the primary time and carry 500 kilos, you possibly can’t simply start waking up at Four AM on a dime, much much less do one thing ridiculous like an Uberman sleep schedule. To have a chance of success, your willpower have to be educated steadily over an extended time period.

But this leaves us in a conundrum: if we view self-discipline when it comes to willpower, it creates a chicken-or-the-egg state of affairs: To construct willpower, we’d like self-discipline over an extended time period; but to have self-discipline, we’d like large amounts of willpower.

So, which got here first? What ought to we do? How can we start? Or, more importantly, where the fuck is the Ben and Jerry’s?

Viewing self-discipline when it comes to willpower creates a paradox for the straightforward cause that it’s not true. As we’ll see, constructing self-discipline in your personal life is a totally totally different exercise.

Why Pure Willpower is Dangerous

Our behaviors will not be based mostly on logic or concepts. Logic and concepts can affect our selections, however finally, our feelings determine what we do.

We do what feels good and keep away from what feels dangerous. And the one approach we will ever NOT do what feels good, and do what feels dangerous as an alternative, is through a short lived increase of willpower—to disclaim ourselves our wishes and emotions and as an alternative do what was “right.”

Throughout history, virtue was seen when it comes to this kind of self-denial and self-negation. To be a very good individual, you needed to not solely deny yourself any pleasure, however you also needed to present your willingness to harm yourself. You had monks hitting themselves and locking themselves in rooms for days and not eating and even talking for years on finish. You had armies of men throwing themselves into battle for little or no purpose. You had individuals abstaining from sex till marriage, and even for all times. Shit was not fun.

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

The basis of all evil.

The classical strategy fused the concept of willpower—i.e., the power to deny or reject one’s wishes and feelings—with morality. Somebody who can say no to the taco is an effective individual. The one that can’t is a failure of a human being.


Self-Discipline = Willpower = Self-Denial = Good Individual

This fusion of willpower and morality had good intentions. It recognized (appropriately) that, when left to our personal instinctive wishes, all of us grow to be narcissistic assholes. If we might get away with it, we might eat, fuck, or kill just about anything or anyone within a ten-meter neighborhood. So the good spiritual leaders and philosophers and kings all through historical past preached a concept of virtue that involved suppressing our emotions in favor of rationality and denying our impulses in favor of creating willpower.

And the basic strategy works! …type of. Properly, okay, while it makes a more secure society, it additionally totally fucks us up individually.

The basic strategy has the paradoxical effect of coaching us to really feel dangerous about all the things that make us feel good. It principally seeks to teach us self-discipline by way of shaming us—by making us hate ourselves for simply being who we are. And the thought is that when we are saddled with a adequate amount of shame about all of the things that give us pleasure, we’ll be so self-loathing and scared of our own wishes that we’ll simply fall in line and do what we’re informed.

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

Disciplining individuals via shame works for a while, but in the long-run, it backfires. For instance, let’s use perhaps the most typical supply of disgrace on the planet: sex.

The mind likes sex. That’s because a) sex feels superior, and b) we’re biologically advanced to crave it. Fairly self-explanatory.

Now, should you grew up like most people—and particularly in case you’re a lady—there’s a superb probability that you simply have been taught that intercourse was this evil, lecherous thing that corrupted you and makes you a horrible, icky individual. You have been punished for wanting it, and subsequently, have numerous conflicted feelings around sex: it sounds superb but can also be scary; it feels proper but in addition by some means so, so incorrect. Consequently, you still need intercourse, but you additionally drag round a variety of guilt and nervousness and doubt about your self.

This combination of feelings generates an disagreeable pressure inside an individual. And as time goes on, that pressure grows. Because the will for intercourse never goes away. And as the want continues, the shame grows.

Ultimately, this pressure turns into insufferable and must resolve itself in one among two ways.

The primary choice is to overindulge. The strain has turn into so nice that we really feel the one method to resolve it’s by going all out in a spectacular approach. Hooker orgies. Compulsive masturbation for days on finish. Rampant infidelity. And, sadly, typically sexual violence.

But indulgence doesn’t really resolve the strain. It just kicks the can down the street. Because after you set the cock rings away and the hookers have gone residence, the disgrace and guilt come again. They usually come back with a vengeance.

So, if indulgence doesn’t work, what concerning the other choice?

