I haven't had dessert in eight months. It sounds crazy, I know, especially given that I'm not on a diet. I've been right around 170 lbs. for the last 10 years, with the exception of a brief period where a running injury forced me to take 6 weeks off (I gained 12 pounds). I don't need to lose weight, I am simply trying to become a better entrepreneur.
It all started when research showed that self-discipline matters more than IQ for success. I wondered if that was really true, so I analyzed my own life and I looked at how many often I goof off when I should be working. For instance, I sit down to write a software spec. It should take me an hour. But first I check my email. Someone sent me an interesting link, so I visit the link. Then from there I start poking around the web. After 10 minutes, I realize I haven't started on the spec, so I shut down my browser and start writing. Then someone IMs me. I reply. For the next 20 minutes, I write a sentence or two of the spec, then respond to IM, then write, then IM. I finally realize I'm being slow and I shut down instant messenger. Then I look at what I wrote and it doesn't flow well. Of course it doesn't, because every 60 seconds I was changing context. By now, I'm thirsty, so I go get something to drink. This keeps up for two hours, and at the end of it all I'm only halfway done with the spec. I spend 2 hours doing the same thing later that day. What should have taken one hour now ends up taking four altogether. I feel like I've worked hard. After all, I just spent 4 hours writing a spec.
Time deceives. When Peter Drucker consulted with organizations, he often made executives keep a log of their time. When it was analyzed at the end of several weeks, they were usually shocked at how they really spent their time vs. how they thought they spent it.
Time management in this day and age is much harder than it used to be. Our brains are primed to pay attention to people, to communications, to whatever is going on in the lives of others. Spending a quiet hour focused on a single topic is rare. I believed that if I could spend some quiet hours working, I would get more done. But removing myself from the constant connectedness was hard. Maybe I just needed more discipline. Maybe more discipline would make me successful.
Plato wrote that "the first and best victory is to conquer the self." Warren Buffett said something to the effect of "if you have discipline in the small things you will have discipline in the large things." I've read enough about the human brain to know that if certain actions are repeatedly taken, the brain becomes used to them and they become easier. I started to wonder if I could build my overall discipline by practicing more discipline in a small area of my life. I needed something that was difficult, but not in my face every day. I decided to give up desserts. For one year.
I wasn't cutting out sugar. The definition of a dessert was anything sweet that I would eat after lunch or dinner because I was craving it. The goal was to fight the impulse, more than anything else. No ice cream, cakes, cookies, candy, brownies, pies, or anything that would typically be considered a dessert.
When I initially announced this to friends and family, the responses ranged from "yeah right" to "that sounds like a miserable year." What I learned though, is that the desire for sweets is fleeting. You want them when you want them, but an hour later, or the next day, I don't sit around and think about how I really wished I had eaten those brownies. IMs and emails and phone calls and fun websites are the same way. I don't think there is a single message I've received in the last year that couldn't have waited an hour or two for a response. But when I don't finish a software spec, or a business plan, or returning emails, or whatever it is I wanted to get done but didn't – then I do feel bad the next day.
Eight months have passed, and I've had no desserts, and there have really only been 3 or 4 occasions that I seriously struggled and thought I should give up the stupid goal. What are the results? Well, I think the past 8 months have been the single most productive period in my entire life. I still miss deadlines, forget about things, and sometimes get distracted, but not nearly as often as I used to. In other words, I think it is actually working. My ability to buckle down and focus even when I don't feel like it has increased. In the same way that lifting weights makes a 50 pound box seem lighter the next time you have to carry it, focusing on a somewhat boring task for a few hours seems much easier than it was in the past.
A nice side benefit is that I've also felt much better in general. I've had more energy, I've slept better, and I've been sick less than normal. I haven't seen any negative mental side effects such as decreased creativity, or a diminished capacity to deal with multitasking situations (although I try to avoid these when possible).
So what can you learn from this experience, other than the fact that I am indeed a strange person? I think the two key points are that self-discipline really is a major component of success, and that self-discipline can be exercised, so that it becomes stronger.
The world is an interesting place, and we live in a time that is very exciting for entrepreneurs. There are lots of cool problems to solve. Don't let a lack of self-discipline interfere with your capacity to do great things.