Willpower AND Self-Discipline
You’ve probably been there. It isn’t difficult to not sleep for one night, particularly if you have deadlines or drugs. The second, third, and fourth nights are more difficult. Extreme sleep deprivation can be a crash course in how fragile our mind really is. You will begin to fall asleep standing up by day three. In broad daylight, you will fall asleep while walking down the street. You will forget the name of your mother or what you ate that day.
Day four is when you start to feel delirious. You begin to believe people are talking to you, writing emails when they aren’t, and then realizing that you don’t remember who you were supposed to email. To keep awake, I used to run around in circles for about an hour in my living room. When nap time, I would fall asleep instantly and have intense, bizarre dreams lasting five hours. My alarm would ring 20 minutes later. I would then wake up and spend the next three hours lying to myself desperately, trying to convince myself that I felt rested and could not wait to go back to what I had been doing.
I couldn’t make it to the fourth day. Every time I failed, my disappointment was intense at my lack of self-control and willpower. I believed that I could do this. It was frustrating to me that people could do the same thing as me online. It made me feel like there was something wrong with it. Mark, I felt like it meant that I couldn’t have self-discipline and sleep deprive me of several weeks.
Self-discipline is often equated with willpower. We assume that someone who wakes at 5 is every morning, drinks avocado-chia–fennel–apricot–papaya smoothies each meal, sweats for three hours before even wiping down their tummy in the morning is self-abusive. This means they have an insatiable inner demon that drives them to do everything right no matter what.
Self-discipline is a matter of willpower is a failure because it makes us feel guilty for failing to try hard enough. It actually backfires. It can even make things worse, as any person who has tried to follow a diet will attest.
Willpower is like a muscle. It can become fatigued if you push it too hard. Things go well the first week you commit to a new diet or workout routine or a morning routine. However, by the second or third week, you will be back to your old, late-night, Cheeto-loving ways.
You can’t simply walk into a gym and lift 500 pounds. Nor can you start to wake up at 4 AM on your own. Your willpower must be developed over time to have any chance of success.8
This leaves us with a dilemma. Self-discipline is viewed in terms of willpower. This creates a chicken or the egg situation. To build willpower, you need to practice self-discipline for a long time. But, self-discipline requires a lot of willpower.
Self-discipline is not about willpower. This paradox can be explained by viewing it in terms of willpower. We’ll show you that building self-discipline within your own life is quite a different task.
Why Pure Willpower is not enough
Our actions are not influenced by logic or ideas. Although logic and ideas may influence our decisions, ultimately, our emotions determine our actions. We should do what makes us feel good and avoid what makes us feel bad. The only way to not do what feels good and do what is bad is by temporarily boosting our willpower. This allows us to deny ourselves our feelings and choose what was “right.”
This kind of self-denial or self-negation was the hallmark of virtue throughout history. Monks would lock themselves up in their rooms and refuse to eat or speak for long periods of time. For no apparent reason, armies of men were willing to go into battle. People abstained from having sex after marriage or for the rest of their lives. It was hard work.
This is the classical approach that gave rise to our belief that “willpower = self discipline.” This belief holds that self-discipline can be achieved by denying one’s emotions or rejecting them.
Classical thought combined the concepts of willpower (i.e. the ability to reject or deny one’s emotions and desires) with morality. A good person is someone who can say no. A human being who cannot say no to a taco is a failure.
The classical approach to self-discipline
Self-Discipline = Willpower = self-denial = good person
The fusion of morality and willpower was a good idea. Correctly, it recognized that we all could become narcissistic scum if left to our instinctive desires. We would eat, mess, and kill anyone within a ten-meter radius of us if we could. The great religious leaders, philosophers, and kings of history promoted a concept called virtue which involved suppressing our emotions in favour of rationality and depriving our impulses in favour of developing willpower.
The classic approach is still a good choice! It does work, at least in part. Okay, so it is more stable for society, but it totally first us up individually.
The paradoxical result of the classic approach is that it trains us to be more creative. Feel badAll the things that make you feel good. It is essentially a way to teach self-discipline. Shaming by making us feel ashamed of who we are. The idea is that once we feel shameful about the things we enjoy, we will be so afraid of our own desires and self-loathing that we will follow the instructions and do what they tell us.
