Essay Focus and Productivity

You Don’t Need More Self-Discipline. You Need Nuclear Mode.

Want to get in better shape, become insanely productive, and break your internet addiction? Then stop relying on self-discipline and use Nuclear Mode instead.

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The other day I had dinner with a group of people at a nice Southern restaurant in Austin, Texas. The bourbon list was long and I’d been told the biscuits were legendary — so I was looking forward to a nice meal and conversation.

There were seven us around the table. I knew most of them, but since a few were friends of friends I’d never met before, I decided to sit next to someone new.

The guy to my left, Clay, seemed to be in his early thirties; he told me that he worked at a tech start-up, and that his wife and young son were currently visiting family out of town. He seemed like a nice enough guy.

“So, what do you do?” he eventually asked me.

I opened my mouth to talk, but before I could say anything, his phone buzzed. He picked it up, texted someone, and then put it face-up on the table between us.

“Sorry. So what do you do?” he asked again.

I explained that I was a writer, mostly fitness and self-development stuff. He nodded. Then his phone went off again.

“Hold up,” he said. “I gotta quickly reply to this email.”

He picked up his phone, so I picked up my whiskey, took a sip, and looked around the table. Of the six other people around me, four of them had their heads down and were lost in their phones. I instinctively checked my pocket, but found nothing there. I’d left my phone locked in the rental car outside.

So with nothing to distract me, and no conversation happening, I sat back and enjoyed my drink until a plate of warm biscuits hit the table. I picked one up, watched the little wisps of steam rise off the flaky crust, and slathered honey butter on it. I took a bite and concluded that they were, in fact, legendary.


To my left, Clay took out his phone and held it over the plate of biscuits.

He took a series of photos from different angles. He instructed the person across from me to eat a biscuit so he could take a photo of her. After a good five minutes — and after posting the photo to Instagram with the obligatory hashtags — Clay finally grabbed a biscuit, buttered it, took a bite, and sighed.

“These biscuits are cold.”

The rest of the evening pretty much continued in the same way: small chunks of conversation interrupted by texting, Googling, and checking who commented on Instagram.

At the end of dinner, after the plates had been taken away and the after-dinner drinks poured, Clay surprised me by calling himself out.

“Sorry about all that,” he said. “I’m trying to get better at not looking at my phone all the time.”

He looked embarrassed and resigned, sitting there twirling his glass of wine.

“My wife gets on me about it,” he continued. “I guess I just need more self discipline.”

I smiled and told him that I used to think the exact same thing.

Self-Discipline Is Overrated

I’ve noticed a certain storyline recently, especially among people who are Type-A achievers like me, people who are always trying to optimize their life and find news ways to learn, grow, and improve themselves.

It’s a story that starts like this:

“I have to build more self-discipline…”

If only we had more self discipline, we say, then we’d actually follow through with everything we want to do; we’d finally find time for everything that’s important to us.

If only we had more self-discipline, well, then we’d wake up earlier without hitting the snooze button. We’d get to the gym more often. We’d stop getting distracted by our phones and start being more present with our family. We’d start eating healthier food and maybe even find time to start that side business we’ve been thinking about.

I know Clay was thinking the same thing.

If only he had more self-discipline, he reasoned, then he would have easily resisted the urge to check his phone. He would have had the presence-of-mind to actually enjoy a warm biscuit and a cold bourbon drink without getting sucked into the vortex of his 4.7-inch screen.


But here’s the thing: I think this story about needing more self-discipline is false. Or at least, I don’t believe it’s the whole story.

I don’t think we really need more self-discipline. Instead, I think it’s better to eliminate the need to HAVE self-discipline in the first place.

Two Problems With Thinking We Just Need More Self-Discipline

Before writing this article, I looked up the definition of “self discipline”.

self discipline: the ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses; the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it.

From what I can tell, most of us view self-discipline as a thing we need to constantly exercise every moment of every day. We think we need to police ourselves to resist temptation at every turn.

Resist the temptation to check our phones. Resist the temptation to eat the cookie. Resist the temptation to hit the snooze alarm. Resist the temptation to have a second beer after dinner. Resist the temptation to skip the gym and work out tomorrow instead.

But there are two problems with this line of thinking.

First, it’s incredibly draining to police ourselves every minute of the day. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but temptation is everywhere — from the siren-song of free porn to the outraged articles on the internet, to the mini-computers in our pockets buzzing for our attention. Most of us cannot use self-discipline alone to resist these things. There are simply too many opportunities to fail.

