What is self-discipline? Hint: it’s what you need to continue going to the gym on a regular basis, stick to your diet (perhaps that RP diet template you are contemplating buying), or even just sleeping earlier.
Here’s a quick definition that you can digest more easily: self-discipline is the ability to get things done no matter the circumstances. It is the act of weathering the storm of discomfort that comes from climbing a path. It is the ability of depending on only yourself and nothing external or circumstantial to get you from Point A to Point B. It is how you control your behaviors to achieve the goal that you want, despite temptations, distractions, laziness, and the temporary nature of motivation.
Sounds simple, right? It is, but in no way, shape or form is it easy. Here are some tips to make the uncomfortable just a little more manageable.
The 10-Minute Rule
Given our more developed brains, it’s reasonable to think that humans are superior decision-makers to all the other primates of the world.
It’s somewhat surprising, therefore, to learn about a famous experiment from Harvard University that tested discipline for humans versus chimpanzees. The critical part of the experiment came when researchers offered the same choice to both chimpanzees and humans—get two treats immediately or wait two minutes and get six treats. The chimpanzees chose to wait 72 percent of the time, while humans only chose to wait 19 percent of the time. Chimpanzees aren’t smarter than us, so what caused the counterintuitive discrepancy in good decision-making?
Well, the problem is actually in how developed our brains are. We overthink decisions with somewhat obvious answers and we are able to rationalize bad behavior that robs us of more desirable outcomes. We’re not always sure ourselves what’s a real reason for hesitation and what’s just a justification or excuse. You can imagine how this takes away from our overall efficacy.
That’s where the 10-Minute Rule comes in—if you want something, wait at least ten minutes before getting it. It’s simple and leaves no room for debate or excuses. When you feel an urge, force yourself to wait for ten minutes before giving in to whatever the urge is. If you’re still craving it after ten minutes, then have it. Or wait ten more minutes because you’ve already done it and survived just fine. Simply by choosing to wait you remove the “immediate” from immediate gratification—building discipline and improving decision-making.
Similarly, if you want to quit doing something beneficial, like exercising or working on a creative project, wait just ten more minutes. It’s the same thought process applied in a different way. Ten minutes is nothing, so you can wait or continue that long easily. Then, if you do it once, it’s easy to repeat, isn’t it?
The simple truth is that going from 0-1 is the most difficult part of any task. Mathematically, of course, 0-1 is basically an infinite increase. So once you get over the tough task of starting, which is what this tip is aimed at, you can start to discover this magical thing called momentum.
You might need to build up to 10 minutes, and that’s okay too. Start with 2-3 minutes, or wherever you feel that you are pushing yourself.
Beat the False Hope Syndrome
One of the most common pitfalls in discipline is the belief that altering our behavioral patterns will be easy—this is known as the False Hope Syndrome. As a result of this belief, we tend to set unrealistically high expectations for ourselves that just guarantee that we will fail. We routinely underestimate how difficult it is to break out of bad habits, and picture ourselves sailing through adversity as if we lived in an ideal world with no temptations. When we give ourselves too much false hope, we tend to fail more often than not, and frequently become more solidified in the behavior we wish to alter.
This very closely follows the human psyche, because when we want to start something, we are often impatient and unrealistic with expectations. Then, after the inevitable fall from grace, we feel disappointed, and will often turn to the same behaviors we were trying to avoid at first in order to cope and soothe ourselves. And so the cycle goes on and on.
You might have momentary clarity about your deepest desires and the path to attaining them, but when the stresses and difficulties of everyday life come in, that clarity fades away and is replaced by familiar temptations and pitfalls. In other words, the goals you find yourself working toward can easily take a back seat to emotional impulses that alleviate temporary discomfort—the exact things you don’t account for.
Making significant changes and accomplishing big goals doesn’t happen all at once. Continuing in that process typically requires positive feedback and tangible progress along the way, which you aren’t likely to get if you’ve set unrealistic expectations for yourself.
Take smoking cigarettes—a habit that is both physically and psychologically addictive—for example. It’s extremely difficult to quit cold turkey, yet when people try and fail to do so, they will often feel discouraged and revert to previous levels of smoking. They are setting far too ambitious of a goal for themselves, and any slipup is tantamount to failure. They’re putting themselves into a situation where they can’t win.
What if, instead, people who wanted to quit started with a goal to cut smoking in half in the first month, then in half again in the second, and so on? After a few months, the urges to smoke would become much less frequent and the odds of successfully quitting entirely would be much greater—all because of a more attainable goal.
Successfully cutting back from fifty cigarettes per week to twenty-five over the course of a month is a far more sustainable goal than immediately going from fifty to zero. Importantly, that progress provides consistent positive feedback to keep you motivated to continue. It also gives you the time to focus on your thought patterns and behaviors in order to develop new neural pathways in your brain, which will enable you to steadily change your habit.
The key is keeping your hopes for change grounded in reality and self-awareness. Before you can set attainable goals, you first need to have a realistic view of your capabilities and limitations, your strengths and weaknesses, your interests and boredom triggers. By having a clear understanding of such qualities within you, you gain better ability to accurately define your goals and structure your tasks so they are challenging enough to keep you on the track of progress, but not so ambitious they give you false hope and eventual disappointment when you fall short of accomplishing them.
