“My dear child, I do not worry about the bleakness of life. I worry about the bleakness of having no challenges in life.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Letter to my Unborn Daughter
Life doesn’t go according to our narrow plans. Flights are delayed, drivers are terrible, kids fall on the playground, and healthy people get sick. Those are the inevitabilities of a chaotic world. We can’t walk around offended by every inconvenience and victimized by every obstacle. This is no way to respond to inevitable challenges and disruptions.
Rather than making their kids more resilient and adaptable, today’s parents obsess on making their children more comfortable and insulated from reality. Intent to mow down every obstacle for their kids, a new wave of lawnmower parents is stripping kids of the ability to innovate, adapt, and overcome.
What people forget is that our challenges offer the gift of transformation. Stuff happens. This is as it should be. Without challenge, we remain infantile, dull, and incapable. While our impulses pull us towards comfort in each immediate moment, it is the trials that bring about greater capability and self-worth.
The growth they offer is, ultimately, far more rewarding than any hedonistic pleasure. Fulfilled living boils down to finding purpose—challenges worth fighting for—and entering discomfort to become the person you want to be.
You Must Have Obstacles
The best example is offered in physical training. We’d all prefer to be healthier, but most people simply won’t do the work. Even for the most diligent exercisers, there is inertia that must be overcome to begin planned workouts.
Talk to anyone who runs. The first mile is the hardest and then it is easy. It is the same with any workout, chore, written work, or worthwhile project. Most days, most people would be more comfortable getting ice cream and lying on the couch. Yet, the people who wake up and workout will almost always be more energized and happy than those who wake to Netflix and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
In the long run, the exercisers experience far greater health, production, and satisfaction. They are more likely to be confident and passionate, while instant-gratificationers are far more likely to battle negative emotions and the consistent pains and bills that accompany neglected health.
There are differences in values and perceptions between these people, but for the most part, they’d choose similar outcomes if given the same choices.
- Would you like to be wealthy or poor?
- Would you like to have connected, loving, reliable relationships or superficial relationships built on convenience and the pursuit of pleasure?
- Would you like to be healthy or sickly?
- Would you like to feel excited about projects or purposeless?
Both the self-mastered and the instant-gratificationer would choose the former in each scenario. Therefore, acting is where we should place our emphasis.
Planning and acting are the secrets to being who we want to be. Where the self-mastered and instant-gratificationer differ most is in their ability to define what is most valuable, script the critical moves, and act upon them.
Finding Self in the Midst of Marketing
This is the age of mass-market manipulation. The droves of humanity are mindlessly pulled from impulse to impulse by expertly crafted addictions that our biology was not ready to encounter. Everything from soda to smartphones is packaged and delivered to be as addictive as possible.
Thus, the diseases of affluence have proliferated. Our unquenchable appetites combine with our inability to consistently engage in strenuous activity to form a lethal cocktail. Lack of impulse control is the greatest threat to health and happiness.
It has never been more difficult to be who we want to be. I’m talking about the heroic human that you knew you’d become when you were five—someone capable, strong, resilient, and admirable. We’ll never be happy until we live up to our own standards.
Society should go to great lengths to help create people driven to act, to withstand adversity, and to get outside of their comfort zone in pursuit of a purpose. We must commit to training self-mastery so that we can act as we’d prefer to act and become who we’d dream of becoming.
“It’s time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet.”
If all you control are your thoughts and actions, then you only control your mind. If that is all we control, then that is the only place it makes sense to place our efforts. To master ourselves we must consistently train the mind in the same way we train the body.
Train Self Denial
Rome was not built in a day. No one ever achieved a 600-pound squat after one workout. Like a muscle, willpower can be trained, but it must be done progressively. We must enter adversities, overcome them, rest, and repeat. Over time we can add more, but too much too quickly may lead to overwhelm and quitting.
Lucky for us, humans have obsessed on how to do this for centuries. There is a rich historical tradition that teaches us how to train willpower and resiliency. Training resiliency boils down creating a program that forces you to deny immediate gratification and willingly enter discomfort.
You will need to make a plan that prompts you towards very specific self-denials and discomforts at very specific times.
Every great philosophy, religion, and self-development system has called upon people to train the capacity to deny immediate pleasures. The rationale for self-denial is probably best given by the Stoic philosopher, Seneca, in his 18th Moral Letter to Lucilius:
Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: "Is this the condition that I feared?"
