Chances are, at least once in your life, you firmly decided that you’re going to get disciplined and change your behaviour or a habit. You’re going to get up at 5AM and go for a run every day, or workout five times a week, or read daily, or quit smoking, or write a book… And chances are, after a few days, you failed. It’s okay. Don’t feel bad, it happens most of the time. There are two reasons for this:
1. You relied on your motivation rather than on self-discipline; and
2. Building self-discipline is, simply, difficult. It doesn’t come naturally to us as humans.
Clash of the Titans: Motivation vs. Discipline
But I don’t feel like it!
I know. Me too. Bill Gates also doesn’t feel like it either. Yet, self-discipline is not about how you feel – it’s about what you do despite how you feel.
On the other hand, motivation is emotionally driven – it’s a desire to do something. When you’re motivated, doing the thing comes easy. The problem is, however, that we often expect our motivation to last forever and to be the force that will always draw us toward success – which is unrealistic. When you rely on motivation to change a behaviour or build a habit, you’re standing on the very unstable ground with its chances of collapsing changing by the day. In contrast, self-discipline helps you don’t fall off the path. It is driven by reason and therefore makes you do the right thing for your long-term benefit despite the fact you may want to do something else.
To reach your goals, you need both self-control and motivation. Motivation is your “why” behind the goal, and it is a very powerful engine to keep you going… on a good day. On days this engine is not so active, which happen to everyone, you need self-discipline to continue doing the thing that brings you closer to success. Utilizing only one will get you nowhere.
Why Is Self-Discipline So Hard?
We, as human beings, are evolutionarily built to experience pleasure and avoid discomfort. We are also adapted to respond to immediate events, like a threat or a current problem, or immediate pleasure, and have an emotional reaction to them, which are essential for our survival. But when it comes to long-term planning, we’re not so good, or at least behaviours that follow from it are not as strong because they’re not wired to our emotions. We naturally go towards pleasure and away from pain. That’s why we fall to the temptation of doing the pleasant thing even when we know it’s not the smartest choice for us in the long run – the emotions overpower our reason. So, it’s not you, it’s your brain. 🙂
However, your instant-gratification monkey-mind is not particularly useful in modern society. Learning to do things even when they are boring, hard, or frustrating, is absolutely necessary for success. Now read that again – I said learning. Self-discipline is not a trait but a skill, and like any skill, it can be learned. If practiced on a regular basis, like any skill, it becomes easier and you become better at it. Additionally, research found that people with higher levels of self-control are happier over both short and long run. Sounds like a skill worth developing, right?
How to Push Past Yourself And Get It Done
Okay, let’s equip you with some tricks that will help you become more efficient.
1. Don’t think about it too far ahead.
Thinking about all 15 tasks that need to be done today or this week can be overwhelming. When you think about them all at once, they can seem like a scary mountain you don’t want to climb on. This illusion eventually leads you to give up or, if you don’t, to stress out ahead. What happens here is a cognitive distortion – all those responsibilities piled up all at once in your mind make you believe you’ll have to deal with them altogether at the same time, while in reality you’ll complete these tasks one after another, in small chunks, which is much easier. You probably know it yourself – something seems so much more frustrating or difficult or boring when you think about it ahead than while you’re actually doing it.
So, instead of ruminating about all the things that need to be done, try to concentrate only on the first task in front of you. Just begin the first thing like it’s the only thing you have to do today, and do it mindfully. For example, if you’re in the gym, concentrate only on the movements you’re doing. Don’t think about the report that waits for you when you get home or the sink full of dishes. That will only stress you out and make it seem like a whole lot of work. The report and the sink will be there whether you stress about them or not. So, choose not.
2. “Only 5 minutes” trick
Similar to the previous one, if you think about hours and hours of work you have to put in to achieve something, chances are you’ll procrastinate. A good way to trick your brain is to pick the first task and tell yourself you’ll do it only for 5 minutes. No more, no less. And yes, after these 5 minutes you have to stop. But the magic that happens in most cases after these 5 minutes is that your energy and momentum will start to flow. You might even won’t want to stop and end up getting involved in the activity. The best thing about this 5-minute-trick is that you realize doing the thing isn’t that painful after all. The hardest thing was to start.
3. Remind yourself of your big WHY every day
When things become difficult, we can easily forget our big goal behind all our efforts. It’s human nature – remember how our brains are wired to respond to immediate problems rather than to long-term goals? Because of this, it’s important that you keep your reason easily accessible to your brain. One way to do it is to remind yourself of the end result you want to achieve every day. Morning journaling about your goal and reasons for achieving it might be helpful. Or you can place a photo of your goal result in front of your bed or on your screensaver. This will help your brain not lose sight of the long-term result. Thus, you’ll get a stronger stand against temptation more easily and actually persist in doing what brings you closer to success.
Self-Discipline Through Self-Acceptance
I think the word discipline got a bad reputation over time. We somehow started associating it with punishment when it’s really all about something very different. It’s about self-love and self-respect.
Too often we forget that discipline really means to teach, not to punish. A discipline is a student, not a recipient of behavioural consequences. – Dr. Dan Siegel, The Whole-Brain Child.
Self-discipline is a form of self-love. It means you are committed to doing something good for yourself. It shows that you want to build a meaningful and valuable life for yourself. That’s amazing!
When you look at self-discipline from this perspective, as a way of loving and appreciating yourself, it becomes a little easier to do what you know is best for yourself even when you don’t feel like it.
And remember – nobody is disciplined all the time. You’ll make mistakes; it’s completely natural. When this happens, the most important thing is to be kind to yourself and not fall to self-criticism. Self-compassion will help you get back on track faster and move forward. This “moving forward” after a failure is a crucial trait for the self-disciplined and one that is required for success.