The Science of Self-Discipline by Peter Hollins – Book Review

We’ll kick off 2024 with a look at Peter Hollins’ The Science of Self-Discipline. As we find our footing in the New Year and keep chipping away at our commitment to resolutions, perhaps a closer look at what constitutes self-discipline and how we can develop it may be helpful. A starting premise of the book is that even though some science suggests some of us are born with more natural propensity toward discipline than others, our biological basis of discipline is only a small piece of our overall ability. Self-discipline is a skill that can be cultivated. It isn’t a fixed, set in stone, allocation received at birth through biology.

Additionally, any meaningful objective requires effort to achieve. Effort is uncomfortable. Self-discipline is the driver of that effort along the way. Self-discipline lies at the heart of improvement. Nothing worthwhile is accomplished without discipline.

Hollins quotes Jim Rohn, “We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.” In other words, suffer now or suffer later. Your choice. Suffering now is ultimately less and is more than offset by the increased likelihood of earning more enjoyment down the road. Even if we act with discipline today our future success isn’t guaranteed. Fate can still condemn us to challenges. However, if we choose to not act with discipline today, we are destined to a future life of desperation and regret. That is a guarantee.

Steven Pressfield writes in The War of Art, “The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.” This perspective of discipline echoes that offered by former Navy Seal and internet legend, Jocko Willink. Willink lives by the mantra that discipline equals freedom. The argument that discipline is constraining, leading to a boring, stifling existence is false. It’s only with discipline that we have the freedom to make choices and enjoy the important things. We must master ourselves before we can conquer other things. Discipline is about doing the things we need to do first, before we do what we want to do.

Discipline is a skill that can be improved with practice. Improving our ability to focus is helpful to discipline. Meditation, for example, is associated with a smaller amygdala. The amygdala is part of our old, reptilian brain that triggers our alertness for threats. If it is sensitive, we are easily worried and controlled by fear. With anxiety, stress, or fear fueling us, our discipline goes out the window. Our ability to give something up today for an uncertain tomorrow disappears. A sensitive amygdala delivers fear which closes off our pre-frontal cortex. This reduces our ability to think further decreasing the chances of discipline seizing the day. Developing a calm mind helps. We can also help ourselves by staying away from situations that offer temptation. Don’t depend on discipline to be effective 100% of the time. Give yourself a chance by staying away from it and giving your discipline a chance to rest.

Willpower depletion is the idea that our discipline or willpower has limits. Once it has been tested or used up, we need to rest and let it replenish. We are more susceptible to collapses in discipline where our willpower has been stretched for extended periods. Grocery shopping when hungry is an example used that is a bad idea. In these circumstances, we’re more likely to buy junk than when we are well fed.

Our discipline is assisted where we can consciously connect with our goals. If our objective is to be fit, healthy, and eat well, then keeping a picture of our goals and target pictures on the fridge may help remind us before we reach for something unhealthy. Our reasons why are stronger, underlying motivations which help us stay disciplined. The more of these we have, the more likely we are to stay disciplined. Our motivators are personal. What we think may motivate us, may, in fact, not. For example, many workers think that salary is important to them, but surveys of over 12,000 employee diary entries suggest that salary isn’t in the top group of motivators for most. Most are incented by the feeling of making progress towards something that is meaningful to them. Take time to connect with what your goals are to fuel your discipline.

Hollins notes that we all have much more capacity to be disciplined than we give ourselves credit for. Like the governor theory in endurance sports, Hollins offers the 40% rule. It suggests that when we feel like we’ve reached the end of our discipline or our ability to work or suffer, we’re running at only 40% of our capacity. We can push forward for 2.5 times the distance. Our mind is wired to cue us to give up far before our capacity. Our mind is like the low fuel warning on our car’s gas tank. Sure, we are using energy. Yes, we’ll need to replenish our supplies at some point. But we’re not anywhere near empty. We still have a ton of reserve in the tank. The 40% rule helps to remind ourselves that there’s much more of which we’re capable even when we start to feel tired and our mind begins to entice us to give up.

Each time we push through our brain’s effort at imposing resistance, we build our self-discipline system. The goal is to internalize that our limits are not known. Pushing through discomfort isn’t the end, but the beginning of our progress. We can do much more. Each time we push past pain into progress we set a new line against which to push in the future as well as against which to resist falling past as well. Our minds can become our greatest encourager as opposed to limiter when we remain in control. The placebo effect is demonstrative proof of the power of our minds. Sugar pills introduced as caffeine or other performance enhancing chemicals have resulted in greater feats of strength and effort exerted. The power of belief to our efforts is real. Give yourself a chance and set yourself up for success by developing a mindset that you are a disciplined person and that you can do more than you are.

Hollins offers a separate rule, the 10X rule, to suggest that we should aspire to set higher goals for ourselves. We apply the 10X rule when we multiply our initial goals by ten times and commit to doing ten times the effort that we had originally thought of contributing. It is intentionally extreme to stretch our mindset and reset our view of ourselves to a higher level.

