If you want to achieve something meaningful in life, you will have to grapple with discipline.
Regardless of medium -career, health, fitness, relationships or spirituality – this holds true: Embracing constraints will help you create the habit of being disciplined.
Elite athletes, high-performance business owners, successful artists and military professionals all understand this.
People who have become disciplined have recognized the gaps in their lives. They realize that to get from where they are to where they want to be, they need to become disciplined in certain behaviors on a daily basis.
From an outsiders perspective, becoming disciplined looks and seems easy.
Just do what you know you should do on a regular basis, right?
Well, the stats tell us that it’s not that simple:
- Physical: Out of the 131, 700,000 people who pay for a gym membership in the U.S., 67% of them don’t go to the gym.
- Career: Nearly 53% of Americans are not happy and unfulfilled with their work.
- Emotional: According to survey done by the Harvard School of Public Health, almost 50% of people in America report to be overwhelmed by stress (Health-related problems were the most common source of stress. Taking on to many responsibilities was also a high marker contributing to stress).
Where is the disconnect?
It’s hard to believe that we can blame it on the “how to” of things.
We all know that getting regular exercise and eating well is important.
We all know that investing in your talent to sharpen your skills is vital.
We all know that we should simplify our lives so we aren’t up to our eyeballs with consumer debt.
The Law Of Least Effort Is Causing The Collapse
The Law of Least Effort yields to a way of living that is bounded by ease, lightness, and a complete avoidance of effort or struggle. When applied appropriately, The Law of Least Effort is a wonderful thing.
Generally speaking, we don’t want to figure a new way to brush our teeth everyday, innovate a new method for doing laundry each time we throw a load in or creatively navigate our way to work by taking a different route each time.
By setting these routine tasks on auto-pilot, it requires very little effort. This is a good thing because it reserves our willpower to concentrate on other tasks, projects and other complex priorities.
When we apply The Law of Least effort intelligently, it works in our favor.
But intelligent application doesn’t mean twisting the concept in order to by-pass the hard-work required to produce certain results.
If you aren’t careful, The Law of Least Effort can turn on you. Your mindset shifts, and you begin to expect that certain tasks will get done with little or no effort. You’ll begin to feel entitled to things that you don’t deserve without putting forth a respectable effort.
Do you really expect your body to change when you continually skip the gym and throw McGriddles down your chin slit?
Will that blog build itself while you watch football every weekend?
Will your career start moving in the direction you want it to while you pay no attention to sharpening your skills?
Will your pipe grow while you spend several hours a week online shopping for knick-nacks and taking two hour lunch breaks?
Here’s the problem: Some people have taught themselves that avoiding physical labor, mental exertion and emotional investment is the intelligent application of The Law of Least Effort.
From what I’ve found in my study (and from personal experience), people who avoid effort at all costs search for the land of Utopia. They dedicate impressive amounts of energy into side-stepping effort and never attempt to do hard things or take appropriate risks. Most of the time they never find this land called Utopia. Thus, they end up massively frustrated, lost and confused.
The Law of Least Effort, when misused, is quietly devouring our capacity to become disciplined.
One drop of red dye into a large glass of water will permeate. Eventually, the whole glass of water turns red. The same effect can happen with The Law of Least effort. If you don’t keep it contained, it’ll permeate within your mind and soon, it’ll guide your every decision.
The By-Products Of Living By The Law Of Least Effort
When The Law of Least Effort takes a foothold, one of two things usually happen:
- You adopt a mindset that believes discipline isn’t needed to grow and progress (things will happen automatically with no effort).
- You believe that discipline is a trait that you either have or don’t have (being disciplined isn’t something you become, but a gift that people are born with).
Before we get into how you can break the mold of living by the Law of Least Effort, lets look at a story.
What Fat Loss Teaches Us About Discipline
In his book, The Entitlement Cure, Dr. John Townsend, tells this story about his friend, Dale:
Dale lost about fifty pounds and kept it off. After I congratulated him, I said “I work with people all the time who can’t accomplish this sort of thing. So what’s your secret sauce?”
“Discipline,” he replied.
I waited for more, then said, “That’s it?”
“Yes. I choose discipline.”
“That’s great. How did you choose discipline?”
“Well,” Dale said, “I was sick of the weight. Sick of feeling crummy, of my clothes not fitting, of being worried about my health. And Marie [his wife] was all over me to lose the weight.”
“Sounds like a lot of motivation,” I said. “So when you chose discipline, did you just wake up the next day and choose the right foods and start working out?”
“Of course not,” he replied. “I had no idea what a good regimen would be. I went to see a nutritionist about the food, and I got a gym membership with a trainer. They gave me information and helped me with a plan.”