It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace, the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.
A word of caution, too much self-denial, especially when applied to quickly, may cause burnout. Any changes you make should be sustainable for life. I’m not advocating a monastic lifestyle. The idea is to control your actions, rather than your emotions controlling you. We need to plan times of indulgence and care-free enjoyment just as we are planning times of self-denial.
There are a few self-denials I recommend starting with:
Train Self Denial: 1. Meditation
I’ve often called meditation the essential antidote to our 21st-century environment. All you have to do is sit quietly and follow your breath. When thoughts come, don’t fight them off, but notice them and return your attention to the breath.
It is a process of consistently recognizing the thoughts and emotions that typically consume you and, rather than engage them, you deny the pleasure of scratching that itch and instead return your focus to the breath. You refuse to be jerked from emotion to emotion and thought to thought. In this way, you create distance and mastery over emotions. You become aware of destructive thought patterns and deny them any mental energy.
- Start with: Meditate for five minutes every day. If you know weekends will be tough, take these off.
- To progress: Go for longer and add gratitude training at the end.
Train Self Denial: 2. Intermittent Fasting
Most of human history has been spent hunting and gathering in the quest for more food. Humanity was not prepared to be surrounded by such abundance of food. Thus, the feeling of hunger so universal throughout human history is now met with inner panic.
Most people feel hunger or craving and immediately feel a compulsion to satisfy that desire. We’ve trained ourselves to believe we have to eat the moment hunger arises. The reality is that hunger is really just a mild annoyance that waxes and wanes.
Setting boundaries like a daily intermittent fast is a very constructive way to bring more mastery over your hunger and cravings. Like meditation, you will get better and better at noticing hunger, moving your attention to another task, and forget it.
- Start with: Use a daily 12 hour fast—this basically means between dinner and breakfast there should be nothing consumed except water and possibly coffee. If you need, give yourself one day a week to go off script and ignore these boundaries.
- To progress: Add one day a week where you fast for 14 hours, then 16 hours, then 18 hours. You can mix this up however you like. For example, I now do a 12 hour fast four days a week, a 16 hour fast two days a week and an 18-20 hour fast one day per week. Often, I’ll pick a day and break the rules, however.
Train Self Denial: 3. Messaging Boundaries
Abundance of food may have snuck up on us, but smartphones hit us over the head with a full-scale impulse onslaught we could have never predicted. People keep track of four social media accounts, multiple emails, and a constant bouquet of alerts.
Minds are zinged and dinged constantly as our attention is constantly pulled away from the moment. Believe it or not, this technology is designed to be as addictive as possible. In order to bring back sanity and control, you must create boundaries to your tech use. Deny yourself the easy immediate gratification of constant distraction.
- Start with:
- No phone zones. In the first 30 minutes of your day. I suggest filling that time with something more useful.
- While outdoors go on airplane mode if you want to use the camera.
- Don't use your phone during meals.
- Stay off your phone while in bed and 30 minutes prior to bed. I recommend charging your phone outside of the bedroom.
- Batch all email and social media checking to two or three blocks of time throughout your day. In effect, you are restricting the programmed habit of reaching for your phone to scan for distraction in every free moment.
- To progress: Put your phone on the charger when you get home for the evening. You can set the phone to silence calls and messages from all but a few vital numbers. This frees you up to connect with those people who are most important.
If any of these self-denials seem too difficult I encourage you to find a scaled-back version that is a more appropriate place for you to start. The most important part of training the ability for self-denial is that you determine a specific plan for each.
Specify the actions and boundaries, and leave no wiggle room. Too many people go into change lukewarm and vague. This is a recipe for failure. Planned self-denials must be specific and non-negotiable. You must follow through—99% is a wimp.
“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”
As important as delaying gratification is for success and fulfillment, having the ability to willingly enter discomfort in pursuit of something greater is what is most important. This is the ability to act Health requires willingly entering mildly uncomfortable exercise.
It requires getting off the couch to plan and prepare meals. Amazing relationships are built through difficult conversations and shared challenges. Mental skills and knowledge are built by repeatedly entering into challenging practice.
The mental world starts in the physical. The ability to exercise even when you aren’t in the mood will give you the ability to focus on that challenging work project now, rather than seeking distraction. People who always willingly enter temporary discomfort will avoid putting off tasks.