A separate tip to develop our self-discipline is the 10 minute rule. When you are tempted by something, commit to waiting 10 minutes before giving in to the temptation. Even if you end up satisfying the craving, you have at least “earned” it by “giving up” ten minutes. Applying the ten-minute rule allows you to defeat instant gratification which is the heart of building self-discipline.

Hollins goes on to list a few ways in which we typically create difficulties for our discipline efforts. The False Hope Syndrome is a mindset we bring that thinks that change is easy. We decide we’re going to make a change and it is no big deal. We’ve got this. It’s easy. We can do this. When we think the change will be simple, the first sign of struggle we encounter is met with complete capitulation. We didn’t think it would be this hard. To avoid the false hope syndrome, we need to be realistic, recognize challenge is inevitable, commit to our end purpose, remove temptations, and get started. The false hope syndrome can present as being overly ambitious. Starting a diet during the holidays is an example of the false hope syndrome. Give yourself a chance, start with a clean slate when there will be less temptations and less social events on your calendar.

Waiting to start until things are “perfect” is another trap that produces procrastination. Seek progress over perfection. Do something. Get momentum. The hardest part of moving a stuck vehicle is the first few feet. Once rolling, the effort to keep going is much less. Hollins offers, “Anytime you wait for circumstances to improve, you’re telling yourself that you aren’t capable now.” If not now, then when. Do it now. Develop a bias for action. This makes discipline even easier. Hollins references a 75% Rule which acts as a threshold for action. Don’t wait until all your ducks are in a row or you are guaranteed an outcome. Act when you are about 75% sure you will be successful. Certainty is an excuse to not act. Developing comfort with doubt spurs earlier commitment and action.

There is no discipline without action. Discipline depends on doing. Doing means changing from the status quo. Doing means overcoming inertia. Our brains are built to seek the status quo. Our brains will make excuses to stay where we are and avoid acting. Hollins notes that each decision moment is its own. The past doesn’t have to predict the future, unless you want it to. Keeping your goal in mind and reminding yourself of progress made to date can deliver discipline in a moment. However, we’re also amazing rationalizers. Reminding ourselves of progress we’ve made in a given direction can cue us to lapse as we’ve earned a sin. Dieters, for example, sometimes accept a chocolate bar when reminded of all the sacrifices they have made. You’ve done great the last x days, one chocolate bar won’t kill you. Use your progress to remain on a roll and not to rationalize a reward.

Discipline and discomfort both share the same prefix, dis-, for a reason. They are intertwined. Discipline, by definition, involves discomfort. To build discipline, get comfortable being uncomfortable. Remember that what was originally uncomfortable ceases to be in the future as we build a tolerance to it through experience.

Urges are one of those inevitable things that tempt and tease our discipline. Without urges, we wouldn’t need discipline. Discipline is about overcoming urges in the moment to achieve something more important down the road. Recognizing that urges are real and will arise is a start. When they do show up, we can help ourselves by detaching and just observing the feeling with little judgment. Like our ten-minute rule, we can try to step back, observe the urge, view it like a wave growing, building, then crashing and retreating. If we view it as an outside participant, it will have less power over us, and we’ll see it is just a rhythm in our body like our heart rate.

We can depend less on discipline and will power where we are able to control our environment. Remove distractions and temptations to preserve willpower. Distractions can be noise, TV, phone, texts, etc. Temptations can be the same types of things or junk food, etc. Give yourself a chance by making things easy to get started on constructive behaviors. Have your notebook and pen ready to go in a neat area to make it easier to write. Have your home gym set up ready to go to encourage you to exercise when you get up in the morning. Keep your desk clean so that you can get going on work instead of being distracted by the piles of disorganized papers. Keep junk food in a tough to see and reach part of your kitchen if you have it at all. Make less desirable outcomes more difficult to do. Make the right choice the default choice by making it the path of least resistance.

Discipline requires awareness. Depending on routines is ok where you have complete control over distractions and environment. Developing positive habits, decreases demand on discipline. One of the ironies of discipline is that those best at it, don’t depend exclusively on it. They consciously construct and create routines and environments that set themselves up for success. They rely on robotic routines to carry them where they can. This article by Nat Eliason supports the idea that giving yourself a chance is about decreasing dependence on discipline by setting up your environment well. In short, we’re not at our best when we need some rest. It’s easier to lapse into short term reward behavior when we’re tired. Where our willpower is depleted, we’ll devolve willingly into enjoying snacks. Make pleasurable things tough to access. Hide away temptations. Put the remote for the TV in another room. Add little challenges to make the easy way harder.

