Self-Discipline, the Easy Way
If you're like most people, there are areas of your life you're not happy with. You can't seem to stop yourself from doing things that you know you'll regret (like eating that extra brownie) and you can't seem to get yourself to do things that you know you should do (like jogging it off after). The challenge for most people isn't that they don't know what to do, it's that they don't know how to get themselves to do it.
People usually attribute this to a lack of discipline. Discipline conjures up all sorts of negative connotations for many people: forcing yourself to get up before sunrise, passing on the pizza to eat salad, working yourself to death at the gym, sitting in awkward, uncomfortable positions to gain peace of mind, and sacrificing retail therapy in exchange for fiscal responsibility all threaten to suck the joy out of living. There seems to be a conflict between what we want, and what we should want.
Sometimes, when things are going particularly well (or particularly poorly) we manage to find the discipline to do the right thing: after watching a show about healthy eating, we may feel inspired to start a diet; when the collection letters start filling our mailbox, we may decide that we need to control our spending. The problem with this kind of discipline is that it is fleeting, often dependent on external forces (rewards and punishments) that we have no control over. If we're ever truly going to get control over our lives, we have to devise a system of rewards and punishments that we're in control of, a tool that we can use to manipulate ourselves into taking action. And not just any action, but the right action.
The Tortoise and the Hare
The good news is that it isn't really that hard to do. In fact, many people already know how to do it, they just don't know that they know and they haven't figured out how to apply this knowledge to developing constructive routines. The secret lies in how we frame the problem of self-discipline.
In essence, discipline should never be thought of as a sudden and dramatic change of behavior achieved through the application of sheer force of will but always as a small, incremental change achieved over time. You don't make a stone smooth by hitting it repeatedly with a hammer, but by placing it in the stream and letting nature take its course. Evolution, not revolution.
When it comes to self-discipline "slow and steady wins the race". The only sure-fire way to build a new habit that's going to stick is to nurture it slowly, to give your mind and your body time to adjust to the new conditions you want to manifest. How do you do this? You make the cost of engaging in the new activity less than the satisfaction you derive from pursuing it. It's simple economics, but it works.
Let me give you an example. Say you wake up one morning and you see an over-weight person staring back at you in the mirror. Those pounds you've been putting on (gradually) over the years have finally started to catch up with you. You can't even climb a flight of stairs without having to pause to catch your breath. You decide that something needs to be done. At this point, a lot of people will go overboard and try to implement an exercise regime that is simply not sustainable in their present frame of mind. They expect to change their habits, their thoughts, and their lifestyle in one glorious moment of inspiration, as if that moment could provide them with the energy and enthusiasm of an Olympic athlete. When their motivation fades (as it almost invariably does) they become discouraged and slip back into their old routines. Later on, they have another one of these inspirational moments, and they repeat the experience of failure. After several repetitions, this person learns to fail on a regular basis. Sound familiar?
This failure is not a result of poor discipline, but poor strategy. These people have made the cost of the activity more expensive than the satisfaction they derive from engaging in it. They have tried to do too much too soon. Since the short-term cost (being worn out from the effort, never eating your favorite meals, never buying anything you want) exceeds the short-term benefit (burning a few calories, losing a couple pounds, saving a few dollars) they give up and are left with a negative impression of the new behavior. This bad feeling carries over into their relationship with the concept of self-discipline and begins to infect other areas of their life as well; areas that could benefit from better habits.
People in this position often envy people who are more disciplined than themselves. All of their own experiences revolve around this memory of repeated failure, of costs without benefits, and when they see others easily and naturally engaging in constructive habits it irritates them. Highly disciplined people take on a sort of mystical aura, as if they possessed some sort of supernatural power which ordinary people lack. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The simple fact of the matter is that highly disciplined people have consciously (or unconsciously) made the cost of engaging in the desired behavior less expensive than the satisfaction they get from pursuing it. Note that I haven't said that they've eliminated the cost, only that the satisfaction they receive from it out-weighs the effort they expend on it. They have built up their positive habits over time by repeatedly experiencing success and satisfaction in its pursuit. And they have done it with very little conscious effort. Sound too good to be true? Think again.
Discipline and Habit
There is more than one way to develop a healthy obsession. Some people are born with strong interests in particular activities and pursue them enthusiastically without the need for discipline. Others have learned discipline through externally imposed conditions (like parents, teachers or employers) and then internalized these conditions over time. But these aren't the only kinds of discipline available. The kind of discipline I'm talking about in this article is the discipline acquired through habit. In many cases, it's a habit that people aren't even aware that they have.
Take, for example, the person who always has a clean house. To someone who can't find the motivation to throw out that stack of pizza boxes that have accumulated in their living room over the last six months, this person demonstrates wonderful discipline. To the person who keeps the clean house, though, it probably doesn't seem like discipline at all. For them, it would be difficult NOT to clean the house. Cleaning the house isn't something they force themselves to do so much as something that they need to do. The benefits of having a clean house, in this case, exceed the cost of cleaning it. Does that sound like discipline? Not really. That sounds more like a habit or compulsion. That doesn't mean that it isn't admirable, it simply points to the fact that you can become disciplined through force of habit as well as through force of will.
