“The only difference between Buddhas and ordinary beings is discipline.” – Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920 – 1996) a great Buddhist meditation master.
When you hear the word “discipline” do you think of Samurais, Shaolin Warriors and Buddhist Monks? Do you think about professional football players or perhaps members of the armed forces? Do you feel like it is something that is reserved only for a few dedicated and extremely tough individuals? Well it isn’t.
This post is the complete guide to developing self-discipline that lasts. Not self-discipline that lasts one or two weeks. Discipline that lasts your entire life. Once you have developed this, anything is possible. The guide is based on lessons and tips I have learned from many successful people who have mastered self discipline. I, however, have a long way to go.
Why we lack self-discipline in the first place
What is the one thing a person needs to attain their goals and dreams? Self-discipline. Sure there might be a place for influential contacts, money and natural ability but in the end it comes down to discipline. It is the one part of the “success equation” that you cannot do without. Every great person has possessed it. So why are we lacking in self-discipline?
Well, the answer is actually pretty simple. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work it out.
We are all spoiled.
That’s right. Spoiled. Now don’t go an get all offended on me. I am not personally attacking anyone. I am saying that in general, as a culture, we are a pretty spoiled bunch. We have televisions to occupy us, internet social sites to keep us connected, alcohol to numb our depression and a fair amount of money to spend on short term entertainment. We are pretty spoiled. It is called instant gratification.
I am not saying that everyone here has it easy. You don’t. Many of you (I know because you email me) have mortgages the size of Everest and children to feed. This is not an easy life. Far from it. In fact, you might already have more discipline than you think!
The reason I say that we are spoiled is not to make you feel guilty or ashamed. It is to highlight the fact that, other than the things like work and family, we have it pretty easy. When we want to be entertained we just flick a button. When we want some food we just go to the supermarket. When we want to be satisfied we just… well… you know…
We have grown accustomed to getting things quickly. And when our dreams, goals and ambitions don’t come as quick as everything else we lose motivation. We lose self-discipline. After all, why would we work on something that is arduous and difficult when we could be watching TV? Instant is so much quicker.
Why we need self-discipline to be successful and happy
Okay, I’ll admit it. Instant gratification is pretty good. I like a good drive-through meal as much as the next person. But is it truly satisfying? Does it forever quench your desire leaving you in a permanent state of bliss?
In fact, instant gratification makes you more unhappy. Sooner or later that instant gratification will not satisfy you and you will need something bigger and better to make you feel good right away. And when that loses its appeal you are going to need something bigger again. Finally, as often happens to many wealthy adults, you have a midlife crisis because your life is so god damned hollow. The new sports car is probably the ultimate symbol of AIGD (advanced instant gratification disorder) – it’s quick attempt to recapture one’s youth, a time in your life when gratification was so much simpler.
How would our life be if we had more self-discipline and were able to work towards and achieve things that really meant something to us? Would we be happier if we chose hard work over instant gratification? I am betting so.
Sunday School and self-discipline
Before I go on I need to clear something up. When I say self-discipline I am not talking about the kind that your Sunday School teacher taught you when you were 12. I am not saying that you need to control your impulses because pleasure and gratification and the Devil’s tools. Self-discipline is not about guilt or shame or religion. Sure, the Sunday School teacher might have been preaching about AIGD but that is another story entirely.
The self-discipline I am talking about is the kind where you use your internal will power to choose something better for yourself. It is where you cognitively decide that you are going to work towards a goal and achieve that goal without being sidetracked by “instant” distractions. The self-discipline I am speaking of is all about developing a mentality where you can fix your mind on something and achieve it.
Why we need it
The reason we need self-discipline is simple. Everything that is worthwhile achieving takes discipline to achieve. Think about the most common goals that people have:
- Fat loss and dieting
- Better fitness
- College degrees and other qualifications
- Helping people
All of these pursuits take self-discipline. It is impossible to lose weight with out self-discipline. It is impossible to get a college education without self-discipline. Anything that you can think of that you would like to achieve or work towards will take a large amount of self-discipline to pull off. And that is why we need to develop more of it.
How to develop self-discipline that lasts
Now that I have talked about why we are lacking in self-discipline and why we need self-discipline I want to get on to the core of the guide and talk about how we can go about developing it. Remember, self-discipline is not something that you can whip up out of thin air. It takes a long time and a lot of courage to develop. But the results are well worth the effort.
1. Find short term and long term motivation and work on it
Motivation is essential if you want to develop self-discipline. If you look at someone like Barack Obama who has been on the Presidential campaign trail for months now, you will see that a good motivation is something you cannot do without. Senator Obama would have fizzled out and quit by now if he did not have an excellent motivation. The same is true of anyone who has been working towards something for an extended amount of time.
Short term motivation is something basic like having enough money to feed your family or doing something because it is going to help someone right away. These motivations are easy to come by but they have a problem – they don’t last. If you want to develop self-discipline you need a motivation in the long term as well.
In the Buddhist tradition the monks and yogis are able to be so disciplined because they have something called Bodhicitta. This is roughly translated as the mind of enlightenment and is the motivation to use every thought, word and action to benefit other beings. It was this motivation that allowed so many Tibetan monks to endure the worst torture under the Chinese genocide in the 50’s and 60’s without fighting back. It is this motivation that allows them to stay in solitary retreat for 20 years. A motivation such as this one can get you through a lot of tough times.
