Self-Discipline and Self-Control

From the very beginning of history all the way to today, highly successful people have had an implicit and sometimes explicit understanding that the way to achieve success in any endeavor in this life is to be disciplined in your actions. But what is discipline and why would it offer an advantage over other life choices? Let’s find out together.

  1. The marshmallow experiment about delayed gratification
  2. Necessity vs Identity and the placement of inner power
  3. Pushing and Pressure vs Being Pulled and Inspiration
  4. Habits of Mental Discipline
  5. Going the Extra Mile or How to be a Champion
  6. Knowing your limitations or How to be Humble
  7. Giving and Taking or How to Live a Balanced Life

1. The Marshmallow Experiment about delayed gratification

In the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, scientists tested children’s ability to delay their own gratification by giving them the option to get one marshmallow immediately or two if they waited 15 minutes. In later follow up studies researchers surprisingly found a correlation between the initial capability to delay gratification and competence. Children who waited longest in the initial experiment were described as much more competent by their peers and parents.

The mechanism found by the scientists is at play in many areas of our life, think about how easy it is to sit in front of the TV with a beer and some junk food vs doing a workout at the gym or outside. The TV gives immediate gratification and the workout give a very delayed gratification but in the long run how are you better off?

2. Necessity vs Identity and the placement of inner power

Being forced by circumstances into a sort of discipline is not an actual discipline. Just go back and think back in your first years of school. Early in the morning when waking up to go to work, did you wake up by yourself or did one of your parents wake you? If you woke by yourself, did you do it because that’s how you do things or because you had to?

By using external circumstances to corner us into the necessity of acting in a certain disciplined way is only a fake discipline. Only when you choose to adopt discipline as part of your identity does discipline start to work its effects on your mind and your body.

Think about going to the gym for a moment, you could go every week, 2-3 days a week, for one to two hours for a full 3 three years or you could take anabolic steroids and do it in three months. Why don’t you and most people for that matter take the easiest route to the body you desire? Because most of the benefit of going to the gym is not in having the envy of others when they look on your Instagram pics. Most of the long term benefit to your life comes from the discipline you build by doing the work every week, for years. Your enviable body is only your, visible to everyone, scorecard. That’s why a vast majority of those taking anabolic steroids hide this fact. Because every fiber of their body knows they are taking the easy and less respectful way, deep down they lose respect for themselves. This is not about champions at the top of their game where they’ve pushed their body to the physical limits and need an extra edge. More about this later.

Discipline and power come from the inside, when we shift this power outside we become disempowered. If I have to wake up in the morning because I have to go to work or I’ll lose my job then I’m already shifting the power outside and I’m disempowered. If I wake up in the morning because that’s the kind of person I want to be then I’m empowering myself.

3. Pushing and Pressure vs Being Pulled and Inspiration

  • Why do some(maybe most) kids hate going to sleep and waking up early?
  • Why do people push back when we try to change them for the better?
  • Why do you feel bad about not going to the gym or running every week or for not eating the right way?

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Well? Were you expecting an answer here?

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Stop right now! If you didn’t already, really answer those questions above before continuing reading.

I’m really curious about your answers so if you’ve read so far please take a moment and write them down below. Thank you.

Coming back. The real honest answer is two-fold. One component is pressure and the other value. If we’re pressured into doing things we tend to fight back with the same amount of pressure. To illustrate what I mean, just think about two scenarios. In the first scenario, a very good friend asks you if you can give him a very small amount of cash. In the second scenario, you are walking with a huge sum of money in a bag and someone pulls a gun on you, put’s it on your head, and asks if you give him your money or your life.

You’ll likely do what is asked from you from both scenarios but you’ll have no urge to fight back your friend. But in the second scenario, you’ll most likely do everything in your power to not only get your money back but also punish the other guy. What these two examples illustrate is two extremes of a dimension of pressure. We always react to pressure by pushing back with force. We also do that if we’re the ones putting pressure on ourselves. It’s extremely hard to go from zero workouts a month to 3 every week. Instead of putting pressure to be perfect, inspire yourself and others to be better. It’s too easy to go from zero workouts a month to 1 but the effort may be just right if you do it 2 or three times a month. Next month you can improve again. And again… Without pressure, by being pulled by the desire to improve. It’s the exact same story with discipline if you put pressure on yourself to have perfect discipline… You’ll fight back. Aim at improving your discipline. More on value another time.

4. Habits of Mental Discipline

We talked a bit about why to do it and how to start being more disciplined. Now let’s get into the what. In every culture around the world, every religion, every spiritual practice you’ll find references to the fact that how your mind works is what determines your future. This is how it works with discipline. If your mind is undisciplined then even if you appear disciplined in your actions, you’re only acting so because of external pressures. The moment that pressure is lifted your discipline will evaporate. The way to get your mind disciplined is to first listen to it. You can think of disciplining your mind as doing it to a dog. If you don’t know what the dog is doing how can you ever expect to teach it discipline?