The Thirty Second Challenge
Let's say that, like our hypothetical over-weight person, you decide that you want to exercise on a regular basis. Instead of buying a gym membership and forcing yourself to slog through torturous sessions through sheer will, hoping against hope that a positive habit will spontaneously develop of its own accord, try this: jog on the spot for thirty seconds. Do it right now. Easy, right? That's something that anybody can do, even someone with 'no willpower'. (Assuming you have full use of your legs, of course.)
Now, jogging for thirty seconds isn't going to do a lot for your health, but that isn't the point. The point is that you can use something this simple to develop a strong habit. Anybody can jog on the spot for thirty seconds a day. Even you can do it.
Now imagine for a second that you've jogged on the spot for thirty seconds every single day for a year. For three hundred and sixty-five days in a row, then, you've exercised. Maybe you've missed the odd day here or there, but you've made up for it on other days by exercising for longer, maybe for a minute or two. Now imagine how good that feels. It feels good, doesn't it? Maybe not Olympic athlete good, but it feels good just to have picked something and stuck with it for that long. And what did it cost you? Practically nothing. Thirty seconds a day for the satisfaction of having developed a good habit that is sustainable and extendable. The point is not that exercising for thirty seconds a day is good for you, it's that you've created a platform that you can use as a solid foundation on which to build future growth.
And I hate to say it but that three hours of exercise it took you a year to accomplish is more exercise than many people get in a year. And it's more than those people get because just the thought of exercising is more than enough to send them running toward the refrigerator. (And that doesn't count as exercise!)
Turning Your Habits into an Obsession
Now let's imagine that in the second year, having built up your stamina a bit, you decide to extend that session to a minute a day or maybe to two thirty second sessions. You use the same strategy: set a goal that you can keep with little or no effort, and go easy on yourself when you forget for a day or two or just don't feel like doing it. You can always pick up the slack another day. Anybody can do this. You exert more effort each day getting up to go to the bathroom than you will following this routine. The point is to make the cost of the habit so low that the satisfaction of pursuing it exceeds the expenditure every single time. Under these conditions, new habits are very, very easy to build and very, very easy to sustain. But more importantly, they're easy to build on.
Now, you might object to this approach. It might seem like these kinds of habits provide very little in the way of benefit; but this is a misconception. When you start a new habit using this technique, there will be a very, very strong temptation for you to exceed your initial goals. You can start today by doing one push-up, but I guarantee you that by tomorrow you will have to resist the temptation to do two. This is almost the opposite of discipline, like the neat freak that has to clean every day to keep their sanity. You will feel compelled to exceed your initial goals. So long as you make your daily minimum requirement so low that you essentially can't fail, you won't experience failure in the pursuit of your habit and you will continue to pursue it and derive satisfaction from it. The satisfaction you derive from actually doing something (as opposed to just sitting around thinking about doing it and deciding that it's too much work) will give you the energy you need to create and maintain a sustainable habit. And even if it isn't providing you with much benefit, exercising thirty seconds a day every day is still better than not exercising at all.
Once you feel comfortable with your new routine, of course, you're going to want to start building on it. Let's say that for the first week you've been exercising for thirty seconds a day and you feel like you're ready for more. At this point, when you've confirmed to your own satisfaction that your new habit is a habit you can easily sustain, enlarge it just a little. Move it up to a minute a day. The important thing is to keep it lower than you want it to be. (What?!) Keep this as your new goal until you feel absolutely certain that you can do more without resenting the effort you're putting into it. It is very important that you avoid any feeling of resistance toward your new behavior. You have to keep your impulse to push yourself too hard in check to avoid turning your new activity into a chore. If you find that your new goal is causing you to exercise less often (because you are skipping it) then cut back to an easier goal. The point is to develop the habit, not to increase the amount of effort you expend.
Now, you might be wondering why I told you to set your goal lower than you want it to be. Well, there are two reasons. One, because we usually set our goals too high so it is better to err on the side of caution to avoid the possibility of failure; and two, because restricting yourself to less than your maximum will leave you with a thirst for more. You will actually want to do more and will look forward to the next opportunity you have to indulge in the behavior. Sound weird? Try it and see for yourself just how effective this can be. You can actually turn an onerous chore into something you're chomping at the bit for.
A Habit is a Habit is a Habit
All this talk about exercising might make you think that this technique is more effective in some areas than others, but you can apply it to any area of your life.
For example, if you want to cut back on your calorie intake, don't start by telling yourself you're going to completely change your eating habits, start by cutting out five calories a day. If you miss a day, make up for that day later in the week by cutting out ten. (If you're a calorie counter that is. If you're not, just substitute one unhealthy treat for one healthy treat each week.)
Even at five calories a day, by the end of a year, you will have consumed over 1800 fewer calories than you would have by not dieting at all. (And I hate to say it, but this is more than some people who claim to be dieting actually cut out in a year.) At the end of the year, increase this to ten calories a day.
It isn't hard to extrapolate this over a period of years and see how developing this habit--as insignificant as it appears at the beginning--can have a permanent, positive impact on the quality of your life.
