Looking for better alternatives to self-discipline

Topic Summary: Willpower and self-discipline are problematic, but I don’t know of alternatives. I explain why I think they are problematic, and then indicate why I’ve struggled to find alternative ways to accomplish hard goals.

Goal: Figure out how to accomplish hard goals without employing the traditional method of self-discipline.

Why are you posting this in Unbounded? Because I want unbounded criticism.

Do you want unbounded criticism? (A criticism is a reason that an idea decisively fails at a goal. Criticism can be about anything relevant to goal success, including methods, meta, context or tangents. If you think a line of discussion isn’t worth focusing attention on, that is a disagreement with the person who posted it, which can be discussed.) Yes.


To start with, I’ll lay out in my own words the argument that self-discipline / willpower is problematic, so that you guys can point out any gaps in my understanding that you might see.

How can you ever be in a situation where you need discipline?

If you knew perfectly well what to do next, i.e. if it definitively met all your goals, then you would just do it. No act of willpower would be required. This applies to a lot of simple actions in every day life, like it doesn’t require any willpower to eat when you’re hungry and there’s a plate of food right in front of you, and it doesn’t require any self-discipline to refrain from driving your car off the side of the road.

The contrapositive of this is that if an act of willpower would be required in order to take an action, then you necessarily have some uncertainty about what to do next (the action doesn’t meet all your goals). E.g. it generally does take willpower to not eat when you’re hungry and you’re on a diet (because one of your goals is not being hungry anymore).

When you have two conflicting ideas about what to do next, usually one is more explicit and long-term and one is more implicit and short-term. To exert willpower is to overrule short-term goal and act on the long-term goal. To do the opposite is whim-worshiping. To get by, most people (myself included) implicitly adopt a policy like “exert willpower in situations ABC and whim-worship in situations XYZ.”

A policy like that is problematic epistemologically, because each of your conflicting goals is a criticism of the other, and having a policy that automatically enacts one of them in a given situation ignores some criticism, and thus limits your growth of knowledge. It’s also a problematic policy because it’s always at least a bit painful to exert willpower. (edit: and because it’s impossible to adhere to perfectly.)


The problem is that besides “having willpower,” I don’t know of an alternative way to accomplish difficult goals. YesNo philosophy gave me the idea that maybe the issue is that my goals aren’t refined enough, but I don’t know to formulate better goals.

I will illustrate the problem I’m having with a simple example. One of my “difficult” goals is something like

G1: Have healthy gums.

I achieve G1 by (implicitly) adopting the more concrete goal

G2: Don’t go more than two days in a row without flossing my teeth.

Flossing my teeth kind of sucks and I don’t like it. However, if G2 was the only way to meet G1, no willpower would be required of me, since having gum disease would suck much more than flossing my teeth. The problem is that G2 is not the only way to achieve G1: there are an infinite number of other sub-goals that I could have chosen. In particular, G1 would be met just as well if I instead adopted as a goal

G2’: Don’t go more than two days in a row without flossing my teeth, but don’t count today.

Knowing this, on days when I don’t feel like flossing my teeth (which sometimes occur more than two days in a row), I implicitly change my goal to G2’. This sort of pragmatism is bad because I can keep putting off the teeth-flossing ad infinitum—“1 day” at a time—and every time I do it I’ll always be correct that this one small change by itself won’t make much of a difference. Of course, such an approach would eventually lead to me failing at G1 if continued forever.

In practice, the way that I don’t completely fail at things like G1 is I just have discipline and force myself to e.g. floss my teeth whether I feel like it or not. There are lots of similar examples I could have chosen, where I don’t know how to meet hard goals without willpower. Do any of you have ideas for what to do differently?

Although I’m not exactly a willpower fan, dieting is worse and gives willpower a bad name.

A friend of mine was recently telling me about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment - Wikipedia in which they tried feeding people calorie limits similar to some current US govt dieting recommendations. The results were:

Among the conclusions from the study was the confirmation that prolonged semi-starvation produces significant increases in depression, hysteria and hypochondriasis as measured using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. Indeed, most of the subjects experienced periods of severe emotional distress and depression.

I have not researched or fact checked this stuff. But I think a lot of people cheat on their diets, not due to any reasonable failure of willpower, but because their diet targets are significantly physically harmful.

