“No evil propensity of the human heart is so powerful that it may not be subdued by discipline.”
I am trying to be more disciplined myself as I write this post (this was supposed to be published on Sunday not Tuesday!), so do not treat this as something coming from an authority but from an experimenter and a fellow companion in the journey to be more self-disciplined.
(This is part one of 3 part series on Self Caring – Healthy Body, Heart and Lifestyle. This focuses on being self-disciplined as a lifestyle trait. The rest 2 would be published next Thursdays and Sundays.)
What is Self Discipline?
Merriam-Webster defines self-discipline or self-control as “correction or regulation of oneself for the sake of improvement“. They also provide a simpler and more helpful definition for English language learners: “the ability to make yourself do things that should be done”.
Apt. Self-discipline is about doing things you do not want to do but you know you need to do and going ahead and doing them despite the inherent discomfort and reluctance. Some examples would be studying for the impending test when you want to watch TV, having that important but uncomfortable conversation with your partner when you’d rather browse internet, working out when you want to eat an ice cream and so on.
Our brains are wired for comfort and pleasure and discipline feels inherently difficult, bad and repulsive. So why is it needed?
The Importance of Self Discipline
In his book, The Road Less Traveled, Psychologist M. Scott Peck offers the following perspective on the importance of self-discipline:
Discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life’s problems. Without discipline we can solve nothing. With some discipline we can solve only some problems. With total discipline we can solve all problems.
Discipline is essential for utilizing our full potential, realizing our possibilities and becoming the person we are meant to be. In all aspects of life – be it physical, mental or emotional health, personal or professional relationships, all goals and living a happier, peaceful life – discipline is essential and perhaps the most important quality. A few points to help you realize this:
Self Disciplined People are Happier
“It is one of the strange ironies of this strange life that those who work the hardest, who subject themselves to the strictest discipline, who give up certain pleasurable things in order to achieve a goal, are the happiest men.” – Brutus Hamilton.
According to a study by psychologist Wilhelm Hofman and his team at University of Chicago, people who are disciplined and are able to refrain from impulses are happier. This seems counter-intuitive, because if I can eat a cake now and everyday, am I not lot happier than someone who is disciplined in diet and eats boiled vegetables? The answer is sure, I am having more pleasure but in long-term it’s more likely I’d be prone to diseases like diabetes and heart diseases and would live a far stressful life versus someone in more control of their diet, who would likely be healthier, thinner, less susceptible to diseases and would avoid stress.
Corollary: Pleasure vs Happiness
A lot of people confuse instant gratification, which is release of pleasure chemicals like dopamine, with happiness which is wrong. Happiness is an abundance of positive emotions like joy, interest, pride, gratitude, an inner satisfaction and appreciation of life. Pleasure is just one small aspect which depends on external factors. You may not experience the pleasure without the cake but you can be happy – cake is not needed. Also gratification in this instant often leads to stress, sadness, disappointments and other overwhelming negative emotions later in life.
Self Discipline means Less Stress, Pain and Disappointments
“The more disciplined you become the easier life gets.” – Steve Pavlina
I think this is easier to understand. If you submit your homework on time, you escape from late submission punishment. If you put work and heart in your relationship everyday, you skip later disappointments. If you find time for your physical, mental and emotional health, you’re less likely to suffer from diseases, mental deterioration and would be more resilient and prudent in unfavorable circumstances. If you follow your work deadlines, you’re more likely to be promoted and less likely to be fired.
The key thing in all of these instances is attempting the necessary thing now for future rewards. But in doing so, you face your greatest enemy: the current you.
We hate ourselves (Please read this carefully)
A lot of us hate ourselves. Don’t believe me? How else can you justify the pain, disappointment, suffering and torture that our current self inflicts on our future self for momentary pleasure? We consider ourselves excluded of suffering our future self would go through. We believe it’s some different person who would be dying in a hospital, who would be going through a divorce, who would be fired from her job, who would be failing in his exam. Despite knowing such catastrophic outcomes that our future version would go through, we still indulge in petty pleasures that we know would ruin us and our lives.
Loving the “Future-You”
“Self-respect is the root of discipline: The sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.” -Abraham Joshua Heschel
How do we address and overcome this self-hatred? One easily overlooked fact we need to realize is that just as our future self suffers from our current self’s indulgence, irresponsibility and debauchery. Our future self and therefore we, also reap the rewards like happiness, achievements, fulfillment, joy, peacefulness, loving environment and so on – if we exhibit more self-control and discipline now. It’s us who would be happier, healthier, have a great married life, richer, calmer, stress free and successful. As you’d see in the later section attuning ourselves with reality and our responsibility also helps us being kinder to ourselves. Begin to love yourself. Do not live a life where the present self is indifferent to the future self and lives in the regret of things past self did. It’s just you. Do not inflict such pain on yourself.
Corollary: Accept There’s No Different Person in Future.
Again, the person who experiences gratification now and suffers later are same people – you. Visualize and imagine yourself as reaping the results of your actions before indulging in pleasure. It’s you who suffers or succeeds. Be more connected with your future version through visualization, long-term plans, goals, letters/emails to future self, being mindful in this instant and consistent evaluation of where you’re heading in life.
The Structured Life
Discipline is formed through habits, over long period of time. More organized, structured and timely you’re in your daily, seemingly insignificant activities like sleeping, eating, bathing etc. the more disciplined you’d be in other, more significant aspects of your life such as health, relationship, career etc. and more time you’ll find for them.
Discipline is a Journey
And a slow one at that. It doesn’t happen that you’re in-disciplined and suddenly decide to be more disciplined and poof! -are now in complete control of all aspects of life. Sorry but you’d crash and burn. Discipline is like a muscle, the more you practice the better you become. Just like weight lifting, in the beginning you start small. Slowly, daily challenge yourself to larger goals i.e. more uncomfortable tasks and become stronger.