In case you didn’t know: Shame Fucks Your Up
While shame may work for a while, it can backfire long-term. Let’s take sex as an example. The brain loves sex. Because sex is a pleasure and because we are biologically wired to desire it. It’s pretty obvious.11
If you grew up like most people, and especially if your mother was a woman, there’s a chance you were taught sex is an evil, lecherous, corrupting thing that makes you ugly, unclean. It was punished that you wanted it. You have conflicting feelings about sex. It sounds great, but it is scary. It feels right, but it also feels wrong. You still want sex but carry a lot of guilt, anxiety, and doubt about your desire for it.
The result is an unpleasant feeling of tension. As time passes, this tension only gets worse. Because the urge to have sex is never-ending. The shame only grows as the desire for sex continues.
This tension eventually becomes unbearable, and it must be resolved in one of these two ways. Overindulging is the first option. We feel that the only way to end the tension is to go crazy. Hooker orgies. Compulsive masturbation for many days. Infidelity rampant. And, unfortunately, sexual violence.12
However, indulgence does not solve tension. It only makes things worse. The shame and guilt return after the cock rings are put away, and the hookers go home. They return with a vengeance. If indulgence is not an option, what about the alternative?
The only way to get rid of that inner tension is to numb. You can distract yourself from tension by looking for a bigger, more appealing tension. One common option is to drink alcohol.13 Another option is to use drugs and to party.14 You can also watch 14 hours of television daily. You could also eat half of your body.
Sometimes people find ways to escape their shame. These people run ultramarathons and work long hours for years. Ironically, there are many people we admire for their inhuman willpower. Self-denial is easy when you hate yourself.
Shame cannot be ignored. It’s a matter of how you look at it.16 A person who works out regularly to overcome self-loathing will eventually find reasons to hate themselves for exercising. What started as a great work ethic at the gym soon becomes a form of body dysmorphia. It’s like those men who inject Synthol into themselves to make them look like Popeye. Image: Barcroft
The same goes for the businessman who transforms his shame into great work at the office. He eventually comes to regret his productivity and can’t even go home. He is terrified of doing it. Every minute that isn’t productive feels like a failure. He’s constantly worried about quarterly numbers and spreadsheets, even as his entire life crumbles around him.
It is because the most uncompromising, hardcore people are often the ones most insecure. This is why fundamentalist religious leaders who rail against immorality worldwide are often the same people who order fuckboys from Craigslist17. It is also why spiritually enlightened gurus are the ones who extort their followers. It is why politicians who are most vocal about patriotism and party loyalty are the ones that smoke meth in airport bathrooms. They run from their demons. One way to do this is to make demons that are more socially acceptable and shinier.
Long-term self-discipline that is based on self-denial can’t be sustained. This only leads to greater dysfunction and eventually self-destruction.
The truth about the classical approach
This is the problem with all of this. It’s so obvious after you hear it that I can’t believe it has to be said. If you don’t feel like going to the gym for a few days, you can still decide to go. If the gym doesn’t feel good, you’ll eventually lose motivation and give up on your willpower. It is possible to quit drinking for a few days or weeks, but you won’t feel the reward from not drinking until you are satisfied with your results.
My polyphasic sleeping disorder resulted in constant disaster. It did not produce any tangible benefits, such as staying up late and sleeping less. It did not produce any good feelings. It only produced misery and delirium. It was a form of self-abuse. Eventually, my willpower ran out, and my emotions took control, driving me to sleep for sixteen hours straight.
Emotionally healthy self-discipline must be able to work with emotions rather than against them. Self-discipline does not require willpower or self-denial. It is based on self-acceptance.
Self-discipline through Self-Acceptance
Let’s suppose you are trying to lose weight. Your biggest problem is that you consume three litres of ice cream per week. You are an ice cream addict. You have tried to stop using willpower. You have tried diets with friends. In an attempt to justify your own failures, you’ve tried diets with your friends.
Nothing has worked. You can’t eat more than a thousand calories of creamy goodness every day.
You will hate yourself for it.
