Self-discipline is a muscle, and like any muscle, without exercise it atrophies. It follows, then, that if you want strong self-discipline, you have to exercise it.
A million years ago, back when I was training to be one of Her Royal Majesty’s Cannon Fodder, the topic of discipline came up.
We were a group of wriggling newbie Officer Candidates, and Captain R. was expounding on the subject, after a particularly poor morning inspection.
Capt. R. posed the question:
How could we expect to maintain discipline among our troops when we couldn’t even maintain the self-discipline to make our beds and clean our barracks to Army Standards?
“How do you learn self-discipline Mr. Harvey?”
“Have discipline applied until it becomes habitual, sir.”
“Very good, Mr. Harvey.”
And so it went. Our training cadre applied discipline to us until (and, for that matter, long after) it became habitual.
But what if you’re not in basic training? Growing up, our parents applied a level of discipline to us. I’ve repeatedly told my boys that my primary duty in life is to prepare them to leave me, ready to live their own lives. For them, discipline comes from me.
What if the problem is that you’re in your mid-fifties, and now you’re supposed to be the responsible one? You make and apply the rules, yet you still do stupid shit like staying up past 1 am, binge watching Netflix, in the full knowledge you have to get up at 6 to get the boys ready for school.
Then you, and by “you” I mean “me,” need to return to basics. To practicing self-discipline. Only this time you don’t have a training cadre looking over your shoulder, beating it into you. Nor do you have Mom and Dad setting and enforcing the rules. Sorry Sparky, now it has to come from within.
With my mental health problems at crisis levels, that’s the bad news. I have always had serious motivation issues, but now there are days when I can’t be assed to get up off the couch to eat when I’m hungry, or go to the can when my bladder is full.
Seriously, last night I sat in my easy chair, bladder aching, because I couldn’t motivate myself to get up to pee, until the pressure crossed over the threshold to pain, and I was on the verge of embarrassing myself in a way I haven’t done in 5 decades.
So, where do I find my discipline?
The first, and single most important step, is to take the first step. I know this sounds incredibly obvious, and it is, but it is crucial. Simply put, if you don’t start, you cannot continue, so…start.
The problem isn’t knowing that you have to take the first step. It’s actually taking the first step.
In persuasion there is a principal, “Talking past the sale.” The principal of talking past the sale is to dismiss the question of “if” from your mind, and frame things as if the decision is made, and the action taken.
In terms of sales, it is as simple as saying, “When you drive home your new car,” rather than, “If you buy this car.” This technique can be applied to anything, so circling back to my problem of getting to bed on time, rather than fighting to get up from the chair, I tell myself something along the lines of, “After I pee and brush my teeth, I’ll listen to a Ben Settle podcast in bed, to help me chill down for sleep.”
I’m not framing this as “if I go to bed on time,” but rather “after I’m in bed on time.” That simple mental switch of talking myself past the sale got me to bed on time for a second consecutive good night’s sleep.
Doing this did two major things. The first is the obvious one; I got a full night’s sleep. Behind that is the less obvious one, that I’ve started a streak and it’s now two nights in a row that I’ve gone to bed on time. Getting that streak started lowers the barrier a little bit more for the next night, and each consecutive night it lowers the barrier a little more, making it easier and easier, night on night, to get to bed on time.
In short, I’m using persuasion techniques to practice self-discipline. I’ve already spent 7 weeks practicing it in my exercise, so the muscle is starting to build. Applying it to my sleep gives it yet more practice, strengthening it for whatever task I might choose next.
Maybe even posting longer form essays every day.