DISCIPLINE IS A HABIT, NOT A PERSONALITY TRAIT

Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions.

Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits.

Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character.

Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.

Chinese proverb

The biggest lie about discipline is that it is a personality trait. It isn’t. It’s a habit. When you repeat an action enough people will attribute it to your personality. If someone works hard every day, they’ll say she is a hard worker.  Our habits are eventually assigned to us as a personality trait, but we weren’t born with them. We developed them through repetition. Habits and routines are what determine what we will achieve in life, that is why they are essential to our success and happiness. The excellent news is that we can choose to form whatever habits we want by shaping our environment to support them.If you procrastinate often, you might label yourself a procrastinator. You might have that habit, but you can change, and you can choose to change NOW. One way to avoid procrastination is to schedule that project you’ve been avoiding during your first hour at work. Grab a cup of coffee, get comfortable, and commit to working on it for 30 to 60 minutes each day. You don’t have to finish it in one sitting. Just commit a specific amount of time every day. The key to finishing is to keep starting again. You aren’t a procrastinator. You just haven’t developed the habit of scheduling what you hate doing during a time when you will have the greatest willpower to do it.

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Willpower is essential to developing discipline. When we wake up in the morning our energy, creativity, and most importantly, our willpower is at its peak. Our willpower reserve is like our cellphone battery. When we get adequate rest, we begin the day with a fully recharged battery. One of the best things we can do for our willpower, health, and vitality is to get at least 7-hours of sleep each night. Clinical studies have demonstrated that most people need between 7.5 and 8.5 hours of sleep each night.[i] The easiest way to be better is to be better rested. We do our best when we feel our best.

Exercise has also been shown to improve willpower. Australian researchers, Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng, found that regular exercise leads to significant improvements in a wide range of regulatory behaviors such as less impulsive spending; better dietary habits; decreased alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine consumption; and fewer hours watching TV.[ii] I believe it is because regular exercise reduces our stress levels and makes us feel better. When we feel better, we do better.

As the day wears on, our willpower depletes, eroding our ability to discipline our behavior. Stress, hunger, and fatigue are like energy-hungry apps that are quickly draining our willpower reserves leaving us naked to temptation. The more temptations we encounter, the more self-control we must exercise throughout the day, the quicker our willpower will evaporate.

Willpower is best used to shape our environment to eliminate the need to apply it continuously. We want to remove temptations from our environment to conserve our willpower, so we have more of it to overcome the temptations that are outside our control. If there is no junk food in your house, you won’t be tempted to eat it after a long stressful day. If your gym clothing is laid out the night before, you will be more likely to work out in the morning. If you have meals ready to eat in your freezer, you’ll be less likely to order takeout. If you have a difficult time getting up early, put your alarm clock somewhere that forces you to get out of bed. If you want to promote disciplined behavior, like eating healthy, you want to make it as easy as possible. If you want to discourage undisciplined behavior, you want to make it more difficult by shaping your environment.

Shaping your environment isn’t restricted to your physical surroundings. How you structure your day, is a powerful way of shaping your environment. Break-up your day into time periods dedicated to specific tasks. When that time arrives, begin. Don’t hesitate. The moment you pull back, your mind will immediately start to magnify the difficulty of the task. This cognitive bias, which magnifies our fears and discomfort, is called the spotlight effect.[iii]

The best way to overcome getting trapped in your head is to initiate physical movement; stand-up, assume a confident posture, grab the materials you need, do something, anything that requires you to move. The best way to get out of your head is to initiate physical movement, even if it is just correcting your posture. When I had to jump out of an airplane or do anything else that might cause me to get stuck in my head, I avoided overthinking it. I just forced myself to move when the moment arrived. Overthinking is a form of self-torture and makes cowards of us all.

We all form routines and habits, the question is, did you engineer the habits to maximize your energy, willpower, and focus, or did you unconsciously fall into a routine. We form habits, and then they form us. Why not engineer your habits to become the best version of yourself?