They get home from vacation and immediately unpack. They mow the lawn, file taxes, and knock out challenges early so they have momentum on the day and space to create more value. They act when they want to act, regardless of momentary emotions. They have the ability to say, “I will be uncomfortable for five minutes so that I can live up to my own standards and feel that satisfaction that only comes from overcoming adversity.”
To train the ability for entering discomfort I recommend starting with:
Enter Discomfort: 1. Wake to Movement
You wake up tired and groggy. What a perfect opportunity to rip the band-aid off and train yourself to enter a little discomfort in pursuit of being more. It can lead to a whole workout or just be a four or five-minute circuit. Trade a couple of minutes of mild discomfort to being the type of person you want to be. I promise you’ll move more throughout the day just because you started this way.
Create a simple routine. I like Chris Holder’s Cal Poly Hip Flow, but it could be as simple as:
- Bird Dog – x5/side
- Superman – x10
- Lunges – x10/side
- Push Ups – x10
- Glute Bridges – x10
- Mountain Climbers – x10/side
- Air Squats -x10
Enter Discomfort: 2. Take a Cold Shower
We often forget how good we have it. Through most of human history, no one had the opportunity to take warm showers outside a few short months every year. We had to be far more resilient to the changes in temperature.
Today’s parents will drive up to school to drop off a hoodie because their child texts them to say the school AC is blowing too cold. Oy vey. There is no more convenient daily discomfort, but also more annoying than the cold shower. If it is any consolation, the first minute is the worst.
- Start with: One day per week when you take a three-minute cold shower.
- To progress: Add more days.
Enter Discomfort: 3. The Bonus Challenge: The Weekly Gut Check
Each of us has heroic capabilities. In order not to be a shell of that capability, we must occasionally stare down and sprint towards truly painful experiences. It sounds stupid and masochistic.
Don’t misconstrue this as a rationale for self-destruction. No permanent damage should ever be done. However, we will never approach our potential if we are controlled by the fear of pain. In regards to exercise, I’m a big believer in consistent workouts that leave fuel in the tank. The gut check is the exception.
Plan and follow through on a weekly gauntlet that you truly don’t want to do. For me, that has always been a 5-minute 1 arm kettlebell swings circuit. I used to routinely finish about 140 swings per 5-minute test. When my wife beat my score, I began improving every week. I got to where I would put the kettlebell down only once and was routinely reaching 180.
Then one day I decided I wouldn’t put the bell down at all and I hit 191. Now I don’t set a timer. I just shoot for 200 without stopping. There are weeks where I missed my mark, but over and over I have done more than I ever thought possible because I stick with this weekly challenge.
I only recommend the kettlebell swing test for people who have a lot of experience with kettlebell training. My suggestion is to pick an exercise that you are safe in, start small, and continue to progress. It can be a 5-minute test or even just a tabata protocol. Tabatas are amazing for those days where life is hectic but you promised yourself you would exercise. All you need is a four-minute interval and you can have a great, metabolism rocking circuit.
5-Minute Tests to Consider:
- Jump Rope
- Frogger Hip Thrusters
- Air Squats
Tabatas to Consider:
- Push Ups
- Mountain Climbers
- Air Squats
- Front Squats
When building willpower and resiliency, what is most valuable is the ability to willingly enter discomfort whenever you decide. Thus, the most important elements are to make a plan and then follow through on all planned challenges.
Set a time each week where you will look at your calendar and plan. This is when you review the specific requirements of your plan, anticipate roadblocks, and adapt. The only time that your new rules can be changed is at this weekly planning period. Likewise, this is a time when you can decide to add more challenge and progress. Start small and increase slowly.
Create Your Willpower Training Protocol
Habits are very powerful so I recommend taking the time to understand how they are formed. At Inspired Human Development we preach three Essential Core Habits: daily movement, daily meditation/gratitude, and feeding yourself with daily positive education.
This can be reading the right books, taking the right online courses, or surrounding yourself with positive peer pressure. I recommend bringing a friend in on your training plan. Social accountability is a powerful force that can move you to act in times you wouldn’t otherwise.
Remember, we are far more passionate and fulfilled tomorrow because of today’s challenge. Choosing temporary pleasure is always more comfortable in the moment, but as a default pattern, it only offers a shallow, unimpressive life full of regret. Choose to be capable, not comfortable.