2 books about self-discipline and willpower

After my daily Tarot card continued to present me the same card day after day indicating lack of discipline, projects taken up then abandoned, and inability to channel energy into useful purposes, I took note. My immediate response was predictable—I headed to the library for help.

No Excuses: The Power of Self-Discipline

Brian Tracy’s No Excuses: The Power of Self-Discipline was on the shelf so it came home with me that day. I have a client who is obsessed with Brian Tracy, constantly referencing his wisdom in her talks, so I felt in good hands. The book is excellent—filled with practical information and each chapter ends with a list of difficult exercises you’re supposed to tackle. He makes you articulate your goals, write them down, and really think about them. If you’re not really into this, you’ll probably find the questions a bit hokey, but I was stumped by my own inability to answer some of them. Naming three people I admire and what quality about them I respect was particularly hard.

Always accept responsibility for how you react to something. You choose whether to let something bother you or not. He cautions you to accept complete responsibility for everything you are now and everything you become.

Achieving your goals is broken into steps which sound easier than they are: decide exactly what you want, write it down, set a deadline, make a list of everything you can do to achieve it, organize your list by both sequence and priority, take action immediately, do something every day that moves you forward. The exercises in this chapter were tough, but some of my brainstorming came up with the idea that I might like to do some 1:1 tutoring with kids?!

Other tips he had were to rewrite your goals every day, plan your day in advance, discipline yourself to concentrate single-mindedly on one thing. Define your biggest problem, ask why it is a problem. For personal interactions, liking, respecting, and being impressed by people is his recommendation. He ends on a very Zen note of practicing letting go, forgiveness.

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

This one is by Kelly McGonigal, the instructor of Stanford’s popular course, The Science of Willpower. She suggests to read a chapter a week, which mirrors the 10-week class schedule, but I’m too impatient. There are 3 types of willpower: the “I will” (getting yourself to do something you’ve been putting off, or more of), “I won’t” (trying to give up something), and “I want” (long term goal). Your prefrontal cortex is what helps you do the “harder thing,” helping you keep doing boring or difficult tasks or preventing you from following every impulse.

Week 1: track your choices. Watch how the process of giving into your impulses happens. Notice, catch yourself. For training purposes, start with 5 minute meditation on the breath. What is the harder thing to do? What makes it hard? Describe your competing selves: what does the impulsive version want vs the wiser version of yourself?

Week 2: willpower is a biological instinct like stress evolved to help us protect ourselves from ourselves (pause & plan vs. fight or flight). What is the threat, the inner impulse? See what happens when stress strikes throughout the week, what happens to willpower. Slow breathing down to 4-6 breaths per minute to shift into self-control. Fill-up on willpower by getting exercise, even a 5 minute walk. Get enough sleep, use relaxation to help gain self-control.

Week 3: self control is a muscle that gets tired from use but regular exercise makes it stronger. Find out when you have the most willpower in the day and arrange your schedule to accommodate that. Eat healthy foods so you don’t need a spike in energy (nuts, beans, grains, fruit, veg). Do small willpower workout: commit to using nondominant hand for task like brushing teeth/eating/opening doors; commit to doing something every day just for practice in building habit, like meditating, cleaning up, doing 10 pushups/situps; formally track something you don’t usually pay close attention to. When looking to make a big change, look for a small way to practice self-control to strengthen willpower without overwhelming it completely. Challenge yourself to go beyond the first feeling of fatigue. Motivations: how will you benefit from succeeding (what’s personal payoff?), who else will benefit from you succeeding, imagine the challenge will get easier over time if you’re willing to do what’s difficult now (not smoking will be a lot easier a year from now so you’re more willing to endure temporary misery).

Week 4: Being good somehow makes your brain get permission to be bad. For better self-control forget “virtue” and focus on goals. Instead of asking how much progress you’re making, ask how committed you feel to your goal. Remember the “why” of your goal, don’t pat yourself on the back for any progress. Reduce the variability of your behavior: don’t pretend that tomorrow will be any different from today; (study that asked smokers to smoke the same # of cigarettes every day actually decrease their amount because they see an unending horizon of cigarette butts ahead of them).

Week 5: your brain lies to you. Dopamine is for action, not happiness. Reward system in brain lights up with anticipation, not pleasure. Evolution doesn’t give a damn about happiness itself but uses the promise of happiness to keep us struggling to stay alive. Desire triggers stress & anxiety. Use this to your advantage and “dopaminize” your projects that you need extra oomph starting/finishing (bring paperwork to a cafe to finish over hot chocolate; scratch-off lottery tickets placed beside procrastinated projects around the house; visualize your reward). Mindfully do something your brain says will make you happy and see if reality matches the brain’s promise.

Week 6: feeling bad leads to giving in. Stress leads to your brain trying to rescue you with something it thinks will make you feel good (quick fixes that usually don’t). Instead: exercise, read, listen to music, walk, yoga, be creative. Real stress relievers boost mood-enhancing chemicals like serotonin, BAGA, oxytocin and shut down brain’s stress response. If/when you fail, don’t self-criticize but forgive; be mindful & think about what you feel, realize everyone is human, say to yourself what you would say to a friend to encourage. Try on the voice of a mentor who believes in you. Imagine yourself failing a willpower challenge, see what that feels like and what you might think, then consider what actions you can take to stick; visualize what you’re doing, see yourself succeed. Planning for failure is self-compassion so you’re ready to put your plan into action.

Week 7: we can’t see the future clearly, so we give into temptation and procrastination. Make yourself wait 10 minutes before giving in and during that time bring to mind your overall goal. Or work on something for 10 minutes then you can quit. When tempted to work against your best interest, frame the choice as giving up your best long term reward to take the short term gratification ($100 you were going to get vs the $50 you can take now, you’ll value the original reward more). Precommit to your future self; create a new default, make choices in advance, make it easier to act on rational preference.

Week 8: self-control influenced by social proof, so willpower and temptation are contagious. To avoid catching someone’s willpower sickness, boost your immune system by thinking about your goals at the beginning of each day. Who are you most likely to “catch” something from—is that a good thing? You may need to find a new tribe to reinforce your new habits.

Week 9: trying to suppress thoughts actually makes them come back stronger because you’re giving your reptilian brain monitor something to obsess over (“Don’t do x” makes the monitor constantly ask if you’re doing x or not). Surf the urge as it hits you, watch how you feel, notice. Imagine the craving dissolving. Note: can you turn the ironic boomerang to your favor? So say something like “Don’t exercise and eat healthy” so your monitor is constantly thinking about exercise?