Self-Discipline: The Easy Way

Discipline is the refining fire by which talent becomes ability.

– Roy L. Smith

Self-discipline is like this holy grail among people who want to be successful.  People who are writing on personal development talk about discipline as if it is the key that will unlock your problems and transform them into solutions.  Those reading personal development resources tend to take this information as fact.

It’s not entirely true.  As the list of the top 20 reasons smart people fail that I just posted said, there are many barriers towards success, and while lack of discipline is certainly a big one, it’s not the only one.

Nonetheless, self-discipline is where a lot of us get hung up.  It can be absolutely grueling to get up every day and go to work.  Most people will get up and go to work simply because they’ve made the commitment to do so, and they know they’ll be fired and subsequently lose their source of income if they don’t.

The problem usually comes in when those of us who lack self-discipline try and accomplish something on our own terms.  When we take on a project that requires us to get up every day and put in some work towards it, we often fail only a few days in.

Most of you will probably know the feeling– when you started the project it was exciting, and you were chomping at the bit to get moving on it.  But as time goes by that motivation to continue your work starts to disappear.  For me it usually happens when I realize that I’m not making any quick gains.  I’m not winning.

Humans love games, and we especially love to win those games.  Losing, however, is something we seem to instinctively avoid.  I don’t know if that’s simply our nature, or if it was bred into us by public education and the working world, but nonetheless it is true.  So when you start working on that project you’ve been pouring over for the last two weeks and you realize that despite all the work you’ve put in, you’ve made very little headway, (Or that you haven’t met your completely unrealistic goals. i.e. Being able to play Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven on guitar after two weeks of practice.) you get discouraged.

And then you quit.  Quitting is bad.  Don’t quit.

Staying motivated is a little easier than one might initially believe.  The unfortunate truth (Or seemingly unfortunate, anyway.) is that it will take a large amount of time to accomplish any of those worthwhile goals that you have.  I’m talking years, here.  No one is ever going to be able to write their Magnum Opus after just dipping into creative writing a week prior.  You’d probably struggle to even write a short story.

But that’s okay.  Khatzumoto over at All Japanese All The Time came up with a definition for Discipline that I absolutely loved.  He re-defined it as ‘Remembering What you Want’.

It might not seem so ground breaking to you at first, but it is.  Trust me.

Most people think of being self-disciplined as this process of punishing yourself for every mistake you make.  Every time you fail to adhere to your incredibly rigorous and quite often ungodly difficult schedule, (People have a tendency to make such schedules when they feel like they’re not doing enough or that they’re not progressing fast enough.) you punish yourself.

How do you punish yourself?  You make an even more difficult schedule that you then try desperately over the next few days to stick to.  Inevitably you fail again and then punish yourself again, bringing you into a cycle of binge working, binge relaxing and then binge working again.  But because you’re never consistent and each stage of this cycle could last two to four weeks your progress becomes even slower.  Even worse, many of the things that require consistency then become out of your reach.

Instead of doing that, you need to do two things:

Remember what you want

This means that every time you sit down to do those things that aren’t desirable, like practicing or building or whatever it is you need to do to get to where you want to be, instead of thinking of how boring the practice is going to be, you instead remind yourself why you’re practicing to begin with.

Remind yourself of your end goal, and imagine yourself there.  If you’re an artist, imagine how great it will be to finally draw whatever you want out of your imagination and have it appear life-like and exactly the way you pictured it in your mind on the page.  Think of all the things you’ll be able to do with that skill, and of all the reasons you decided to take up drawing, or painting or whatever it is that you do in the first place.

You’ll either discover that you do indeed want those skills and that the small, persistent time effort that it requires is worth it to you, or you’ll discover that you don’t really want that skill, and you can then focus your time on something else.

It seems simple, but reminding yourself of what you want is usually just the small motivational push you need to continue working towards your goal.  When you only imagine how terrible it’s going to be to practice, it’s no wonder you get trapped in the cycle of working hard and giving up.  Remind yourself of the good things and you’ll have no problem getting started on the tasks that lie ahead of you.

Small, winnable games

The second way to motivate yourself to practice or work towards your goal is to turn that slog through hours of work into small, winnable games.  As I mentioned above, humans love games, and we love to win.  So if you manage to turn your progress towards your goals into games that you always win, it becomes almost laughably easy to get to where you want to be.

Let’s say you have a goal of practicing on the piano for an hour a day.  But every time you get fifteen minutes in, you get unbearably bored.  You start to view playing the piano as grueling hard work and every practice session makes you dread sitting down at the piano.  Furthermore, after several weeks of practicing every day, you’re still not where you want to be in terms of skill.    In short, it’s not fun, it takes a long time and you never feel like you’re gaining anything from all your hard work.

Well, instead of forcing yourself to practice for an hour a day, which you despise, try this:  Practice for ten minutes.  That’s it.  Just ten minutes.  Set a timer for yourself so that once you’ve practiced for ten minutes at the piano, you know that your time is up and you are then free to do what you want.

Ten minutes sounds like it’s not going to get you very far in the grand scheme of things.  After all, your instructors and every great piano player you’ve ever met tell you that you need to be practicing for at least an hour every day.

And that’s true, but you’ll get there.  Setting a strict time of ten minutes lets you practice for such a small amount of time that you won’t get bored before your time is up.  And when your timer rings and you’re free to go, you’ll have practiced the entire time.  You’ll have won. You didn’t give up, it wasn’t hard, and you only took ten minutes out from your day to do it.  It was easy.

If you stick to that for several weeks– a month or two, at most, you’ll find that all of a sudden you want to practice for longer.  You’re always winning, so practice has suddenly become a very enjoyable activity for you.  Naturally, you want to do more.  You’ll find yourself wanting to practice instead of doing other leisurely things because it feels good, it’s short and you always win.

Over time your rate of practice will increase on its own.  Soon you’ll start doing two blocks of ten minutes in a row just because it felt so good.  You might even want to change your time box to twenty minutes after a long time and then do several sections of twenty minutes spread throughout the day.  Even though you’re starting small, within a couple of months you’ll have progressed far beyond what you thought you would have with such small steps.  Furthermore, you’ll be practicing at the level you had wanted to and you’ll love it.

The steps are simple, but you need to implement them for it to work.  The first time I heard about time boxing, I thought it was a great idea, and promptly did absolutely nothing about it.  Having finally started practicing it, it’s made a world of difference to my life.  Things I never wanted to do have become short and easy, and I always win.

All I’m saying is that you should try it.  I know it seems like you won’t be progressing fast enough, or that it’s too simple to work, but what have you got to lose?  If you’re falling into the cycle that I’ve described then you’re not progressing at the rate you want to anyway.  Doing something small might be just the thing you need to get you back on track, and like I said, it only takes ten minutes.  You have ten minutes, right?

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