I nodded. “And did you talk to anyone supportive about this, or just do it all on your own?”
“Sure, I talked to people,” Dale said. “I asked my men’s group to call me and check in on my progress, and Marie helped me stay on track.”
“Okay,” I said. “Ever fall off the wagon? Get discouraged, get tired of it, bring home stress from work, and go out and eat pizza?”
“Sure, at first. It was pretty hard in the first few months, a lot of old habits to quit. My friends and my wife would talk me off the ledge, help me find the triggers, let me know when they didn’t think I was a loser, and help me get back on the wagon. Eventually the new behaviors (disciplines) became habits and I didn’t’ need the support often anymore.”
Dale recognized the gap of where he currently was and where he wanted to be.
In order to arrive at his outcome goal of losing weight, he knew it wasn’t going to happen without some serious effort. He didn’t sit back and hope the fat would melt off his body while he did nothing about it.
Secondly, Dale was not disciplined in the area of health and fitness prior to his transformation. He was aware of this, but he didn’t allow himself to believe that he couldn’t become disciplined in order to bear fruit from his efforts.
Dale’s story provides a platform for you to become disciplined in any medium -career, health, relationships – so that you can finally embrace constraints that help you achieve your personal goals.
The truth is, you become discipline before you start feeling disciplined. Below, I’ll equip you with the ingredients and the recipe to kick-start your journey on becoming disciplined. The ingredients – motivation, daily routine and support – provide the structure. The recipe gives you the strategies; the step-by-step road-map to becoming disciplined.
Ingredients needed to build discipline
When we unpack Dale’s story, we see that he had three ingredients that set him up to become disciplined. These ingredients provide the structure for positive behavior design.
Dale had real motivation to change. As silly as this sounds, I find that many people are trying to change a behavior they aren’t really motivated to change.
Just because it’s important to eat well and exercise regularly doesn’t mean that you are required to do it. It’s your choice. You have to want to change if change is going to happen.
Many people feel pressured to change a behavior because their peers, co-workers and family members are attempting to do so. If guilt is your driving motivator, it’ll be the toughest uphill battle of your life at best, or an un-arousing failure at worst.
To become disciplined the motivation to do so has to be grounded intrinsically. Meaning, the activity itself (exercising, writing, making the phone calls, taking the training course) must be the reward.
In Dale’s case the activity of exercising and eating well was the reward. He found value in being disciplined because his motivation was grounded intrinsically (getting in shape meant a lot to his wife and he was fed up with feeling like crap).
Compare this to extrinsic motivation. If we take Dale as the example again, but instead of being intrinsically motivated, he attempted to change because of an external reward. Lets assume he was driven by a $500 dollar cash prize at the end of a 60 day challenge if achieved his goal.
This route pushes him to do the things he needs to do, but he is not compelled or committed to lasting change. He’s doing it for the cash. And once the challenge is over, it’s likely he returns to the same habits that got him into this mess in the first place.
To become disciplined, your motivation must be grounded intrinsically. For more on this topic I highly suggest Drive, a book by Daniel Pink.
The story didn’t go into detail about what Dale did on a daily basis to improve his health and fitness. But with over a decade of experience in the behavior design industry, I can tell you what he did.
He had a daily routine.
Having a nutrition plan and a detailed training program is only the beginning. How he executed those plans were arguably more important then having them in his hand.
For people who enjoy routines, this is music to their ears. For those who don’t (usually the creative types), embracing a routine is actually the path to more freedom.
When you follow a daily routine, you free up the bandwidth to give your best effort to the tasks that matter the most. You don’t have to invest precious energy into thinking about what to do everyday.
At the bottom of this post, I show you a plug-and-play system for creating a rock solid daily routine.
Dale openly admitted that he didn’t transform on his own. He recruited the right people into his life to help him.
He had a nutritionist, a trainer, his men’s group and his wife all backing him up and course correcting him when necessary.
Becoming disciplined all by yourself, regardless of craft or interest, is like paddling a rowboat upstream of a flooding river.
Bring in help. You’ll need it.
The 3 Part Recipe for Becoming Disciplined
Now that you have the structure set, it’s time to dig into the recipe. These are strategies that you can use daily, weekly and monthly to help yourself become disciplined.
Learn to Delay Gratification
Regardless of any field, success is largely dependent on the subject ignoring the temptation to do something easier in favor of doing something harder. Here are a few examples:
It’s a lot easier to drive past the gym and drive through Taco Bell after you get off work. You’d much rather wrap your lips around that gooey gordita crunch then grind through 10 sets of back squats.