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Remember how I mentioned that self-discipline is by definition uncomfortable and unpleasurable? After all, you don’t need self-discipline to eat ice cream because it’s pretty pleasurable (except for those of us that are lactose intolerant).
This is actually a good thing, because this is something that we can train and cultivate.
The “exercise” that most effectively increases your baseline level of self-discipline is leaving your comfort zone. That involves pushing yourself to regularly do things that you aren’t completely secure with doing so that you become familiar with the feeling of discomfort itself. Leaving your comfort zone is important because it teaches you that the things you fear aren’t as bad as they might seem. Each time you learn that lesson in some small way, your tolerance for discomfort and your willpower both increase.
Every time we are uncomfortable, we will make a choice on whether to stick with it, or give up. Your training will help you take the right path over the easy path more often than not.
You don’t necessarily need to be uncomfortable in your daily life, but being familiar with the feeling sure helps you in the face of actual adversity. You can even create anxiety and uncertainty yourself—so that they are controlled and manageable—to show yourself that you are capable of handling these feelings.
Jia Jiang gave a popular TED Talk about his personal journey outside of his comfort zone, in which he confronted his fear of rejection and the social anxiety that came with it. Jiang wanted to become more confident, so he set out to desensitize himself to rejection by seeking rejection out in some small and controlled way a hundred days in a row. Some of Jiang’s rejections included borrowing $100 from a stranger, requesting a “burger refill,” and asking to play soccer in somebody’s backyard. When the hundred days were up, Jiang was a new person with more confidence and a greater appreciation for how kind people are to one another.
Jiang’s story of overcoming a fear of rejection is applicable to everybody. Your personal fears and discomforts are also your opportunities to challenge yourself. If you like to be in control, spend a day deferring to other people. If you’re more comfortable being passive, spend a day asserting yourself and making more decisions. Whatever you are comfortable doing—do the opposite.
Injecting manageable discomfort and uncertainty into your life isn’t difficult to do. You might order the dish on the restaurant menu that has ingredients you haven’t heard of before. Or instead of taking a relaxing, hot shower, you could turn the water to cold and force yourself to stand in it until you gain control of your breath and calm your mind. Ask people for discounts that you don’t think you’ll get. Sit down in a restaurant and then leave after receiving the menu—that walk to the door will feel incredibly long.
Discipline is inherently uncomfortable, so strengthening your relationship with discomfort is one of the best ways to improve self-discipline. Everybody has different fears, insecurities, and discomforts. But a lot of people go through their life avoiding those things, and thus limiting their own potential. If you want to maximize all the positive aspects of your life, you can start with facing your fears and choosing to be uncomfortable.
As this practice builds your willpower, you can begin to change some of your less beneficial habits and addictions. When you feel pulled into a battle with your urges, you’ll have the mental strength to resist that temptation and to instead ride the urges out like a wave. And if fear motivates you to avoid your urges altogether by distracting yourself from them, well, fear is sometimes an opportunity for positive change.
The Most Important Question to Ask
Let’s be direct: the smarter you are, the easier it is to fool yourself. So how about a question that will get to the heart of your self-discipline tendencies?
Am I doing the right thing or simply what’s easy?
Very often, doing the right thing means doing the hard thing. Unfortunately, they are frequently the exact same thing. The average person doesn’t typically choose things that are difficult when there is an alternative, which is why discipline is often the missing component for many people who don’t fulfill their goals. People tend to drift toward the path of least resistance, consciously or not. If you don’t want that to be you, you’ll need to be able to accurately answer whether you are doing what’s right or not.
When you can’t confidently say that you’re doing the right thing, you are forced to see how you are making excuses for yourself. That’s an important step because you aren’t going to build discipline and accomplish your goals if you buy into your own rationalizations and excuses. If you’re not doing what you should be, then anything else out of your mouth is an excuse, plain and simple.
At some point in your life, you’ve probably been invited to a social engagement you didn’t want to attend. Sometimes in that situation, we will struggle to come up with excuses for not going that won’t offend whoever invited us. We do it because we think it’s less rude or confrontational than just stating the truth—that we don’t want to go. Yet we often fail to recognize when we are doing the exact same thing to ourselves in order to feel better. It would actually be better to start being honest and upfront with yourself about your behavior.
Instead of rationalizing skipping a run because “it’s too hot outside” or “it’s too late,” you would just start saying, “I’m not going to run today because I’m too soft and lazy to maintain discipline.”
In reality, why are you skipping the run? Because you’re lazy. You know the right thing to do is run. Therefore, you are taking the easy way out. There’s no wiggle room here. By asking yourself these questions, you’ll begin to realize the excuses and rationalizations that you usually make. In effect, you become brutally honest and confrontational with yourself, which can make a difference and lead to a change in behavior.
You should always want to answer that you’re doing what’s right, and that will frequently mean that you have to make a little extra effort. But when you do it consistently, that extra effort pays off.