Have you tried putting a pack of flossers where you watch videos and/or in your shower?

Have you tried using some other habit or event as a trigger and connecting flossing to it?

Have you tried introspecting about which parts of flossing you dislike and why?

Does flossing cause you physical pain in your gums? Do you bleed? Maybe you need to do it more gently, especially until your gums improve.

Does flossing cause you physical pain in your fingers? Maybe you need plastic flossers instead of a spool of floss.

Have you looked up any information about proper flossing technique?

Is flossing boring? Maybe you should multitask in some way. Maybe you should consider why flossing bores you but many other things don’t, such as, I presume, peeing.

Do you forget to floss but actually doing it is OK? Maybe you just need to form a habit and then things will be fine when you remember automatically. You can use phone notifications to help you start the habit.

Do you have a hard time getting the floss to go between your teeth due to tight teeth? Maybe you need a better type of floss like Glide which will go between your teeth more easily. Maybe you need a better strategy, e.g. you can push floss on a floss pick through teeth using force from the teeth on the other side of your mouth (your teeth can press on the plastic frame) and just use your hands to guide, rather than using your hands to generate the force.


I think this is a representative example of how there are lots of practical steps that people could do but don’t. Maybe you’ve done a good job exploring options with flossing, I don’t know, but I feel confident in saying that many people have a flossing problem along these lines and haven’t tried much to solve it. I think it’s similar with many other types of problems too.

That’s one of the things I was talking about at Wanting to Learn Philosophy - #28 by Elliot (which is a relevant post – I was already thinking of asking your thoughts on it in this thread).

These are good points. Flossing was partly a stand-in for other problems that I have, and I guess I was (perhaps wrongly) hoping to see a more mind-blowing and abstract / general philosophical answer, but I actually should try some of your suggestions.

Now that you mention it, I’m noticing that I haven’t actually tried to improve at flossing or learn what it is about flossing that actually bothers me, I’ve just kind of given up on progress in that area. Which is a pretty anti-BoI attitude, and it’s definitely not e.g. what Francisco d’Anconia would do.

I actually didn’t notice this post, thanks.

The general philosophical answer is to use problem solving methods. Use brainstorming, critical thinking, constraints, buffers, breakpoints, idea trees, meta levels, practice, mastery, etc. I write about these things often.

The application of philosophical problem solving to most problems looks more like “here are ways you could put in effort productively” than “here is a shortcut or a guaranteed solution”.

When people get stuck, usually they don’t need a eureka moment or a mind-blowing insight. And when they feel mind-blown and impressed by ideas, those ideas often don’t actually help much. They’re impressed by big, abstract ideas, but those ideas are too far removed from their lives and would take a large amount of study and integration to get much use out of. Also, because the ideas are so disconnected from people’s lives, they often can’t tell if the ideas are actually good or not, and are sometimes impressed by ideas with little substance that wouldn’t work. (@doubtingthomas IIRC you posted something about wanting to be mind-blown, so I’m tagging you.)

Thinking one is stuck on hard problems that require sophisticated philosophy to solve is a (unusual, rationalistic) way of excusing and evading one’s faults. It’s understandable not to improve if one’s problems are so big and hard that only very complicated, advanced ideas would help. It’s similar to thinking that a major scientific breakthrough is what’s needed to improve your personal life. Big breakthroughs are rare and if one was really necessary then you could do a good job of working on it your whole life without succeeding.

It’s kinda similar to people who set a big, hard goal like “develop AGI”. Some people pick goals with no clear milestones so it’s really hard to tell if they’re doing anything productive. It’s a way to make it hard to tell if they’re failing and wasting their careers. The hardness of the problem gives them an easy excuse/rebuttal to critics who think their work is bad. They can say stuff like: It’s still a work in progress. I’d like to see you do better! No one knows the solution. I think this research area may lead to results in the future. etc.

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Thanks for this.

I think my whole approach to learning philosophy has thus far been insufficiently connected to real-world problem solving. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

By the way,

This basically describes my state of mind a few hours ago, and

This basically describes the mindset that I had as recently as a few months ago (mostly wrt absurdly ambitious physics / math stuff).

I can totally see why both of those mindsets are bad / overreaching, though. I was evading it before.

I’ve had people claim the opposite of both of these examples. And the contra-examples are apparently common enough to have names.

The first is often thought of as a mental illness & called having an “eating disorder”.

The second is either called recklessness or having a death wish.

Another situation I’d put in this category is I’ve had people tell me they’re really tired & bored, but have to force themselves to sleep. I’ve heard that called a symptom of depression.

I haven’t experienced these situations personally and it’s hard for me to tell what’s actually going on with people who claim they have. It could be:

  • They’re lying
  • They’re bad at introspection about stuff like hunger, wanting to live, and tiredness
  • They actually do have uncertainty they’re not willing or able to say explicitly
  • Something else I haven’t even thought of

I just thought it was notable that I immediately remembered apparent contra-examples to the two situations you described as not requiring any willpower.

I gave examples so as to bring to mind everyday situations that normal people are in, and my examples are definitely not going to survive if that context is dropped.

The general statement I made (willpower isn’t required if there’s something you could do that definitively meets all your goals) is not in conflict with the existence of eating disorders or people with death wishes. Those are just people with abnormal goals.

Thank you for starting this thread. I’ve tried to understand this idea a few times before also but have failed because of not continuing the discussion. I wanted to mention that.

Have you tried using interdental brushes or picks instead? There are other alternatives to flossing and you can look them up with a search engine.

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A common reason people don’t do stuff – which applies to philosophy study but not flossing – is they are tired. People often lack self-awareness of how tired they are and have unrealistic expectations about how much they should be able to do per day with how little sleep. Self-discipline is pretty ineffective against tiredness.

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yes. Here’s one for example.

The example that best helps me understand your point is that if I can follow along a solved example in a maths textbook, and even repeat every step if asked about it, doesn’t mean I have understood how to solve that problem. Or even if I have I cannot solve harder problems that builds upon that problem because I only have a superficial understanding. To be able to use a idea fluently you need to master/automatize it. I agree with all this and it helps me understand how to make progress.

But isn’t it the case that static memes affect my emotions. If I can explicitly say something is good for me but I am not able to integrate that into my life doesn’t it make sense to want to understand what is happening? What the static memes are doing and how they are doing it? How does improving at basic stuff and building up to a level where I can take more control over my life changes things with respect to static memes? What changes happen over various steps of progress? My interest in knowing this not just intellectual fascination or wanting to be mind blown. I wanna know about because it can help keep track of or at least notice what progress one is making. I don’t think that knowing this stuff will provide some kind of shortcut. I expect the effort would be the same but knowing this stuff will give some context to the journey.

I don’t think I’m stuck on an unusually hard problem. A lot of people talk about deciding to change their life and then building grit, determination, discipline and will power to make themselves work hard on goals that will make their life better. Jocko Willink and Jordan Peterson are two people that come to mind. I don’t think I’ve used this rationalization to excuse and evade my faults.

This makes me think that how do I explain to myself that I have been making these faults? When I was making the mistake I was enjoying doing the things that I would say are bad when I’m wearing my thinking cap.

Got any opinions/conclusions/results of that thinking to share?

I did some thinking, but I didn’t write down most of it down, so I can’t remember (or maybe I just never bothered to identify) the extent to which my recent thoughts did or did not come from this thread.

One recent conclusion I’ve come to that relates to this thread is that it’s really important that I learn how to be less of a rationalist. My solution here is to start by reading Understanding Objectivism, because rationalism is a big theme of that course. I just finished chapter 3 like yesterday.

A more parochial conclusion: I was using some poorly thought-out (by me) philosophy stuff as an excuse to procrastinate from work that I really didn’t want to do. I realized that I should stick with traditional ideas about productivity until/unless I actually have better ones. I successfully stopped using poorly thought-out philosophy stuff as an excuse to procrastinate, but it didn’t really matter in the end because I just found other excuses to procrastinate.

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How to not be tired? Is having energy only about getting enough sleep? What other stuff impacts energy? (My guess would be exercise and healthy diet.) What are some signs that can help me know that depletion of energy is the reason that I am actually unable to do intellectual stuff productively? How should one organize their daily work keeping this fact in mind that one has limited energy to do productive intellectual work in a day.