Ever felt like you wanted to develop more self-discipline? This article is for you.
A few years back, I was in Brazil to participate in the first edition of the Franco-Brazilian Negotiation Fellowship. The only souvenir I brought back was a book in Portuguese entitled: “Disciplina, o caminho da Vitoria” (Schlup Sant’Anna, 2010). I never read it and probably never will. It has been standing on my shelf ever since. This tells a lot about my history with self-discipline. I would say that self-discipline saved my life in the hardest times, and got me back on track when I needed to. I would dare to say it is one of the strongest qualities one can develop as a backbone to developing other capacities.
There is no Mastery nor learning possible without Self-Discipline. This ability is intricately linked to self-regulation, and self-awareness, two qualities of Emotional Intelligence described by Daniel Goleman (1995). Self-Discipline allows you to do what you want to do, self-regulate, reach your goals, and experience more fulfilment from reaching them. Studies show that aiming for a goal brings more fulfilment. Indeed, success in life does not guarantee fulfilment. Self-discipline also leads to self-confidence, self-reliance, and the ability to strive towards your dreams. I am sad to see that many people do not have dreams or do not pursue them.
It is understandable though, as there is a cost to having dreams, that is certain. Self-judgement, the fear of failure, and even better: the fear of success. What will happen if that dream comes true? That is when you are likely to experience the imposter syndrome (if you feel alone, watch how you can Use the Imposter Syndrom to your Benefit): to feel like a fraud, that you don’t belong here, to feel like you don’t deserve it (not unlike in The Good Place series). The fear of success also means the fear of not being able to handle it, or the fear of power. When I was in Australia, I had coffee with an art dealer who trades world class paintings from old masters (Rafaello to Rembrandt), to modern and contemporary ones (Picasso, Zao Wu Ki, …) worth millions of dollars. Given his position, and his former positions as ambassador and leadership positions in the business world, I asked him if power corrupted, and I don’t remember his answer exactly. What matters most is that I asked him the question. What I do know is that I know what it feels like to feel powerless.
In 2017, when I came back from a life changing experience in India after spending almost a year in San Francisco, and settled back in France in my parents house, I was completely crushed. I could get up in the morning, but my soul was agonizing, and my psyche was weak. I needed a lot of healing to readjust to Western Society, and the French society in particular. What saved me was self-discipline. That self-discipline I had built during all these years of personal development, starting in my early years, when I started practicing martial arts. During my depression, although I didn’t know what to do, I got up in the morning, and made my bed. That gave me certainty. After a few weeks of just living, and receiving healing by an amazing energy practitioner in the Alps, I was doing my morning routine (which I think I never left) of meditation, and going back to practicing Yoga asanas in the morning (which I am not sure I even dropped). I read a lot too on the Virtues of Failure (Pépin, 2016), and that The Obstacle is the Way (Holiday, 2014). Slowly slowly, I was climbing back on the slope.
Climb Mount Fuji
Most people think that you need Power and Self-confidence to take action. It’s the opposite ! They come as a result of taking action. Courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyways.
Power is just an amplifier of who you truly are. If you are a tyrant at heart, more power will reveal it. If you are kind, generous and compassionate, more power will reveal that too. Can you remember moments in your life where you had more power? How did you handle it?
I remember moments when I was doubting myself severely, afraid that power and money would corrupt me. I remembered when I was in the Middle East as a trainer in management, and how I behaved with waiters in the four stars hotels I was staying. I was so grateful for their service. I was friendly with some of them. That thought helped me be ok with power.
At the Rich Litvin Intensive, one of the Brilliance Sessions was lead by Angela Tennison. She shared her experience of serving at the White House for Barack Obama. She described how he handled himself, and how he was so kind, compassionate and a true shoulder that people called him “Comforter in Chief”. That to me was another proof to me that power just reveals who you truly are.
How do you build self-discipline?
Yes, self-discipline is built. You build it. You decide. You are not necessarily born with it, even though some people have a larger natural inclination to self-discipline. Like everything else, you build it one tiny step at a time. If you think that you have no sense of self-discipline at all, start with something small, such as making your bed, once a week. Then shift to making it once more, until you make your bed every morning. I still remember when I was a teenager, and my parents asked me to make my bed, I would reply: “But dad, there is no point, I’m gonna sleep in it tonight again.” That attitude works if your sole ambition in life is to go to bed in the evening.
Then, once you have formed the habit of becoming the conscious creator of your habits and routines, you can move one more step forward. What do you know you want to do?
