The Real Deal With Self-Discipline and Willpower
Self-discipline and willpower are wildly misunderstood concepts.
The message we get from the world is that if you drink too much, are overweight, or a lazy, Netflix-loving couch potato, it’s because you lack willpower. You have no self-discipline.
There is something fundamentally flawed in your character that contributes to your failure as a human being.
The opposite is also true. People who go to the gym every day or maintain healthy eating habits are masters of self-discipline. We should learn from and emulate them. These people know how to say “no” to their desires.
They have willpower – strength- something the rest of us clearly lack.
Both of these narratives are not only wrong but a big reason why so many of us fail to stick to our goals or eliminate our terrible habits.
The Thing About Willpower
If you’ve ever tried to start something new – a new diet, new fitness routine, whatever you’ve decided to take on – you may have noticed that you always start off pretty well. It’s the whole New Year’s resolution phenomenon.
New year, new me!
We all know what comes next. Hell, we’re probably guilty of it. By mid-January or early February, that gym membership is developing dust in your wallet. The Doritos are back in your cupboard while your once-fresh produce sadly withers away in the bottom shelf of your refrigerator.
The story in your head is probably that you didn’t have the willpower. You caved. Healthy living requires self-discipline which you, my friend, clearly lack.
The thing is, that’s not true.
Willpower is like a muscle. You have to develop it over time and if you overload this muscle, it will quit on you.
Every time you decide to do something that goes against your desires (ex. eating all the Ben & Jerry’s), you’ve made a conscious decision. It’s a tough one to consistently make.
Eventually, decision fatigue sets in. At the end of a long workday, your ability to cook and eat chicken breast with broccoli for dinner is greatly diminished.
You pass McDonald’s on your way home from work and it looks mighty tasty. So you park your car and resign yourself to your fate.
Self-Discipline Through Shame
I’m going to dive into and summarize key points made by Mark Manson on a blog post discussing the problem with traditional notions of self-discipline and willpower.
If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he is the author of the incredible, must-read bestseller The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck. I consider him a mentor and highly recommend everything he writes.
But I digress.
What’s the deal with self-discipline and shame?
Manson talks about how, traditionally, the idea of willpower has been rooted in self-deprivation.
He writes, “This classical approach is where our assumption that “willpower = self-discipline” originally comes from. It operates on the belief that self-discipline is achieved through denying or rejecting one’s emotions. ”
Oh, you can withstand your desire to stop at the Cinnabon when you’re at the mall? You’re a hero. Those who can’t are losers.
We internalize these messages. I can’t resist the urge to drink five cans of soda per day, so I’m somehow broken. I don’t have willpower. I’m ashamed that I feel like I have to drink soda all day. Something must be wrong with me. I’ll just fight my way through it so I can stop.
The problem with this approach is that – 1. It doesn’t work, and 2. It leads to a lot of self-loathing which manifests itself in terrible ways.
Shame – The Gift That Keeps On Giving
Manson points out that our “behaviors are not based on logic or ideas.” Want to guess what they are actually based on?
Those icky things we sometimes try to hide from and suppress.
When you’re taught that what you feel is shameful, you’ll attempt to use willpower to push it down. But Manson says this rarely works.
Either you’ll cave and go on an indulgence spree or find ways to drown it out – alcohol, binge eating, zoning out with television for hours on end. Maybe all three.
He notes that some people try to mask their shame with seemingly healthy or admirable activities like exercise or working hard at their job. But no matter what you’re doing, if it’s rooted in deprivation or self-loathing, it’s going to backfire. You’ll take it too far.
He has a powerful take on this last point when it comes to crazy fundamentalists that you can check out here.
“Self-discipline based on self-denial cannot be sustained in the long-run. It only breeds greater dysfunction, and ultimately results in self-destruction.”
I find this concept very closely connected to addiction transference. If you don’t tackle the shame that is driving you to do things like drink yourself into obliteration every night, you’ll just pass it along to something else. Maybe eating too much horrible food or risky sex with strangers.
If you don’t handle the root cause, you’ll just push that shame around until it takes you down.
How Does Self-Discipline Actually Work?
It turns out that people who get up at 5 AM to go running and drink healthy green smoothies every day actually enjoy doing these things.
Shocking, I know!
These folks don’t use willpower every day to go to the gym or eat a healthy breakfast. They do it because it makes them feel good and NOT doing it makes them feel bad.
The trick then becomes how to get yourself to a place where you enjoy doing healthy things. Manson says that the key is self-acceptance.
Stop Associating With Your Mistakes
When I was going through the sobriety, relapse, binge cycle the story in my head would go something like this:
I can’t go an entire week without drinking. I’m such a terrible person.
I can’t even go one day without a cigarette? I’m the WORST.
As long as you let your mistakes define your self-worth, you’re going to continue making them. Manson made a really good point about this that smacked me in my face (not literally, but you get what I’m saying).
“Here’s the thing: there’s a sick sort of comfort that comes from these self-judgments. That’s because they relieve us of the responsibility for our own actions. If I decide that I can’t give up ice cream because I’m a horrible person—that “horrible person-ness” precludes my ability to change or improve in the future—therefore, it’s technically out of my hands, isn’t it? It implies that there’s nothing I can do about my cravings or compulsions, so fuck it, why try?”
I read that and felt utterly seen.
How many times have you (or I) failed at sticking with something because we allowed ourselves to rest on the idea that we’re fundamentally terrible, broken people who will never get it right?
I held so many pity parties for myself on my balcony. Oh, woe is me, I am here drinking again. Might as well go hard at it.
Or, more recently, I’m just not a morning person. I don’t have what it takes to wake up early and exercise.
