A craftsman masters his trade by repeated practice, with care and continual learning, with devotion to the purpose.
It takes the same kinds of things to master the craft of discipline:
- Repeated practice
- Single-minded devotion to the purpose
- Continual learning
I’ve been giving some thought to what it takes to master the craft of discipline, and have been following some practices that I’ve found extremely useful:
- Do the task even when I’m not in the mood. Procrastination is such a common problem that I believe it to be universal. The main reason we procrastinate, without admitting it to ourselves, is, “I’m not in the mood to do this.” The task is probably difficult or confusing, and so it’s uncomfortable, and you’d rather go to things that are easier, that you’re good at. You’d rather clean your house or trim your nails or check your email than start writing the next chapter of your book. But if we wait until we’re in the mood, we’ll never master life. Instead, practice this: set yourself to do a task, and start doing it, no matter what. Don’t let yourself check email, or social media, or go clean something, or do a quick chore or errand. Sit down, and do it. It will be uncomfortable. You can still do it even if it’s uncomfortable.
- Exercise even when you really don’t want to. Yes, this is the same thing as procrastinating — we put off exercise for many reason, usually because it’s hard and we’d rather do something easier. But I look at it as something I need to do to take care of myself, like eating healthy food and brushing my teeth. You wouldn’t skip brushing your teeth for a week, would you? Your teeth would rot. Similarly, skipping exercise for a week rots your body. Instead, practice this: tell yourself you’re going to do a workout/run at a certain time, and then show up. Do it even if you’re tired or feeling lazy. Ignore the lazy feeling, the distractedness, and suck it up. You’ll find that you feel great for having done it. Either way, you’ll start to master doing things that are uncomfortable.
- Sit with a little hunger. We tend to panic when we get hungry, and run for the nearest junk food. What I’ve learned is that you can be hungry and it’s not the end of the world. We don’t always need to be stuff and satisfied with crazy delicious food. Instead, practice this: don’t eat if you’re not hungry. When you get hungry, sit there for a moment and turn to the hunger, and see how it really feels. It’s not so bad. This practice isn’t to make you starve yourself (not great), but to show you that a little discomfort won’t ruin your life, and that you can make conscious choices about when and how much to eat.
- Talk to someone about something uncomfortable. We avoid difficult conversations, because they’re not fun. They’re scary, uncomfortable. But that leads to all kinds of problems, including resentment, a worse relationship, worsening of the situation, and more. Instead, practice this: When you have a problem with someone, instead of replaying the problem in your head, talk to the person in a gentle, compassionate way. Try to see the situation from their point of view, not just yours. Bring it up with a simple, “Hey, can we talk about ___?” And tell them how you feel, without accusing them or making them feel defensive. Ask them how they feel about it. Approach it with the attitude of finding a solution that works for both of you, that preserves your relationship. What you learn from this is that pushing through this uncomfortable situation will resolve a lot of difficult problems.
- Stick to a habit. One of the hardest things people face with changing a habit is sticking with a habit after their initial enthusiasm dies down. It’s easy to do a habit for a week — but what about pushing through the second and third weeks? It gets a lot easier after those weeks, but a lot of people drop the habit too early. Instead, do this: Commit to one small habit for two months. Make it just 5 minutes a day, and do it at the same time each day, having as many reminders set up as possible so you don’t forget. Track the habit on a calendar or log, so you see your progress. Show up every day and do it. You’ll start to master the formation of new habits, which will open up all kinds of changes.
- Turn toward the problem. When we have a problem, often we avoid even thinking about it. Think about whether you have one of these problems: you’ve been avoiding exercise, you’re overweight, you’ve been avoiding a major project, you put off dealing with your finances, you’re unhappy about some situation in your life. Often these are uncomfortable situations, and we’d rather not face them. Instead, practice this: See the obstacle as the path. Don’t avoid the obstacle (the difficult situation, the problem you fear), don’t go around it, don’t ignore it. Turn toward it. See it. Acknowledge it. Figure out what’s going on. Find out how to navigate within the problem. You’ll find that it’s not easy, but not as bad as you thought, and you’ll be happy you did it. And more importantly: you’ll get stronger from facing the problem.
- See the good in the activity. Discipline is really learning that you don’t need some incredible reward — there’s inherent good in just doing the activity. For example, if you’re going to eat healthy food, you don’t need to make it taste like your favorite dessert or fried food (rewarding food) — you can just enjoy the activity of eating fresh, healthy food. If you’re going to exercise, it doesn’t need to give you a flat stomach or nice arms — you can just enjoy the activity. Practice this: No matter what the activity, find the good in doing it, and the activity becomes the reward.
- Meditate. People think meditation is difficult or mystical, but it’s fairly simple. Practice this: Take 2 minutes to sit still, and focus on your breath, noticing when your mind wanders and gently returning to the breath. There are lots of other ways to meditate, but this is the simplest, and it shows you how to watch the urges that come up, and see that you don’t need to act on those urges.
You might not be good at these at first, but that’s why you practice.
You’ll learn, through these practices, to get good at discomfort, to show up even when you don’t feel like it, to stick to something even when the enthusiasm wanes, to not act on your urges right away, to enjoy any activity as a reward in and of itself.
Does life need to be pure discipline and no fun? Of course not. But if you can enjoy any activity, in the moment, why not learn to master something that will pay off for you in the long run?