The elegant secret to self-discipline

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Despite my lofty ethical and financial aspirations, I developed a tragic ice cream habit during the summer. There are all kinds of long- and short-term problems with this: it’s bad for my health, morally dubious to say the least, and totally anti-frugal — a big no-no for my new career as a tightfisted writer.

My justification was always pretty lame. I would explain to myself that I’m about to stop doing this, therefore it doesn’t matter if I do it right now. The Devil on my shoulder would only have to say, “But it’s just for now. Enjoy!” and I would already be on an unstoppable march to Safeway.

If I had given the angel on the other shoulder a chance to rebut, she would have explained the foolish tradeoff I was making. I gain twenty minutes or so of low-brow pleasure. All the benefit of this choice is gone after that. I lose, in a more lasting way, some of my money, my dignity, my sense of self-control, and my health.

Only a fool would choose the first option, but when faced with certain frozen desserts, or other present-moment incentives I often become a fool, and maybe you do too. The hallmark of the fool is that he borrows fleeting pleasures, at interest, from himself.

Self-discipline is time travel

I have a beautiful banana sitting beside my laptop right now. No black spots, no green tinge. It’s truly the perfect banana and I know it will fulfill my expectations when I do eat it.

It’s sitting about six inches from the edge of my desk and a foot from the front. I could move it to the other side of the desk, to the back of the desk or the front, and it would be the same promising banana. I could also move it in a third dimension by putting it on top of my bookcase, or move it across all three dimensions by walking it back to the fruit bowl at the center of my dining room table, and nothing of value will be lost.

I really want to eat this banana, and that desire distracts me from realizing that I could move my banana in a fourth dimension, by eating it in an hour, or four hours, and it would still provide pretty much the same levels of pleasure and dietary potassium. I forget that if I eat it now, Future David will have no banana to eat at all. So I am rewarding Right Now David at the expense of Future David.

Depending on the circumstances, Future David might even benefit more from that banana than Right Now David would. If it wasn’t quite ripe right now, there would be more enjoyment to be gained from it tomorrow.

Still, Right Now David has a considerable preference for himself, and in fact he is already eating the banana. As I mature, I notice Right Now David getting better at sharing with his Future-based colleague, and I hope one day he is able to treat all other Davids as he treats himself. 

A Right Now banana and a Near-future banana will usually have about the same value, so it’s not exactly a pivotal life decision. However, there are some circumstances in which I serve Right Now David in a way that’s small and fleeting, that simultaneously denies Future David something much more significant. Once upon a time, I would occasionally spend more than my paycheck in a given pay period, garnishing poor Future David’s wages for the next period, when obviously even a full paycheck didn’t always feel like enough.

Other times, Right Now David would be drunk and would decide that he would have a few more unmemorable drinks, which added very little to his pleasure level, yet invariably sentenced Tomorrow David to severe physical suffering. At around age 30, Future David caught on to this injustice and would tap Right Now David on the shoulder when he was about to do something mean like that. Progress.

I still quite often sell out Future David though, leaving him with less so that Right Now David can indulge some Right-Now urge. The reality, I am somehow still gradually learning, is that Future David will actually be Right Now David at some real point in time, and not in an abstract way. At any given present moment, whether I realize it or not, I am the Future David that Past Davids have sold out in all sorts of ways. Right Now David would have a lot more money, as one example, if Past Davids had not indulged their momentary desires for ice cream and booze — or to dredge up some really old baggage — for candy, basketball cards and Super Nintendo Games.

Right Now David would be smart to understand how Past Davids have sold him out (and, less often, helped him) as he contemplates what to do with his day, for many Future Davids live at the mercy of Right Now David’s wisdom and discipline, or his shortage thereof. Future David is praying that Right Now David realizes that his future self is just as much a human being with needs and desires as his current self. If he can’t treat other people quite as highly as he treats himself, at least he can treat himself as highly as he treats himself, even if it’s the self he will be later.

That’s the elegant secret to discipline: valuing your future self as highly as you value your current self, at least long enough to get your Right Now Self to do the right thing. That moment of choice is where the ants go one way and grasshoppers the other.

I’m reminded of the now well-known Marshmallow Experiment, conducted at Stanford in the late 1960s. Researchers sat young children in front of a marshmallow on a plate, told them if they wait fifteen minutes before eating the marshmallow they would get a second one, and then left them alone.

A third of the kids waited the full fifteen minutes — an eon to a five-year-old — and earned their second marshmallow. The experiment has been reproduced many times since and the footage is hilarious. When scientists followed up fifteen years later, the kids who waited for the second marshmallow had all become doctors and presidents, or were at least on their way.

There is often much more at stake than bananas and marshmallows. This year I made a living experiment out of seeing whether I wouldn’t be just as happy living on half of what I lived on last year. It turns out that This Year David has had a consistently higher quality of life than the comparatively foolish Last Year David, and as a direct result, Right Now David is currently writing at his sunny home office desk on a weekday morning in his pyjamas instead of being told what to do by The Man.

Like any other insight, it’s one thing to nod your head while you think about it and something else to turn it into a real advantage in your life. There are two tricks that I can see to doing it in real-time:

1) Recognize that right now already is the future. You are currently experiencing the future of all your Past Selves. Their choices have come to fruition. If you would like better fruits, make your Right Now Self into someone who, as a habit, rolls out the red carpet for Future Self. Imagine if someone had already done that for you. Highly disciplined people are always experiencing advantages inherited from their wise and caring Past Selves.

2) Recognize the moments when you’re about to sell out your Future Self. These moments often happen when you are in retail establishments. They often involve televisions or other gratifying electronic devices, including the snooze button of your alarm clock. They also frequently involve high-fructose corn syrup and disposable packaging.

Future Self is totally, absolutely You as much as you’re You right now. It will be living real moments with real advantages and disadvantages, determined mostly by Right Now Self’s behavior.

In its confounding ignorance, Right Now Self often blames Past Self for having squandered its opportunities and resources, while simultaneously failing to fulfill its responsibilities to helpless Future Self. When will it see that it already is Future Self?

Later, I suppose.

***

PHOTO BY Andrés Nieto Porras


Free To Pursue June 12, 2014 at 10:17 am

I came back to reread this post after reading a newly posted piece titled “Alternative Histories” over at Early Retirement Extreme.

I like both takes on the notion of past, present and future selves and the theme of delayed gratification for a better life over the long term.

Thank you for the food for thought and for reinforcing how self-discipline enhances happiness and quality of life in general.

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