Second, thinking that we need MORE self-discipline is a convenient way of not taking action or doing anything to change our situation in the present. It’s like saying “Yeah, I really should save more money and call my Grandma” while having no intentions of actually saving more money or calling Grandma.

The truth is, we already have all the self-discipline we need. We simply need to use it in more effective ways.

Live Better With Less Self-Discipline: One Powerful Strategy

Over the years, I’ve adopted a few powerful strategies in order to dramatically reduce the amount of self-discipline I need to use in my everyday life.

These strategies vary from the routine to the radical and have helped me:

  • exercise more often
  • eat healthier food
  • meditate consistently
  • become insanely productive
  • break my dependency on my phone
  • avoid getting sucked into the internet
  • spend more stress-free, reflective time alone
  • spend undistracted time with friends and family

My favorite strategy, and the focus of this article is Nuclear Mode — a radically uncomfortable yet incredibly valuable technique that will help you reduce the amount of self-discipline you need in order to live a more productive, less distracted life.

(And since Nuclear Mode is like ripping off a band-aid instead of slowly peeling it away, it also has the fun side-effect of making your friends think you’ve gone insane.)

You can use Nuclear Mode in every area of your life: to eat less junk food and drink less alcohol; to force yourself to become insanely productive and focused; and if you’re feeling bold, you can use Nuclear Mode to break your phone and internet addiction — while having more focus and free time for yourself and your family.

Here are three ways I use Nuclear Mode in my life, ranked from Beginner to Advanced.

Beginner: How To Use Nuclear Mode To Eat Less Junk Food

My friend and colleague Dr. John Berardi from Precision Nutrition has a saying: If a food is in your possession or located in your residence, you will eventually eat it.

I use Nuclear Mode to remove all of the unhealthy food from my house that I’d normally be tempted to eat — things like potato chips, gourmet ice cream, and fancy chocolate chip cookies.

Removing this type of food from my house has two main benefits: First, it makes it physically impossible for me to eat anything “bad” when I’m at home (where I spend most of my time). Second, it makes the instances when I do eat those things infinitely more enjoyable.

With Nuclear Mode, if I’m at home and want a doughnut, then I really only have two options:

Option 1: Walk or drive somewhere to go get a doughnut.
Option 2: Suck it up, eat something healthy instead, and plan the next time I’ll eat a doughnut.

With Nuclear Mode, instead of having doughnuts in my kitchen and available to eat whenever a craving comes on, I put a bunch of barriers in my way. If in order to get a doughnut I must stop working, close my computer, grab my keys, walk to my car, drive to a store, stand in line, buy a doughnut, and drive back home, then it’s almost inconceivable I’d go through all that trouble.

In other words, I don’t have to use any self-discipline to not eat a doughnut because I don’t have any doughnuts to eat.

That means I’ll often go with Option 2: I’ll feel the craving, grab an apple or some beef jerky (or wait for lunch) and then get back to work.

And if after I finish work I still want a doughnut, then I’ll look up whoever makes the best goddamn doughnut in whatever city I’m in at the time, call up a friend, and ask if they want to meet me for doughnuts on Saturday.

Me at Gourdough’s in Austin, Texas with a huge-ass doughnut.

And when Saturday comes, that doughnut will be a million times more delicious and satisfying than anything I would have mindlessly shoved in my mouth at home.

5 Steps For Using Nuclear Mode To Reduce The Amount of Junk Food You Eat

Step 1: Go through your fridge and cupboards and throw away (or give away) any tempting, unhealthy foods.

For most people this is junk food like chips, cookies, and ice cream. But for others, it can be beer, Chinese take-out, or even calorically-dense foods that are easy to overeat like peanut butter.

Step 2: Replace those foods with healthier options that will help you look and feel good.

For snacks I like fresh fruit, baby carrots, beef jerky, sardines, yogurt, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and mixed nuts.

Step 3: Don’t bring tempting foods into the house.

Once you’ve gotten rid of the unhealthy stuff, try not to bring it in again.

Step 4: If you do bring those foods into the house, get the best stuff you can possibly afford — then get rid of the leftovers.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you should never bring certain foods into your house. Personally, I love cooking big meals for people with plenty of bread, booze, and something sweet for dessert.

But I always give the leftovers to my friends as they’re on their way out the door. And if I have a half-pint of ice cream left that nobody wants, I don’t put it back in my freezer. Instead, I throw it away.

