You are your own worst enemy. You want to achieve amazing things, go places, lose weight, study more, study less…but everything inside you seems to want the opposite of that. You tell yourself that, this time, it’ll work. It’ll just take a little bit more resolve and self-discipline, that you’ll just…become a better person.
But telling yourself to be more of an all-round useful person and hoping that you’ll listen just doesn’t quite work. Remember all those New Year’s resolutions you made? Wait, do you even remember them?
Self-discipline is commonly misunderstood as the need to control yourself via sheer willpower. That, however, is only going to work for the few people who have willpowers strong enough to resist a freshly baked cheesecake placed right in front of their mouths. To say no despite its fragrant aroma wafting carelessly into their nostrils and evoking images of cheddary bliss and calorific wonder.
Its called self-discipline for a reason. Just as how the discipline master enforces strict rules and punishments on students, disciplining yourself involves setting up rules, rewards and, yes, consequences for breaking the rules. In this series, we explore a few ways you can seek to attain personal mastery and control.
Method #1 – Relinquishing Control
Wouldn’t it be great if someone could just help you do everything you wanted to do? Technically, that would work, but the problem is there are just some things like studying, sleeping and working out that you really have to do yourself. And, worse, if you get someone else to do everything for you, he might end up getting all the credit!
But that doesn’t mean you can’t get help.
That’s because when I say help, it means you recruit another person or people to force you to do it. Because it’s way easier for someone else to make you do (or not do) something. Otherwise, we wouldn’t quite need policemen, fitness trainers and teachers.
Say, you really, really want to work out and lose weight. Now the traditional way to do it would be to set your mind on it, and then try your best to pull yourself out of the house and hit the gym whenever you’re free, right?
3 weeks later…you’re probably right where you started, surfing twitter on your couch and telling yourself that tomorrow will be the day you hit the gym. Yes, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.
What you need to do.
Once you’ve decided on a goal, you need to relinquish control of yourself to someone else. Now ignore how suggestive that might sound and focus on how it means that you basically need to put the powers of enforcement in the hands of someone else.
Wanna lose weight? Tell everyone about it. Declare proudly on facebook that you’ve decided to go on a diet and hit the gym every Wednesday. This imposes a consequence on yourself, because if you don’t, you’re gonna look like a big fat liar in front of everyone.
To make it work better, your goal needs to be measurable and achievable. Now I know you’ve probably sat through a boring workshop on goal setting which has already covered this, but I’m only saying this again because it’s important.
If you simply declare that you’re gonna “lose weight XD #swag”, then it wouldn’t quite work because no one will be able to fault you if you simply lose about 1 gram. What’s worse is that you’ll forever procrastinate because you didn’t set a time limit for yourself. There just isn’t an effective consequence, and instead you’d be making up excuses like “It was an impossible goal anyway”, or “I am working out, you know, remember that one time two weeks ago…”
Instead, try “Hi everyone I hereby declare that I will shed 5 kilos in 2 months or else I owe everyone a drink.” See how that will work? Because not only do you give people a way to measure whether you’ve succeeded, you’ve also given them an incentive to take it out on you if you don’t.
For those of you who are a bit more shy, you could simply tell a friend about it, and propose a consequence of failure. For example, you could tell him that you’ll pass the upcoming maths test, otherwise you’ll pay him $10. If you think that’s not enough, then promise $100…whatever you need to make sure you absolutely a hundred thousand percent pass that test.
Now the problem with this is that it can sometimes not be credible. If you made that bet with a really good friend, you know that he won’t be as cruel as to expect payment from you. Even if he does, you could just not pay him and he can’t force it upon you. So the trick here is to find someone who will definitely enforce it, someone with both the incentives and means to do so.
In the most extreme case, you could literally give something to another person – your LoL account password, your basketball gear, even your phone – for ‘safekeeping’ so that you won’t have any way to access it. That would surely work better than telling yourself ‘alright I’m gonna quit playing and study more…this time’.
How it works.
Warning: The next few paragraphs involve some amount of geekiness and higher order theoretical thinking skills which may not be for everyone. There aren’t even pictures in this section. If you’re not interested, skip this section because there will be cake at the end. No, really.
For those of you interested in the mechanics of how this all works (I shall assume you are because you’re reading this despite the cake at the end), then let me introduce you to game theory. Simply put, game theory is the study of how to make strategic decisions based not only on the possible outcomes of your choices, but how these outcomes will fare given how other people make their choices.
Before I confuse you further, let’s examine how this all applies to self-discipline. In game theory, self-discipline is commonly modeled as how you are playing a game with your future self. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call your future self Neo.
Now, Neo usually knows what’s best for you. He wants you to go work out, eat healthier, and study harder, so that he’ll be an all-round better person. But you don’t really want to go through all the work for him. What you really want to do is to enjoy the present and live while you’re young. #YOLO, whatever.
Knowing this, what you want to do is help Neo win the battle against your current self. You want to force yourself to remember that Neo is actually you, in about a month, year, or even decade, depending on the kind of choice you are facing.
By doing that little bit of ‘relinquishing of control’, you do two things which force you to get your act together. Firstly, you modify the game such that not working hard now imposes a consequence on yourself (being known as a liar, losing $100). Secondly, when you give things to other people to ‘safekeep’, you limit the options available to you, taking away the option that you would’ve done and leaving only the option Neo wants to do.
In other words, it requires you to admit that you can’t quite control yourself as well as you want to, and let your future self decide…
In the next issue, we examine:
Method #2 - Thinking about time as an elastic concept
Now, as promised:
Have an interesting way/method of brainwashing yourself? Share it in the comments!