How To Make Self-Discipline Work For You
Once you dive into the deep emotional work, you can start creating better habits. Breaking free of the instinct to attach shame and value judgments onto your mistakes is the first step. Next, you’re going to need to flex that willpower muscle.
James Clear, like Charles Duhigg, is a habits guru who does a lot of work with helping regular folks like me and you become the kind of 5 AM wake-up-and-exercise, meal-planning, life-winning people we long to be (or whatever your goal is).
People who go train for marathons or lose 100 pounds with diet and exercise are successful long-term because they ENJOY the process. If you are forcing yourself to do anything, you are going to quit eventually.
It’s all about finding healthier ways to reward yourself that you actually find rewarding.
Manson had a great take on this. He said:
“Once you resolve much of your shame, and once you’ve created situations to provide greater emotional benefits from doing the desired behavior than not doing it, what you end up with is the appearance of airtight self-discipline, without actually putting forth any effort.”
I Hate Going To The Gym But I Never Regret Being There
There are few things that inexplicably get on my nerves more than forcing myself to exercise. The amount of negotiation and bartering that happens in my brain when I get up and have to talk myself into getting dressed and leaving the house is astonishing.
Using willpower to get out the door always fails. Some days it’s enough, but mostly it’s not.
Here’s the thing though. I LOVE being at the gym. Truly. I like lifting weights. I like getting some “me” time with my podcasts, and I ALWAYS feel better once I leave.
So what’s with all the self-sabotaging trying to get there?
It goes back to willpower and decision-fatigue. If getting to the gym (the actual process) requires too much effort from the prefrontal cortex, your brain is more likely to give up the fight.
The challenge, then, becomes how to eliminate the decision aspect of getting to the gym.
Self-Discipline and Rituals
Even though I know being at the gym and working out feels good, I still have to beat myself up to get in my car and actually go there.
James Clear suggests creating rituals that eliminate the need for making big decisions like deciding whether or not to go to the gym today.
If every night you put your gym clothes and sneakers beside your bed and the first thing you do is put them on, you’ve already set in motion the things that need to happen to get your butt to the gym.
No need to play the should I or shouldn’t I game. Put the clothes on and leave the house before you get a chance to think about it.
Does this eliminate having to power through on mornings when you don’t feel like doing it? No, absolutely not. Sometimes you do have to use willpower, but on the majority of mornings, it becomes part of your routine like bathing or brushing your teeth.
Clear states, “The key to any good ritual is that it removes the need to make a decision. Most people never get moving because they can’t decide how to get started. Having a ritual takes that burden off your shoulders.”
This is precisely why a strong morning routine is integral for any big life changes.
Sometimes You Have To Start Small
A few months ago, I read The Miracle Morning by Hal Enrod. Oh, I was motivated! The premise was simple enough. Give yourself one hour in the morning to do a set amount of things for a set amount of time, but also START TOMORROW.
Hal assures you that if you tell yourself the night before that you’re going to get up and do this thing (power of positive thinking), then you will and it will be great.
So that’s what I did. Guess how many days I lasted?
I tried to do too much at once and didn’t take into account how I was going to handle this new routine on nights when my toddler was having trouble sleeping (which is often these days).
So I scaled it back.
One day, I will get to 5 AM, but for now, it’s about 6:30. That’s just enough time to make my bed and do some meditation and a five-minute exercise routine before my daughter wakes up.
The longer I do it, the more it becomes second nature and I will gradually scale up to where I want to be.
I’m still getting the benefits of a morning routine without the daily, internal battle.
If you want to start a routine, do 5-10 minutes a day at the same time. Pick something you like. If you hate burpees before, during, and after then don’t do burpees.
Commit to doing something that makes you feel good and is good for you for a few minutes in the morning. Once you got that nailed down, increase the time and wake up a little earlier.
A Caveat On Willpower and Addiction
What I don’t want you to do is take this article and think, “Well see, I’m going to have to slowly scale back on my drinking because just quitting outright and relying on willpower isn’t going to work.”
That’s both right and wrong.
You’re right that willpower alone is not going to help you quit drinking (or smoking, or whatever terrible vice you’re wrestling with). That’s why you need to go to counseling, meetings, or rehab throughout the process.
Remember that whole bit about shame?
You’ve got a lot of work to do in that department, my friend. I know because I beat myself up for decades over the same things.
Doing The Work
Every day, you have to make the decision to not drink. That is mentally and emotionally exhausting. Which is why you’re not going to clean up your eating or get heavy into yoga at the same time. First thing’s first.
But moderation isn’t the route for you either. Deciding to have just one drink is an even harder decision to stick by then not drinking at all. Guess what will happen?
Willpower alone will not keep you sober. You have to do the emotional work as well. In the meantime, distraction is your friend.
There’s a reason a lot of people in early sobriety have spotless homes and apartments. Cleaning helps you check out of “thinking” which means less mental strain wearing you down.
You’re Not A Terrible Person
Maybe you know that. Maybe you don’t.
Most days, I know this to be true for myself. But sometimes I, too, need some reminding. Those are the days I find myself wanting to eat an entire pizza in order to bury my feelings.
It’s a very human thing to do.
Our job is to recognize the behavior for what it is and proactively deal with it. Failing to stick to your diet for the hundredth time does not make you a terrible person. It means there’s something beneath the surface you haven’t dealt with.
As a culture, we are overly reliant on notions of willpower and self-discipline. You can’t fight yourself into being a better person. You’ll lose.
Recognize when shame is driving some undesirable behavior and then take the necessary steps to handle it. Even the acknowledgment that shame is driving your failures is empowering because it allows you to reshape the narrative in your mind about why you can’t stop drinking, or smoking, or eating entire pizzas.
Be kind to yourself. Do the work. And you’ll get there.