Outside of strong, positive habits/routines, develop awareness to give discipline a chance. The Endowed Progress effect is a way to help you see yourself as disciplined. Draw on past efforts and accomplishment to remind current self of what you’re capable and how far you’ve come. You can do this (now) because you have done a, b, and c in the past. Confidence follows competence becomes discipline follows details of your past efforts. The endowed progress effect occurs where we see that we’re not starting from zero. Instead, we see ourselves as having made some of the journey. This spurs us to move forward. Buy 10 coffees, get one free cards where the first two are stamped, for example. Goal proximity is a separate principle that suggests when we are near our destination we will be invigorated to close in on the finish. Many marathoners run their last mile, for example, faster than their earlier or average mile pace. If we can see or feel the finish line near, we dig in to ensure we get there. Both effects encourage us to keep our progress and destination in mind. Keep track of accomplishments and how far you’ve come. Keep your finish line in mind and enjoy working harder as you see it approach.

Reward yourself in some small way when you do desired behaviors and demonstrate discipline. This is a reflection of B.J. Fogg’s celebrate component of creating positive habits.

Find a positive peer group whose behavior supports what you’re doing. We tend to become the average of the five people we spend the most time with (Jim Rohn idea). We become like the people we have coffee with. “People simply fall into the same life habits and patterns as the people around them.”

Be careful about broadcasting your goals to the world. Research suggests that we deceive our brains when we share our “going to dos” with others in that our brain thinks the act of sharing goals reflects actual action. We give ourselves a false sense of completion and then give up. Take advantage of the “Hawthorne Effect”. We work harder where we believe we’re being watched. “Would you pick your nose if someone was watching?” Study what others have done to develop successful habits and learn from those who have done what you want to do. Strategically select a support team with positive role models included.

The weight with which you value discipline is about defining the kind of person that you want to be. You either are or you aren’t. Discipline isn’t something that you do occasionally. Develop clarity of your identity with this value. The higher you value it Hollins suggests, the easier it will be to remind yourself to ask in decision making moments: “Am I doing the right thing or simply what’s easy? Very often, doing the right thing means doing the hard thing.” If you aren’t doing the hard, right things, you’re not demonstrating discipline and anything you say counter to this is an excuse. Period. Lapses in performance follow leaving connection with our goals. Keep your goals front of mind with pictures, daily reminders, books. Be able to answer, “what am I really doing all of this for?”

Self-discipline is about doing something a little harder now to put yourself in a positive position for the future. It’s about picking short term discomfort for long term pleasure. It’s a strong predictor of high performance. Connect with your desired pay off to develop discipline. If our why is big enough, the how becomes clear and manageable. Hollins notes, “Struggling with discipline can be seen as struggling to put your future well-being ahead of your current happiness or pleasure.” Struggling with discipline is about not having hope, faith, or understanding about the future. It’s a sign of pessimism. Get familiar with your future self. It’s not a different person. It’s you. “People who aren’t concerned about their future self aren’t going to be motivated to save enough for retirement, for example… An individual tends to take a particular time perspective when making decisions, and such orientation affects what actions the person ends up choosing… It comes down to visualizing exactly who you are, who you will be, and who you want to be. That helps to create a tangible connection to your future self, which makes it significantly more likely that you’ll act on that future self’s behalf,” writes Hollins. Connect with who you want to become to take desired action today. Use the 10-10-10 Rule prior to giving in to an urge or temptation. Ask yourself how you will feel about your decision in 10 minutes, 10 hours, or 10 days. The rule is an effort to try to connect now with later. This moment or your future. Which is more important to you?

Self-discipline is a continuous effort to build and express. Using some of the tactics offered by Hollins will help you improve in this area. Work to see your efforts as part of an ongoing process where you either win or learn. Try to view yourself as a role model for others. Either friends, family, or others. See your efforts as helping not just yourself but others to take similar positive steps in their lives. Commit to the process. Worry less about the outcome. A win is a positive action independent of the outcome. Start small. Sustain streaks. Discipline is diligent doing. Do something, anything, that you will do again tomorrow. The correct dose is that which you will do today, tomorrow, and even on the days you don’t feel your best. You’re only as good as how you behave on your worst days. The true test is will you maintain your action when you don’t feel 100%. If yes, you will progress. Remember, “Motivation is wanting. Discipline is doing.”

Top 10 Takeaways:

  • Self Discipline is a skill. Can be trained. Discipline can be developed.
  • Willpower Depletion.
  • The 40% Rule. Your reserves are deeper than you think.
  • The 10X Rule. Aim higher.
  • The Ten Minute Rule. Defer giving in for ten minutes to “earn” it.
  • The 75% Rule. We don’t need all our ducks in a row prior to starting. Once you’re reasonably sure of 75% of the steps, get going.
  • 10-10-10 Rule. How will you feel 10 minutes, hours, or days from now about this choice?
  • Endowed Progress. Don’t see your progress as an entitlement to take a break.
  • The Proximity Effect. The closer to the end, the more focused we become.
  • GYAC – Give Yourself a Chance – set up environment, peers, decrease distractions, all to develop good habits and decrease dependence on discipline.