An Alternative to Self-control

“I count him braver who overcomes his desires than who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self.”


In the book Essentialism, author Greg McKeown observed that people who appear to be very disciplined often times are not.  Rather than having the willpower to consistently make the right decisions, they have the humility to realize that they don’t.  Armed with this self-awareness, they organize their world in such a way that they are no longer in a position to make the wrong decision.  What looks to others like willpower or discipline is actually the absence of an alternative choice.

Reading about this was incredibly freeing for me.  While I thought of myself as a disciplined person, I had been losing the weight loss battle for the better part of five years.  Undoing the consequences of poor nutrition wasn’t difficult in the past. However, my body has become less forgiving in this area than it was when I was younger.  I asked myself, “What if this is true of me? What if I’m not as disciplined as I think I am? Is this the strategy I need to pursue?”

This was a difficult thought process for me to digest.  I tend to be optimistic, so admitting that I don’t have the capacity to do something is against my nature.  But the results don’t lie, and the results were telling me I didn’t have the ability to manufacture the will power necessary to win this battle.  Admitting this felt wrong at first, but once I acknowledged it as truth I was able to ask myself what I should do in response. As Greg suggested, I needed to eliminate the choice of making the wrong decision.  

On the nutrition front, I decided on a few good options that I made available for breakfast and lunch.  While there isn’t much variety in my diet, making good decisions becomes far easier when you’ve greatly narrowed the options in advance.  Our family dinners are usually pretty healthy, so it’s easy to stay on course for that meal. On the exercise front, I decided that the best way for me to simplify the decision making was for me to exercise every single day.  I tried exercising four days a week in the past, but is was easy to miss a day with the intention of making up the workout later in the week. When your plan is to exercise every day, there is no more choosing. When the alarm goes off, I go to the gym.  I mix in light days so I don’t burn out, but I keep the routine the same. If something truly out of the ordinary causes me to miss a day, I don’t feel bad about it. I go so often that a rare day off won’t disrupt my progress. But then it’s back to the gym the next morning, and every morning after that.

While my experience with this concept has worked great in the health arena, it can be applied to any area of your life where discipline or self-control is required.  For example, if you’ve routinely failed to stick to a financial budget, you could use this same process. Ask yourself, “How can I eliminate the decision to spend less money?”.  Cutting up credit cards may be a necessary start, or setting up an automatic savings plan to an account that is less accessible than the account you normally spend out of. Some people benefit from using physical cash as a means to create a finite amount of money to spend.  Whatever the strategy, the concept is the same. Create a system that eliminates the ability to make the wrong decision.

The best news of all it that you don’t need to trick yourself forever.  Our lives are largely made up of habits and routines. Once you’ve tricked yourself into discipline for long enough, the decision you initially forced upon yourself will soon be your normal mode of operation.  When you arrive at this new existence, it requires far less discipline or will power to continue the habit. We begin to operate the way we desire automatically, simply because we are used to it.

If this idea sounds interesting to you, spend some time reflecting on a part of your life where you would like more self-control.  Ask yourself if a system that eliminates the bad decision would work better than trying to be disciplined. What would it look like for the scenario you’ve thought of?  I hope this concept brings the same amount of value to you as it has to me. For a deeper dive on this topic, I highly recommend reading Essentialism by Greg McKeown.

To your well-being,