Properly, the only different choice to escape that inner rigidity is to numb it. To distract oneself from the strain by discovering some bigger, more palatable pressure. Alcohol is a standard one. Partying and drugs, in fact. Watching 14 hours of television every day could be an alternative choice. Or just consuming your self half to dying.

Typically, individuals 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, sarcastically, most of the individuals we come to admire for having inhuman willpower. But self-denial comes straightforward when, deep down, you fucking hate your self.

As a result of disgrace can’t be numbed away. It just modifications type. The one that workouts religiously to flee their self-loathing will ultimately discover ways to loathe themselves for his or her train habits. And soon, what began out as a exceptional work ethic within the health club morphs into some type of body dysmorphia, like those guys who inject synthol into their arms to make themselves seem like Popeye.

self-discipline-Valdir-flexed-his-huge-bicepsImage: Barcroft

Similarly, the businessman who transmutes his disgrace into stellar work at the office ultimately develops shame about his productivity to the purpose where he literally can’t go house. He’s terrified to do it. Any non-productive minute seems like an untenable failure. And while the remainder of his life falls aside round him, he’s only worrying about spreadsheets and quarterly numbers.

That is why probably the most hardcore, uncompromising individuals are often those who’re most compromised. It’s why probably the most fundamentalist spiritual leaders who rail towards the immorality of the world are all the time the same leaders who’re ordering fuckboys off Craigslist.3 It’s why probably the most “spiritually enlightened” gurus are additionally the ones blackmailing and extorting their followers. It’s why the politicians most vocal about celebration loyalty and patriotism are all the time those capturing up meth within the airport toilet. They’re operating away from their demons. And a method to try this is to create shinier, extra socially acceptable demons.

Self-discipline based mostly on self-denial cannot be sustained in the long-run. It only breeds larger dysfunction, and finally leads to self-destruction.


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

Right here’s the problem with all this—and it’s so obvious once you hear it, I can’t consider we have now to say it. You’ll be able to will yourself to go to the fitness center for those who don’t feel prefer it for a couple of days. However until the fitness center ends up feeling good indirectly, you’ll ultimately lose motivation, run out of willpower and stop going. You’ll be able to will your self to stop consuming for a day or every week, however until you are feeling the reward of not consuming, then you will ultimately go back to it.

This is the reason my polyphasic sleeping nightmare persistently led to disaster. Staying up all night time and sleep-depriving myself produced no tangible benefits. It produced no good feelings. It produced nothing but distress and delirium. It was an exercise in self-abuse. Subsequently, my willpower ultimately ran out and my feelings took over, driving me to cross out for about sixteen hours straight.

Any emotionally healthy strategy to self-discipline should work together with your emotions, relatively than towards them.

Finally, self-discipline isn’t based mostly on willpower or self-denial, however it’s truly based mostly on the other: self-acceptance.

Self-Discipline By way of Self-Acceptance

Let’s say you’re making an attempt to shed extra pounds and your massive grasp up is that you simply run via about three liters of ice cream every week. You’re an ice cream fiend. You’ve tried stopping via willpower. You’ve tried diets with your folks. You’ve advised your companion to by no means ever purchase ice cream once more in a determined try and blame them in your personal shortcomings.

However nothing’s labored. Not a day goes by that you simply don’t down a few thousand energy of creamy goodness.

And you hate yourself for it.

And that’s your first drawback. The first step to self-discipline is to de-link your personal failings from moral failings. You need to accept that you simply cave to indulgence and that this doesn’t essentially make you a horrible individual. We all cave to indulgence in some shape or type. We all harbor disgrace. All of us fail to reign in our impulses. And we all like a great fucking bowl of ice cream sometimes.

This kind of acceptance is way more difficult than it sounds. We don’t even understand all the ways in which we decide ourselves for our perceived failings. Thoughts are continually streaming by means of our heads and without even realizing it, we’re tacking on “because I’m a horrible person” to the top of lots 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 may even be tacking on these self-judgments proper now whereas studying this! Man, I decide myself like this on a regular basis… as a result of I’m a horrible individual.

Self-discipline - Batman slapping Robin Meme

Right here’s the thing: there’s a sick type of consolation that comes from these self-judgments. That’s because they relieve us of the duty for our own actions. If I determine that I can’t hand over ice cream as a result of I’m a horrible individual—that “horrible person-ness” precludes my capacity to vary or enhance sooner or later—subsequently, it’s technically out of my palms, isn’t it? It implies that there’s nothing I can do about my cravings or compulsions, so fuck it, why attempt?