My friend Marisa—who loves to bake cookies—does something similar. Whenever she wants cookies, she buys the best ingredients, makes a few dozen cookies, eats one or two, and then puts the rest into Tupperware and delivers them to friends and coworkers.

Step 5: Plan when you’ll enjoy your favorite unhealthy foods.

Just because you don’t have this stuff in your house doesn’t mean you can’t ever enjoy it. (After all, I started this article with me slathering honey butter on biscuits and washing it down with bourbon.)

Instead, the goal is to use Nuclear Mode to make your home a safe-haven. That way you don’t have to use constant self-discipline to stop yourself from eating things you’ll regret later on.

Intermediate: How To Use Nuclear Mode To Become More Productive

Author Cal Newport has written extensively about “deep work”, which he defines as the ability to focus—without distraction—on a cognitively demanding task.

As he makes clear in his fantastic book Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World, the ability to focus for long periods of time is both a rare and valuable skill, simply because so few people can do it.

The ability to get into deep work is essentially a superpower that allows you stand apart from everyone else, create a better career for yourself, and do work you’re proud of.

The main way I get into deep work is by going Nuclear, and using a web-blocking software like Freedom. Once installed on your computer, you can set Freedom to automatically block news, porn, social media, and every other site you use to distract yourself from doing the things you’re supposed to be doing.

Personally, I have two sessions that run every single day. The first session is from 6AM to 4PM. The second session is from 5:00PM to Midnight.

That means I only have ONE HOUR per day to check email and social media, read articles, watch YouTube, and argue with people on the internet.

Nate Green, writing

Nuclear Mode has been incredibly helpful for my productivity, especially when you consider that over the past five years, I’ve written more than 1 million words.

4 Steps For Using Nuclear Mode To Become More Productive and Focused

Step 1: Download Freedom or another web-blocking software on your computer.

Time Left

Step 2: Select and disable any websites you use to distract yourself.

I have 46 websites blocked, not including the usual suspects (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc).

I leave Netflix and Spotify on, mainly because I listen to music when I work. And I still watch Netflix once or twice per week in the evening (but never during the day).

List of websites
I leave Netflix and Spotify on, but block nearly everything else.

Step 3: Set a schedule and play with it.

Freedom lets you start a session whenever you like, but I prefer to put myself on a schedule. (Like I mentioned above, I set Freedom from 6AM to 4PM and again from 5:00PM to Midnight.)

Having a schedule that turns on as soon as I open my computer ensures that I can’t “check email real quick” or do whatever stupid thing I was going to do instead of working.

If you try this yourself, I suggest playing around with your schedule a bit. Since I work for myself and rarely have anyone waiting on me, I can afford to have a fairly Draconian schedule.

However, you may need to adjust your schedule so you can have Freedom running when you’re the most productive and don’t need to be immediately available.

Step 4: After a week of playing with your schedule, go into Locked Mode.

Freedom won’t do you any good if you can disable it at any moment in order to check your email or watch cat videos. That’s why after you get comfortable with your schedule, I recommend putting it on Locked mode.

Locked mode

Locked mode makes it impossible to disrupt an active session, which basically means you won’t be able to “unlock” the software and get access to your email or Facebook any time you want.

Instead, in locked mode, you’ll have to wait it out and see what life is like when you don’t have immediate, automatic access to the most distracting parts of the internet.

Of course, you can always update your settings and change your schedule as soon as your Freedom session is over.

Advanced: How To Use Nuclear Mode To Put Down Your Damn Phone and Start Being a Human Again

At this point, it’s not controversial to say that lots of us are addicted to our phones. In fact, one recent digital habits survey showed that more than 29% of Americans would GIVE UP SEX FOR THREE MONTHS rather than give up their smartphone for one week.

I will pause to let that sink in.

The drawbacks of always being connected to a device are obvious: We spend less time and attention on things that are really important to us while simultaneously experiencing a constant low-level stress and fear of missing out.

Just think about how most of us spend our days:

  • Wake up and check text messages, social media, and emails
  • Listen to Spotify while getting ready for the day
  • Listen to podcasts on our commute to work
  • Work behind a computer for most of the day
  • Get distracted dozens of times by Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, email, or reading articles online
  • Listen to more music or another podcast on our commute back home
  • Listen to music or podcasts while at the gym
  • Listen to music or podcasts while cooking food
  • Read articles or check email while eating
  • Read articles or check email while using the bathroom
  • Watch Netflix in the evening
  • Check texts, email, social media one more time before bed

If we assume that being slaves to our phones is a problem worth addressing, how should we go about weaning ourselves from the constant onslaught of information and entertainment?

