Practical discipline

posted in: How to human | 41

Following up on the first part which was mainly theoretical, let’s have a look now at a handful of tips to help you build good habits in practice:

Baby steps

Your brain resists abrupt changes. If you motivate yourself to a titanic “Starting tomorrow, I’m a new person” effort, you’ll only burn out and revert. Big and sudden just doesn’t work, slow and steady does it. It’s the yo-yo effect of discipline. You want to surf the edge of your comfort zone, which is the only sustainable attitude.

When you progress in baby steps, you will find yourself a new person a year hence, not knowing precisely when or how it happened.

The trick here is to make a small change and let your brain accept it as the new baseline. This will make the next step easier, because the baseline moved. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Because you’re surfing, which means the wave is moving forward beneath you. Cool stuff.

What I’m gonna say now may sound banal, but it really isn’t: Big things are composed of small things. Small changes that you stick to and follow every day add up to surprisingly massive results.

  • Take the stairs every day. It’s just five or ten calories, but in a year, that adds up to three pizzas. And that’s just the calories.
  • If you do stuff around the house for two minutes every day, you’ll be surprised how tidy the place is a month later.

Small, but consistent things. Take the stairs.

Your brain resists abrupt changes, but gradual changes bypass that resistance. Which brings us to the next point:

The principle of graduality

You can make huge changes by slicing them into incremental, manageable steps. The trick is that the change-resistance troll (I have to draw that fucker) living in your head doesn’t notice anything big is going on. Resistance increases exponentially with the size of the change, rather than proportionally. This principle is at work in many walks of life:

  • Spy recruiting isn’t a sudden “Hello sir, how would you like to work for a foreign government to subvert your own country?”. It’s a series of relatively innocuous and justifiable steps – dinners, small gifts and requests for not-so-sensitive information that eventually culminates in high treason.
  • In porn, they don’t ask a girl fresh off the street to do anal with five black bodybuilders (high five, guys!). It starts with tasteful semi-nudes (“Hey, it’s a legit modeling job”), then semi-tasteful nudes….you get the idea.
  • There are sinister political uses.
  • There’s a thought experiment called the “Frog in hot water” – it might be bullshit, but allegedly, if you put a frog in a pot of water and bring it to boil, the frog will not jump out, because the heating is gradual. I have no idea why anybody would do that, or whether it’s true, but the principle is exactly how you need to subvert your inner lazy saboteur excusist troll. Boil the fucker alive. Slowly, bypassing his notice.

We want to use the same mechanism for good.

Want to start exercising more? Take a walk. Want to fix your diet? Start by removing the one worst thing in it – probably sweets. Want to quit smoking? Take that one last cigarette of the day, break it in half and flush it down the toilet. Which brings us to:

Deliberate control of exceptions

The best way to manage your vices is to accept and schedule them. You can’t wish them out of existence, but you can take control of them and redirect their inertia by consciously including them in your plan. This is the Judo method.

The key is to control the time and dosage. Dieting? Schedule cheat days (say, once a week). Wasting valuable hours of your life on Facebook? “Okaaay no more Facebook.” – wrong. “Facebook for 20 minutes in the evening to catch up with friends and that’s that” – right.

Remember that your brain resists abrupt changes, doubly so when they interfere with immediate gratification. Going cold turkey on psychological addictions is a sure way to initiate a circle of frustration, failure and self-hatred.

You can bypass that by accepting and scheduling the exceptions, with absolutely no exceptions (to the planned exceptions).

It is totally legitimate to say “Today is my slacking day when I’m just going to stay at home eating pizza in my underwear and play computer games”. But do it consciously, infrequently and deliberately – don’t just let it happen to you in absence of having made better plans. EVERY plan is better than that.

Paradoxically, indulgent slacking is not even pleasant, because it makes you feel guilty and useless. But you will actually enjoy it when you do it in a conscious, planned manner to relax and unwind. There ARE days for pyjamas and ice cream and binge-watching Gilmore Girls. But you should happen to them, not they to you.

Nudges and commitment

There’s a really, really powerful trick: using resistance-less nudges in the right direction to circumvent your defences against doing good things for yourself. I’ll explain.

The point is to lower your brain’s resistance by taking a symbolical step in the desired direction that doesn’t wake The Troll.

