Self-Discipline Hacks: Increase Productivity & Achieve Goals

1:01 PM Amer Bekic 0 Comments

1 in 3 college kids say " yes". That's the proportion of university students who admit to using stimulants to help study (warning: PDF). Chief among those stimulants is, of course, Adderall.

For the few who've never heard of it, Adderall is an amphetamine-based prescription drug officially used in the treatment of ADHD and narcolepsy, widely employed off-label to aid with concentration and focus. Adderall works by stimulating the release of dopamine and related neurotransmitters. Their effect is to activate the brain's reward system, which is the mechanism responsible for making you want to keep doing whatever it is that you're doing. The reward system is normally activated by actions which we have evolved to instinctual recognize as advantageous: eating, drinking, taking care of your kids.

Adderall (and amphetamines in general) forces the reward system to activate on command, making you interested in any arbitrary activity. In other words, it hacks your brain chemistry to make you want to perform any arbitrary task, giving you artificial discipline. The effect is potent and general: the task doesn't have to be actually useful or sensible for you to want to do it, on Adderall; amphetamine users could be put to digging a trench and they'd work away at it as if that were the most interesting project they've ever worked at.

Unfortunately, taking amphetamines is not a sustainable alternative to developing real discipline. They have a host of side effects, tend to be addictive and are heavily restricted in most jurisdictions. I do not recommend using them, and avoid them myself. But they do provide us with key insight into how humans operate: on a base, animal level, we act because our neurochemistry tells us to.

The question then becomes: can we hack our neurochemistry to facilitate discipline, without resorting to dangerous drugs? the answer, as is obvious from the title of this thread, is yes, yes we can.

The method is completely outrageous, flying right in the face of orthodoxy, because it's based on your fee-fees: we're going to work with your emotional response to make you hack your own brain chemistry and make you disciplined. It's not that hard, it's not stoic, it doesn't take heroic willpower. Ready? let's go. If you just want the method and don't care about the background, skip the next two sections.

Once in a while, any undisciplined person has a good day. On that day, the undisciplined person manages, by some fortunate alignment of the planets, to not be a lazy a@shole and actually do what he should have. At the end of that day, the undisciplined person goes to bed with a smile on his face, an incredible feeling of relief washing over him, and the sad thought in his mind: "if only I could do this every day".

Undisciplined people often fantasize about what their life would be like if they were disciplined. It goes a little like this: they would wake up at an early hour and immediately get out of bed to start their morning. They would do some stretching or workout, take a shower (washing all the nooks and crannies, even the soles of their feet), shave to perfection, make a good breakfast, get dressed in their best, and stroll out with a smile on their face. They would dedicate themselves to their craft with attention and precision, taking opportunities throughout their day to network and socialize with colleagues, especially over lunch when they would eat a nutritious, healthy meal. On leaving work, they would promptly attend to whichever activity the evening calls for, be that buying groceries, going to the gym or engaging in a hobby, before enjoying the social pastime of the day, be that with friends or a woman. They would go to bed (which they had neatly made in the morning, forgot to mention that) early, guaranteeing them enough sleep to wake up refreshed the next day.

The funny thing is that you can have all of this and it's neither hard nor complicated, provided you know how. I myself have sought after this elusive trick all my life, resorting to draconian time-management and self-motivation measures to deal with my chronic procrastination: pomodoro timers, app lockouts, habit trackers, even a commitment system where I would give money to a trusted person and ask them to forfeit it if I didn't complete an assigned task by a certain time. Every day was a constant struggle against myself to do what I needed to do. So how did I get out?

The answer came to me after a particularly bad day, when I had failed across the board to be a functional human being. I had gotten to bed too late the night before, woken up terribly tired, eaten like s@it, been an asocial time waster on the job, and bailed on a social engagement to stay home and read reddit. I had even failed to brush my teeth, and felt in no mood to do anything except wallow in self-pity at my continued struggles with discipline. I had tried every method in the book(s) and I still failed.

A serendipitous thought struck me, a thought so simple as to sound simplistic: "just do it because it makes you feel better". Brush your teeth? go do that, you'll enjoy the freshness and won't feel like a disgusting slob. Make your bed? do it, you'll thank yourself later tonight when you're not fighting with the covers and getting cold because half of them have inexplicably fallen off. Do your evening stretches (I had at least managed to work out, and had long since tried to do regular evening stretches to cut down on next-day soreness), you'll feel much better sleeping and waking up tomorrow. You get the idea.

