Sprinting Theory: How to Have Self-Discipline on Steroids


There ain’t no such thing as willpower. Explaining away wins and losses by some magical force is only useful if you don’t understand anything about your own psychology. Having concrete theories about why your self-discipline can fail you is far more useful.

I’m going to explore one of those ideas for putting your self-discipline on steroids. Using this concept has been incredibly useful in breaking through my own laziness. This simple idea I’m going to refer to as sprinting theory.

100-Meter Dash or Marathon?

Running is all about pacing. If you go too fast early in the race, you’ll burn out all your energy far before the finish line. Completing a marathon is quite different than bursting through the 100-meter dash. If you get the pacing wrong you’ll either finish way behind or stop halfway.

Pacing a sprint is straightforward because of one thing: you know the length of the race. You know before the starting pistol fires whether you’ll finish a brief lap around the track or several miles. The goal of sprinting theory is to help you set a pace for your discipline.

Discipline is a Fuel

Recent research suggests that self-discipline is a fuel, not a state of mind. In the study, participants were split into two groups. The first group did a task that required self-discipline, the second did a neutral task. Afterwards both groups completed a task requiring self-discipline and were measured on their self-restraint.

Researchers suspected that the group who did a priming self-discipline activity, would perform better in the second exercise. Since their mind was in a state of self-discipline, they would work perform better on the second task.

Instead, researchers found that the first group performed worse. It seemed they had used up some of their self-discipline fuel on the first task. This drain allowed the neutral group to get a better score on the second task. (Hat Tip: StudyHacks)

Finding The Length of Your Race

If you spend your self-discipline fuel too quickly, you burn out. Try starting an exercise program by running fifteen miles and puking your guts out. After that start you probably won’t be lacing up your jogging shoes tomorrow.

If you spend your self-discipline too slowly, you miss the key period where it works. I’ve found setting a new habit takes about a month until the habit reaches an equilibrium (where it requires no effort to continue or stop). Focusing on a habit over the course of a year means you won’t have enough discipline to overcome the obstacles of the first month. You jog lazily when you need to be sprinting.

Getting steroid-pumped self-discipline is fairly simple:

  1. Define the critical period. Ten minutes, a day, two months, a year? Knowing the critical period for any activity will help you set the right pace so your discipline doesn’t burn out or fall behind.
  2. Commit to the critical period. Once you find the critical period, set out a written goal and motivate yourself to follow through in that sliver of time. This will focus all your self-discipline in one place.

Defining the critical period isn’t difficult, the problem is most people don’t do it. Instead they pick unrealistic critical periods that don’t cover the area self-discipline is needed. A common pick for changing a habit is a critical period of “forever”. When you vaguely define your race at such a length, you won’t build up enough force to get over the first month.

Finding the Critical Period

Estimating the length of your race takes some trial and error. You may start by setting the race too short, dying out before the critical period is over. This happens to a lot of new bloggers who expect popularity in three months, rather than focusing over a few years. Instead, you might set the race too long and lose all your motivation to focus presently.

Here are a few ways you can speed up the experimenting to figure out the length of your race:

  1. Talk to Past Athletes. Seek out people who have already achieved what you want and ask them when the most energy is required. Ask them what period of time required the most mental energy and use that as an estimate for how long to set your critical period.
  2. Split it Into Known Races. If you aren’t sure how long you’ll be running, split the goal into shorter footraces. I’ve broken up many big goals into a series of month-long habit trials. Since I’m familiar with running habit trials, this gives added control.
  3. Track Your Past. Measure yourself and look for where the threshold lies. For any task, figure out the most common quitting time. If you tend to procrastinate on homework after looking at it for less than twenty minutes, you can set a thirty minute sprint for the future.

Common Sprint Lengths

There are no hard and fast rules for how long you should focus your discipline. However, here are a few guidelines I’ve found helpful in creating an iron will:

  1. Changing Habits – 30 Days. I’ve found a month is approximately the time needed to form a habit. This is enough time to condition a new pattern and break up the old pattern.
  2. Waking Up – 10 Minutes. Immediately when I wake up, my reaction is to crawl back into bed. However, I’ve found that if I commit to staying awake for at least another 10 minutes, that ensures that 99% of the time I stay awake. No more wars with the snooze button.
  3. Working – 15 Minutes. Working for fifteen minutes straight is usually enough to kill any procrastination problems.
  4. New Skills – 3-6 Months. If you have an interest in building a new skill (dancing, public speaking, computer programming, graphic design, etc.) I find it usually takes about 3-6 months to overcome the initial frustration barrier. This is an area it is easy to underestimate how long the race actually is.
  5. Business Efforts – 3-5 Years. I’ve only been at this blog for two years, but expert sources such as Steve Pavlina and Jim Rohn suggest that the critical period might be as much as five years. Steve suggests: “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year, but underestimate what they can do in five.”
  6. Conversations – 10 Minutes. Meeting someone new? Unless the person clearly indicates they don’t want to talk with you, I give at least ten minutes to get a conversation flowing. Don’t back out too early because you have nothing to say beyond, “Hello.”

What other sprinting lengths have you discovered? Write your thoughts in the comments.