I was introduced to this principle by Scott Adams (and the psychological research he looted) – if you’re not in the mood to work out, but want to, just put on your gym clothes. That’s easy, right? It’s also enough to make your brain switch gears, and you suddenly find yourself exercising.

Take small, symbolical steps in the direction of intended change.

On the topic of nudges and reminders, I highly recommend Dan Ariely’s work.

If you want to buy, say, gym shorts and groceries (as I did a few days ago), do it in that exact order. That way, you’re primed to make healthier choices.

There are two reasons this works – nudges/priming (<-this is super-uber-mega-turbo-giga-hyper-king-kamehameha important), and the need for consistency. You want to trick your brain into thinking “I just bought sports equipment – I am a person who makes healthy choices. Therefore I shall avoid the aisle with junk food.”

Consistency works, because inconsistency literally threatens ego integrity. Our past choices constitute our identity, and we want to preserve it. You literally make making healthier choices a psychological matter of self-preservation. Ego-defence doing the hard work for you. THAT’S a “Lifehack”.

Let me say that again: consistency is a matter of survival for your sense of self. You can use it to do almost anything with yourself when you do simple, small, smart, resistance-free things to commit and lock yourself into a beneficial trajectory. This is the nuclear weaponry of lifestyle management. Use it wisely.


One more thing that’s super important when you want to take control of your life – don’t be tired and don’t be stressed. Easier said and done, I know, but I’m gonna show you how to do it.

When you’re mentally exhausted, the things you do (or don’t do) tend to be far from your conscious decisions and best judgment. When you want to cultivate good habits, learn to “recharge your batteries”.

If you get the vague sense that this is a chicken-and-egg situation, and that you need to be in reasonable control of your life to avoid stress and fatigue, yet you need to be less stressed to take better control of your life – you’re entirely right. But you can add an effective recharging regimen to otherwise stressful lifestyles, thereby severing the loop at its weakest spot. In fact, if you have a stressful lifestyle, you specifically should do it. It’s easy, and only takes ten minutes.

It’s also increasingly popular – the internet is slowly rapidly filling up with this advice, but only rarely in this context – specifically to undo ego depletion and “executive fatigue”. Which is surprising, considering it’s the second most important use for it. (The first being mental health in general.)

And the thing is (fanfare): Meditation. In the simplest (and, I think best) form, you sit down, clear your head, calm your breathing and observe your “empty” mind in its natural state – that’s all there is. Everything else is optional at best.

I promise you this will give you more strength to follow up on your conscious decisions and plans, or at least improve your odds significantly. It’s the “mana potion” of self-regulation, a pit stop for the mind, a well of will.

This is the internal stuff. It is equally useful to manage your surroundings. Remove distractions and temptations from your environment, simplify and declutter, so that your mind isn’t (even subconsciously) occupied by a hundred little things, but is able to fully focus on the one thing you’re doing in the moment. Effective multitasking doesn’t exist. The division of attention in multitasking is a negative-sum game. 

Environmental management basics:

  • Having a tidy place helps tons. If a messy home is part of your doom loop, beg friends to help (“I’m trying to declutter my place and life, please come help me – I’ll buy beer and pizza, and help you if you want to do the same”) or hire a maid – anything to remove the environmental stressor, thereby giving you more strength to deal with everything else in your life.
  • Remove sources of temptation from sight. When you’re dieting, openly displayed jars of Nutella and pizza delivery flyers are verboten. Smokers, hide the lighters. Out of sight, out of mind.
  • Place constructive reminders and nudges in your environment instead. A picture of yourself in underwear on the fridge. Actually, my body scale is permanently placed in front of the fridge. It’s like those meticulously designed behavioral experiments on rats, except you specifically and deliberately do it to control your own behavior.

If you want to reduce stress, you might want to consider a low-information diet. That doesn’t mean cutting yourself off from the world – instead of wilfull ignorance, I suggest choosing quality over quantity. Find high-quality sources of news and stick to them. Absolutely condemn and ignore tabloids and sensationalist media. If it makes you angry, it’s probably not good journalism, and definitely not good for your mental fitness.