Working out: Start by doing one push-up or sit-up (or whatever workout you want) every morning, 5 days a week). If that’s too big, start with one morning per week. For more on highly effective workouts, I would highly recommend The Four Hour Body, by Tim Ferriss (2010).
Meditation: Start by meditating for 2 minutes, twice a week (I recommend first thing in the morning after a glass of water), on the same days (so that it trains your body to prepare for it unconsciously) at the same time.
Reading: Start by reading one page a week. Choose a time and stick to it.
Writing/Journaling: Just block out 30 minutes once a week and decide that you only have to write 100 or 200 words, even if they suck. It is not about writing amazing contents, it is just about getting into the habit of typing/writing words on a page. When you feel stuck, just start by writing: “I don’t know why I am experiencing writer’s block right now, but it seems that this technique of just writing what is on my mind is helping me to write stuff down!” Then continue.Don’t think about editing or publishing, just write for yourself first. Edit later, that is an important part if you want to post or publish.
“Write drunk, edit sober.”
Although this is a misattributed quote, and that I would not recommend you write drunk, you get the idea: be creative first, and edit later.
Cold Shower: That is a great habit to stimulate your immune system, cool off after a day of work or workout, and work at deepening your breath, relaxing your nervous system, and building mental strength. Start small by a normal warm shower. Stop to wash with soap. When turn the water back on, decrease the temperature slightly till it becomes just warm. After a few weeks of practice, continue decreasing the temperature. You will start to enjoy the cold more than the hot, if you do the proper breathing. For more, check out the Wim Hof Method.
You can modulate the time and frequency for activities depending on where you are right now. Starting small will help you make it sustainable, so after a week you think: “Oh, that’s easy, I can do it, it feels good and I want to do more.” That little frustration will help you increase your practice over time, instead of starting hard and quitting after 3 weeks (we are creatures of habit).
Your routine will change your life. You will feel more in control, that your life does not depend as much on external circumstances, what other people think, what is happening in the world and you will feel more peace and autonomy.
Highly successful people have had their routines examined by Mason Currey in his book: Daily Rituals: How artists work (2013).
There is a Dark Side to Self-Discipline
Self-discipline can easily lead to psycho-rigidity and the lack of flexibility. I can be a champion at that. In 2016, I participated in a Vision Quest on the land of Mendocino, California. During the last night of the three days spent alone, each of the participants was told to create a circle on the ground and set an intention for the night. I created my circle with stones and wood. That night, I made the decision not to step out of that circle. I stayed up, I peed in my circle, did yoga asanas, but I did not step out. I had made that decision and I would stick to it no matter what. In the middle of the night, a car stopped by, and a couple came out. They pulled out a telescope from the trunk and started observing the stars. When they saw me, they asked:
“Hey, would you like to come have a look at the stars?”.
“No thank you, I have to stay in that circle for my vision quest.”
It was a no-brainer for me. I don’t recall seeing the stars in a telescope in my lifetime, and it could have been a once in a lifetime experience. But I chose to stick to what I had decided (it didn’t even seem like a choice at that moment).
That is why I highly to have a day where you can break your routine, to explore being without it. To also develop flexibility and curiosity. I take Sundays off where I have a minimal routine (no yoga asanas in the morning), which allows for my body to rest and relax. It also serves as a semi-dopamine detox. Just like in Yoga where you lie in Shavasana (corpse pose) after your asanas, to relax the body and mind, and integrate the learnings from the practice, Sunday can be a day of play (I call it Funday). On Sundays, usually I start to feel a sense of lack, that something is missing (that is the addiction to the routine). But after noticing it, it ends up going away and I enjoy to relax and do less. This helps to boost motivation in the unconscious, so that on Monday morning I am glad to get back on track ! (that is the power of rest, which is an integral part of the training of High Performers). Not enough rest won’t get you far in life.
So, what is one capacity you would love to develop?
What is the tiniest step you can take starting next week?
Currey, M. (Ed.). (2013). Daily rituals: How artists work. Knopf.
Ferriss, T. (2010). The 4-hour body: An uncommon guide to rapid fat-loss, incredible sex, and becoming superhuman. Harmony.
Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Holiday, R. (2014). The obstacle is the way: The timeless art of turning trials into triumph. Penguin.
Pépin, C. (2016). Les vertus de l’échec. Allary.
Sant’Anna, A. S. (2010). Disciplina: o caminho da vitória.