Your willpower challenges aren’t unique. Avoid the mistake of placing negative labels on yourself, like “I am undisciplined, or I am weak.” At our core, we are similar as human beings. What separates us is our choices and habits. Men’s natures are alike, it is their habits that carry them far apart.“ Confucius

Be very careful about the labels you put on yourself. What follows the words, “I AM” has a profound influence on your behavior. Someone that identifies themselves as an athlete will behave a lot differently than someone that identifies themselves as a couch potato. Identity influences your attitudes and actions at the subconscious level. When you begin cultivating the smallest of disciplines, you are starting your journey to becoming a disciplined person. Don’t place disempowering labels on yourself. Research has shown that self-criticism only erodes our willpower by making us feel worse about ourselves. We want to encourage ourselves, like a good friend or coach. Encouragement is much more effective than criticism.

You must get excited, and revved-up about taking on the challenge of ignoring temptation and doing what you know will make your life better. It might sound obvious, but the hardest part of change is just not repeating what you have habitually done in the past. Every habit has a cue, we need to identify the cue and pre-decide what we will do instead. Nature hates a vacuum, and so do we. Many people make the mistake of trying to stop a behavior without finding a suitable alternative. When our mind is confronted by a cue, it wants something to do, an alternate behavior. If you’re going to stop the habit of eating junk food in the breakroom, you could say, if there is junk food in the breakroom, then I will eat an apple instead.

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Laziness is something we all struggle with, but the great news is that if you make discipline a habit, you can crush laziness. That is why discipline is the foundation habit. If you have discipline, you can achieve almost anything. When other people are wasting time, going from one unfulfilling instant gratification to another, you will be putting in the work and doing what will bring you lasting joy and happiness. You won’t see results immediately. Success is never immediate.

Success is built by quietly doing all the little things, day after day, that will produce results over time. These small actions are rarely noticed by anyone, but the results they eventually produced can be spectacular. Most people overestimate what they can do in a day, and underestimate what they can do in a week, a month, a year. When we see the results disciplined effort produces, we mistakenly attribute it to a person’s natural talent. We never saw all the effort that went into its achievement. The more pleasurable we make these daily disciplines, the more consistent we will be, and ultimately, the more successful we will be.

Finding joy in the process is absolutely essential. Developing a disciplined routine doesn’t have to be miserable. Never put off being happy. Find ways to make whatever you do as enjoyable as possible. I tell people that the litmus test for an effective exercise routine is that you enjoy it. The more you enjoy it, the more consistent you’ll be. Consistency is more important than intensity.

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If you hate high-intensity interval training (HIIT), do steady state cardio, or play a sport instead. The best workout is the one you will do consistently. If your treadmill is in the garage, a typical mistake people make, put it in your home so you’ll be more comfortable. Mount a TV so you’ll have something to entertain you during your workouts. Put a fan on you, so you don’t sweat as much. Always have a bottle of cold water to drink while you are exercising. Audiobooks can make your cardio workouts a time for personal growth or an escape into a suspenseful story. Make exercising as enjoyable as possible. I never workout without music. It has been shown to help us push harder, and it just makes exercising a lot more enjoyable.

I hope you will start looking for ways to develop a more disciplined routine. Examine your daily routine. Find times when you can invest a little time towards your longterm goals. We have the most control over the bookends of our day so you might start by examining your morning and bedtime rituals. It isn’t what we occasionally do that matters, it is what we do every day that matters; rituals reap results. Good luck!

[i] National Sleep Foundation, How Much Sleep Do We Really Need? National Sleep Foundation, 2018

[ii] Oaten M, and Cheng K, “Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise,” Br J Health Psychol. 2006 Nov; 11 (Pt 4):717-33.

[iii] Mel Robbins, The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage, Savio Republic (February 28, 2017).

Best wishes and best health!

Jeff Emblen
Author of the Fat Loss Habit

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The book contains:

  • 7 Change Strategies for Adopting a Healthy Lifestyle
  • A Flexible Diet Program that Doesn’t Put Any Foods Off-limit,  including Alcohol
  • 20-Week Workout Log with Progress Assessments (Downloadable PDF)
  • 3 Strategies for Resetting your Body Weight Set point to Keep the Weight Off
  • A Nutrition and Training Program Based on Science, not Bro Science.

The Fat Loss Habit: Creating Routines that Make Willpower and Fat Loss Automatic takes a new approach to getting leaner, fitter, and stronger. The program uses high-impact change strategies that make the process of adopting a healthy lifestyle easier. The nutrition and workout program, like the change techniques have all been proven effective, and are all backed by research and scientific studies.

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