One of the foundations of the self-improvement movement is self-determinism: the act of determining your future through your own efforts by exercising self-control and discipline.

Inspiring stories of legendary self-determinists, such as athletes and successful entrepreneurs, are all around us; constantly reminding us of our own shortcomings.

I can hear the scripts being read now:
“You can do anything you set your mind to,”
“Eliminate the word can’t from your vocabulary.”
“Don’t blame anyone but yourself.”

On one hand, belief in self-determinism has motivated many people to great accomplishments and the world is a better place for it.

On the other hand, those who didn’t accomplish their goals are left with a deeper and deeper sense of shame; that something must be wrong with them because they lacked self-control and discipline.



Everyone has had the experience of setting a goal, possibly a new year’s resolution, to improve themselves by losing weight, quitting smoking, or saving more money; only to fail miserably and end up worse than before.

Most of us have had this experience many, many times.

The goal of this article is not to depress you with revelations on how hard it is to keep your promises to yourself, but to set the stage for a more efficient approach to goal setting and execution.



How can self-control be so hard? Sometimes it feels like we are not even in control of our actions.

I consider myself a seasoned practitioner in the art of self-determinism, but I’ve come to realize that there are limits.

There have been moments in my life (such as when I worked two full-time jobs at once), when I’ve displayed massive amounts of self-control.  I can also point to moments in my life when I’ve had absolutely none.

It seems as if self-control is a limited resource.  The times when I have had the least amount of self-control tended to follow a period when I exhausted a large amount of it.



Changing or creating habits takes energy, a limited resource in humans.

There are seemingly endless competing forces for our energy, to where even the most powerful self-determinists are no match. Furthermore, studies of human behavior suggest that we are much less in control of our decisions that we might like to believe.

Instead of blindly accepting self-determinism as the ‘way it is’, maybe we should employ a smarter approach to where we deploy our precious energy in order to reach a goal.


Present vs. Future Self

Recently, I’ve come across some interesting accounts in the field of self-control and discipline. The first was a video of a TED talk by Daniel Goldstein entitled, “The Battle Between Your Present And Future Self.

In it, Daniel explains why it’s so hard to stick to our original intentions. When we set a goal, we are setting expectations for how our future self should behave in order to reach a long-term goal that is important to us.

Your present self rationally explains to your future self that avoiding short-term temptations will produce a long-term benefit. Unfortunately, present self will not be there to defend the position when future self faces the temptation.

By the time the future becomes the present, the far-off goal seems much less important than whatever short-term temptation is in front of us. Hence the never-ending struggle between your present and future selves.

If you’re like most people, you’ve been through this struggle countless times. After awhile, it would be wise to learn from this inherent flaw in the system and try a different approach.


1. Commitment Devices

So what is the answer? In the video, Daniel suggests that one possible solution is the concept of commitment devices.

He references the story of Ulysses and the Sirens, where Ulysses asks his men to tie him down in order to resist the irresistible songs of the Sirens. Modern day examples include removing junk food from your house or cutting up your credit cards.

My experience with commitment devices in general has been positive, but I see them as a foundation and not necessarily the entire answer. It certainly helps to remove any unnecessary temptation, but we often find ways to sneak in temptations by leaving the house or going online to make a transfer from your credit account to your checking account.


2. Forget Accountability

Common wisdom is that in order to improve your chances to meet a goal, you should tell someone about it, so that they will hold you accountable.

People exercise this technique in a number of ways, from telling their spouse that they are going to lose weight, to posting on Facebook about their plans to quit smoking.

It turns out that this is exactly the opposite of what you should do if you want to increase your chances of accomplishing a goal. According to a TED talk by Derek Silvers, research shows that the act of telling someone your goal gives your mind an amount of satisfaction that robs from your motivation to keep working.

Those that didn’t share their goal with others didn’t receive the false satisfaction and worked harder to accomplish their goals.


3. Environment

There’s a fascinating study, commissioned by the Nixon administration, on heroin addiction among Vietnam veterans. A startling number of soldiers in Vietnam (around 20%) were describing themselves as heroin addicts.

The news horrified Americans, because typically heroin addiction carried such a terrible recovery rate. But, in the case of Vietnam veteran heroin addicts who returned back home, the recovery rate was upwards of 95%!

What was responsible for such a stark contrast?

It turns out that your environment plays a huge role in habitual behavior. Soldiers that returned home were in such a contrasting environment to what they experienced in Vietnam, they were more easily able to break bad habits.

What does this mean for our individual pursuits of goals? If you are trying to break a bad habit, or introduce a good one, your environment is influencing you more than you might think.

Many people associate certain behaviors with certain environments, for example, smoking cigars while golfing or having a cocktail at a restaurant.

It takes energy to build these habits, but once they are ‘set’, your brain ‘outsources’ these activities to your subconscious interaction with your environment. That’s why it can become very difficult to break habits in the environment in which the habit was created.

You will need to either exert as much energy into creating a new habit in the environment, or remove yourself from the environment all together.


Reward Substitution

My favorite technique for self-discipline is the concept of reward substitution. Dan Ariely describes in a TED talk, how he ended up being the only person in a study who actually took the prescribed dose of a drug that made him sick for 16 hours, 3 days a week, for a year, in order to simply give him a chance of avoiding Hepatitis in 30 years.

The problem is a classic present vs future self conundrum. Present self wants to avoid Hepatitis in 30 years at all costs and instructs future self to suck it up and take the shots.

When future self becomes present self, the imminent discomfort of taking the shot and being sick for 16 hours becomes more powerful than the possibility of avoiding discomfort 30 years in the future.


How did he overcome this obstacle?

He substituted the future reward with a smaller, but more immediate reward. Since he loved movies, he went to the video store (on the day he was to inject himself with the nausea inducing medicine) in order to build anticipation and excitement. When it came time to take the shot, he pressed play on the movie at nearly the same time he injected himself.

I thought this idea was brilliant when I first heard it, and immediately searched for a way to incorporate it into common goals such as weight loss. Here’s what I came up with:

If losing weight can be boiled down to a simple ‘checkbook register’ of calories in vs. calories out, then why is it so difficult?

(please, I don’t want to get into an argument about how all calories are not created equal, let’s just assume they are for the sake of this argument.)

Common sense would tell us that a combination of more exercise (calories out) and less food (calories in) should do the trick.

The problem is: when future self is faced with the temptation of skipping exercise or ingesting extra calories, the short term temptation often wins the battle. For future self, the long term goal of losing weight is not as pressing as the short term benefit of behaving badly.

So how can we use reward substitution in this case?

Take a short term reward that you covet even if it works against your goal. For example, a bowl of ice cream or a beer (one of the heavy, tasty ones, not just a light beer!)

Use that as a short term reward for working out. As long as your short term reward doesn’t cancel out all the work you just did, it can be very powerful. For example, if you burn 500 calories when you work out, your reward should be 250 calories or less. You could even work out a system where you can decide to use your credits all at once or as you accumulate them.

Now, future self has an short-term reward to look forward to, for doing something undesirable, such as working out.

I’d love to hear your other suggestions for reward substitution in the comments below.


It’s not hopeless…

Self Discipline can be a very discouraging endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be hopeless. Instead of banging your head against the wall and working against your human nature, use it to your advantage.



Ulysses and the Sirens:

Image by Zach Dishner