The underlying logic of discipline building is to establish a more constructive relationship and improve the balance of power between your higher executive functions – your rational adult mind – and your inner three year old who makes a depressing lot of your decisions.

Make no mistake, that little asshole is still in there. Human personality is like a tree – it grows outwards, adding layers, but the depths never really go away. (Well, technically older trees tend to be hollow while old humans shed outer layers first and regress into a second childhood, but…hey, all similes have their limits). The toddler is still in there, with it’s impulsiveness and short attention span and myopic pursuit of instant gratification. Generally, you want your higher functions to be in control. This is more difficult when you’re tired or stressed, hence the importance of mindfulness/meditation and environmental management.

The inner and outer, broadly, are the two branches of executive function management, which I’d like to instate as a thing now. Kind of a big thing, in fact.

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  • Ahmet

    I liked it but,you say “Want to quit smoking? Take that one last cigarette of the day, break it in half and flush it down the toilet.” IMO its impossible to quit smoking in that way,gradually. It cannot be achieved via small steps. Quitting smoking is biniary logic,you smoke or you dont.

  • Zalzita Padilla

    Great advices! Pretty clear, thank you soo much!. I just have a question… in this part” You literally make making healthier choices a psychological matter of self-preservation. Ego-defence doing the hard work for you. THAT’S a “Lifehack”.” …I want to know what does the EGO does for us…why does it exists?

    • Zbyněk Dráb

      It’s like this crystallised identity that makes you a solid, continuous thing. It automatises a lot of the stuff, so you don’t have to invent your reactions to everything and your behavior from zero every time.

      Like in your body there’s a lot going on automatically so you don’t have to pay attention to it – the heart beats by itself, you’re breathing even when sleeping, a million things. These things take care of themselves so you can focus on other goals.

      “Ego” is kind of like that, but in the mind. The automatic, “homeostatis-keeping” fixed thing that contains your behavior patterns and preferences. It resists change, which is useful a lot of the time (gives you stability and protects *good* habits as well as the bad), but can be a bitch to reprogram when you’re trying to change.

  • Niall

    Reading this two part article turned me from a Browser to a Patron

  • Joseph Procopio

    Really great piece. One failing: Your “high-quality” sources of information all lean pretty hard toward the conservative. Not a very varied diet of information…

    • Zbyněk Dráb

      And yet, The Economist and Financial Times get flak for being left-leaning.

      TE on social issues, FT for its statist, interventionist, big-institutions-over-the-little-guy instincts (explicable by FT’s essentially being a newspaper for bankers and bureaucrats).

      Clearly, such matters as a publication’s political leaning are relative to an observer’s frame of reference.

      You might find TE’s own explanation of their position interesting:

  • ShawtyBangBang

    Just found this site and it’s amazing! Thank you!

  • BetaKing69

    Hi, I was wondering if this would be good advice for those of us who are dealing with stress and unable to deal with who we are.
    I’ve heard this coined many psych terms but the one most practical would be “people who are going through mental hell”.
    I only ask because I have tried getting amazing amounts of sleep and also reducing sensual stimulation but I found I was getting bored and reading a lot of walt whitman and william blake. I am willing to change but never had any discipline growing up. Where can I start?

    • Zbyněk Dráb

      “Unable to deal with who we are” suggests the correct place to start might be psychotherapy.

      Amazing amounts of sleep can be counterproductive (everyone is woozy and confused if they sleep too much), sensual stimulation is irrelevant.

      On the limited information, it looks like ADD whose results make you dislike yourself. But internet bloggers are no substitutes for a psychiatrist.

  • Moodle Muse

    I read part one of your blog and followed through to part two. Would you please clarify …

    “If you motivate yourself to a titanic “Starting tomorrow, I’m a new person” effort, you’ll only burn out and revert. Big and sudden just doesn’t work, slow and steady does it. It’s the yo-yo effect of discipline. You want to surf the edge of your comfort zone, which is the only sustainable attitude.”

    Are you saying that to extend your comfort zone mildly is ‘discipline’ but to jump to a radically new level is ‘motivation’ (which will fail)?

    • Zbyněk Dráb


      The point is to extend your comfort zone and implement changes gradually. The larger they are, the larger the danger of an opposite reaction. Kind of like the safety belts in a car that kick in only at a certain speed of movement. This seems to be because the human brain is a depressingly change-resistant beast and you need to sneak up on it if you want to change the way it works.

