Discipline ≠ Willpower
In the previous essay
, I wrote about discipline as the gateway to freedom. That spoke to a lot of people, and some expressed a need to “be stronger” with discipline.
Let’s dig deeper here and get to a more actionable place. It’s one thing to recognize the essential role of discipline, and quite another to consistently live in a disciplined way.
At first glance, it seems as though discipline is one’s strength to resist temptation, to employ sheer determination. Supreme willpower.
That’s not how one achieves discipline in life. This will be good news to anyone who has ever tried sheer willpower to achieve a far-reaching goal. You already know that doesn’t get you far. Willpower does not work.
Willpower can work for a day, or a few days. Even a week. But it does not last. It barely gets you started. It’s short-lived.
Two things need to change to become disciplined in the major areas of your life.
1. Change Your Environment
2. Change Yourself
There you go, that’s all there is to it! Just two, that’s it. 🙂
Environment is the relatively easy part, or at least easier to understand. Remove the temptation, remove the distractions, remove the friction. Be it cookies or tv or social media apps or whatever. Remove anything in your environment that pulls you off track, get rid if it.
That goes for people too, it particularly applies to people. If they’re negative influences (belittling, criticizing, undermining), remove them from your life if at all possible. If they’re family and unremovable, then first talk with them about the problem. Ask for their support. But if they won’t or can’t work with you, then you need to compartmentalize them into sectors of your life outside of your aspirational pursuits. People in genuine need of your care are different, here you need to prioritize with compassion — then based on those priorities, you can compartmentalize proportionally.
The less straightforward part is internal. The problem here is you can’t see reality clearly. Or more precisely, the reality of self identity is deceptive. You’re locked into one perspective, one framework, and think that’s the truth. From any given person’s perspective, truth is what they believe. And beliefs are massively limiting factors.
Your mind is perpetually telling you stories. It’s telling you who you are, how others perceive you (i.e., how you think others perceive you), and defining how you perceive yourself. It’s bullshit, but it feels real. It’s a single all-encompassing narrative presented by that incessant internal voice, all day and all night. It never even occurs to most people to question that voice, we just swim along in the thought stream of our minds. So we accept the picture this voice paints. Why challenge what seems so indisputable?
Even if we’ve learned to question that story through meditation or other practices, it seems so real and dominates our view the other 99% of the time when we’re not in active reflection or analysis mode. It is our de facto perspective on everything, the window through which we perceive. It’s the only channel on the crappy streaming service in our heads.
That vision we paint of (and for) ourselves can change. We can re-shape it. The most powerful and lasting way to design our behaviors is to re-build this view of ourselves. To re-define who we believe ourselves to be. It’s not easy, but know at the outset this is what we’re striving to achieve.
You need to see yourself as the kind of person who does certain things. That’s just who I am: I’m a non-smoker. I’m an athletic person. I’m a healthy eater. I’m a strategic thinker. I’m a hard-working professional. I’m a caring friend. I’m a loving spouse/parent/son/daughter.
Discipline requires creating the right kind of desire — not just any hope will do here. The desire needs to burn inside of you. Some things we want in life are dreams, and others are obsessions we will die on the hill over. If it matters to you, you must make it the latter. Again, this is something you shape.
When times get tough, we let go of our dreams. However, we all have absolute minimum standards. If we start dropping below these lines, alarms go off — our identity is under assault, we’re at risk of falling to a lower perceived state. When we hit a certain weight, a flag goes up. When income drops below a specific line, it grabs our attention. When important relationships become strained, we’re rattled. In each area of life that matters, we have boundaries that cause red alerts. We need to turn our dreams into those kinds of minimum standards.
Don’t reach for the sky, raise the floor. Systems help us raise the floor, but it’s more than systems — it’s self perception and self identity. (We explored this from another angle in a previous issue’s essay
And give yourself breathing room. Consistent discipline does not mean always being perfect, it’s recovering when you stray. In meditation, when one’s mind inadvertently trails off in thought, we’re trained to gently bring it back to the present without judgment. We apply the same approach to areas of disciplined activity. When we’ve lost our way, we gently bring our behaviors back in line. Don’t beat yourself up, forgive yourself… as long as you’re willing to set the course right again. Focus your energy on coming back to the discipline.
The act of noticing you have strayed and coming back is an achievement, that’s a win. Every time you do it you have succeeded in being disciplined and in control of your life. The straying is not the central element, the recovery is. Practice routinely re-aligning rather than wallowing in guilt and self criticism. The ability to re-align as often as necessary is discipline. THAT is the game, that is success.
Every day, every hour is an opportunity to start fresh on the track of your choosing. You perpetually have a new opportunity to do it right, the game is never lost.