Instead of constantly policing ourselves and using self-discipline in order to resist temptation, simply use Nuclear Mode to eliminate the temptation altogether.

7 Steps For Using Nuclear Mode To Break Your Internet and Phone Addiction

Step 1: Grab your phone and delete any app you use to distract yourself (that’s not mission-critical for your job).

For most people that includes:

  • Social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat
  • Games like Candy Crush, Fruit Ninja, or Clash of Clans
  • Messaging apps like Facebook messenger
  • Web browsers like Google Chrome

What’s “mission critical” depends on your job. Some teams use Slack, Basecamp, HipChat, and the like to communicate. If you absolutely need something like that in order to perform your job, then keep the app on your phone.

But if you have Slack on your computer and on your phone, ask yourself if it’s really necessary to keep it on both devices. Do you really need to talk to your team when you’re at the grocery store or watching a movie?

How many times in the past month have you received a message outside of work hours that was absolutely critical to your job or performance?

You may be mistaking convenient for critical. And if Slack (or whatever) is simply convenient, you can probably delete it off your phone and just keep it on your computer for when you’re actually working.

Nate Green self-discipline
What my phone looks like on the home screen, and when I swipe over.

Step 2: Recruit your partner, roommate, or a friend you see often to help.

To help save yourself from screens, you’re gonna need a friend, ideally someone you live with or that you see every day (or nearly every day).

Also, the rest of these instructions are for the iPhone since that’s what I have. Though I’m sure it’s just as easy to do the same thing with an Android device.

Step 3: With your friend next to you, go into the “Settings” app for your phone, and tap on “General.”

Scroll down to the “Restrictions” tab and tap it.

Step 4: Turn your restrictions “On”.

The screen will ask you to enter a “Restrictions Passcode”. Give the phone to your friend and have them enter in a passcode without showing you. (Tell them to enter a code they’ll remember.)

Step 5: Go through the list of restricted apps and toggle off anything you normally get distracted by.

Personally, I turned off:

  • Safari
  • iTunes store
  • iBooks store
  • Podcasts
  • News
  • Email
  • Installing apps

The “installing apps” selection is super-important to get rid of. Otherwise, you’ll just re-download Facebook and Instagram as soon as a craving hits. Remember, we want to eliminate the need to have self-discipline in the first place.


Step 6: Enjoy both the feelings of dread and liberation that come with not being able to check all the distracting shit on your phone.

Notice how after a few days you start not to miss it. I’ve recommended Nuclear Mode to a few people and most of them report feeling immediately more calm and less overwhelmed. And those good feelings carry over for weeks and months.

Step 7: Once per week or so, have your friend enter the “restrictions” code, and give you access to all the things you’re missing.

I usually only toggle two categories back on: Podcasts (so I can catch up on anything interesting) and Installing Apps (so I can update all my other apps).

My partner Richelle leaves these on for me for the weekend, before I have her re-enter the restriction code and turn everything back off on Sunday night.

Nuclear Mode Is Incredibly Powerful — But It’s Not For Everyone

Some of my friends think I’m crazy when they learn I don’t have email on my phone, or that I only give myself internet access for an hour per day.

“Don’t you have enough self-discipline?” they ask.

The answer, of course, is complicated.

Yes, I have enough self-discipline. But I don’t have enough to constantly police myself every minute of every day across every aspect of my life.

I don’t have enough self-discipline to resist every single temptation and distraction that tries to throw me off course, whether it’s my phone buzzing with another notification, or a pint of whiskey-pecan ice-cream calling my name from the freezer.

I have to pick and choose my battles.

In other words, I have enough self-discipline to handle whatever the day throws at me: big decisions, difficult problems, unexpected situations.

But for everything else — daily routines, my relationship with technology, what I eat, and how I work — I try to find ways to eliminate the need for me to have more self-discipline.

The goal, whether we get there with Nuclear Mode or any other strategy, isn’t to deprive ourselves or become militant Luddites who refuse to use technology. Instead, it’s to get clear on what’s important to us, what we’re trying to accomplish, what pitfalls we’ll need to avoid, and how to make everything easier.

What we’re doing with Nuclear Mode is eliminating the need to have more self-discipline.

You can’t check Twitter on your phone when you don’t have Twitter on you phone. You can’t eat ice cream when you don’t have ice cream in your freezer. You can’t “quickly check email” when you still have 3 hours and 12 minutes before your internet access kicks in.

And as restrictive as all that may sound, once you try it I think you’ll see just how liberating it can be.