Are “bright lines” good for self-control?

Do you ever wonder why your willpower can be strong at certain times and non-existent at others? :-)

I experienced both states in a short period of time recently, and I talk about the big lesson I took from it in this week’s post.

It wasn’t a completely new idea, but this brought it home for me in a big way, and I think it’s something you’ll want to know about.


A real-life example of what it looks like to “slip” with your Inner Game.
What I mean by “bright lines.”
How important they are for self-control.
Watch/listen to get the full message.

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[ transcript ]

Hey, David Levin here. Author of Raise Your Inner Game, co-author of QBQ the question behind the question, founder of Raise Your Inner Game Academy.

I had a great reminder recently of the power of Bright Lines for having self-control. I’ve known about it for a while. And seen it in action before. But it really came home again this last week.

Bright lines, by the way, if you don’t know, are basically when you have a hard fast rule for what you’re doing. Generally it has to do with what you’re eating.

So, for example, on a low-carb diet, a bright line would be, no bread, no pizza, no pasta no sweets, and so on. Gluten free diet? NO gluten. Recovering alcoholic? NO alcohol. You’re not trying moderation, not trying to just be better about it. You having NONE of it. Okay? That’s a bright line.

By the way, I first heard the term Bright Line from a woman named Dr Susan Peirce Thompson and her Bright Line Eating program. She didn’t coin the term, she was actually introduced to it by someone else and had great success with it personally. But she went on to help a LOT of people lose weight on her program. She’s great.

So anyway, here’s why this came up again so powerfully for me.

If you’ve been following my recent posts, you know that I just finished a 30-day challenge, where I went a full 30-days basically being perfect with a plan I put together for a bunch of different behaviors—exercise, morning routine with meditation, controlling my diet, avoiding Coke Zero, and so on. The challenge went great, it felt great. It really was a total success.

But then it was done. So what’s next?

The natural inclination is to pretty much just keep going. Right? You’re feeling good. The things you’re doing are an improvement, and after 30 days, it sort of seems weird to not do them, which is one of the BIG benefits of a 30-day challenge. When you can get to a point with a new behavior where it feels wrong NOT to do it, that’s beautiful. That’s how you create new habits.

So you continue on. And that’s what I did. I had a couple of days of sweets and pizza just to celebrate the accomplishment. It was fun, it was a good incentive. The family was into it. So that was all fine. But otherwise, I kept going. Still wasn’t having Coke. I was back on my low-carb program. Still exercising. All good.

Now, there wasn’t a Bright Line involved. I hadn’t set any fast rules. I hadn’t made any commitments. I just had the intention to continue.

But then, we go on a trip for a week to Chicago. The kids are going to music camp. I will be working out of our hotel room during the day.

So already I knew that was going to be difficult. Travel is always hard. Hard to find good food options. Hard to get good sleep, which kills your willpower. Your rhythms are all thrown off. Hard to stay focused. It’s just a tough situation.

But we had coincidentally just been to Chicago a couple weeks earlier, during the 30-day challenge, and it had gone great. So I knew it was going to be tricky, but I was optimistic. And it turns out, I was overly optimistic.

It did not go well. The trip was fine. We had a good time. But my Inner Game was a mess. The first couple days were okay, but it slowly came apart as the week progressed to the point that by the end of the week, I was back to having a couple Cokes a day and eating just terribly. Bread, sweets, every meal. Snacking. Too much. Just really bad. And I could really feel it, too. That was the worst part.

I talk in the book and the Academy training about how it just feels different and better and more awake and alive and you’re proud of yourself when you’re on top of your inner game. Well, no surprise, the opposite is also true. And it’s almost worse when you’ve learned the difference.

When you get used to operating at a higher level, and I don’t mean that in a superior way, I just mean you have more self-control, you’re more awake and present, you can really feel the difference when you slip. You just feel terrible. You’re heavy, emotionally, everything seems uphill. You feel ashamed for doing the things you know you shouldn’t be doing. Disappointed. Sort of depressed. It’s just a heavy load, both physically and emotionally.

