A single, simple exercise that can change your mind and body

We value self-discipline as the road to success. We understand that what most of us struggle with is lack of focus. We seek the help of therapists, life coaches and business gurus to give us tips and tricks on how to cut out distractions from our lives, overcome procrastination and become more productive.

We make lists. We create goals. We read self-help books. We give ourselves positive pep-talks. We try positive psychology when we encounter failure. Usually nothing sticks for very long. Each step we take seems designed to confuse us, each new technique we apply adds to the cognitive load we experience. The harder we try, the harder the task seems to become.

The reason this happens is because when we try and force ourselves to be self-disciplined we activate two separate systems that work against each other. Psychological researchers call them “hot” and “cool” and they suggest them as the framework guiding willpower. The “hot” system is impulsive and emotional. It is responsible for quick, reflexive responses to certain triggers. The “cool” system is cognitive and reflective. It’s a thinking system, incorporating knowledge about sensations, feelings, actions and goals.

The “hot” system is guided by instant gratification. The need to feel mentally and emotionally rewarded by a specific action. The “cool” system is employed when we defer gratification. When we harness our impulses and focus on a longer goal. Both systems may be triggered by the same need. A need to be more productive, for instance, can easily trigger our “hot” system. We instantly visualize quick rewards to increased productivity, extra time to go out with friends, more money to spend on things we want, status and social mobility. The “cool” system sees increased productivity within a longer-term, planned framework. Self-satisfaction, career enhancement and a sense of contributing to something greater.

In the 1965 science fiction epic, Dune, author, Frank Herbert, has his lead character, Paul Atreides, face a test to see if he is human via a highly lethal poisoned needle known as the Gom Jabbar.

He is told:

You’ve heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a trap? There’s an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to his kind.

The idea is exactly the same. The impulse here, as Paul Atreides is subjected to the test is to withdraw his hand and end the pain he is feeling. That’s his “hot” system. Unless he is sufficiently self-aware to control his impulses and defer the action so he may survive the test.

The Stanford Marshmallow Test

Marshmallow Test Findings
A single Marshmallow was sufficient to bring to the surface the tensions of our inner conflict in how we make decisions.

In the late 60s Stanford University professor of psychology, Walter Mischel, carried out a series of experiments using the children of fellow academics that has since become known as The Marshmallow Experiment.

The experiment itself has since been replicated a number of times:

Drawing on this same body of research further studies of these two systems and how they interact have given rise to speculations as well as better understanding of human economic behavior regarding how we treat exercise, healthy eating and, pensions and savings.

The picture that is emerging is that when it comes to decision making the body cannot be considered an entity that is separate from the mind. Willpower is a product of the union of the two.

Discipline, Happiness and Self-Control

Because we intuitively understand that there is an internal struggle that costs in inner resources, we popularly regard disciplined people as being deprived, oppressed by their own hand. Unhappy.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

A study in the lives and attitudes of self-disciplined people revealed that their life-satisfaction levels were higher than average. The research and additional follow-up studies showed that people who are able to discipline themselves are better at managing conflicting goals (the “hot” and “cool” systems in our minds) and, as a result, experience lower levels of cognitive dissonance about their life choices and business decisions.

The good news in all this is that self-control, self-discipline and better decision making are learned traits. They can be taught, which means they can be acquired instead of being something that you are born with. There are mental techniques which we can learn but like everything that has to do with the mind, they require a lot of concentration and effort. The cost is high which means that the path to learning them is also difficult.

But there is another way. An easy one.

Use Your Body To Shape Your Mind

We shall use the personal commitment contract method as the leverage and our body as the key to unlocking the self-discipline required in our mind. Here’s what you do: You pick one physical exercise to perform every day for thirty days. I usually suggest ten – twenty push-ups before you hit the shower in the morning.

Ten-twenty because they are doable and push-ups because everyone can do them. You can substitute something you feel relatively comfortable with: sit-ups, squats, jumping jacks.

Whichever exercise you pick has to meet the following requirements:

  • It has to be physically demanding but not so difficult that you can’t do it. So if you’re going to do push-ups and you know you can do ten push-ups no problem, going for twenty will only set you up to fail. Ideally it takes you to the edge of your comfort zone but not beyond it
  • It has to be done every day before a particular activity (shower in the morning is an easy one)
  • You cannot cheat by deferring one day’s activity to the next and doubling the load
  • Try to maintain perfect form in execution (whatever you decide to do, do it with intent)
  • Record your progress (I suggest crossing out the days in an app or even an old fashioned paper calendar)

That’s it.

Here’s what will happen if you do this: Your body, physically, will change a little. You will become stronger, a little fitter. But your mind will change a lot more. To maintain a commitment even as light as this for thirty days requires focus. It requires, dare I say it, discipline. You will need to make yourself do it even when you don’t want to. When you do that you find yourself thinking why you're really doing it. You will have to work out some of your identity issues. Identity impacts on self-image and motivation. Motivation affects your focus. Focus impacts on productivity. Productivity affects your performance at work. 

Your energy levels will go up. Feeling less tired at work will change how you view the work itself. Your interactions with those around you will change. You will handle stress better. All of this will change your perspective. Your perspective determines your reality. Your reality affects how you make decisions regarding real-world issues.

You will find that you feel about yourself differently to everyone else, plus you will be able to resist “hot” system impulses more easily. Try it. See for yourself.


Go Deeper: 

Intentional book by David Amerland The Sniper Mind by David Amerland
Take Control Of Your Actions.    Make Better Decisions.

You can read a sample of The Sniper Mind chapter here.

Get Intentional on Audible.