By John Sonmez August 31, 2015

How to Gain More Control Over Your Life

Most of us lack the ability to actually do and achieve what we intend.

It’s true. We know what we should do, we know what we want to do—but our minds are too weak to exert the control over our bodies to actually bring them into submission.

Imagine what power you would possess if you could learn to control yourself.

Imagine what dreams and goals you could achieve if you could compel yourself to take the more difficult path in life when it is necessary.

Few of us lack the ability to envision what we want—we just lack the discipline to get it.

Even now, as you sit reading this article, there is probably something you feel guilty for neglecting when it must be done in order to achieve your goals.

Yet you are unable to compel yourself to take the necessary action.

Time and time again you fail. You fail to stick to the diet.

You fail to get to the gym. You fail to devote the time to self-education you promised yourself you would.

You fail to do what you intend to do and instead do the exact opposite.

How do I know this?

Because I have been trapped in this same trap.

I know what it is to not have control over your own life.

Unless we specifically take actions and steps to regain control over our lives, this is our default state. Left to chance, we will all lack the self-control and self-discipline required for self-mastery.

In my last post, I showed how the lack of self-discipline directly led to the lack of control in your life—and mine as well.

Surprised manI talked about how very few of us are actually in control of our lives and the danger that imposes on us.

In this post, I want to show you how you can do something about it.

It starts with setting goals

Before you can gain self-mastery and control your life, you need to actually have goals you want to achieve—otherwise you won’t know what direction to aim.

Without knowing what you want, it’s very difficult to get it.

Without goals and a clear direction, you are more easily swayed by any distraction that comes your way.

You can have all the self-discipline in the world, but if you don’t know what it is you're actually supposed to do, you won’t be able to accomplish it.

Most of have some vague ideas of what we’d like to accomplish in life, but we haven’t thought about them enough to make them into concrete goals.

We know in the back of our minds that we’d like to be more healthy, that we’d like to be more successful or make more money, and we try to head in that general direction. But we hopelessly fail, because we don’t really know what we’re supposed to do.

I hope you can see that this lifestyle is the very opposite of having control over your own life.

If you don’t know where you are going, you aren’t going anywhere at all.

So before you can get what you want, you have to know what it is.

What are you actually aiming for?

Do you want to lose 10 pounds?

Do you want to get a certain job title?

Make a certain amount of money?

Learn a new skill?

Whatever it is, decide, and start moving in that direction.

(For some specific advice on setting goals, check out Chapter 3 in my book, Soft Skills: The Software Developer’s Life Manual, where I cover this topic a bit more in-depth.)

Develop a system to remind you to check and reevaluate your goals

Man writing down thoughts in journalIt’s one thing to set goals, it’s another thing to follow through with them.

In my previous post, I talked about how we can let the very threads of control in our life slip through our fingers if we aren’t able to capture or ideas and remind ourselves of what we actually want to accomplish.

More than once, I’ve had a noble idea or plan that I never got around to implementing because I simply forgot about it.

Every once in a while, life presents us with a moment of clarity where we are able to see things more clearly than before; A brief flash of insight that inspires us.

These moments are precious and few. If we do not immediately take action in those moments and build for ourselves some way to keep those kindlings of flames alive, we risk the them being snuffed out forever.

That is why it is vitally important for you to have some way to not only record your ideas and ambitions, but to constantly remind yourself of them and evaluate your progress towards them.

There are many ways you can go about creating such a setup.

Here is the exact system I use—feel free to steal it.

But it doesn’t matter what your system is, so long as you have one.

At the very least, your system should allow you to:

  1. Capture new ideas and goals
  2. Automatically remind you to review those ideas and goals

This can be as simple as having a list in a text document and a recurring calendar reminder, or it can be as complex as the one I developed. But without any kind of system in place, you are leaving your life to the mercy of random chance and limiting yourself to only what can be accomplished or thought about in a single day.

Developing self-discipline

Angry teacher with wooden stickWithout concrete goals and a system in place to remind you of them, you are like a computer that has only RAM but no hard drive. You’ll lose all your data every time you reboot, and thus never make any real progress.

Just having permanent storage, however, is not enough to actually be successful and exert meaningful control over your life.

To really gain control of yourself, you need self-mastery, and that is only accomplished through self-discipline.

Self-discipline is not an easy skill to master, but it is one that can absolutely be developed with time and dedication.