That’s the first problem. Self-discipline means to separate your moral and personal failures. Accept that you may indulge, and it doesn’t make you a terrible person. All of us indulge in some way or another. All of us are guilty of shame. All of us fail to control our impulses. We all love a good scoop of ice cream every once in a while.
This acceptance can be more difficult than it sounds. We don’t realize how many ways we judge ourselves for perceived failures. Our minds are constantly flooded with thoughts, and we don’t even realize it. We continue to believe that “because I’m terrible” is the best excuse.
- “I fucked that project at work, since I’m a terrible person….”
- “The entire kitchen is in chaos and my parents will arrive in 20 minutes , since I’m a terrible person… .”
- “Other people excel at this, but me , because I’m horrible….”
- “Everyone thinks I’m stupid , . I’m a terrible person… .”
You might be pondering these self-judgments even as you read this! I am a terrible person, and I constantly judge myself.
This is the problem: self-judgments can lead to a very unhealthy form of comfort. They take away our responsibility for our actions. I don’t have to give up ice cream because I’m a terrible person. That “horrible person” prevents me from changing or improving in the future. This implies that I have no control over my cravings and compulsions. So why bother?
When we let go of our beliefs in our own terribleness, there is a certain fear and anxiety. We resist taking responsibility for our own actions because it is frightening. It suggests that we can change the future and that we may have wasted much of our past. That is not a good feeling. Another trap is when people believe they aren’t terrible people but realize that they were terrible for not realizing it years ago. Once we have decoupled our emotions and moral judgments, we can now see the benefits of a new perspective.
It suggests that emotions can be managed like any other internal behaviour mechanism.18 For example, if you remove moral judgments, you can feel bad about relapsing on cookies and cream. This can serve as a reminder to fix the problem.
The compulsion to numb or cover up emotional issues must be addressed. Each week, you compulsively consume tubs of ice cream. Why? It’s a form of numbing. It gives the body comfort. This is sometimes called “emotional eating,” and it’s the same as when alcoholic drinks to escape his demons. The overeater eats to escape theirs.
It is there. It is important to address it. Accept it. Recognize the dark, ugly side of you. Face it head-on, and allow yourself to feel the horrible, unwholesome emotions that accompany it. Accept that it is part of you and will never go away. That’s okay. This can be a positive thing.
Here’s where the magic happens. Two things will happen when you stop feeling bad about yourself.
- There is nothing to numb. These tubs of icecream suddenly seem pointless.
- There is no reason to make yourself feel bad. You like yourself so take care of yourself. It feels good taking care of yourself.
Amazingly, the tub of ice cream doesn’t feel good anymore. It doesn’t scratch any internal itch. It makes you feel sick, bloated, and gross. Exercise doesn’t feel like an impossible task you won’t be able to do. It actually replenishes you and enhances your energy. It’s easy to feel good, and it starts showing up. To be self-disciplined, you don’t have to do deep therapeutic work. Understanding and accepting your emotions can help you work with them instead of against them.
The same applies to social accountability. It is easier to meditate longer when others are around you than it is to do it alone. Why? Because you don’t want your room to be a lonely mess like it is at home. Social pressure means that meditating less often can cause more emotional problems than meditation for the full time.20 Positive reinforcement is another way to do this: Find ways to reward yourself when you are doing the right behaviour. This is how you form new habits, according to research. You do the desired behaviour, then reward yourself.
Result: Self-Discipline without Willpower
When you have dealt with your shame and created situations that provide more emotional benefits for you doing the desired behaviour, you will end up with a sense of self-discipline without putting in any effort. Discipline is achieved without the need to exert any effort. It feels good to get up early. Because it is better to eat kale than to smoke crack, you choose to eat it instead. Stop lying because it feels worse HTML to lie than to tell an important truth.
It feels better to exercise than to sit around and cover yourself with a thin layer of Cheeto dust. The pain does not go away. The pain is still there. The pain has meaning now. It has a purpose. That makes all the difference. You work with the discomfort, not against it. It is better to pursue it than to run from it. You will grow stronger, healthier, and happier with each pursuit. It will eventually appear that you are putting in a lot of effort and that you have an endless supply of willpower. It will still feel like nothing to you.