July 23

Self-discipline: Why Do When You Don’t Have To

A NY Times article published sixty-six years ago, almost exactly to the day, ran this rather blasphemous-by-today's-standards headline: "Queen keeps figure trim by walks and willpower." The content that followed the headline was equally sacrilegious, describing measurements that should really be the subject of private conversations between the English Monarch and her seamstress. The piece elaborated how Queen Elizabeth exercised tremendous self-discipline in her dietary and exercise choices to stay healthy, given the very social nature of her duties.

While we can choose to be offended by the politically incorrect examples used in the article, the underlying lesson is worth a consideration. Self-discipline has a place in all our lives. Regardless of whether we are dirt-poor college kids relying on ramen for sustenance or the Queen of England.

Question: How do you know someone's a marathoner?

Answer: They tell you.

It's an old joke. But still funny because it's true. I know. After I ran my first marathon, I couldn't shut up about it. I've heard of how some people summit the world's tallest mountains but forget to mention it. Not me. I didn't hesitate to wax eloquently (I hope) about the joys of running to anyone that cared to listen (or at least politely pretended to).

The bragging wasn't because I successfully ran across the finish line. What I considered bragworthy was how I, of all people, found the discipline to endure months of training.

It wasn't that I made my mind up one day and started to train in earnest the next. Not a chance. I had as much an urge as anyone else to hit snooze and get back under the covers when my alarm woke me up for my training run.

I was surrounded by fine (and fit) people at work or social gatherings who scoffed at the idea of running twenty-six miles—in one go. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't jealous of those folks. Why subject my body to the pain of getting up at an unearthly hour and put myself through misery when Kathy over in HR rolls into work looking like a daisy because she slept in until seven a.m.?

But I persisted. Thankfully. And that persistence changed my life.

The art of self-discipline

In hindsight, to add long training runs done to an already loaded schedule of commitments required, more than anything else, a strong dose of self-discipline on my part. I wasn't sure I was cut out for it. What blew my mind later was finding that my old not-so-disciplined self could learn the art of self-discipline. And succeed.

Ultimately, that first marathon wasn't about the road race. It wasn't even about running. It was an exercise that helped restore my faith in myself. A validation that an old dog can learn new tricks.

My hope then, in constantly jabbering about running and marathons, is to help someone else breakthrough their self-imposed limiting beliefs.

So, here I am—to extol the virtues of self-discipline.

What is self-discipline?

Self-discipline is the ability to pursue a course of action without giving in to weaker emotions or thoughts.

It is doing what needs to be done even when you don't feel like it. Especially when you don't feel like it. Here's is what self-discipline looks like.

  • Ignoring the cake in front of you when you have an urge to chow it down
  • Getting up and getting your shoes laced when knowing you can sleep in instead of working out
  • Studying for your license test to make sure you leave nothing to chance when you think you can possibly wing it
  • Writing, instead of watching cute kitty videos online

Self-discipline has many close word cousins and siblings. Restraint, willpower, self-control, mastery of one's mind, etc., are similar (with minor academic differences) to self-discipline. So, I'll use these words interchangeably.

Why bother with self-discipline?

It may sound like a bit of an over-generalization, but most of what we do or plan to do, fall into one of the three categories below. It's all about what you:

  • Want to do
  • Need to do
  • Should ideally do

Category 1—what you want to do looks like this: Eat cake, watch TV, sleep in (okay, it's what I want to do. Don't judge.)

Category 2 —what you need to do is also fairly defined for most of us. Earn a living, do chores, pay your dues.

You don't need a lot of willpower to finish tasks in the first two categories.

Category 3—what you should ideally do is usually our problem child. In reality, the answer is some version of "make a difference in the world and do the best in whatever way you can." Not surprisingly, this requires self-discipline.

Working to your potential usually requires you to operate outside your comfort zone. A zone where no one holds a gun to your head or demands you accomplish anything, but you still carry on because that's how you make a difference in the world. It is the zone where the magic happens, where the wheat separates from the chaff.

The question is: is it worth it?

What about YOLO?

I hear arguments all the time in favor of YOLO (you only live once.) It goes something like this:

Carpe Diem. Remember what happened to the people who said no to the dessert cart on the Titanic!

It's a sad but true sentiment. Another serving of a decadent brownie or a caramel sundae at dinner would have made no difference to those folks aboard the Titanic that fateful day in April 1912.

Here's the thing, though. We only hear about the Titanic because of its disastrous ending. What about the hundreds or thousands of ships that make it through the oceans without incident? What about the ones refusing dessert on those? They may still have to contend with the fallouts from expanding waistlines for years to come.

As humans, we play the game of odds quite well. We need self-discipline to make our lives easier (for us and others) while we live. Since we don't know how long that would be, we have to plan for the long game.

Wouldn't you rather leave some unspent money in your bank account when you pass away than worry about looking for work when you turn 80 because you never intended to last that long?

So carpe that diem, alright—with some self-discipline.

But what if you aren't a Type A kind of a person? What if you think you've already exhausted all your willpower reserves?

Self-discipline isn't limited

Most of us are familiar with the Marshmallow test conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel. He tormented young children with the reward of one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later (if the kids waited fifteen minutes.)

The experiment tested instant gratification and even went on to say that the kids who delayed their gratification by waiting fifteen minutes for a larger treat tended to do better later in life. The study concluded that patience is a virtue.

