Posted On July 12, 2021

Discipline and Self-Management Techniques Part 1

Discipline and self-management are critical skills for everyone who aspires to master a particular skill. This is because it takes a long time and consistent practice to develop the individual and collective skills needed for success in any complex endeavor.

IMHO discipline is a critical skill by itself. Learning and mastering how to use discipline in different areas of life is absolutely necessary to succeed in any form of athletics, business, science, etc.

In this first installment I focus on a form of discipline that is critical to nutrition, diet and fitness.


What do you want?

The other evening I was at a dinner party and a charming lady calmly told me that she would like to lose 30 pounds to get into beach condition for her vacation in October. When she made that statement, she had already enjoyed two glasses of excellent wine and a gourmet dinner.

I took this as a sincere intention.

Like many intentions the thought is disconnected from the actions needed to make the thought a reality.

On occasion we all express intentions to do some things that will require monumental effort. The first takeaway is that when we are feeling comfortable, we have little trouble making a commitment to do something in the distant future. The thought seems reasonable and reassuring. When we are enjoying the sublime glow of feeling good the possible discomfort associated with any future effort never crosses our mind.

This is a little trick that all of us play on ourselves from time to time.

I dont mean to diminish the idea that intentions are important. Unless you consciously intend to do something, you never get started.

However, goal setting by itself produces nothing. Goals are no more than thoughts. They exist only in your mind.

Unfortunately, many people make the mistake of believing that by setting goals they have actually done something. Announcing that they are going to lose 40 pounds is the occasion to reward themselves by eating a half gallon of ice cream.

Once a goal or intention has been stated, the next step must be to develop a detailed plan of how this goal will be accomplished.

Plans are maps of how one will supposedly reach the goal. Moving to implementation is where things can get difficult.

However, to increase the chance that some effective effort will be expended, another set of underappreciated factors become essential.


Which of your selves is going to do this task?

All of us recognize that we have multiple facets to our personality. In the same body we can be the workout fanatic, business owner, card player, parent, neighbor, video game fan, car buyer, etc. In short, many different roles and responses to different situations.

In other words, we can think of ourselves as being many different persons depending on what we are doing. However, all these selves reside in one body.

When we operate in each of these different roles, we have methods for behaving that are specific to that area. For example, a successful business owner has a clear rational system for managing the operation. When the same person goes to a casino rational calculation may disappear and bets are made based on bizarre emotional criteria. This leads to disastrous losses.

We all know someone who is very successful in one part of their life and a complete train wreck in other parts of their life. Nobel Laureate Thomas C. Schelling painted a vivid picture of this conflict between good intentions and complete inability to follow through on them:

(A man)who eats a high calorie lunch knowing that he will regret it, does regret it, resolves to compensate with a low calorie dinner, eats a high calorie dinner knowing he will regret it, and does regret it; sits glued to the TV knowing that again tomorrow hell wake up early in a cold sweat unprepared for that morning meeting on which so much of his career depends – Thomas C. Schelling, The Intimate Contest for Self-Command 1980.


Many are struggling to make changes in parts of their life but seem completely unable to control their behavior for more than a few days (or minutes). The fact is that there may be some parts of our lives that are extremely difficult for us to manage effectively.

We can plan all we want, but unfortunately some parts of our several personalities have not developed the skills needed to actually implement our plans.

The most common prescription to fix these situations involves using our own discipline to enforce the rules needed to get us from where we are now to where we said we want to be.

This ignores the fact that in some areas of our life we have minimal discipline skills and no understanding of how to develop them.

Unfortunately much of the time there is not much transfer on the methods between we use in the successful part of our lives and the parts where we are a mess. It appears that we can manage (discipline) ourselves in some things, but NOT in others.

In areas of our life where we struggle, or for goals that appear to be almost out of range, it can be useful to adopt a strategy that assumes we are managing someone else.

If we find that using our own discipline is not working very well when we try to do something as difficult as getting ripped, learning calculus, repairing our roof, etc. there is an approach that can be more effective.

Assume that you are managing someone elses behavior and not your own. Create rigid unbreakable rules and enforce them!

In short, the rules are set by some outside force. You have no choice but to comply. This is why being on a diet is effective. You have no choice but to follow the rules. You dont have the authority to give yourself a break. An outside force controls what is and is not OK.

The trick is that WE are the outside force that makes and enforces the rules.


Binary Thinking is not all bad

Being extremely strict with yourself is perhaps the most important factor in building mastery. Acquiring a new skill, defeating bad habits or changing the way you eliminate undesirable behavior is a long-term project that is never easy.

Binary (aka. black and white) thinking can be a big asset when working hard on personal change. It will not be comfortable, but when there is no ambiguity about what things are OK and not OK, you never have to think about what to do in a given situation.

In the current US culture of counseling and therapy, rigid rules that make you feel bad are not popular. However, if you intend to accomplish something difficult such as play the piano, reach a competitive level in powerlifting, build a successful business, master the Python computer language, or even have a successful relationship, being diligent and unambiguously committed is mandatory.

That is why it is essential to undertake a personal change project as if you were dictating what must happen to someone else. There is no grey area in these rules.

If you are on a diet to drop 40 big ones you know that it is NOT ok to go face down in the chocolate pie or drink a case of beer just because it is Tuesday. You can wail about how unfair life is and how awful the rules are. No forgiveness!

ButIf you fall off the horse, get right back on

Next week: more on self-discipline and how to build new types of discipline skills. Ex. Why do dieters who lose a lot of weight put it all back on within a year? Cool ideas from psychologist Kevin Hoganand more.

Lift Big,


Written by Richard

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