Here's another example. If you are a smoker (like I was), try this: wait two minutes longer than you normally would to have a cigarette. Figure out how long you usually go between cigarettes right now and expand that by two minutes. Use your watch if you have to.
If your smoking routines revolve more around events than time frames (like whenever you get breaks at work, or after every meal), make it your goal to cut back by one cigarette a week instead. Once a week, when you would normally have a cigarette, skip it. Then give yourself permission to smoke normally for the rest of the week.
Even cutting back once a week is going to spare you the negative health consequences of smoking two packs a year. Before you know it, you will be resisting the temptation to cut back more than once a week. When that urge becomes a daily constant, cut back another cigarette every week. Give yourself permission to have two days a week where you have one less cigarette. Sound weird? Try it.
Always do less than you want to so that you are always craving your next improvement. Don't step it up until you're absolutely ready for the next step.
Have financial goals? You can apply it here as well. A simple technique is simply to save an additional penny every day for a month. Next month, set aside two pennies a day. Give your spending habits time to adapt to the change. In no time, you'll be resisting the urge to save more.
Another easy way to save money is through delayed spending. Want that pair of shoes or that new video game? Wait an extra day to buy it. At a minimum you'll be spreading your purchases out over a longer time frame and buying less over all. You may even decide that you don't want it that badly after all and save yourself a wasted purchase.
Another useful habit you might want to get into is to research one financial package, insurance policy or work opportunity every week. Once a week, sit down and spend twenty minutes trying to figure out how to make your money work for you, protect your assets, or discover a new source of income. You don't have to understand everything you read, just try to familiarize yourself with what's out there, what people recommend, and the terms they use to explain things. Over time, you will discover that you are better informed and making smarter decisions about your finances and your future. You might even discover a great new opportunity to enrich your life or the lives of others.
A Habit is Worth a Thousand Words
Writers can also benefit from this. The conventional wisdom is that a writer should write at least a 1000 - 2000 words a day. That's a significant investment of time, especially when you're just starting out and it takes you an hour to bang out a hundred words.
The advice for new authors is usually just to 'suck it up' and 'just do it'. But how do you 'just do it'? What is the missing ingredient? Where do you find the discipline?
You don't find it by beating yourself up and feeling bad about yourself, you find it by making incremental changes. Start out by setting yourself a goal of 25 words a day. If you miss a day, make it up another day. Once you can do that comfortably every day for a month or two, step it up to 50 words a day. If you find that 50 words a day is too much, scale it back to 30.
The point is: you will be more productive writing 9000 words a year at 25 words a day than 0 words a year because you can't find the motivation to do 1000 words a day. I guarantee that you will be writing more than 25 words a day by the end of a year, but you'll have to try it yourself to see how effective it is.
Combining Routines, Organically
When you set small goals like this it is very easy to combine them with other goals and make improvements in your life in more than one area. For example, if you combine a reduced calorie diet with daily exercise you have the sound basis of a healthy lifestyle. It may still be a long way from the lifestyle your doctor recommends, but it is a solid, reliable framework than can be built on.
By setting goals that are incredibly easy for you to manage you gradually build up a new set of habits and start to think about yourself in new and more positive ways. You start to acquire some of that magical substance: discipline.
All of this probably seems a little strange to many of you. After all, how could something so trivial make any kind of an impact on your life?
Usually, when you read about exercising or dieting or achieving other goals the authors will give you pretty explicit instructions about what you need to do to meet your objectives and, well, these goals I'm giving you just don't cut it.
What most of these authors fail to do, however, is tell you how to make the changes you need to make in your life in an organic, sustainable way. This article fills that gap by showing you that the secret to discipline isn't some transformative moment of inspiration combined with an ineffable quality known as willpower, but a conscious decision on your part to make a small, fun, sustainable change in your habits that, like the humble acorn, will one day grow into a mighty oak. It's not tough love you need, but soft love. Nurture.
My Own Story
I didn't just pluck this theory out of the sky. This is a technique that I have used myself with success on numerous occasions.
A few years ago I was smoking half a pack a day, drinking eight cups of coffee a day (with two teaspoons of sugar and cream), eating garbage (no fruits or vegetables anywhere on the menu), never (and I mean never!) exercising, only cleaning up after myself when I ran out of dishes, etc., etc.
I'm not going to lie and say that my life is perfect now--I still have a lot of bad habits--but here are a few of the thing that I've managed to change: I quit smoking (first by reducing the number of cigarettes I smoked each day until I felt I was ready to try something more drastic and then by going cold turkey), I cut out the sugar from my coffee (I was consuming a kilogram every month!), then cut back from eight cups to six cups a day. I eat fruit and/or vegetables every single day, I exercise every single day, and I clean the dishes every single day, often right after using them. I've also started writing again, something I haven't done in over a decade, often writing 1,000 to 2,000 words a day. I'm also teaching myself math, game design and a lot of other things using the techniques that I've outlined in this article. In other words, I've tested this process repeatedly and it works.
Does that mean it will work for you? I don't know. I have a hunch that it will, but it's up to you to find out for yourself. Why don't you give it a try to let me know how it goes.
Now drop and give me a push-up, soldier!