There’s a type of worry and nervousness that comes once we relinquish our belief in our personal horribleness. We truly resist accepting ourselves because the duty is horrifying. As a result of it suggests that not solely are we able to change in the future (and alter is all the time scary) but that we now have maybe wasted much of our previous. And that never feels good either. In reality, one other little lure is when individuals settle for that they’re not a horrible individual—however then determine that they are a horrible individual for not realizing that years ago!

But, as soon as we’ve de-coupled our emotions from our ethical judgments—once we’ve determined that just because one thing makes us feel dangerous doesn’t mean we’re dangerous—this opens us as much as some new views.

For one, it means that feelings are merely inner behavioral mechanisms that may be manipulated like anything. Identical to placing your floss subsequent to your toothbrush reminds you to floss each morning, once the ethical judgments are removed, feeling dangerous because you relapsed on the cookies and cream can simply be a reminder or motivator to deal with the underlying problem.

We must handle the emotional drawback the compulsion is making an attempt to numb or cover up. You compulsively eat tubs of ice cream each week. Why? Properly, consuming—especially sugary, unhealthy meals—is a form of numbing. It brings the physique comfort. It’s typically generally known as “emotional eating” and the same method an alcoholic drinks to escape her demons, the overeater eats to flee his.

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

Discover it. Tackle it. And most importantly: settle for it. Find that deep, darkish ugly a part of your self. Confront it, head on, permitting your self to feel all the awful, icky emotions that include it. Then settle for that this is a part of you and it’s by no means going away. And that’s superb. You possibly can work with this, moderately than towards it.

And right here’s where the magic occurs. Whenever you stop feeling terrible about your self, two things occur:

  1. There’s nothing to numb anymore. Subsequently, all of a sudden these tubs of ice cream appear pointless.
  2. You see no purpose to punish your self. On the contrary, you like yourself, so that you need to care for yourself. Extra importantly, it feels good to maintain yourself.

And, incredibly, that bath of ice cream not feels good. It’s not scratching some inner itch. As an alternative, it makes you are feeling sick and bloated and gross.

Equally, exercising not looks like this unimaginable activity that you simply’ll by no means be up for. Quite the opposite, it replenishes and enhances you. And people good emotions begin displaying up that make it feel effortless.


But you don’t necessarily have to do this deep therapeutic work to realize self-discipline. Simply understanding and accepting your feelings for what they are can assist you to work with them fairly than towards them.

Here’s a method to do this: name up your greatest pal and inform them to return over. Take out your checkbook. Write a examine for $2,000 to them, sign it, and give it to them. Then inform them that when you ever eat ice cream once more, they will cash it.

Carried out.

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

Social accountability works in the identical approach. It’s a lot simpler to meditate for a long time once you’re in a room full of individuals than it is to do it by your self. Why? Because whenever you’re in a room full of individuals, you don’t need to be the lone asshole who gets up and walks out after three minutes, such as you do at house! The social strain makes it so that not meditating causes a much bigger emotional drawback than meditating for the complete period of time.

You can even do that by way of constructive reinforcement: find methods to reward yourself for doing the right conduct. Research exhibits that this is truly how new habits are shaped: you do the desired conduct and then reward your self for it.

Outcome: Self-Discipline Without Willpower

Once you resolve a lot of your shame, and once you’ve created situations to offer higher emotional benefits from doing the desired conduct than not doing it, what you end up with is the appearance of airtight self-discipline, with out truly placing forth any effort. You end up with self-discipline with out willpower.

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

You eat kale as an alternative of smoking crack because it feels good to eat the kale and feels dangerous to smoke crack.

You cease lying as a result of it feels worse to lie than to say an necessary fact.

You train because it feels higher to exercise than it does to take a seat around, masking yourself in a skinny layer of Cheeto dust.

It’s not that the pain goes away. No, the pain continues to be there. It’s just that the ache now has which means. It has objective. And that makes all of the difference. You’re employed with the ache fairly than towards it. You pursue it slightly than run from it. And with each pursuit, you get stronger and more healthy and happier.

And ultimately, from the surface, it’s going to look as though you’re putting forth monumental effort, that you’ve this infinite reservoir of willpower. But, to you, it is going to really feel like nothing at all.