As I sit here writing this post, I’m hungry. As I mentioned in my previous article, I fast every day until 5:00 PM. I’ve been doing this for over a year now.

I wake up every morning and either go to the gym or run, rarely missing a day.

For over five years, I’ve written at least one blog post every single week.

I am able to force myself to do things that I don’t always want to do on a very consistent basis, but I wasn’t always like this.

I used to be extremely lazy.

I used to lack self-control, self-discipline, and any semblance of willpower.

I was even medically diagnosed with ADHD as a child, and two of the main symptoms are a lack of impulse control and the inability to focus.

But now I have an iron will. Rarely is there something I set my mind on that I cannot will myself to accomplish.

I’m not perfect—far from it—but I have learned the art of self-mastery through the intentional practice of self-discipline, and you can too.

Gaining control over yourself

Before we can talk about how to gain self-discipline, we have to talk a little bit more about what it is.

Simply put, I define self-discipline as “the ability to do what you want to do.”

You have self-discipline if you can set your mind on a task and achieve that task.

You lack self-discipline if you cannot.

Someone who has self-discipline will wake up in the morning and say, “I will do x, y and z today,” and they do it.

Someone who does not have self-discipline does none of those things, but make excuses for all of them.

If you can’t do exactly what you intend to do, you do not have self-discipline, plain and simple.

Willingly subjecting yourself to hardship

It might seem a little extreme, but one of the best ways to develop self-discipline is to willingly subject yourself to various hardships.

By purposely experiencing some mental and or physical discomfort and powering through it, you are able to increase your mental toughness, which is an important part of developing self-discipline.

Take one of the examples I mentioned earlier—fasting until 5:00 PM every day. At first this might not seem significant, but think about it this way: if you can go without any food until 5:00 PM each day, how much easier do you think it becomes to do other, less taxing things that might cause you some discomfort?

In fact, this idea isn’t very new at all. The ancient Roman stoics regularly practiced the idea of training through voluntary discomfort as a way of getting stronger.

Dousing with cold waterOne dude I highly respect on the web, Joel Runyon, goes so far as to advocate taking cold, 5-minute showers each morning.

Now, I have to admit, I haven’t tried it myself yet. But I definitely plan to.

Again, I realize that this whole idea might seem a big crazy and masochistic, but I know from personal experience that I have gotten tougher and more disciplined by subjecting myself to some discomfort.

As an added bonus, when you subject yourself to discomfort, you are much more prepared to handle the random curve balls, disappointments, and occasional slaps in the face life delivers on its own.

If you don’t want to starve yourself, walk over hot coals, or take ice cold showers, but you’d still like to practice some voluntary discomfort, start with something simple. Committing to going for a run every day at a specific time, waking up early, or even writing 1,000 words a day, for example.

I try to do one thing I dislike every single day.

It keeps me from getting too comfortable and complacent, and hardens my resolve.

Mental toughness is at the core of self-discipline. If you can force yourself to do things that cause you discomfort, you aren’t going to be very successful in gaining much control over your life.

Develop good habits

One way to reduce the mental tax of willing yourself to do unenjoyable things is to make them a habit.

I don’t know anyone who loves brushing their teeth, but for most of us it’s a habit we do with little to no conscious effort or discomfort.

The most difficult part of creating new habits is the beginning, when the habit actually requires a lot of willpower to perform. (Before it’s actually a habit at all.)

But once your are able to get past this initial stage of forming the habit, the habit itself can run pretty close to autopilot, no longer taxing your limited reserves of willpower.

I don’t want to get too bogged down into the details of habits and how to form them there, but I have a couple of really good books I’d recommend about the process.

First of all, one essential book on the topic is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. This book talks all about how habits are formed, and how you can modify existing bad habits to convert them into good ones.

Another really good one is Superhuman by Habit. In this book, Tynan, someone who I personally respect and have been following for a long time, talks about forming habits and offers some suggestions on the different kinds of habits to create.

And, of course, I have a chapter dedicated to habit forming in my own book, Soft Skills: The Software Developer’s Life Manual.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”

—Will Durant (summing up Aristotle)

Make decisions ahead of time (to avoid judgement calls)

Any time we have to make a decision about something, it requires a judgement call.

Each judgement call we make tends to sap our willpower.