Surprisingly, this simplistic method worked. I got off my a@s, brushed my teeth, made my bed, did my stretches and went to sleep. Of course, all of the advantages that I had foreseen materialized, and I slept far better than I would have otherwise. In the morning, still grasping some tendrils of the idea from the night before, I encouraged myself to go through my proper morning routine (which I typically skipped through in laziness), thinking each time about how much better I would feel for having gone through each step. At work, I dispensed with my array of timers and concentrated how much better I would feel if I didn't have to work through lunch break because I had lazed off during the morning. I found myself finishing my allotted tasks and even completing some leftovers from the previous day, all well before mid-day. And so on during the day... you get the idea.

Awestruck with how such a simple system apparently could work better than the plethora of devices I had previously used, I kept experimenting with it, at the same time doing research on whether anything like this had been tried before. It had indeed, in a sense, been tried in certain psychological studies, where people were induced to visualize their rewards to stimulate them into completing a non-rewarding task; but those results were left there as ink on a page, never developing into a proper method (at least not to my knowledge). So I did my best, refining my observations and experiences into what I'm presenting to you now.

How to hack your reward system


The key to this method is hacking your reward system to trigger whenever you need it to. On its own, it would only activate at the moment you actually get the reward: not when you're dieting but weeks later when you look at yourself in the mirror, not when you're working but when you've finished and realize you now have guilt-free free time.

We need to back-shift your reward response to the moment when you need to act. How? By consciously evoking the feelings of relief, pride, pleasure, self-respect, satisfaction etc of completing the task. Remember earlier, when I talked about how every undisciplined person has a good day once in a while? use that feeling as a reference point. Tell yourself: "do this because you'll feel X" and summon clearly, in your mind and in your body, the specific feeling of reward for that activity.

In my experimentation, there are two main groups of reward-feelings you can use:

  • practical rewards: the pleasant results of completing an activity, such as the pleasure of company for social activities, the enjoyment of good food for spending time cooking, the freshness of waking up after a good night's sleep, the increased attractiveness and well-being of a healthy body etc

  • inner rewards: self-respect, relief from not having the task hanging over your head, not feeling like a disgusting fat f@ck, pride in having been disciplined, pride in a job well-done etc
My experience suggests that the first category is easier to think of (anyone can immediately see the practical reward of a sensible activity), but harder to concretely evoke and less potent; the second type occurs to you with more difficulty (undisciplined people are rarely used to taking pride in their actions), but once it does it's far more potent in actually stimulating you to action.

That sounds too good to be true

I agree, but that doesn't erase the fact that it works. It's the system I've been living on for the past few months, and it has not only made it much easier psychologically to manage myself, it has led to practical improvements in various areas of my life where I had lagged behind due to low discipline. The theoretical foundation is also sound.

But it's feel-good b@llshit

No, it isn't. I know why you think it is: it works by manipulating positive feelings. But the key difference is that feel-good b@llshit manipulates completely unwarranted positive feelings to make you forget about your s@itty situation and convince you everything's fine. Here we do the complete opposite: we start by acknowledging that everything is not fine, that there's a specific course of action that you should take to fix it, and use the knowledge that fixing it will make you feel better to spur you into action. We cut through all the sophistication and high-minded thinking and go straight to your most primitive hindbrain.

This psychological trickery is simply a reinforcement of the natural mechanisms that are the basis of delayed gratification behavior. The beaver doesn't build the dam because it knows through rationality and planning that it will create a useful refuge, but because instinct has programmed it to feel good while building a dam.

When a dog performs a difficult series of tricks for you, it's not because he has a complex rational understanding of your psychology and knows you'll reward him, it's because you've conditioned him to feel anticipation and eagerness while he's performing the tricks, which is why he performs them even when there isn't an actual food reward.

We are not so far from these animals, and our problem with discipline stems, in my opinion, largely from the fact that we need to engage in so much more delayed-gratification behavior than we evolved for, in situations we definitely didn't evolve for, with rewards shifted forward in time much further out than we evolved for. But the mechanism is still there, it can still be exploited, and I believe that is precisely what disciplinarian systems do: by dispensing prizes (praise, rewards) and punishments (push-ups, pain, shame), they condition people to associate positive feelings (pride, relief, ambition) with necessary activities, enabling them to perform them in a disciplined manner. What we do here, in the evident absence of disciplinarians doing it for us, is to condition ourselves manually.

There is much more that I would like to say about this topic, but this post is already long enough that I know many people will have skimmed even the parts containing the practical advice. That's not something I know how to fix at this stage; if you're one of those people and have skipped to these lines, then at least go back and read the "How to hack your reward system" paragraph. I suggest you read it all regardless, but if that's not happening then get at least the gist of the method and give it a try; I have strong reason to suspect you'll be surprised at how well it works.