Once you have found that motivation it is then important to cultivate it. If you decide you want to work for the benefit of others don’t just think about it once and then forget it. Remind yourself of it all the time. When things get tough try to remember why you are doing it. If you do this you can strengthen your mind and your resolve and stay focused on your task.
2. Find some inspirational figures to imitate
Sometimes we lose control. Sometimes the world breaks us down and we feel like we can’t go on. It is all too hard. It is times like these that we need someone to look up to. It is times like these we need to ask, “What would Buffy do?”
Okay, so maybe Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not the best inspiration figure to pick, but, each to their own! If you are an aspiring Vampire Slayer than Buffy is an extremely good figure. It is a good idea to find an inspiration figure in the field that you are working in. Some examples might be (please excuse the excessive use of pop-culture heros):
- Ethics: Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Mother Teresa
- Martial Arts: Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Bodhidharma, Ghost Dog
- Wealth: Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, MC Hammer
- Politics: Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin
- Sport: Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Michael Johnson
Okay so not all of them are good examples either. But you get the idea. When you feel down in the dumps it is fantastic to think “what would [insert hero] do” and then rely on that judgment. Sometimes two heads are better than one.
3. Make reverse escalation work for you
Remember earlier on in this guide when I talked about how instant gratification doesn’t satisfy you but instead causes you to be more and more insatiable forcing you to look for bigger and better “hits”? Well it is called escalation and it is a common problem among addicts (coffee, alcohol, drugs). However, escalation can work for you instead of against you if you know how to do it.
It’s called reverse escalation and it is a lot like how meditation works. The principle is simple: if instant gratification makes you more likely to need some bigger form of gratification, then you can apply that theory in reverse.
Next time you are working on your primary goal and you feel like giving up and going to watch television, try holding out for five minutes longer where you would have normally just got up and crashed on the couch. If you can do that, then next time go for six minutes. Try this with every distraction that comes up.
What you will be doing is essentially escalating your good qualities instead of your bad ones. You are escalating the self-discipline. Soon “five minutes more” won’t seem that hard and you will be well on your way to developing a self-discipline that lasts.
4. Create a routine and stick to it
Routine is a powerful word. One of the best ways you can develop self-discipline that lasts is by giving yourself a routine.
I remember hearing a story from a meditation practitioner who was having trouble getting past the basic preliminarily stages. Finally he went to his Tibetan meditation teacher in sheer despair and asked him for some advice. His teacher thought for a moment and then replied, “Rou-teeeen”.
“What’s that?” he clarified with the master thinking he was about to be told the esoteric secret to meditation.
“Rou-teeeen… you know… morning and night,” the teacher said in broken English.
“Oh. Right. Gotcha. Routine.”
Routine isn’t that esoteric but it is the secret to meditation. It is the secret to just about everything. If you can get yourself in a routine that facilitates and encourages your self-discipline then you will be well on your way to victory.
Again, this is not rocket science but a simple fact that has worked for many great people. Athletes have routine training times, yogis and monks have a daily practice routine, etc. Find a routine that works for you and then stick to it until your self-discipline is strong enough that you can break it from time to time without losing track.
5. Don’t overdo it
One of the big mistakes that I think people make is to do too much too soon. It is very important not to overdo it at any stage of the game.
Take the example of my final year in high school. Our school had midyear exams in third term because they thought it prepared us better for the finals (the one’s that count) because we had studied three terms worth of material instead of two. The problem? I burnt out after the midyears. I was so exhausted after the midyear exams that I said “F$%K it!” and gave up. I did too much too soon and there was no way of sustaining it until the end of finals.
Lucky for me I did well in the finals despite not doing a day of study. Literally. Ask my friend Alex who reads this blog and he will tell you I was down at his house playing basketball everyday. Looking back I don’t know how I even passed. But there is a lesson here for anyone who tries to do too much too soon. You run the risk of burning out. It is a much more intelligent idea to go slow and steady when it comes to long term self-discipline. It is a marathon, not a sprint race.
6. Use rewards (and maybe punishment)
Let me tell you a story. My first management lecture in business college. I sat down in the dark hall with 600 other nervous kids and the lecturer booms out over the mic, “How do you get workers to work harder?”
“Come one. How do you get employees in a firm to work harder?” he repeated.
“Give them more money!” one brave kid answered.
“Brilliant!” the lecturer replied. “And soon you won’t have a firm left.”
The teacher went on to explain that there are two loose schools of thought on the matter and it depends heavily on whether you are American or not. Studies have shown that Americans are so used to being told they “worthy”, “good” and “capable of anything” that they work harder when they are given positive reinforcement. Almost every other country, on the other hand, works harder when you tell them they aren’t capable!
“If your firm is in America,” the lecturer continued, “tell them you can do it! If your firm is anywhere else, tell them they can’t.”
While I have doubts about the practical application of this theory in a business setting (I’m not sure about telling a room full of workers they suck!) it is a really good lesson for developing self-discipline. Are you the type of person who responds to punishment or rewards? I’ll give you an example. Would you be more likely to work for one hour on your personal goal if I gave you a $50 note or if I threatened to take away your car for a week?
Think about which one you are and then put a system in place to help you develop the behavior that you want. Self-discipline, in my opinion, happens quite easily when there is a nice carrot at the end of the stick.
Developing self-discipline is one of the most rewarding undertakings you will ever embark on. It is only through self-discipline that your dreams and goals can be attained and as such you should give as much attention to it as possible. Use the tips I have outlined in this guide but make sure you only apply what works for you. Routine, rewards, etc. are all simple and effective ways to help you develop self-discipline that lasts a life time. Good luck!