Through school, there were always two kinds of smart kids. There was the kind that were just normal kids, with really good work ethic and strong parenting. They got smart because they worked for it. They earned their grades, made sure their homework was A+ material.
Then there was the other kind of smart kid...
The kind that was just smart. Didn't have to work to understand math, just sort of got it. The kind that slacked off in class but still walked out just shy of being the best student.
That was me. And while many may be envious of the kid who just "gets" school with no problem, there is a cost. A deficiency gets built up, if you don't have to work to stay ahead of the curve. That deficiency is in self-discipline.
Even in college, I could sleep through half of my classes and still earn an above average grade. In adulthood, I've paid for this.
If you never learn to work hard to earn success through school, you wind up walking into life thinking that the rest might be that way. That success will just come to you. That people will recognize how good you are.
Well when testing goes out the door, you fall back on your work ethic. And if you're like me, and were maybe just a little too clever for your own good, you might have let that work ethic and self discipline atrophy a little too long.
The good news is, you can change all that. If you feel you need to start getting your own self discipline and willpower in line, read along, I've got five quick tips to start building up your self control.
The first step to making sure it's easy to do the things you should do is to make it hard to do the things you shouldn't do.
So if you're a cell phone addict, start turning off your notifications. Start leaving your phone a little distance from yourself.
If you're a snacker, keep the chips or candy out of the house.
Whatever the habit is you are trying to break, or whatever it is that's getting in the way of your goals, make sure it's far from you. The harder it is to make bad choices, the easier it becomes to resist them.
Lots of people never achieve their goals because they've chosen overambitious goals, or ambiguous ones.
For example: "get in shape"
How many people do you know that have that same ambiguous goal? Do you want to lose weight? Or do you want to be able to run a marathon?
It's a great idea, but how so? Specifically? Do you want to eat more vegetables? Do you want to eat fewer refined sugars?
The point here is that unless you actually have a concrete, attainable goal, it's hard to know how to work toward it.
If you want to run ten miles, and that is your measure of "getting in shape", then you can break that goal down into daily progress. Each day run a little bit further, until you hit that goal, and when you do, you'll actually know you've done it.
You've heard of decision paralysis? Where having too many options (I'm looking at you Baskin Robbins) can render you unable to choose at all?
Well the more decisions you make in a day, the harder each one gets. You get mentally fatigued after making choices all day. Ask a bride near her wedding day to get a full understanding of what making too many choices can do to you.
Steve Jobs never chose his clothes, but instead had many pairs of the same thing, like a uniform. Tim Ferriss eats the same healthy breakfast every day to avoid having to make that decision in the early hours of the day.
If you're making too many small decisions during the day, try to cut them out, and turn them into habits that don't require your mental engagement. To many people this sounds boring, but you shouldn't be interesting because of your clothes or what you eat for lunch, you should be interesting because your personality is interesting.
This is huge. It's just a mental block folks. If you feel like you need just the right time, just the right feeling, just the right situation in order to work, you will continue to present yourself with excuses not to work.
Same goes for breaking habits.
"I'll quit smoking when the time is right."
That's you making excuses for yourself. If you want to build self discipline and willpower, you absolutely must get over this conception of what you 'need'. It begins with recognition.
If you spend a few weeks recognizing your own excuses, without being hard on yourself or punishing yourself, you will come to understand that they are holding you back. Just make sure to actively recognize your excuses, and soon enough you will change your mental framework around the idea of what you really 'need'.
It's the carrot-on-a-stick strategy, and it works. If you know that on Saturday you're going to do an all-you-can-eat buffet, it's a lot easier to make it through a week's worth of healthier meals.
To me, this is about ambiguity. If I need the willpower to quit, say, a daily soda habit, then I would first plan to have a soda in two days. Then I'd plan to have another three days after that. Eventually, you'll forget when you planned your next soda. That's the beauty of this technique.
You build up that willpower day by day until you naturally just let go of the habit. And knowing when your next break is coming helps you reassure yourself. It eliminates that feeling of scarcity you get when you're quitting something.
For working, this works similarly. If you know you have a coffee break planned, and you know what you're going to do on that break, it makes it easier to stick to your work up until then.
Remember that Self Discipline isn't about giving up the things you love. It's about knowing when and where you'll get those things, and controlling how you feel the rest of the time.
Best of luck to all of you in your pursuits, and feel free to drop us a comment if you have your own favourite strategies for being disciplined!
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The Zeigarnik Effect shows that "when we don’t finish a task, we experience discomfort and elusive thoughts because of it.” As humans, we cope with this discomfort by either escaping into a mode of complacency or taking action. If you're caught in between, take it one step at a time. Your brain and body will thank you.
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