  • Red Duck

    What an article. Now lets see if I can implement it.

  • Great article, thank you a lot.

  • diimdeep

    Good reading.

  • Eric Valenzuela

    Thank you sir for this great article, and all its context :) In honor of your article, I must apply small changes and develop some of these good habits, hopefully I can update y’all with some great improvements: I was skyrocketing into and through college in 2000, had some successes through 2004, started a family, and when I realized life was not as easy as I thought, I Iet myself fall hard and fast; I’m rebuilding as we speak :/

  • caroleeena

    Ugh. The porn reference. Sexist? Racist? Why not both!

    • caroleeena

      It’s what’s keeping me from sharing this article.

      • Eric Valenzuela

        Let’s not get caught up in details; others might not be as offended by those lines, and actually gain the life change they’ve been looking for. I myself was focusing on motivation (maybe because its “easier”)

        • leavemefree

          This article is full of great advice and makes some interesting points I haven’t read elsewhere. However, the author could certainly get the same point across while avoiding making what will be interpreted by many as a racist/sexist remark. If the particular reference was the *only* way to make the point, one could argue that it was worth including, but there are so many alternatives, why not choose a more innocuous one? Its unnecessary inclusion undermines the article, which is unfortunate, as it is otherwise an excellent and thought-provoking piece.

      • Michel Wiggers

        This kind of “put your head in the sand” thinking is shortsighted. You may not like to hear it, but that does not mean it doesn’t happen. Unfortunately, it’s all too common. You may be offended by the stereotype, but that does not mean it can’t/shouldn’t be used as an example.

        A more informed mind would realize that while the analogy is perhaps crude, it is definitely brutally effective, which is my guess as to why the author included it in the article. After all, he sure doesn’t shy away form phrases like “Boil the fucker alive”, which means that it’s likely this article is not meant to be published in the weekly church newsletter.

        It would be more productive to focus on the actual content of the article, and less on its delivery. You’ll enhance your life skills, and be able to accept reality more easily at the same time …

        • caroleeena

          That sexist nonsense is part of the article and it is keeping me from sharing it. Get over it. My life skills are just fine. They lead me to not tolerate casual sexism, shaming, and nonsense mansplaining. I see your silly patronizing jabs. They make you look small and petty. I don’t need the advice of a small and petty person. It speaks volumes that you can’t take feedback with resorting to such jabs. Your opinion means less than nothing to me.

        • Zbyněk Dráb

          Stop being mean to my readers.

          Meanwhile, this is for and about you:

        • Yan Masarsky

          I totally get the analogy about porn involvement, but for the sake of truth and social justice I have to note that there are plenty of girls nowadays willing to go straight for the anal gangbang, one barely ever needs that whole salami slicing procedure (I think there’s a pun hidden somewhere)

          why not change it to something more accurate and universally recognized as true and obvious? Like how people don’t immediately turn into fierce dope fiends overnight, but gradually move towards that noble goal one pleasant evening at a time? (What?.. What do you mean “contrary to common knowledge”?)

          just kidding; I know you’re not going to edit the article

        • Squid Scribe

          I think that’s a legit point but I don’t really see it at work in this thread. We have a tendency to confuse any type of disagreement with hysteria and use it to discount opinions we don’t agree with, which is equally problematic.

        • Michel Wiggers

          Yeah, I was going to explain my comment further, but obviously, given your reaction, it is HIGHLY unlikely that it will have the intended effect. My guess is that common sense and rationality are not going to be able expand your view in any way. As the “venerable” Ken Ham has stated that there is no evidence of any kind that will change his mind about his holy book, my guess is that you may be similarly prejudiced about your perception of reality.

          I don’t personally know the author, whether he is actually a sexist, racist pig or not. I would be severely disappointed if he were, because closed minded, short sighted people like that annoy me, and I keep well away from them, so they don’t infect my mental well being with their ignorance. However, your initial comment is also short sighted and closed minded (in a different way, I’ll admit, but still as harmful). By not sharing this article for your stated reasons, you are essentially determining that the total message (ie. the content of the article) is not sufficiently positive enough to overcome its (alleged) negative effect due to the inclusion of what you term a sexist and racist porn reference.