Texting a friend to meet up for a two hour lunch is a lot easier then getting in 45 minutes of writing done for your blog. Talking about how old the Spurs are and how Tim Duncan never seems to age over lunch sounds better then sitting alone pounding the keys.
Sleeping in a few extra hours on Saturday morning is a lot easier then heading into the office to crank out some sales calls. It’s a lot easier to have breakfast in our sweats while we sip on a warm cup of bean juice in comparison to driving to an empty office to do work.
To become disciplined, you’ve got to train yourself to delay gratification. The key here is to understand the word delay.
It doesn’t mean NO. It simply implies not yet.
Go to the gym first and then you can reward yourself.
Get your writing done first, then get lunch.
Make your calls first, then have some fun.
Do the work first, then reward yourself. The other way around rarely ever works in your favor.
Use The Seinfeld Strategy
Jerry Seinfeld is one of the most decorated comedians of our time. While his awards and accomplishments are impressive, his unrelenting consistency is what should be highlighted.
In an interview on Lifehacker, Brad Isaac, a young comedian, revealed what Seinfeld told him after he asked if he could drop down any tips for him as an up-and-coming comedian.
He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.
“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”
Your task may not be writing. It might be making sales calls. It might be practicing your lines. It might be getting 500 makes at the end of practice. It might be showing up to the gym.
Regardless of your goal, the Seinfeld strategy is a practical way to stay on track everyday.
This strategy not only creates unstoppable momentum, but it also takes your focus off of the outcome and shifts your gaze onto the process.
You not only start to become disciplined, but you start to see yourself being disciplined. This feels incredible. Showing up becomes important to you after you’ve strung 49 days in a row.
I’m a writer and ironically enough, getting words on the screen is the hardest thing for me (and come to found out, it’s a common issue with other writers).
By using the 5/3/1 method I’ve managed to write over 90,000 words in the last 18 months. In that process, I became a professional writer. Meaning, I get paid to write now. It wasn’t that way when I first started.
I attribute a lot of my success to the 5/3/1 method. And whatever your goal is, this method can work for you too.
Before you lay your head to retire for the day, you’ll do three things:
- You’ll list the five most important tasks that need to be done the next day. These are non-negotiable items.
- Then, you’ll list three things that you did well today.
- Lastly, you’ll express gratitude for one thing in your life right now.
Here is an example of one of my entries:
The five non-negotiable items that need to get done tomorrow:
- Write first draft Power Of Compounded Consistency
- Research facts and find stories
- Write first draft
- Edit and write second draft
- Add images
- Write three headlines
- Post social shares
- Set all shares to buffer (Facebook, Twitter, etc)
- Interact with one person (leave comment, encourage etc)
- Respond to all or any emails
- 60 minutes on reading Muscle, Strength and Power by Brook Kubik
- 60 minutes on Michael Hyatt’s platform University
- Frame Monday’s post
- Research topic and gather sources
- Outline key points
- Draft three headlines
There are five items on this list. But you’ll notice each of them have sub-points. So if answering email is in your top five, list it as one item but it’s ok if you have 21 emails to respond to. It still needs to be listed as one item.
Also, make the most important task first on the list. For me, writing is my most important task (even though sometimes heading into my garage to deadlift sounds way better).
Three things I did well today:
- I wrote 2,000 words today.
- I did my strength training today even though I felt like dog crap.
- I called my ma to see how she was doing.
One thing I’m grateful for:
- I’m grateful for the internet and the opportunities it’s provided me and my writing.
This method works because your day is laid out the night before. You know what you need to get done the minute you wake up. You don’t waste half the day planning or pondering what you should do for the day.
By recognizing what you do well each day, it builds confidence and trains your brain to praise yourself for things that are worth praising. This is key. Find things that require effort on your part. Recognizing that you’re good looking or have beautiful curly hair defeats the purpose.
Studies show that a five minute a day gratitude journal can increase your long term wellness by about 10%. This has the same impact as doubling your income. When your wellness improves, you’re more likely to stay disciplined and follow through on the things you know you should be doing.
Discipline is uncomfortable.
But it’s also the solution.
Accumulating “how-to” information is only the start. And quite honestly, is the easiest part in becoming disciplined. Exectuion on a regular basis is where the gap lies. Showing up day after day with unrelenting discipline is how you win.
You have a game plan now. Gather the ingredients (motivation, dial in a daily routine, and recruit support). Then, take the ingredients and follow the step-by-step recipe (train yourself to delay gratification, employ the Seinfeld strategy and then plan your days with the 5/3/1 method). Take it and run with it. You won’t regret it.
Thanks to Dr. John Townsend for prompting this piece.