Nietzschean Self-Mastery in 10 Steps
In our last post we examined Nietzsche's 'drives-theory' of the individual and how these drives might be controlled and organised to bring us success in self-mastery. This time we look at actual practical techniques which clinical trials have demonstrated give us the best possible chance of eliminating old and unhelpful behaviours and of cultivating new, high-performing habits.
In a previous career I used to run a service helping hundreds of people quit smoking. The techniques that yielded success for quitting smoking are, more or less, the same for all behaviour change – drugs, alcohol, weight loss, you name it. These techniques are all applications of evidence-based psychology. Multiple research studies have proven their effectiveness.
You will recall from last time that we imagined a person wanting to drop ten pounds from their body weight. Let’s say this is your drive. Inasmuch as we know that the dominant drive gets its way (manifesting its Will to Power), what can we do to strengthen and amplify this drive so it becomes dominant and so is more likely to be successful? The drive is going to have some pretty stiff competition - the (negative) drive to gorge ourselves on sugary and fatty foods is a very powerful and primal instinctual compulsion. We have to empower the positive drive (to lose weight) and weaken this negative drive (to eat junk).
So, to lose that weight:
Have a plan. Don’t be vague. Have specific targets and well-defined actions. Write it all down and keep your plan up to date. This will keep your commitment in the forefront of your mind and reinforce your positive drive
Get support. Find other people who are facing the same challenge and work together – a weekly weigh-in with a group can be very motivating. This will strengthen your positive drive.
Make a public pledge. Tell others your plans – especially people you respect. Evidence tells us that people tend to be very averse to reneging on a commitment that has been made publicly. We are much more likely to lapse if no one else will know when we have failed. This technique engages another drive - your pride - to help combat the negative drive.
Remove triggers and temptations. Remove from your home and your life all the objects that act as behavioural cues or triggers to eat. Get rid of the cookies in the cupboard. Get rid of the ice cream in the freezer. Don’t go near the burger joint you frequent. If your negative drive senses the presence of temptation, its power will grow.
Record your progress. The journal you have started (see previous post here) encourages reflection, self-examination and a better understanding of how thoughts, feelings and external stimuli affect behaviour. Analyse your successes and especially your failures. This will improve your self-control.
Aversion therapy. Keep your motivation high by using reminders. For example, if there’s a particularly unflattering photo of you looking out of shape, get it out when you are feeling cravings to eat junk. This reminder will empower your positive drive.
Have strategies - to deal with cravings. Plan clear steps that you can take when craving unhealthy food. It’s important just to have something, anything, to do. Dwelling on your cravings will strengthen your negative drive, so have distractions ready.
Be realistic. Make a modest commitment. Yes, you probably want to make a permanent change – but this is a huge ask. Instead, go for no junk for one week - or even only one day. This is about breaking an enormous and potentially overwhelming challenge into manageable chunks. When the desire to eat hits you, the idea of holding out against your cravings forever seems just so impossible that your resolve can crumble. Holding out until this time next week, or this time tomorrow, on the other hand, is a more manageable goal. Achieve that, take stock and only then commit to another week or another day.
Virtue pairing. Do something you enjoy at the same time as the thing that’s hard to do. So save your favourite podcasts for when you are going to the gym. Listen while you exercise. The treat helps reinforce your drive to work out.
Create habits. This is the way to supercharge your success. Human beings are creatures of habit. Once a negative habit is established, it can be very difficult to dislodge. On the other hand, once a virtuous habit is established, you can be successful almost as if on autopilot.
Let’s say you want to create the habit of running in the mornings before work. Do it at precisely the same time each morning and follow exactly the same routine. Remove all ‘friction’ - anything that makes it harder to get out of the door - and take all mental deliberation out of the equation. Mental chatter is the noise created by your drives arguing amongst themselves so don’t think – just do!
Have your running gear laid out and ready (or even sleep in it!), coffee ready to brew on the stove, your MP3 player charged and loaded with your playlists – whatever you need! Do all your preparation the evening before when your motivation will likely be much higher than in the morning. When you get up, follow the precise same procedure every time. If you have to stop and think, that becomes an opportunity for an opposing drive to jump in and rationalise – it’s raining out, it’s too cold, I didn’t sleep very well etc. etc.
Very soon your body will learn the routine and your mind can busy itself with other matters whilst your body gets what needs to be done, done. Trust your body. It is an amazing machine.
'There is more intelligence in your body than in your best wisdom.’
It would be the same for writing a book. Have a space, a routine, a ritual. Remove any impediments or distractions well before you are due to start. Otherwise you might find yourself tidying around when you should be writing – so called, ‘displacement activity’, which is really just avoiding doing the thing you know you should be doing.
If you follow these steps, your chances of success are optimised, and you are well on your way to self-mastery. You are going to need to work at this though. The good news is that success is self-reinforcing. If you succeed at one challenge, you feel more confident about taking on another. Conversely, the bad news is that the more you fail, the more you come to expect this of yourself and this further sabotages your efforts.
Grit your teeth then, gird your loins and strive to cultivate perfect personal discipline. Because as Nietzsche said:
'He that cannot obey himself, shall be commanded.'
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