Screen shot from Karate Kid of Daniel-son and Mr. Miyagi. Miyagi is handing Daniel-son the sponge with which to "wax on, wax off". Image is symbolic of self discipline.

How to Hack Self-Discipline

Dave Labowitz Personal Growth

Self-discipline is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets and the more you’ll be able to accomplish when you flex it. Getting into the habit of exercising self-discipline regularly will help you line up your behavior with your values, leading to greater happiness and more accomplishments. However, there will always be moments when engaging your self-discipline is quite a battle. Maybe you’re tired, under the weather, or just distracted by people, texts, emails, phone calls, and alerts. Hell, if it was easy, you wouldn’t need self-discipline, would you? In these moments, if you have prepared yourself with this simple hack, it will be far easier to get yourself into action on a path for your highest good.

Constantly fighting battles

The best way to explain the hack is to look at an example of how it can work. Let’s think about a goal that most of us have: eating a healthier diet. The most common approach to eating healthier is to set a simple intention: “I’m going to eat healthier.” As you set the intention, a number of scenarios probably run through your head:

  • I’m going to order salad when I go out
  • I’m going to eat smaller portions
  • I’m going to drink less soda
  • I’m going to cook more often

In order to follow through on your intention, each time you eat you’re forced to recall the intention, engage your self-discipline, and make a healthy choice. In each moment, you’re probably fighting a battle between following through and ordering a yummy, hot, cheese-laden pizza (pick your poison). Or, maybe you just came home from work, you’re tired, and you’d really rather order delivery than cook a healthy meal. There are always plenty of reasons not to follow through, and they all sound great, when you think about them in the moment.

So, you end up doing your best. Sometimes you follow through, other times you fall short. Your circumstances probably have a lot to do with your success rate.

Separate planning & preparation from your choice points

What if you take an alternate approach? Instead of setting yourself up to fight individual self-discipline battles every time you eat, what if you take the time to set up a meal plan, shop, and cook ahead of time? Let’s say you do this on a Sunday afternoon and cook for the week. You only need to succeed in this once a week, not three times a day.

Afterwards, each time you eat, you have a much smaller battle to fight. The healthy food is right there, in the fridge. You can take it with you or eat it at home. It’s simple and easy. Choosing to grab a pre-cooked meal from the fridge takes a hell of a lot less self-discipline than if you had to figure out a meal, shop, and cook each time.

What makes this approach easier? It’s because you’re choosing a healthy diet in a moment when you’re not being actively tempted by a steaming hot pizza in your face. And after you’ve cleared that hurdle, every meal choice you make afterwards has a much smaller self-discipline requirement.

What’s the secret?

There are two things to keep in mind in order to hack self-discipline:

  1. Commit to planning and preparation in a moment when you’re not being tempted by the things that derail you. Since you’re focusing specifically on thinking through how to accomplish your goal, you’ll do a better job when you take action than if you skip planning and just wing it.
  2. Use planning and preparation in order to lower the self-discipline requirement for following through on your intentions. The best planning does the thinking in advance so you don’t have to think in order to follow through later on.
How else can I apply this hack?

You can hack self-discipline in almost any area of life or business. In fact, many success strategies leverage this technique without explaining what they’re doing or why it works. Think about the following:

  • Pre-scheduling your work week so all your required activities have time blocked out on your calendar – You can do this planning on a Friday late afternoon or Sunday evening when you’re not being pulled in a million directions. Then, throughout the week, you just have to stick to your calendar. You won’t have to spend time trying to figure out what to do when during the week.
  • Laying out your workout plan in advance of going to the gym – Pick a moment when you’re not feeling physically energetic and get the planning and thinking out of the way. It’s always easier to have a great workout when you know exactly what you’re doing next in the gym. You’ll get in and out of the gym faster, too.
  • Hiring a coach, personal trainer, or nutritionist – In this case you’re outsourcing the planning and letting your vendor do your thinking for you. You’ll also need less self-discipline because they’ll hold you accountable and encourage you into action.
  • Making a to do list – Similar to pre-planning on a schedule, all you need to do is follow your to do list.
  • Predetermine a daily habit to tackle whenever you have downtime – Indecision leads to inaction, so by predetermining what you’ll work on when you hit downtime you won’t have to spend time and energy figuring out what’s next; you can just leap into action.
Additional benefits

There are a couple additional benefits of using these techniques to hack self-discipline. First, since you’ve lowered the amount of self-discipline needed in order to follow through on your intention, you’re more likely to string together a solid run of successes. Momentum always helps! The more momentum you have, the easier it will be to continue following through and the more self-discipline you will build. Second, by separating planning from action, you will be more likely to set goals that are for your highest good. You will be able to think more deeply into each task and when it comes time to execute, you’ll be far less likely to get knocked off course by the allure of whatever sounds best in the moment.

How do you hack self-discipline in your life? Please let me know what techniques work best for you!

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