As of this writing, there are now newer theories attempting to debunk the conclusions reached by the marshmallow test. But the point is not lost.

Self-discipline has its rewards.

More recently, psychologist and author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (co-authored with NY times science columnist John Tierney,) Ray Baumeister, used the metaphor of a muscle to describe willpower. Like other muscles, he reasoned that willpower resources are limited and tend to fatigue as the day progresses. A sugary pick-me-up can help restore and invigorate depleted willpower reserves.

The role of mindset

It seemed like Baumeister and Tierney's observations about willpower being biologically limited were just what we were waiting for. Here was the validation we sought to justify our endless procrastination of all things difficult.

But don't get your hopes high yet.

Soon, other psychologists, most notably Carol Dweck, Stanford's professor of psychology and author of the uber-popular book, Mindset, argued that willpower isn't limited but can be self-renewing. Dweck introduced the concepts of fixed and growth mindsets.

If you have a fixed mindset and believe that you can only exert a limited amount of self-discipline before your mind gives up, then it's likely to happen that way. However, if you have a growth mindset and believe you can develop as much willpower as needed, that becomes true.

In short, per Dweck,

Willpower is in your head.

There you go. Another reason to not prematurely give up on the personal finance class because you don't consider yourself a "numbers person." You can be—if you set your mind to it.

How to develop self-discipline?

Ever tried getting someone to quit smoking? I have. Many people. Many times. And I've failed. Miserably. Always. Nagging away at someone else will not change their habit. They need to determine it's in their interest to drop the habit and move on.

That's why it's called self-discipline. It is personal.

What takes no effort for one person may seem unsurmountable to another. I'm perfectly capable of spending every waking minute of my day immersed in books, while I know "people" who struggle with reading more than a page.

So, when it comes to practicing self-discipline, pick a subject that matters to you.

Here are three universal rules to cultivate self-discipline.

1.Play the "X or Nothing" game.

X is a placeholder for the thing that you really should be doing.

Schedule a time, preferably in the morning, where you only have two choices. To either do the thing you should be doing or nothing.

Here are examples of what it looks like:

  • From 5.30 a.m. to 6.30 a.m., I can either run or do nothing.
  • For the next 30 minutes, I can clean the closet or nothing.  
  • For 15 minutes after I wake up, I can meditate or nothing.

Do nothing means I cannot substitute another activity (preferred or otherwise)—doing crosswords, scrolling through social media, making breakfast, taking a nap, watching the news, etc.  It means simply sitting still and literally doing nothing.

This works in two ways.

First, it timeboxes the event, so you only have to exert self-discipline for a limited duration.

Second, though we think we can, it is pretty hard to do nothing. In an earlier blog post, I mentioned a research study that showed people would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit still.

Believe me. This method works wonders. Ultimately, begrudgingly even, it will help you get started on the task you've been avoiding. And, with some luck, you may even begin to enjoy it. Did I mention how I came to love running after I ran a marathon? J/K.

2. Start small

"One small step for man, a giant leap for mankind" said Neil Armstrong when he landed on the moon.

That same philosophy applies to cultivating self-discipline and when mastering hard habits. One micro-step in the right direction could mean a giant leap to your self-confidence and consequently a stronger foothold on the habit.

We put off doing meaningful, life-changing tasks because it can feel overwhelming to get started. That's why miniaturizing the task to doable chunks works like a charm. Running a marathon may sound cray-cray but running around the block for five minutes? Totally doable.

Mundane, tiny tasks repeated day after day, week after week, month after month, can create transformation exponentially more considerable than the effort put in. For more on how to develop strong habits, read my posts on the power of habit streaks.

3. In it for the long haul

The NY Times published an article detailing how four Juilliard-trained musicians trained together for a complete performance of Morton Feldman's String Quartet Number 2. The unusual part of the performance? The piece was six continuous hours long. No interruptions. Not even bio-breaks.

The violinist involved in the performance commended the piece saying the length of the music adds to its depth and beauty. He also said:

In an age where instant gratification is the norm, who sits down to experience a six-hour work that moves at a glacial pace?

Indeed. We are all wired to give up too quickly if we don't start seeing results soon. But good things take time. And enormous self-discipline. And that kind of willpower, to last the long haul, doesn't appear overnight.

So, be prepared to work on your project for a while. Stay patient and consistent. Focus just on the day. The months and years will take care of themselves.

In sum

As Franklin said, "In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Maybe not even taxes, if you've kept up with the news recently. Which leaves us with just our unscheduled but unavoidable meeting with the grim reaper.

For many of us, it's hard to rationalize doing hard things when we could have it easy. That's when we find examples like those of Jeanne Calment to justify our less-than-disciplined lifestyles.

Calment, arguably, the world's oldest person, lived until the age of 122. She smoked until she was 117 and never gave up her habit of a daily glass of port until her passing.

What's wrong with using Calment as your role model? Times were different. And, the odds of most of us living for over a century are slim. At least, as of now.

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why – Mark Twain

So, for the short duration during which we have the luxury to roam the surface of this earth, we owe it to ourselves to fulfill our potential. That means walking away from the comfort of merely existing toward the promise of thriving. Which, in turn, demands a degree of self-discipline.

In any case, if you don't discipline yourself, it's likely someone else will discipline you. Choose wisely.



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