“No person is free who is not master of himself.”
Don’t eat that piece of chocolate cake.
Don’t hit ‘snooze’ when your alarm sounds at 6:00 a.m.
Don’t buy those new pair of shoes when you still carry credit card debt.
Don’t send that text message at 3:00 in the morning to that person who just broke your heart.
Every single day, we’re challenged to practice restraint - self-discipline - when temptation inevitably presents itself. So how do we stay the course? Well, that depends on...you. And your interpretation of the following three things.
- Do more of what you like. Sounds simple, right? But, alas, it’s true. It’s easier to wake up early and go for a five mile run before work if exercising makes you calm, happy and fulfilled. It’s easier to sit down and write for three hours after your 9-to-5 job if your passionate about honing your craft. It’s easier to attend networking events if you enjoy making small talk with strangers. If you find that you’re struggling to muster up the motivation to complete a task, consider it a sign that you probably don’t value the experience as much as you think.
- Understand your triggers. As much as we try, we aren’t robots. Part of being alive involves being predisposed to certain triggers - words, places, people, sounds, smells - and recognizing when they will most likely arise. Once we can anticipate them, we can start building healthy responses to them. This won’t eliminate our emotions - which is in some ways unavoidable - but it can manage our actions following exposure.
- Reverse engineer by first establishing your values. It’s much easier to train yourself to perform a certain task or sustain a particular habit if the action reinforces a core value. Dig deep. What’s important to you? For example, I value tolerance so every day I read one editorial that presents a view that opposes mine. Another example: I value using my privilege in service of others so I work at a legal aid clinic that helps low-income workers. It’s much easier to do things that, at their core, perpetuates a deep-seated belief that you hold.
If you haven’t noticed, all three suggestions involve self-reflection.
Discipline can only be achieved when you figure out who you want to be and where you want to go. The summation of your actions is the arrow that will get you there. One last thing: Being successful at self-discipline is entirely perspectival: Someone who wakes up at 5:00 a.m. to run ten miles may scoff at someone who wakes up at 7:00 a.m. and only runs three miles. The nature of the task is irrelevant. The depth of focus, control and adversity is what matters.