Listen to your mind

The first habit of mental discipline is to listen to your mind also known as meditation.

The easiest way to achieve that is to take a few minutes every day to: Close your eyes, and keep your attention on your breath. When you notice your attention moved away, gently bring it back to your breath. [Repeat]

This exercise will in time train you to always listen to your mind, not just when meditating.

Provide your mind with direction

The second habit of mental discipline is to provide the mind with direction. Going back to the dog analogy. If you let your dog loose it’ll just wander off and explore and mess around. But when you give it purpose, for example when you throw a ball and ask it to bring it back, the dog will stop at nothing to do what you asked of it. The mind works in a very similar fashion. If you don’t give it purpose, it’ll just wonder about and ruminate. You also teach your mind to have direction when meditating by focusing on your breath.

Relax your mind

The third and most important habit of mental discipline is to relax your mind. We learn from our environment much faster than we do on purpose. This is why most polyglots (people who speak many languages fluently) recommend immersing yourself in your target language when trying to learn it. The truth of the matter is that our minds are like sponges and knowledge is like water. If the sponge is relaxed and expanded it will easily absorb and retain any water around it. But if the sponge is strangled tightly in your hand, all the water leaves it and new water can’t easily get it. If we are relaxed and our environment’s “water” flows through our sponge then we easily get in sync with our environment. One example of what you can achieve with a relaxed mind is detailed in my article about turning frustration into powerful life lessons.

source: Flickr

“Learn to convert the discomfort of discipline into the satisfaction of personal growth”

Tony Robbins

5. The Discipline of Going the Extra Mile or How to be a Champion

After starting to direct your mind as you would your trusty dog, you’ll want to train it. What better way to train it than with the habits and tricks of champions. I consistently went to the gym for a couple of years to do CrossFit and my trainer Silviu Tanase would always badger me and the other people in the group to always push a bit at the end. Whenever I would do pull-ups for example, in the end, the very last one that I could do, he would tell me to hold it, and as slow as possible come down. This would put 10-20 times more pressure on the muscle than a normal pull-up would do and I hated them.

After I stopped going to CrossFit because of a medical problem, while learning to coach people, my teacher Alain Cardon demonstrated a pattern where if clients had left some time at the end of their sessions we could ask the client “If you’ve left yourself this time to do something extremely important, what is time for?” Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was the exact pattern and habit that Silviu was trying to instill into us. This is the habit of Going the Extra Mile. Or as I call it: the habit of champions.

6. The Discipline of Knowing your limitations or How to be Humble

We need people and people need us. The matter of fact is 99.9% of humans could not survive for long if stranded alone on an island. Yet our ever “connected” world is pushing us to move more and more of our life online where everything is curated and a strong emphasis is given to content that is viral and implicitly prideful and creating envy. It takes some discipline in our world to be humble while everything around us is pushing us to extract only our very, very best moments and push them online. But why would you want to be humble in a world that does not seem to value it? On the face of it, this question seems more a philosophical one but in truth, it is not.

Even though on the surface our world seems to favor and reward pride and envy. In our most impactful, intimate, and personal moments we humans still value humility and if you are looking for long term success either in your personal life or professional life you’ll not be able to attain or hold it without a healthy dose of humility. A simple discipline to cultivate humility is to remind yourself of your own limitations and learn to work around those that you can’t outgrow. This will do much more for your future success than any other specific habit.

7. The Discipline of Giving and Taking or How to live a Balanced Life

If you always take and take and take, you’ll build a reputation for it, and sooner or later it will come back to bite you in the behind. If you see people as nothing more than tools that can take you where you want to go then people will feel it and you’ll repel the most competent of people away. And everything you’ll try to do will be plagued by a never-ending cycle of start, fail, stop. Think about con-men, bank robbers. It’s a well-known fact about con-men that they can never stop. Interestingly enough the name comes from confidence man so humility does play a role here as well but the point I’m currently making is that con-men and bank robbers can never stop because their whole mentality is based on always taking. They can never keep what they take.

On the other hand, if you only give and give and give and give. You’ll sooner or later end up exhausted, depleted, unhappy, and broke. To illustrate what I mean think about monks and nuns, people who have a reputation for always giving of themselves. Even monks and nuns have charity boxes because in giving so much of themselves if they wouldn’t take a small bit for themselves then they would not last for long. Especially not for the thousands of years they have so far.

Another very good example is a householder and his garden and animals. If he only takes and takes he’ll deplete the soils and kill off all the animals and then he’ll starve. If he only gives and gives, well even if he takes just enough to not die from hunger in a few days, eventually his flock of animals will get so big that he won’t be able to control it and he’ll still fail.

A simple habit to create the discipline of Giving and Taking is to always ask yourself: How much am I taking and how much am I giving?

If you want to change the world, start with yourself

Mahatma Gandhi

Want to work on your own discipline? I would love to coach you through the process.