If you come into my weight room, you’ll see a board displaying the essential no’s:
- No Sitting
- No Yawning
- No Hands in Pockets
- No Being Last
- No Unauthorized Smartphone Use
- No Headphones
- No Singing to Other People—If You Need to Sing, Avoid Eye Contact
- No General Displays of Weakness
Arbitrary as some may seem, each one has been intentionally selected to promote the environment I’d like to foster. These are non-negotiable. Violations elicit immediate punishment ranging from 400-yard sled pushes for improper smartphone use (smartphones are sometimes allowed because I use an app for tracking weights lifted) to 20 burpees for any unassailed yawn. Yes, even being last comes with a consistent penalty.
There is always someone who is last and, in groups as large as I work with, that should never be you. As I’ve explained, this rule, while sometimes unfair for the individual brings a sense of urgency to the beginning of each workout that improves the entire team. Many of these restrictions are intentionally fun-spirited, but all have merit and all are enforced consistently.
I follow similar restrictions in my own life. Whether I’m triumphantly in bed reading by 8 pm or frustratingly delayed until 10, I never sleep in. I wake up at 4 am to commence my morning routine. I start each day with mobility, then writing, and will not look at my phone until after 6.
My days are full of such boundaries. I check email only twice in a day, I don’t use chairs at work, and while I admittedly love pizza, I’ll only eat it or other such indulgences when planned well in advance. Often I’d like to deviate from my laundry list of boundaries, but I offer those impulses no leash. Most people would consider me rather inflexible, but this has been my path to personal freedom.
Freedom! From the youngest age, we thirst for it—constantly testing and re-testing boundaries to see where each adult’s line really lies. As we grow older we learn that freedom is what made America America.
“It’s a free country,” becomes our favorite retort to any peer who’d question our behavior. We blow stuff up, wave flags, and eat hot dogs in homage to freedom! We yearn for a driver’s license, a car, and money because they all provide delicious freedom. This is why we can’t wait to turn 18 and then 21. More freedom.
But, what is freedom? Most would say it is the ability to do what you want to do when you want to do it. Yet, this is too simple. What about knowing why you want to do something? What forces are compelling you? Particularly in the age of impulse and marketer manipulation, when our neuroscience is constantly hacked and lives lived engulfed in an environment of stimuli our biology could have never expected, freedom entails understanding.
Enslaved to Impulse
Jimmy wants to lose weight. He has a trainer and is consciously eating better. At first, this is exciting, but soon it is just hard. At work, he goes to make copies and becomes obsessed with the bowl of candy colleagues scavenge from throughout their day. He decides a Reese’s won’t hurt, but after a taste, he grabs two more. And a couple of Jolly Ranchers to curb his craving.
That night he’s planned to bake chicken and eat it with brown rice, broccoli, and squash. Yet when he gets home, tired, he wants something bad. He can’t take it anymore. Jimmy grabs the phone and orders sausage and pepperoni pizza, with cheesy bread and marinara dipping sauce (which is somehow different than pizza).
All of Jimmy’s decisions are freely made, but is he acting out of freedom? If prior to this day, he had been able to look at every possible decision point, he would have undoubtedly chosen many very different actions. Something is preventing him from doing what he, objectively, would want to do. Jimmy is enslaved to impulse. Freedom?
Most wake up and are drawn to their phone like a moth to the flame. There is low-grade anxiety pulling them like a magnet to scan their apps and check for messages. This pattern resurfaces every time their brain is allowed the space to wander, whether during lunch out with friends or a slow part in their evening television program. Living with few boundaries, their days persist, riding one impulse to the next.
- Tired? Sit down.
- Hungry? Grab vending machine chips.
- Bored? Check social media. See 73 ads for hiking gear. Think: I could use better hiking boots.
- Still bored? Check email. Click YouTube link. Autoplay strikes. Watch seven more videos.
- Guilt? Return to your work.
- Workday ends. Go buy hiking boots.
- Drive home. See Sonic. Feel hunger. Buy Sonic meal.
While there is nothing wrong with flow, problems arise when we wander unintentionally through our days constantly pulled from task to task by the wave of impulses for which the modern world is constantly flooded.
Over time, this unchecked free-serving of impulses leads to a loss of physical freedom and arborized habits that only further limit our ability to behave in any other way. We’re slaves to the patterns others have created.
Now more than ever, living without a clear objective and clear boundaries is a sure path to behaving how others want and being someone we don’t want to be. What appears to be free choice is actually compulsion.
Freed by Restrictions
One student recently came to tell me how she’d started keeping her phone in her backpack at school. She said, “I tracked my phone usage and I kept having over eight hours of screen time. That’s way too much.”
According to Common Sense Media, the average for teens is using their phone over nine hours. Boundaries offer freedom from the tyranny of our impulses. We can establish actual physical boundaries, like putting a phone in your backpack, or less tangible rules, but we must have boundaries in order to be who we wish to be.
At the most basic level, freedom feels good and externally imposed limitations suck. The unfortunate paradox, however, is that if we don’t use our freedom to impose limitations then we will never be free.
Youth who grow up absent of expectations are more likely than any to resist adulthood. Lacking the experiences that orient one towards purpose, they are content to live with their parents while seeking pleasure and entertainment and avoiding any discomfort that might prompt them to evolve.
Like Will Ferrell’s character in Step-Brothers or Wedding Crashers, they can do whatever they want to do on a given day. Mom! Meatloaf! Without any rules or requirement to earn money to pay bills, they perceive themselves maximally free, but these are the least free of all. A lack of capability is a lack of freedom. Without the discomfort of self-reliance, they remain dependent.
The standard model is for society to shape its environment around impulses and desires, rather than shaping our environment around our human needs. Technology allows for food addiction not possible in the organic environment our biology was intended for. It creates an environment of distraction that pulls us to voyeurism and away from purposeful action.
If our children are to break free of these patterns and grow up to embrace a healthier lifestyle we will need to set boundaries and model them. For a more in-depth look at effective boundaries and environmental design, check out Justin Lind’s and my free e-book, The Essential Guide to Self-Mastery.
This Week’s Mission
Explore your environment and your behavior. Create a helpful boundary for your kids and/or self. Imagine how much more sleep will happen when TV’s aren’t in bedrooms. How much more play would happen if TV’s were off until after dinner? How much more discussion would happen if phones weren’t allowed at dinner?