10 Ways to Become More Self Disciplined
I’ll discuss only 5 (6-10) here in detail and simply mention the rest (1-5) that are better explained in the post on Overcoming Instant Gratification. Let’s jump into them:
6. Shipping is Better than Perfecting
Pursuing Perfection is one of the most common excuse and most overlooked mistake. It’s deeply intertwined with self-discipline. Whether you’re trying to be more self disciplined or applying it in a task, know that it’s better to just do something than to delay it. It’s better to get something done than to avoid and delay any progress.
I used the word Shipping instead of Doing. Shipping means you’re open to criticism, feedback, any measurement of your activity. Writing this blog post and saving it in my drafts is doing, publishing it – putting it out in the world and getting feedback from real people is shipping.
7. Rituals are Better than Habits
Self discipline is a process and is built through good habits/routines. You don’t wake up early, workout, make your bed, study, talk to your partner once a year, you’ve to do it regularly. As I interpret Rituals are habits that are performed with attention, devotion, mindfulness and a sort of celebration. You don’t skip it. Rituals have the automaticity & self-initiation of habits but are performed with more attentiveness and more involvement. Habits can be bad but since you really think through and involve in rituals, they’re always good. Discipline cultivated through rituals is more effective than one built through habits.
8. You’d Never “Feel Right”
‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ – Pablo Picasso
Another powerful and somewhat rational excuse we give ourselves is “I don’t feel like doing it”. True. When there’s a pile of pizza a call away, you won’t feel like sticking to your diet or working out, ever. Motivation is extremely overrated and comes after the task is done or at least begun. Doing anything requires a touch of madness, just jumping into it, regardless of how we’re feeling.
9 . Prioritizing Tasks & Time Management (Einsenhower Decision Box)
The 34th President of the United States Dwight Eisenhower was one of the greatest leaders in history. He proposed division of all tasks into Important and Urgent and then acting on them. From a brilliant, must read post from Art of Manliness:
Urgent means that a task requires immediate attention. These are the to-do’s that shout “Now!” Urgent tasks put us in a reactive mode, one marked by a defensive, negative, hurried, and narrowly-focused mindset.
Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals. Sometimes important tasks are also urgent, but typically they’re not. When we focus on important activities we operate in a responsive mode, which helps us remain calm, rational, and open to new opportunities.
The key is to focus more on important tasks than urgent tasks.
10. Keep a Track of Your Progress
You’d be better self disciplined and in more control of life if you know where you’re heading and how you’ve progressed. Maintaining this in a journal, app or digital document may really help you becoming more self disciplined, identifying and correcting the mistakes you make and the obstacles or circumstances that lure you away.
1. Start Small (so small it seems ridiculously easy).
2. Minimize Temptations (remove them!) and use Meaningful Distractions to your advantage.
3. Know that Willpower can be replenished and increased. Increase it.
4. Start Accountability and/or Support System
5. Be Consistent (Build the Momentum and Be Committed). Be Persistent (It’s ok to fail but it’s important to try again tomorrow)
4 Tools for Self Discipline (optional but highly recommended read)
The post was already long, so I put this separately. The Road Less Traveled is divided in 4 sub-parts, the first part is discipline. The author recommends 4 tools to be more disciplined in life:
1. Delaying gratification
“Opportunity may knock only once, but temptation leans on the doorbell.”
“Serving one’s own passions is the greatest slavery.” – Thomas Fuller
This is the single most important tool in becoming more disciplined. I won’t cover this here, because I’ve covered in far more detail drawing insights from psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and practical examples in a previous post here: Overcoming Instant Gratification
2. Acceptance of Responsibility
“We can’t solve a problem by saying “it’s not my problem”. We must accept the responsibility for a problem before we can solve it. The difficulty we have in accepting the responsibility for our behavior lies in desire to avoid pain in the consequences of that behavior.”
You can’t escape from freedom of responsibility you have for your life. You can’t attribute your problems to society, system, parents, children, race and so on. Sure they may have some partial contribution to your current situation but you cannot be disciplined in life unless you accept where you are and determine where you want to be, in spite of the external factors that hinder you.
3. Dedication to Truth (Reality)
“Our view of reality is like a map with which to negotiate the terrain of life. If the map is true and accurate, we will generally know where we are, and if we have decided where we want to go, we will generally know how to get there. If the map is false and inaccurate, we generally will be lost.”
Continuously Revise Your Map – For our map i.e. our view of reality to be accurate we need to consistently revise it. This is painful and so a lot people avoid it. Their outdated maps make them think the reality is same in adulthood as it was in childhood, same in college as was in school, same when being single and married and so on.
Be Open To Challenge: The only way to ascertain that our view of reality is accurate is by being willing to be challenged from other people’s view of reality. Else we form a view and stick to it, a closed system. Consistently seek feedback and correct yourself.
A lot of people never confront reality/truth and live in a dreamland. You cannot be disciplined without accepting you are not. Be dedicated to reality and strive to have it more accurate.
Do not withhold Truth: Do not white lie i.e. withhold part of truth at least from self. Don’t indulge in black lying i.e. accept something as true despite knowing it to be false. Wake up from dreamland.
“To be organized and efficient, to live wisely, we must daily delay gratification and keep an eye on the future; yet to live joyously we must also possess the capacity, when it is not destructive, to live in the present and act spontaneously. In other words, discipline itself must be disciplined. ”
It’s neither possible nor necessary to be disciplined all the time. When acting spontaneously and immediate gratification is not destructive, we should act on it. This balancing comes with time and should be practiced with our best judgement.
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Be kind. Stay positive. Radiate happiness. Goodbye. Take care. Keep Trailing on your Untrailed Path. 🙂