Discipline doesn’t start with setting goals. Goals are important, but often end up just being good intentions. Discipline begins with setting small, sustainable habits.
One of our Warrior Poet patrons contacted me recently with a whole list of ways he wanted to improve himself. To be a better warrior. Get in better shape. Etc.
“But the linchpin for me,” he said, “is that I lack discipline. What can I do?”
The truth is this. If there was a man who did exactly what he said he was going to do in a perfect, disciplined way, that man would take over the world. Of course. There was one man who did that, and he did take over the world. But unless you were that man named Jesus Christ, you’re going to have to struggle the same as us mere mortals.
And let me just say that telling yourself to be more disciplined often just results in frustration and guilt when you fail to transform through sheer will power.
Here’s a better way and one that actually works long-term.
Life-Changing Discipline Hack #1: Set Habits, Not Goals.
Goals are easy to set and easy to talk about, but they’re only as good as the habits you set in place in order to achieve them. There’s no get rich quick scheme when it comes to discipline.
And the beginnings of developing a more disciplined life often don’t look very sexy. They certainly don’t look as heroic as your goals list of running an ultramarathon or entering a bodybuilding contest. But the true heroism of the disciplined life is developing the grit to do something small every day, week in, week out until it becomes a habit.
So here’s the life hack that’ll revolutionize your existence. Pick one good habit you’d like to develop, start very small, and just keep going.
This sounds very boring and way too slow for the heroic progress you feel you need to make in your life. But I can promise you, from my own personal experience and many others’, that if you try to change everything at once you will probably be in the same place you are right now, five years from now.
Don’t be that guy! (Even though we’ve all been that guy). Instead, if you’ve got 10 goals, just pick one and begin developing a small daily habit toward that goal over the next 30 days.
If you want to start reading a book a day or something crazy like that, don’t start by reading a book a day. Start by reading for five minutes. Just five minutes. But the heroic part of this is that you are committing to doing this–Every. Single. Day.–for 30 days and hopefully for the rest of your life.
Then it becomes a habit. It just becomes something you do–like shaving or brushing your teeth. And in the meantime maybe you’ve even bumped up your reading time to 10 minutes a day. Maybe next month you’ll bump that up to 20 minutes a day. And before long you’re reading a book a month. Now it’s become like a snowball going downhill. It just gets bigger and gathers more momentum so it’s harder to stop it.
And this principle can be applied to the next goal on your list–spending time with your wife and kids, doing a certain number of push ups or pulls ups, learning how to be a public speaker, etc.
So. Pick a goal. Take that lofty goal and decide on a very easy activity you can develop into a habit. Pursue that habit every single day.
Pro Tip: Habits tend to lock in more quickly when you do the same thing at the same time in the same place.
Life-Changing Discipline Hack #2: Substitution Is Better Than Will Power
Let’s say you have the lofty goal of cutting refined sugar from your diet. The same principle of starting small applies here.
Whenever you have that unhealthy craving, substitute in something healthier instead. So instead of coke or twizzlers or Sweet Tarts, keep some fruit around the house or a protein shake. These substitutions will at least buy you a little time to think it through before you start eating handfuls of M&Ms or devouring all the ice cream in the house.
Begin with one substitution–a piece of fruit when you want dessert, a piece of gum when you crave a cigarette, maybe five minutes of reading when you’re craving mind-numbing television. Every substitution you make brings you one step closer to developing a good habit in place of the bad habits.
Here’s one more thing to keep in mind: If you’re disciplined in certain areas of life but it’s causing you to neglect what matters most, then it might be time rework your life goals. Just because you’re a paragon of temperance and a tireless worker doesn’t mean you have a license to neglect family or go to the strip clubs.
What If You Fail?
What if you miss a day of reading or eat the entire tub of ice cream in 10 minutes–even after a month of doing well?
The truth is, life happens and we sometimes slip back into the old ways. If this happens (and it probably will with some habits), it’s important that you avoid beating yourself up or trying to sprint and catch up toward some ideal. This will be counterproductive. Instead, go to the habits. Start small. And begin again. Every day.
For more articles like this, check out the WPS Field Guide here.