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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