Why it's Good to Give into Small Indulgences

It seems self help books, sites, podcasts etc. have been flooded with tips and tricks to make you more resilient, more disciplined as to achieve your goals. You have to grit your teeth, resist temptation and just get on with it.

Well, here I am trying to make a case for less grit, and more indulgence.

Now the picture accompanying this article might be ever so slightly misleading. I'm not talking about THAT level of indulgence. I'm talking about the smaller things in life. Say, one donut. Now it's not all about food either. It can be about anything. Whatever you are using a self help book/podcast/site/regime for. The most popular ones are in the realm of fitness: trying to lose weight (diet), to become healthier, to become fitter (work-out), in the realm of economics: to save more money, spend less, get better at finances (increasing financial literacy), or in the realm of work: to have more energy, be more productive, get more done in less time, be a better teamplayer etc.

Now if you are focusing on one of these, good for you. Engaging in self-reflection and self-improvement are great (assuming it's not obsessive...). But it seems to have become somewhat popular that you are engaging in all of these. Say what?!

Round the clock perfection, errr I meant discipline, is what seems to be the new goal. Not only do you have to meet several goals (fitness, health, wealth and career success), you have to do so without ever dropping the ball. Your ultimate goal is to be insanely disciplined.

No breaks, no slip-ups, no "cheat" days or "treat" days. Just constant discipline. I get tired just reading through this...

Now if you are thinking of radically changing something about yourself, and think that this is the way to go because some fitness or finance "guru" said so, think again. Something that all these "discipline guru's" seem to have forgotten about is a little thing called ego-depletion.

The ego is a concept derived from Freudian theory, in which there are 3 parts to a person: id, ego and superego. Id is your deepest desires. However much you want to spend, however much you want to eat, with complete disregard for the consequences. Id is like the devil on your right shoulder. Superego is the opposite. Superego wants you to do well within society, wants to be accepted, admired and fall within the rules and regulations of the system we operate it. Superego is like the angel on your left shoulder.

Superego would never give into emotions such as rage, id would. If the id roams freely for too long, bad things happen. Ego is in the middle of all this. Ego is trying to manage its devil and its angel. It's a balancing act. Lots of people are great at balancing. Sometimes they are selfish, often they are not. Some egos are of course better than others. You know what the best predictor is of how well we are able to balance our angel and devil? It depends on how depleted we (our egos) are.

How do you deplete an ego? I have written an article about it before, please do read that here. In there, I explain that the constant battle between angel and devil is exhausting. It's exhausting because often, especially when pursuing discipline, we constantly repress our id, in favour of the superego. We constantly do what we should be doing, not what we want to be doing. This takes a toll. This takes a toll even more if there is no release, at all. If you are on a diet, there is no restriction on other activities, right? So, as long as you eat healthily, you can still sit on the couch, or splurge on new clothes as a reward for sticking to your diet (not that I'd recommend this behaviour either, but bear with). If you are on a "financial diet," you're not allowed to spend, but you could still eat pizza, bought in store/home made, rather than takeaway, but still! But what happens if you try to do all of these at the same time? Well, ego depletion won't take too long to take occur. No unhealthy food, constant exercise, no impulse purchases, being the perfect employee, being a nice person etc. It's a constant suppression of your id. And that thing doesn't like to be constantly suppressed.

No the id is a devil, and a proper one at that. Repressing the id for too long doesn't lead to it becoming weaker as is often assumed. No, the never giving into temptation of any form (you might be able to reduce temptation for certain specific things, but not everything) will make the ego weaker, and the id stronger. Eventually the id will win from the ego. And what then?

Now I'm not recommending to you that you fully fly of the rails in either or all of the areas you're applying discipline to, just to beat your id to the punch. That is often not helpful at all. It leads people to throwing the baby out with the bathwater, claiming that "well, I broke my winning streak now, might as well write off the whole day/week/month." That is not the right attitude either. As such, we should try to avoid this. It seems to be a bit all or nothing here. Shouldn't we try to be a bit more flexible?

I think we should. If you work long weeks, you know that you're effectively working towards the light at the end of the tunnel (that's the weekend, I'm not talking about death here...). We also all know that if we set ourselves some rewards such as a nice night out (or in), some wine, good company, a nice trip, etc. we can bear that long week just a bit better.

This is the balancing act. It's not work hard, play hard. Or even play harder. No. It's a give and take between id and superego. Where one gets to be productive, work well and excel, and the other then gets its time to play, have some fun and let its hair down. And the ego? Well the ego isn't constantly balancing in the moment decisions trying to suppress the id in favour of the superego. The ego can finally recharge.

So if you're thinking about radically changing your life and excel in all forms of discipline, be warned. Never giving yourself a break is very likely to backfire. If you've had a long and intense week at work, treat yourself to a glass of wine. If you've finally shed those last 10 kilos, buy yourself a nice new outfit to show it off. Celebrate the fact that you have been disciplined in one aspect, by giving yourself a small reward in another. You have to let loose sometimes.

We aren't robots after all.

As it's Friday now, I wish you a happy and slightly indulgent weekend!

One quick note of caution: you might have noticed that when rewarding yourself for one form of discipline (e.g. being on a diet) I don't recommend rewarding yourself with a reward in the same discipline. I actively discourage rewarding yourself with a donut when on a diet, as it's counterproductive. Discipline is often easiest when it has become a proper habit. If you are on a low carb diet, you can't eat donuts, it ruins the diet, but also the habit. When trying to save money, you can't reward yourself for reaching your saving goals by splurging, because it's the habit of splurging you might be trying to break. This is too confusing for the ego. The id, however, doesn't make that distinction. It takes reward in any form. So eat a donut when you've saved enough money. And treat yourself to a nice pair of shoes when reaching your ideal weight. Just keep them separate!

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©2018 by Merle van den Akker