Self-discipline can be broken into two portions: the will to get the actions turned into habits, and the ability to create incentives to keep the habits going, long after passion fades away.
The first thing we need to do is set some clear goals, which you can take from the personal development plan we created earlier. Next we’re going to look at the time audit we did where we broke everything into ten minute sections. We’re going to act like project managers for our days, and we’re going to micro-manage our time (to start) to make sure that our time we plan on investing in our goals is actually implemented.
Use everything you can to help you: calendars (paper or digital), any number of apps, kitchen timers or alarm clocks, whatever it takes to remember you have something to implement, and that you actually do it.
When you’re starting this out, it’s important to keep it as conscious as possible, if need be saying out loud “Now I’m going to study for my LSAT exam”. Commit to the time you chose. It will likely be a few weeks until it’s consistently ingrained in your schedule that it feels natural.
The next question is “what will keep me doing this day-in, day-out?” The answer I’ve found works well is a good old-fashioned bribe.
Take something you want, if it’s a tool set, a new car, a purse, a vacation, whatever you know you want to get. Make sure it’s size lines up with the size of the goal, so don’t use a new car as incentive to get to the gym four times a week or a new video game as incentive for completing medical school.
Take this item and divide it down into small chunks, financially. If you’re looking to train your son to make his bed and clean his room every morning before breakfast, take stock of what size incentive would make sense, and how long is this of a goal to reasonably keep their motivation high – can they see a light at the end of the tunnel?
In this example, a good method would be to break the $60 video game into $1 per day for successfully completing each day. This means the earliest he could get the video game would be about two months.
This strategy has three benefits, all of which help build self-discipline. First, it breaks the goal into sizes that are big enough to chew: to a boy who wants a video game, two months is an eternity, but breaking it down into daily pieces is enough to get your arms around.
Second, it provides constant forward momentum. After 15 or 20 days in a row, it’s starting to become “just what you do”, and as the count goes from 34 to 35, now 36, your son (or you) will be hesitant to break that momentum.
Third, if you stumble, you’re not starting from absolutely zero. It’s easy for someone who wants to do a habit every day, like reading or studying, to get disappointed in themselves if they miss a day. Even worse is when they miss two days in a row, because now instead of positive momentum, they have negative momentum. Instead of thinking that they’re failing and sinking even further, it’s just one day of successful action to get right back into gear. Removing the catastrophic failure of thinking that your first missed day after 50 days of success means you’re starting at zero, makes the stress of missing a single day a bummer, but not something that distracts you from getting back into the positive habit you’re building.
This same logic and strategy can be applied to teenagers with video games as well as grown men who want to get a professional certification and grown women learn a new industry.
Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s ineffective. The opposite is true: it’s easy to understand, simple to implement, and highly effective in building habits. Many people who graduate from school fall into bad habits because so much of the structure in their day to day life comes from schooling. If you take that structure away and don’t consciously replace it with something else, that vacuum is going to do nothing but cause trouble for you – know that is going to be an issue and actively work to replace it.
The next thing to do is eliminate time wasters.
After you’ve done the time audit we talked about in an earlier chapter, it should be obvious how much time there actually is in the day. Most people are just wasting the majority of theirs.
The things that waste time will be highly contingent on what your goals are, and in what quantity you participate in them. Playing catch with your son once or twice a week is a great way to bond and talk about whatever’s on his mind. Unless your son wants to go pro, five days a week for the same is likely you procrastinating on a task that you know you should be focusing on.
This procrastination is very frequently a symptom that you’re afraid of something. Many people find it easier to stomach the failure of not trying than trying and failing. This is why so many people find useless tasks to focus on that are related to their goal, but not urgent and important.
If you’re starting a new business, you need one thing: paying clients. If you’ve ever been in sales you can see how cold-calling for new business can be intimidating, especially when you’re creating a new venture and can’t trade on an established name. You spend hours thinking about how people are going to laugh you out of the room, absolutely amazed at the nerve you had to even talk to them!
Then you spend hours looking at your logo, if maybe the red section should be more of a maroon, or maybe crimson. Is your company slogan catchy, easy to remember, and shows what sets you apart?
Admit to yourself what you’re doing, you’re putting off the work that you’re afraid of. Once you come out and name the problem, solving it is halfway done.
Acquiring and practicing this self-discipline isn’t a weekend retreat: you’ll be working on this for the rest of your life.
Being able to understand that this isn’t a crash diet, but a permanently changed menu is a big step in getting the discipline that gets you to where you want to go in life. Also remember, you’re not going to go from mozzarella sticks and milkshakes to spinach salads overnight.
Too many people think they can grab the steering wheel and turn a cruise ship around. They want to become someone who exercises every day, reads an hour a day, eats perfectly and more; worse is that they try to start all of it at once. They’ll spend a week or two living like a spartan and then two weeks later are back to exactly where they started, except now they’re demoralized at their failure.
Instead, slowly build up discipline in different areas of your life, at different speeds. My personal recommendation is to start with either earning more money or exercise and diet. Earning more money is very motivating but difficult for most people to ramp up quickly.
Exercise, on the other hand, is something that almost every one of us could put more effort into, and see results very quickly. Even just 10-15 minutes a day of exercise, enough to go from sedentary to breaking a sweat can compound over the course of a month to noticeable differences. You used to get winded carrying groceries up the flights of stairs to your apartment, now you don’t. You moved one notch down on your belt. Your pants don’t fit as well now, but in a good way.
These small wins are incredibly powerful for the psychological momentum needed to become a seriously disciplined person. They are tangible, easily measurable, and can remind you multiple times per day of your success.
Every day that you put your belt on and notice you’re one notch lower, you’re reminded of the success you had. That success affects you both consciously and subconsciously. You’re going to notice that not only is it easier to overcome the “maybe-just-skip-today’s” but you’ll notice that the thought gradually stops coming to you.
The thing you’re doing, everytime you exercise the will power it takes to make the right choice: eating healthy, helping your kids with their homework, helping a coworker through a problem; all of these are putting money in the option bank.
When you’ve spent the last six months eating healthy for almost every meal, and the Fourth of July barbeque comes around, guess who’s got the option to eat three plates of food and dessert, and not feel a second of guilt?
When you’ve helped colleagues through problems, stayed late to meet deadlines and worked extra to beat quotas (if your boss is good); guess who won’t mind if you take a Friday off early?
What you’re doing when you make these sacrifices is that you’re not throwing the time away and getting nothing in return. You’re building up the money in the option bank so later, you can have a choice.
If you spend years saving money and earning as much as you can, and all of a sudden there’s an emergency you have the choice to pay to get the problem solved.
If you didn’t spend the time and effort saving up, you’d just have to eat whatever life puts in front of you, which is usually not an ice cream sundae. What if your car breaks down and you can’t afford a new transmission, guess who just missed their shift? Now you’re still out of a car, but you also just lost your job, and good luck getting a new job without a car. It’s very common for small problems to snowball into life-changing
If you had done the hard work of being disciplined up front, you would write a check to the mechanic and moved on with your life. Instead you went to the bar 3 nights a week and now you’re wondering about next month’s rent.