The secret to self-discipline is having empathy for your future self


Photo by Garidy Sanders on Unsplash

In general, we human beings have trouble doing things that are good for our long-term wellbeing, but which may be challenging in the short-term.

Meditating or exercising regularly are good examples of habits where self-discipline is required. It can be stressful to fit a regular meditation practice or exercise routine into our already very busy lives. It can be difficult to sit when we’re feeling restless, and exercise tends to cause discomfort. Sure, in the long term, these things are highly beneficial to us and make us healthier and happier. But the long-term isn’t here, now. The short-term is. The future seems a long way off, and we can have difficulty in taking it seriously.

We can try and power through — forcing ourselves to do things that are hard now but bring long-term benefits, but it can be hard to sustain that kind of effort. In fact there’s often a backlash. We diet — but then we binge. We train hard — but then we veg out.

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But I’ve found an incredibly simple — and self-compassionate — way to overcome short-term resistance and to commit to your long-term wellbeing. In other words I’ve found that self-discipline can arise from self-compassion. In fact, self-compassion makes self-discipline easier. I’d like to explain how that works.

Here’s the simple hack: have your present self treat your future self with compassion. Treat your future self as a friend, and be kind to them.

So here are some examples:

  • It’s late, and I’m about to head to bed when I realize that there are still dirty dishes on the kitchen counter. Normally I might just say “Screw it” and leave them until the morning. But then I think of how Morning Bodhi will feel about waking up to a dirty kitchen. He’s going to have an unpleasant sinking feeling. I think about how Morning Bodhi will feel about waking up to a clean kitchen. I realize he’ll be happy, and also grateful to Evening Bodhi. So I wash the dishes. I feel good knowing I’ve helped Morning Bodhi.
  • I want to go out for a run, but I’m kind of tired and it’s drizzling. Again, my first response is, “Ah, screw it.” But then I think once more about how Post-Run Bodhi will feel. From previous experience I guess he’ll be tired immediately afterward but will also have a post-run high and will feel a sense of accomplishment. Well, I want that for Post-Run Bodhi, so I put on my running gear and head out the door. And it turns out that Post-Run Bodhi does feel pretty happy. He even says thanks to Pre-Run Bodhi.
  • It’s one of those months where I’m trying to be careful with my money, but a friend has been raving about a new book and I’ve just looked for it online. I really want to read this book and I’ve been a bit stressed, so it would be a nice treat. I can get a reward just by clicking that “buy” button. But then I think about Future Bodhi. How will he feel as the end of the month approaches and his bank balance is running low? Will he be happy that Past Bodhi bought the book, or will he wish that past Bodhi had passed up on it? Probably the latter. He’ll almost certainly feel much happier having saved the money.

Letting yourself off the hook and giving up easily involve short-term thinking: this feels unpleasant now, so I’ll stop doing it. Self-compassion, on the other hard, is about what will benefit you in the long term: this feels unpleasant now, but how will I feel later?

This way of establishing an empathetic and compassionate relationship with your future self makes it easier to have self-discipline. It takes most of the pain out of persuading ourselves to do what’s for our long term benefit. Having empathy for our future selves stops self-discipline being self-punishment and turns it into self-care.

There’s less likely to be a backlash because you’re not forcing yourself to do anything; instead you’re persuading yourself in a rational and kind way. Thinking about the pleasant feelings you future self will have as a result of your present actions brings a sense of joy into the present moment. Having gratitude in the future for your past self’s actions is also a source of happiness. All this is much more pleasant than trying to “power through.” And a self-compassionate approach helps you to feel better about yourself, because you see yourself not as an enemy or as an obstacle to your own happiness but as a friend and as someone who helps yourself to live happily.

In short, when you have empathy for your future self it’s much easier to avoid impulsive and self-defeating behavior and to act in ways that promote your long-term wellbeing.

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11 Comments. Leave new

  • Wonderful site!

  • With my wife’s help I practice this. It makes life less burdensome and more relaxing. It works!

  • One thing I greatly admire about you my dear friend also sets you aside from all the other teachers I tead about – disclosure MANY – You always present serious Buddhist thought but ALWAYS as a practical tip to make life better.
    In short, you always help the world to be a better place. My word to you is simply THANK YOU BODHI!

  • What a great way to think about it! Thanks for this new insight.

  • The corollary is to compassionately not exercise when rest is what you need, especially when you get to our age and the flesh just ain’t what it used to be. I try to get to jiu-jitsu jitsu four times a week but strike a balance between pushing through torpor and pushing too hard to where injury and fatigue result. This principle also applied to my lifelong struggle with getting to bed on time. I seem to be learning of late.

    • Yes, that’s an application of the same principle. When we have a sense that our long-term wellbeing is served by resting, then that’s what we should do. I didn’t want to get into that in the article, though, because then I’d feel impelled to make suggestions about how to make the distinction between that and copping out, and I wanted to keep things focused on the main point of treating you future self as a friend.

  • Larry Fasnacht
    April 29, 2018 10:21 am

    I’ve done this every so often kind of by accident but have never codified the idea as you have. I find it interesting and possibly very helpful. Certainly worthy of trying out. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  • I have been procrastinating increasingly and lately it has become an urgent problem.
    My flat is a mess , every day I resolve to do something about it but hardly ever do.
    Once again I intend to be positive and today will try to follow Bodhispakta,s advice
    of having empathy for my future self………………………Many Thanks Bill.Cook’W

  • Wendy D Andrews
    April 30, 2018 12:07 pm

    Always excellent and insightful. Thankyou so much Bodhispakta.

  • Amanda Singh
    May 18, 2018 10:53 am

    loved this read :)


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