For self control, ‘always’ rules are better than ‘sometimes’ rules

People tell me I have good self control. I always think that’s funny — from my perspective, I have terrible self control. My brain is alarmingly good at creating excuses for lapses in self control. If you put a box of donuts in front of me and get me to eat one, I won’t stop until they’re all gone because my stupid reptilian brain craves sugar and fat and my forebrain will happily come up with some excuse about how rare free donuts are.

But when I think about it more, I realize that even though my brain is a softie, I’m still sometimes able to exert self control. The trick that’s worked for me is to not involve that scheming brain in the loop. A good rule of thumb is that when it comes to self control, an ‘always’ rule is better than a ‘sometimes’ rule.

I’ll explain what I mean with an example. It was the summer of 2007, and I had just begun an APM internship at Google. I was still in college student mode where when you see free food you gorge, because you never know when you’ll see free food again.

This mindset did not work well with Google’s micro-kitchens, to put it mildly. That summer the micro-kitchens had large gravity bins full of peanut M&Ms. Every time I walked by one, I felt compelled to fill up a cup to snack on. Unfortunately, I walked by the micro-kitchens a few times a day. A few months later I had put on more than 20 pounds. Yeah, it was gross.

But that changed a few months later. I enacted a single rule that was broad but unflinching: I would always go to the gym every day. Importantly, there were no quality requirements — I didn’t have to do much at the gym — but the every day requirement was not up for debate. Compliance with the rule was black and white.

Suddenly any chance of excuses evaporated. I could never make the case that it wasn’t possible to fulfill those goals. Even if I was feeling under the weather, I could go sit on the bike for 20 minutes at a low heart rate. I knew that if I gave my brain any chance to make excuses, it would. So I didn’t give it the chance.

When you set rules that you can actually follow, the first few days are surprisingly easy. But the cool thing is that the longer you go, the more sustaining energy you get. It doesn’t take much will power because the guidelines are so ridiculously easy to meet. So you keep meeting them. And then before you know it you’ve gone four weeks and breaking that streak just seems like a waste.

Of course, the world is not a simple place. Your ‘always’ rules will inevitably run into situations that don’t work. After a few weeks of my regime it came time to go on a spring break trip where I’d be away from a gym. It’s tempting to dilute your ‘always’ rule and make it into a ‘sometimes’ rule. But if you invite your brain into the loop it’s going to find excuses, your streak will end, your sustaining energy will evaporate, and the whole thing will unravel.

Instead, see how you can systemize the exception to keep your rule a (slightly more complicated) ‘always’ rule. Back then I modified my rule: “I must always work out every day, unless it is the first or last day of a trip.” If I was on anything longer than an overnight trip I required myself to find a way to exercise. That modification again made compliance black and white, and made it easier to keep the streak going. It’s important to systemize the exception well before it happens — before your reptilian brain engages about it, but when your forebrain foresees an impending streak break — otherwise it’s just an excuse in disguise.

To this day I’m amazed at how well this regimen (plus a few other always rules around desserts and snacking) worked. A couple of months later I had shed all of the extra weight — and then some. To this day I still have trouble with self control in general — but not when I have effective ‘always’ rules for myself.

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