After spending a year working through MIT’s computer science curriculum independently, I’ve gotten quite a few comments from people claiming I must have extraordinary self-discipline. I let that vanity sink in a bit, but then remember I procrastinated for a week to pack for my last trip, ending up doing it all last minute.
The truth is, for someone with supposedly exceptional willpower, I do a lot of very lazy things. I haven’t transferred my driver’s license, even after moving over a year ago. I had a growing pile of junk because I didn’t take 15 minutes to buy a new filing organizer. Even this website uses a sloppy redirect after more than 6 years.
Maybe those are just minor things, and thus I’m justifiably lazy with them. But in any case, if I am disciplined and proactive it’s definitely not universal.
After having done my latest challenge, I feel sticking through a 4-year degree program requires more discipline. After all, I only had to dedicate one year of my life, not four (or more).
Discipline is in the Context
There’s a common psychological bias known as fundamental attribution error. It’s the false belief that explains behaviors in terms of personality traits, instead of the context of those behaviors.
When a person slacks off, we say they’re a lazy person. But that might not be the case. It might be that, in their context, almost anyone would have acted similarly. The error is to attribute this behavior to something fundamental about the person, instead of the context.
My ability to stick to a one-year self-education project, but inability to get my license transferred seems contradictory. After all, either I’m a fundamentally disciplined or lazy person. Perhaps, instead, the context matters a lot more than we realize.
How You Can Change the Context to Change Your Willpower
The key is to make small decisions that drastically reduce the future willpower required for all future decisions. Odysseus wasn’t supernaturally willed to resist the sirens, he just had the foresight to chain himself beforehand.
Next time you embark on a goal or project, use these tricks to get more from your limited supply of willpower:
1. Give it a Name
One of the best things I did to help me finish my MIT Challenge was to call it “The MIT Challenge”. There’s nothing unique or creative about it, but by taking a vague and ambiguous desire to learn more about computer science, and turning it into a concrete mission, I dramatically boosted my ability to stick with it.
Many personal goals fail because they lack formal structure. They feel flimsy, so people treat them that way. By building up a mission around your goal, you can turn it into something solid enough for you to latch onto.
2. Stop Doing So Much
The discipline to finish a project is generally the discipline to not do other things. Many goals fail, not because they’re too difficult, but because they’re too difficult to do simultaneously with other goals.
While working on my challenge, I didn’t take on any other goal. No new business projects. No resolutions to eat better or exercise more. No binding commitments to try new hobbies or sports. Those things weren’t disallowed, but I wasn’t allowed to commit to anything else.
3. Automate the First 5%
Want to start flossing? Stanford researcher, B.J. Fogg found the best way is to commit only to flossing one tooth.
At first, this might sound ridiculous. After all, what good is flossing one tooth? But the idea is that flossing one tooth is really easy, and almost nobody will stop flossing after only finishing the first tooth.
It turns out many behaviors are like this, which have a trigger which is relatively easy to perform, but cascades effort to the rest of the behavior. If you can establish the trigger as a habit, the rest will follow:
- Exercising – Commit to going to the gym.
- Learning – Read at least one page.
- Socializing – Say hello to one person.
- Writing – Write a paragraph on any topic
4. Leverage Social Pressure
Social pressure can be an ally or an enemy in achieving a goal. Since social environments will vary, I don’t believe there’s a universal answer of how to use it. But it can also be one of the most powerful motivators, if used properly.
My challenge differed in an important way from most self-education efforts. I did mine under a lot of public scrutiny. This was stressful at times, but it definitely made me more committed to finishing. I’ve done private self-education projects before and I wasn’t as dedicated to any of them as I was to this project.
Informal goals, the kind that don’t leverage existing social support structures, can often benefit from making such design tweaks. Internet communities can also enable you to use the right networks, instead of relying on friends or family who may not understand or want to help you.
5. Make it Routine
Routine is a major force in our lives. Doing something the first time is hard, doing it the thousandth is mindless. By focusing on the process of building habits, you can shift your focus to designing the behaviors in a way that they will stick instead of merely trying to slog through them each time.
The key switch that allowed me to build exercise as a lifelong habit was to focus on exercising daily. I don’t go every day now, but it was invaluable for making the behavior automatic in my life.
Discipline is Design
Clever planning matters more than inexhaustible endurance. Invest your energy, not just in trying to stick to your goals, but in designing goals which are easier to stick with.