And the thing that was the most disappointing for me was that the arguments for having a Coke started to be effective again. Arguments are the inner debate that goes on with that other voice in your head that tries to talk you into doing things you don’t want to do, right? So, one of the big arguments I normally hear for having a Coke is that I need it. I don’t drink coffee, so Coke Zero is my only caffeine source, and when I’m tired, that’s a big argument in favor of it: “You need the boost.”

Now, during my 30-day challenge, I had broken that. There were some days where I thought My God I REALLY really truly need this right now, but I got through it, so I didn’t need it. I really didn’t. I demonstrated that over and over again. Not only that, it didn’t even really work. When I am really dragging, it’s usually more of an allergy type cognitive problem. I’m fuzzy headed and I can hardly keep my eyes open. And caffeine doesn’t really help with that. I’m still fuzzy headed, but now I’m jittery too. So it’s just a false argument. And I thought I had broken it over those 30 days.

But after a few days of slipping, I could tell it had come come back. I would be feeling a little tired in the morning, and there it would be. Oh, you should really have a Coke. And I would. I was once again vulnerable to that argument. And it was really disappointing.

Now, it’s not the end of the world. I can break it again. And I have already in the last couple days. But for some reason, that bummed me out. I really thought I had beat that one for good. Should have known better.

Anyway, this whole experience wasn’t completely new. I’ve had similar slips in the past, it’s not uncommon. But here’s what made this one different, and made the Bright Line idea stand out so much for me.

Two trips. Similar circumstances. Close together in time, just a couple weeks apart. One, with bright lines, was successful. And felt great. The other, with good intentions, failed, and felt terrible.

The Bright Lines made the difference.

When I am operating within a firm rule, it makes it much easier to stay on track. The arguments start, ‘Boy, you could really use a Coke,” if I can say, ‘No, that’s not an option. We’re not doing that,” for some reason, that’s enough to stay on track even in the face of some pretty intense Gravity. But when it’s just an intention that’s up for debate, it doesn’t have that strength. It’s much more vulnerable to the arguments.

This is a big reason I enjoyed Tim Ferriss’s slow carb program from the Four Hour Body. It was basically a modified Bright Line program. He has what he calls a cheat day model, where you avoid all the carbs for six days – So that’s the bright line, NO — and then eat the things you’ve been avoiding and craving on the seventh. That worked great for me. On the one hand, you get the willpower boost from the Bright Line so you can stay with it during the week. But it’s also much easier over time to say “No, not now. Wait until Saturday” than to have to say, “No, not now. Never.”

And of course, this is all just me talking about what works for me. It’s not going to be true for everyone. But based on what I’ve heard from many sources, this is generally the case. Bright Lines are the best way to boost your self-control and get control of your behaviors.

So if you have something you want to work on, try this out. Give yourself some sort of multi-day challenge. 7 days, 2 weeks, 30-days ideally. Whatever it is, pick a behavior and make it a hard rule. EVERY DAY for the whole time.
I also recommend you put a daily reminder for the duration of the challenge somewhere where you’ll see it. I use Calendar on my Mac for that.
And I recommend tracking your progress in a journal or a simple spreadsheet. Those are both super helpful for staying on track.
And if you’re interested, I recorded a daily audio journal of my 30-day challenge and posted it on my podcast, The David Levin Show. So you could subscribe to that and follow along. That might be helpful, too. Give you some perspective as you go through it.
But however you do it, this is a powerful tool for getting control of your inner game. Set up a Bright Line challenge and give it a shot. I think you’ll be surprised and thrilled really with how well it works.

All right, that’s it for this week. If you’d rather get these posts in your podcast player, you can subscribe to my podcast, The David Levin Show. Just go to iTunes Google Play, search for that. If you’re already listening to this as a podcast, but haven’t subscribed, would love to have you join me so you can get these automatically when they come out. Again, just go to iTunes or Google play and subscribe.
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Otherwise, thank you. Keep up the good work. I’ll talk to you next time.

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