One of my favorite books in recent years is Deep Work by Cal Newport. Deep work is defined as our ability to focus, without distraction, on cognitively demanding tasks for long periods. While that may sound obvious, Newport argues that this skill is what will ultimately separate the "Haves" and "Have-Nots" in our increasingly accelerated economy.
But there’s just one problem, though.
Most of us can’t focus on one thing for more than twenty minutes without getting distracted. When we try to police ourselves from the near-infinite distractions, we quickly get worn out then feel guilty for eventually caving to the pressure. Even worse, though, is the stories we tell ourselves afterward. It usually begins with this little phrase:
“If only I had more self-discipline…”
What an interesting idea.
Why Self-Discipline is Overrated
If only we had more self-discipline, well, then we would all have six-pack abs, started that business we always talk about, and would’ve checked off every item on our to-do list already. Life would be so much easier if only we had more self-discipline.
But that’s a dangerous phrase to repeat.
While I'm still a firm believer that self-discipline is a trait you can develop with proper effort, I also think that relying solely on it to improve your life is a fool’s errand. Saying that you need more self-discipline is focusing on the wrong problem. Instead, you should be asking yourself how you can improve your life without needing to rely on self-discipline at all.
Why Self-Discipline Fails Us
The problem with self-discipline is that it continually requires effort to maintain. When you tell yourself that you need more self-discipline, what you’re really saying is that you need to be better at telling yourself no. That you need to do a better job at resisting temptation.
Well, good luck with that.
That may sound harsh, but there’s a simple reason why self-discipline fails us: you’re fighting a losing battle.
You’re playing defense, always reacting to what gets thrown at you. Eventually, you’re going to slip up once you’re tired or overwhelmed. And believe me, you’ll eventually get tired or overwhelmed.
And let’s be honest, when you tell yourself that you need more self-discipline, what you’re really doing is giving yourself an excuse not to take action. It’s much easier to say, “I need to work out more,” or “I need to wake up earlier,” but then do nothing about it. So if you can’t rely on self-discipline, what should you do?
Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is, if you’re like most people, you probably won’t train yourself to become more disciplined than you already are. Sure, some of you might make drastic improvements, but I wouldn’t bank on it.
But here’s the good news: you already have all the self-discipline you’ll ever need. You just need to learn how to properly use it.
Forget Self-Discipline; Change Your Environment
If you want to experience stable and predictable growth, you need a stable and predictable environment that doesn’t work against you. You want to use what little self-discipline you have for what it’s actually good for: designing your environment in such a way that it works itself out of a job.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with different strategies for manipulating my environment to reduce my dependency on self-discipline to get things done. These strategies have helped me:
- Go to the gym more
- Eat healthier
- Read every day
- Write (almost) every day
- Learn new skills
- Avoid getting distracted on the internet
I’ll save the health-related strategies for another article, but I’ve found that the best way to minimize distraction and get more done is by designing your environment so that temptation can’t even reach you. And since we live in a world where temptation is always just a click away, the best strategy is to cut temptation off at its source.
Now you could approach this two different ways. First, you could go full monk-mode by getting rid of your phone and computer and revert to using just pen and paper to get things done. While some of us may secretly dream of a simpler pre-technology era, it’s probably not a feasible route.
The other option is more tech-friendly and will keep people from giving you weird glances when you tell them you no longer own a smartphone. Option two is learning how to wield the power of the internet without succumbing to its addictive nature. While this is likely the more favorable choice, it’s not without risk. Thankfully, I’ve discovered a tool that effectively removes all risk of having to rely on self-discipline to resist the countless distractions found online.
How to Be More Productive with the Freedom App
The best tool I’ve found for improving your productivity is the web-blocking software called Freedom. The software lets you automatically block email, news, social media, and any other website or app that can distract you. Freedom has a desktop and mobile app to prevent you from getting distracted, no matter what device you’re on.
Freedom works by letting you create sessions where you control what gets blocked on what device and for how long. You just input how much time you need to block off to focus and hit start. But Freedom’s best feature is the recurring session, which lets you set how often you want a session to repeat—indefinitely.
For example, I have a “Morning Work” session that blocks all social media and email on my phone and work computer from 8 AM to 12 PM Monday through Friday. That means I can’t be tempted to doom scroll Twitter or clean out my inbox when I get the slightest twinge from working on something challenging. It’s just me and the task at hand, staring each other down until one of us breaks.
How to Use Freedom in Four Steps
Step 1: Head to Freedom’s website to download the software on your computer. You can also download the Freedom app from your phone’s app store (iOS & Android).
Step 2: Scroll to the bottom of your dashboard to select which websites and apps to block by clicking “Add Blocklist.” You can also add individual sites to your blocklist if you don’t see them already covered by the default options.
Step 3: Create a session by clicking “Add Session.” I highly recommend that you use the recurring session option so that you don’t have to rely on your future-self setting it up each time.
Step 4: The final step is for those that can’t trust themselves from disabling Freedom while it’s running because they really need to check Instagram. Once you know what sessions work best for your schedule, you’ll want to activate Locked Mode. Once in Locked Mode, it will be impossible for you to edit your blocklists and devices during the session.
Now you can still make edits to your sessions and blocklists once they’re over, but until then, you’ll have no way to distract yourself with email, Instagram, or whatever site tugs you away from work.
Set Yourself Free with Freedom
I realize that some of you may find this strategy to be a bit hardcore. And I get it; this strategy probably isn’t for everyone. But you’ve got to remember why you’re doing this in the first place. The goal isn’t to deprive yourself of connecting with your friends or to rebel against technology. Instead, it’s to clear your mind of the constant distractions so you can focus on what’s important.
And I wouldn’t recommend this strategy if I thought it was too difficult to stick with. After all, the entire purpose of using Freedom is to set it up once and forget about it, so you don’t have to rely on self-discipline to police yourself every day.
Sure, you’ll probably find yourself on more than one occasion typing the URL (or tapping the app icon) of your favorite distraction during a session only to be greeted by a calming green screen and the words “You Are Free” typed across it. At first, it will be painful—if not downright annoying—but your brain will quickly adapt to its new world where there's no easy escape route.
Eventually, you’ll even lose the impulse to always reach for your phone during the slightest inconvenience. You'll remember what life was like before you had notifications interrupting you 24/7. It’s a funny thing, but it's only after you've lived with self-imposed restrictions that you will begin to appreciate what it means to be free.