“Inferior people try to conquer others, superior ones conquer themselves”
Most people are disciplined by outside forces and obligations such as job assignments, deadlines and appointments. It’s easier to be disciplined when your boss tells you what to do and your paycheck depends on it.
One of the joys of being a self-employed artist was setting my own schedule. Friends envied my apparent freedom from external demands. What they didn’t appreciate, is that painting requires a surprising amount of plain, old fashioned, often tedious, work, which must, by necessity, be self-generated. In order to accomplish anything I had to devise schedules and deadlines — even setting my alarm to get an early start on the day. In other words I was forced to develop self-discipline.
In my twenties I started the serious practice of meditation and yoga, both of which involve considerable self-discipline. Later I took up running and weight training. To some extent I’ve managed to maintain those disciplines into old age, especially meditation.
I also experimented with fasting, which builds self-discipline and makes it easier to regulate the intake of food in general. At one point I gave up meat, fast food, alcohol, caffeine, sugar and every other substance even remotely negative or sinful. I soon started to taste the extra sugar, salt and other additives in foods, which my taste buds had been too jaded to notice.
I even tried total celibacy for a couple of years. Sexual desire has been compared to a fire, and like a fire, when no new fuel is added, it eventually dies down. That definitely makes life simpler, if less interesting.
For awhile I lived in a remote location, without electricity, which made it easy to eliminate mental stimulants such as TV, phones and other electronics. It’s assumed that running water, appliances and the other gadgets of modern civilization save us time and make life easier. I found just the opposite to be the case. If you really want more time and space, simplify your life.
Self-discipline shouldn’t feel like self-punishment. It’s not necessary to be harsh with yourself and live a Spartan lifestyle devoid of pleasure. Life is actually more enjoyable and rewarding when it’s disciplined. It’s simple things like getting out of bed before sunrise to benefit from the early morning surge of awakening energy or being hungry enough when you sit down for a meal so that you really enjoy the food, but with enough self-control to avoid the negative consequences of overeating.
It turns out that my seemingly herculean efforts with austere practices like fasting, yoga and strenuous exercise regimens was just the easy stuff. The real challenge is simple everyday things that require self-awareness, as well as self-discipline — like paying more attention to others, abstaining from gossiping and bragging, and avoiding bickering with my wife on long car trips. Now we’re talking self-discipline!
I remind myself that only God is perfect (and sometimes I wonder about her) but any improvement we can make in ourselves, no matter how small, redounds to the benefit of the rest of the world.
One of the reasons I’m sitting here writing this is that my own self-discipline has been lagging of late. Just thinking about writing this post has already resulted in some improvement. I’m still far from being a paragon of discipline and self restraint but my ongoing efforts have at least prevented me from sliding into an even worse chaos of overindulgence and excess.
I do consider myself something of an authority on self-discipline — even though I haven’t been particularly successful at it. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time and energy attempting to tame what looks to be an especially errant and unruly nature.
What follows are some basic strategies — mainly from what I’ve learned through my own efforts at self-discipline, along with a little research.
WRITE IT DOWN
Have you ever wrote out a grocery list, and then when you got to the market you couldn’t find it, but you remembered most of the things on the list anyway? Writing something down imprints it on your brain.
That capacity can be used to good advantage. Making a list of things to do goes a long way towards their accomplishment, as does placing the list where it will be seen and checking off items as they are completed.
One of the most effective ways to lose weight is to simply keep a detailed list of everything you eat. For folks who are trying to save money by spending less, keeping a list of every cent that is spent has proven to be the best way to cut back on expenditures.
Making a list works because it puts what you want to accomplish right out in front of you. Putting what you want to do in front of you in reality is even better. When I was painting there were days when I just didn’t want to do it but I would force myself to go out to the studio and sit at my easel. I’d start having ideas and before long I was hard at work. Just physically getting to the gym or the desk is half the battle.
When making a list, it’s good to simultaneously visualize yourself doing the things you want to accomplish. A big part of the brain apparently doesn’t make a clear distinction between a real event and an imagined one. Just rehearsing something in your imagination is akin to actually doing it. But rather than just imagining the end result, envision yourself going through the necessary steps to achieve it.
Research has shown that lying on the couch and visualizing exercising has a remarkable amount of the very same benefits as actually exercising. Several recent studies have shown that just imagining the exercise of a particular muscle twice a day for a few months, can increase that muscle’s mass and strength by an average of 30 percent of what actually doing the exercise in reality produces. That’s unbelievable until you consider that a lot of what goes on during any activity are internal changes such as the brain’s ability to communicate with muscles, hormone secretion, and even gene activation or suppression.
So although it’s better to actually do something, just imagining it is surprisingly effective. That’s why Olympic athletes spend time visualizing their competitive event over and over, before actually performing. It gives them a head start.
The first thing in the morning is a good time to plan out the day and visualize what is to be done. When I began practicing yoga in the sixties, I read all of the limited number of books on the subject that were available back then. After learning various exercises and postures, I devised my own “routine” which I refined and ran through in my mind every morning while lying in bed. Rehearsing the routine in my imagination made it easier and more effective when I actually did it. Visualization has been a part of yoga and meditation practices for centuries, but it’s only recently, with the surge in neurological research, that such strategies have gained scientific credence.
Repeating a particular activity, even if only with the imagination, wires it more securely into the brain. Thus each attempt at self-discipline is worthwhile. There’s no such thing as failure unless one actually gives up and stop trying. Every attempt at self-discipline is a step towards accomplishing it. Even just thinking about it is a step in the right direction.
I started smoking at a young age. After ten years of smoking a pack-a-day, I decided to quit, but it took a year of concerted effort to finally stop completely. I was rolling my own by then and every time I’d decide to quit smoking, I’d dump the remains of my tobacco tin into the creek. By nightfall I’d be down on my knees, in abject humiliation, pawing through the trash for butts. Finally the repeated attempts to quit began to outweigh the acquired conditioning to smoke. Eventually I was able to easily go without cigarettes.
Research has shown that willpower is like a muscle that can be strengthened by repeatedly exercising it. Each attempt, even if it fails, is important for building self-discipline. Every time you force yourself to go to the gym or eat something healthy rather than junk food, you’re changing your brain and how you think.
Like a muscle, willpower also gets tired with overuse. That’s why it’s difficult to resist that drink after a hard day at work. Even self-discipline and willpower need a rest sometimes. It’s like training an animal, one should not be too tough nor to slack, but persistent and consistent.
The importance of willpower and self-discipline cannot be overestimated. It’s an inner strength and ability to stick to decisions that is essential to success in any undertaking and can overcome addictions, procrastination and laziness.
Although most people would agree that self-discipline is important, few realize that it can be consciously cultivated and developed. With practice of willpower the brain begins to change ingrained patterns of thought and the subconscious starts to help with regulating and overcoming impulses rather than bringing them on.
~To be continued ~