So, the fewer judgement calls we can make each day, the better we’ll be at controlling our actions and, ultimately, our lives.

I’ve been able to exert a huge amount of control over my life by simply making decisions ahead of time, so I don’t have to make a judgement call on the spot.

Want a good example?

When I was training to lose weight and get back in shape after recovering from a full pec tear—ouch—I planned all my meals for the week ahead of time so I knew what to expect.

By making those decisions ahead of time, I didn’t have to exert nearly as much willpower to eat healthy as I would have had I decided to try and make healthy choices at every single meal during the week.

I already mentioned how I plan my days and my weeks, but that is another application of the same technique. If I know exactly what I am supposed to be doing at any given time of the day, I’m less likely to make bad judgement calls and goof off or procrastinate.

I often also prepare decisions about how I’ll react in different situations.

If I’m going out to eat, I try to decide ahead of time what my plan for eating is going to be. Am I going to have any alcohol, and if so, how much? Will I order dessert?

It’s always best to prepare decisions as much as possible, because then you are more likely to approach those decisions from a logical perspective rather than an emotional one when caught up in the moment.

Remove temptation

temptationNo matter how strong you are, if you have repeated exposure to temptation, you will be much more likely to crack.

If you want to have more control over your life, you’ll have a better shot at it if you focus on the things that are easier to control.

Fighting temptation is like trying to kick down a steel-reinforced door. Sure, you might have success, but why set yourself up for possible failure when you can simply sneak in the back window?

Instead of taking temptation head on, just get rid of it to begin with.

Have a problem eating too many sweets? Just remove them from your house.

Do you procrastinate every time you sit down and try to do some work? Use a program like Cold Turkey to put the kibosh on any sites that might distract you from your purpose.

It’s still a good idea, however, to become mentally tough, so you can resist temptation when you need to. But there is no need to make things harder on yourself.

Train the body and the mind

I’ve already talked about the benefits of willingly subjecting yourself to hardships in order to increase mental and possibly physical toughness, but working to directly train both the body and mind can also have positive effects on self-control and self-discipline.

The habit of regular exercise and training your body builds both a physical and mental endurance that makes it easier for you to sustain yourself and accomplish your goals.

I personally noticed a huge jump in my own self-discipline once I started developing the habit of regularly running.

Running is a great way to train both the body and the mind. Although running is physical, it takes mental strength to keep going when you are bored or tired.

You can train the mind separately by forcing yourself to focus for long periods of time without interruption.

This kind of training was invaluable in helping me deal with my ADHD tendencies and learning to become extremely productive in spite of them.

The stronger your tools are, the more effective you’ll be when you wield them.

If you want to be effective in directing your life, having a strong body and strong mind will help you achieve that goal.

Always finish

My life really started to change when I became a finisher.

Most people don’t finish what they’ve started.

Most people have a drawer full of broken dreams and a closet full of dusty, unfinished projects.

It takes a lot of gumption to stick through and finish things that you’ve started, but the rewards are many.

By finishing what you start, you actually get to benefit from what you do.

Most of the time, 90% finished projects are just about as worthless as 10% finished projects. When you actually finish something, you reap the benefit from the time you invested. When you leave something unfinished, you’ve probably just wasted that time completely.

You only have so much time in your life, so the more of it you waste, the less control over your overall life you effectively have. Kapeesh?

Finishing also becomes a habit, and forcing yourself to finish things you started but are no longer interested in teaches you how to work without motivation—which is an essential skill on the road to self-mastery.

You are born a slave

businessman with a chainI thought I’d end this post on a high note by informing you that you were born a slave into this world.

It’s true. We all are.

Each of us has the illusion of control over our own lives, but in reality we are controlled by:

  • Our own emotions
  • The manipulations of others
  • Societal norms
  • Fears
  • Our own weakness

The list goes on and on…

Its up to you to break free of those chains the bind you.

No one is going to do it for you.

If you don’t build the mental toughness to take charge of your life and decide what direction you want it to go, you’ll get tossed in whatever direction the winds of chance decide to toss you.

It might be a long road ahead, but don’t worry, you’ll get there if you keep trying.

The key now is taking the first step.

So, what is your first step going to be?

Commit to it publicly in the comments below.

About the author

John Sonmez

John Sonmez is the founder of Simple Programmer and a life coach for software developers. He is the best selling author of the book "Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual."