This blog post is the final instalment in my ‘self’ series following ‘Self-Help Industry’ and ‘Self-Improvement’ (if it was not obvious already, I am rather obsessed with my-‘self’). In this I uncover what I think self-discipline relates to, why it’s the most important ‘self’ and how I pursue it. (Disclaimer: this is quite a long post but hopefully worth reading through, for the impatient the more entertaining bits start in the last section)
What is ‘self-discipline’?
Self-help and self-improvement are distinct from self-discipline: the former two relate to identifying goals and their importance, large or small, whilst the latter is the process by which they are reached. In other words, self-discipline determines who wins the internal struggle between what we want vs. what we should do: Adam & Eve’s insatiable desire for ‘an apple a day, to keep the doctor away’ vs. God’s warning; that extra piece of chocolate vs an expanding waist and watching another episode of ‘the Real Housewives of Beverly Hill’ vs reading some of the Iliad.
We are constantly in situations where our desires or temptations are pitted against our principles and ideals. The strength of our self-discipline determines the victor.
Why is it the most important ‘self’?
Self-discipline is not a popular topic – I find it rarely discussed amongst friends, in education and most surprisingly the self-help industry almost entirely ignores. By contrast, I have frequent conversations in my head about this.
However, perhaps I should not be so surprised – self-discipline is not a fun topic. At its core, self-discipline is an admission of personal failure, of a lack of control over actions. People are less willing to spending $4,500 to hear a tall and handsome Tony Robbins tell them – the reason you do not have what you want, is because you are too weak and undisciplined. Instead, the self-help industry tells you – the answers lie within. Self-improvement does force self-reflection about external skills you don’t possess rather than why you have failed to reach them.
Nonetheless, I think self-discipline is vitally important as it brings me closer to being the person I want to be – achieving my goals and living by my principles. Here is why:
1. Having control over my actions
I find it infuriating that I have so little control over my actions. This goes beyond, the flaws in decision making highlighted by behavioural economics. (We rarely recognize the subconscious influences which shape our actions, to learn more I would recommend Dan Ariely’s book ‘Predictably Irrational’ and his TED talk).
Instead, my frustration arises when I decide on one course of action and then consciously act in another. It takes two forms. In its simplest form, the conflict is between the body and the mind. When running, carrying a large Tesco shop or fighting that itch – your body is sending stimuli to your brain to tell you to stop, if you can control that feeling then your mind controls the body. And yet, so often I let my body control my mind. It is odd to think you do not have control over your own body.
In its more complicated form, the conflict is within my mind between the ‘short-term me’ and ‘long-term me’. My long-term me is cleverer: waking up early and going for a run is much more enjoyable than sleeping in; briefly focusing on work rather than trying to multi-task is more efficient and eating healthy is worth skipping that delicious Ikea cookie.
And yet, when it comes to the moment of decision the short-term me whispers ‘no, long-term me was wrong. They did not account for how cosy the bed is, how you can enjoy a TV show whilst working and those Ikea cookies are so devilishly tasty!’ Fortunately, I am not alone in this conflict and it is so common that economists have a term for it – hyperbolic discounting (for those interested, this is a good source). We recognize this conflict all around us, government-mandated pensions are a perfect example. It is a statement that you do not have enough control over your spending to save for your old age. You wish you wouldn’t but given the choice, you would splurge today and starve tomorrow.
It is this second conflict which I find intensely infuriating. I should be able to make an informed decision and act upon like a rational agent. Instead, I am whimsical and weak when it comes to decision time – something which I am always embarrassed and ashamed by. Strengthening my self-discipline is about regaining that control and as I once said to a friend, ‘no longer being governed by my desires’.
As I wrote in this piece, self-improvement can new skills, self-awareness and happiness to life. What I conveniently left out was how to achieve it. The answer is easier written/said than done – self-discipline. With enough self-discipline to plug away at skill every day, you will soon enough (or after 10,000 hours as Malcolm Gladwell would argue) master it!
How I pursue self-discipline
I view self-discipline as a muscle you can exercise. The more you practice and make use of it, the stronger it becomes. Stretching the analogy further (if you pardon the pun), over-use it and you can injure yourself and develop fatigue. What I struggle with most is coming to terms with when I inevitably fail – being harsh on yourself can be both motivational and destructive. It’s a careful balance and here are some of my ‘exercises’.
1. Doing the undesirable
One of my many eccentric habits is picking up rubbish on the street. A habit I have had since I was young, and something I took up by myself to my parent’s concern as I started coming home from school with pockets full of garbage. Flatteringly, this habit is often misperceived as an attempt to ‘save the planet’ – I am not so noble.
It actually began because I was reluctant to do it, I feared being perceived as a rubbish collecting freak. Strangers would look at me oddly and it was embarrassing. At the same time, I was aware it did some good and it was silly to be concerned with strangers’ opinions. As a result, I began to force myself. Every time I would notice rubbish on the street, my short-term me would speed up and walk by. A hundred metres later, the long-term me would fight back and I found myself walking back to pick it up and trying to avoid glances from strangers. It wasn’t fun but it was important.
The same applies to an ab-workout I occasionally convince myself to do. In truth, it has little use (other than vanity) and the work-out is not pleasant. However, it does no harm and as my only reason not to do it is ‘I don’t want to’ – I force myself to try. This is made a lot easier with Tony (not the same one) talking me through it in this video.
My ultimate goal is to be able to do utterly pointless things for no reason whatsoever other than I decided I would.
2. Finding my turkey
A lot of internal struggles revolve around not doing something, i.e. avoiding chocolate, stopping smoking etc… How one goes about this is up for debate and many advocate a gradual approach.Personally, I take a different tact. When it came to going vegetarian and now vegan, I found it easier to completely stop. After a while, meat or dairy no longer appealed at all and the distance from it helped me gain the perspective that it added little to my life. I have done the same for television (with considerably less success) and have gone by for the past 3 weeks without it. Being ‘cut & dry’, for me, makes self-discipline easier but each to their own – find your turkey.
3. Unconditional commitment
On a day to day basis, for small things, I try to commit to a decision ex-ante and follow through regardless of the circumstances. I try this for waking up. I decide on a time the night before and consider all the possible excuses I might have the next morning. When I wake up and suddenly can think of fifty new reasons why I should sleep in – I try my best to remain committed to the decision I made. Almost as if the choice is out of my hands.
These commitment attempts are something a friend of mine, Tom Simpson, has been an unfortunate victim of. Last year, we had agreed to go for a bike ride in the afternoon when, surprise surprise, it started raining heavily with strong winds. Understandably, Tom was not very interested in riding and nor was I. But, I had committed to riding and the only thing that had changed was the weather – I wasn’t going to cower to the weather! My decision was set and poor Tom felt bad leaving a madman on his own. So, we put on extra layers and got profusely drenched and cold on our ride. Tom hasn’t forgiven me, although secretly I think enjoyed it.
4. Establishing routine:
“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.”
– W. H. Auden
I have only recently come to appreciate the importance of routing. Having one makes it a lot easier to practice self-improvement goals and in this way, remain disciplined. It is difficult to explain why but would highly it.
My routine currently consists of waking at 7am, running 35m-1hr, meditating and then off to work for 8:30am; on returning from work around 6:30-7pm I practice Swahili for 30 minutes on Duolingo and an hour of a financial course I am enrolled in; I cook and eat for 8:30pm and then tend to Skype a friend and then read a book to be in bed for 11pm. Spontaneity is nice, but only special if it’s occasional!
5. Be a Sophisticated Hyperbolic Discounter
Whilst I want to err from the economic side, there are valuable insights. We are almost all hyperbolic discounters but those who are aware of this and use self-commitment devices accordingly are known as sophisticated as opposed to naïve. As a friend pointed out, self-commitment devices are indicating a lack of self-discipline rather than use of it.
Nonetheless, I think it handicapping your short-term me in view of the long-term is exercise some form of self-discipline. These are some of my own attempts. All of them are reversible and if it really wanted to, the short-term me could have its way but by making it more inconvenient, I am less likely to.
- Social media – all too alluring and time-consuming, to that extent I have deleted apps like Snapchat, Facebook, any game apps to prevent myself from using them
- Phone distractions – very tempting in ever-present awkward silences, so I don’t have any notifications on my phone
- Website surfing – particularly for me on cycling sites is very easy, so I use ‘Stay Focused’ app to limit the time I spend on these to 30 minutes a day
- Running ‘out and back’ – to force myself to run long distances I chose a simple out and back route such that past halfway, the shortest route back is the one I planned
Undoubtedly you will have some of your own such attempts. The New Years Eve gym membership is a very common way of guilt-tripping your future self to lose those extra pounds for the pounds you already lost. Friends of mine have taken to only carrying a set amount of cash on a night out to prevent reckless spending. In developing countries, where small luxuries are very tempting and costly there is evidence of people willing to pay for a bank account which does nothing except limit withdrawals.
A Tentative Conclusion
We are all taunted by our inner ‘Adam & Eve’ as those apples are just too god damn tasty! The self-help industry has it right when it says the answers are within, but more importantly so are the problems. Self-improvement is paved with constant trials and tribulations and the greater your self-discipline, the closer you become to the person you want to be.
Doing the undesirable, finding my turkey, unconditional commitment, establishing a routing and becoming a sophisticated hyperbolic discounter are just some of the ways I try to strengthen my self-discipline. What are yours? Comment below.
(p.s Well done, you made it to the end! I write this whilst at the back of a shuddering bus travelling from Gihembe Refugee Camp in Rwanda for work, Rwanda is incredibly beautiful and well worth a visit!)