          I find that conclusion frankly amazing, as it seems like many people have reacted very positively to the message contained in both of these articles, and you are the only one who has stated that that particular porn reference negates the rest of the very insightful article. It appears that your prejudices, however justified they may be in many circumstances, have led you to make an emotional, rather than a rational decision.

          I stand by my original statement that while the reference may be crude, it is definitely effective, and may therefore be excused in this instance. I don’t believe that “the end always justify the means”, but I also realize that the world is not always black and white. For example, stating that lying is a bad character flaw (which it usually is), is shortsighted, because white lies are definitely accepted behaviour, and even preferred in some cases. THAT is why I made that comment about your apparent lack of life skills which outraged you enough to word your reply as you did.

          I think that when you stated “Your opinion means less than nothing to me.”, I would like to reply “The lady doth protest too much, methinks …”

        • Bruno Cassol

          Take a step back and read the start of every paragraph you wrote:

          I was going to…
          I don’t personally…
          I find that…
          I stand by my…
          I think that…

          This is not a good approach to influence people and convince them of your beliefs. You might want to read about it. Otherwise it wont matter if your message is reasonable or not, no one will listen. I wish you all the best.

        • Squid Scribe

          Listen, I’m not a prude, not even a little bit, I both watch porn and write erotica. But for the significant number of people who have been sexually exploited, abused and raped, that particular scenario is enough to be a gut punch… in the sense that it becomes an emotional and mental hijack that dilutes the power of the message. I spent about five minutes of my time reading this article distracted by memories of that gradual manipulative process in my own childhood and feeling like shit about it. Who wants that for their readers, if it can be avoided — especially if it’s not directly related to the message? It’s not even the reminder of the stark reality of sexual exploitation I take issue with, which I accepted is a thing a long damned time ago, but the ”high five, guys!” that implies the author thinks any part of his example could be awesome. I work for a DV and sexual assault organization so I definitely could not share with coworkers, and i really don’t feel comfortable sharing it with any women I know, since so many of them have similar experiences. But I guess you could argue the article is pretty upsetting to frogs, too. As for dismissing victim’s concerns as ”not wanting to face reality ” – lol, try getting disowned by your family for your own sexual abuse, legally emancipating at 17 and putting yourself through the rest of high school while your entire goddamn life falls apart and then we’ll talk about reality.

        • The website has “penis jokes” in the headline. That should be a decent indication of what to expect.

          Just imagine the gangbang being consensual and everyone enjoying it. Such things happen. Here’s a prompt for your erotica.

          No idea how you made the leap to sexual violence at all.

          On a general note, the problem with asking for special treatment for any sort of personal trauma is that everyone has their own particular traumatic experiences, sticking points or pet aesthetic hangups (in descending order of seriousness, but ascending order of frequency) which cannot – and should not – be anticipated or preempted, because there is literally an infinite array of potential “triggers”, and any writer that seeks to avoid all of them will end up never writing much. There’s much solipsism in the notion that one’s particular experience, however horrific, should be especially singled out.

          Especially as horrific experiences, as was demonstrated, have a tendency to pop up in response even to unrelated material.

          I have a couple articles lined up that you should find useful. See the roadmap for this year on the main page.

    • Porn is a pretty sexist business, if you haven’t noticed.

  • Someone Something

    One of the best article, I ever read. Thanks

  • lifegifted

    Great article, man! I like your style, you should totally draw troll fucker

    • Zbyněk Dráb

      Preliminary concept.

      • Eric Valenzuela

        awesome way to contribute dude: thanks for participating!

        • Zbyněk Dráb

          I’m the guy who runs the site, dude :)

  • Day0Dreamer

    You changed my life.

  • Saigokun

    Thanks for this interesting article.

  • Brandi Churnetski

    like the scale in front of the fridge nudge/reminder… good stuff.

  • Zbyněk Dráb

    Oh look, it has comments!

    • c6h10o5

      I like how your first part got shared more than 1k times on twitter and this got only 25 shares so far

      • lifegifted

        there is a picture about it

        • BetaKing69

          I remember the good old days when we had to recall quotes from our brain, instead of just remembering where we stored our memes.