Discipline: The Key to TransformationDec 27, 2023
On the path to achieving peak physical and mental performance, there's a powerful ally often misunderstood: Discipline.
Discipline requires more than just relentlessly forcing yourself into a rigid routine.
Discipline can be simply summarised as:
The willpower to resist what feels good in the short term to promote what is good for you in the long term.
Motivation is not the same thing as discipline, it’s more fleeting and emotionally oriented, but may work complimentary to discipline for setting goals and inspiring action towards those goals.
Discipline is constructed from self-sustainable habits that slowly and steadily moves you in the direction you want to go in, even when you’re not motivated.
The Allure and Pitfall of Instant Gratification
We live in a world where everything is instant – instant coffee, instant streaming, instant everything. This mindset can be a significant trap and killer of gains if not managed. Meaningful changes in our physique and health are a product of consistent efforts over time.
It's about embracing the process, celebrating small wins, and understanding that the most profound transformations aren't immediately visible.
Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation: Finding Your Why
Intrinsic motivation, the drive that comes from within, is more sustainable and deeply satisfying than extrinsic motivation, which relies on external rewards, getting validation from others, or avoiding punishment.
Extrinsic motivation tends to wane over time and be strongly affected by just that one negative comment from someone who is either envious or don’t understand why you do what you do.
Intrinsic motivation is because you - at some level - genuinely enjoy what you’re doing or have a passion for it. When you train or eat healthy because it aligns with your values and goals, by adopting an IDENTITY as - in my case - “the world’s healthiest and fittest 50-year old” - you’re more likely to stick with these habits. And of course I realise that I’m not going to be the best in the world, but I can still adopt the mindset of a person who is.
Goal setting is an important part of this process, as long as you don’t get so overly attached to a specific goal that any deviation from it will depress and demotivate you.
My own journey so far - what makes me so “disciplined”?
I just spent the last 16 weeks - close to 4 months - on a diet to get in shape. I increased my calorie intake this last week to coincide with Christmas - allowing for some extra meals here and there.
Sure, I’m “weird” by most people’s standards, but I’m not weird to the point where I bring my own food in Tupperware containers to dinner on Christmas Eve.
My mindset has changed dramatically since my 20s when I would be more prone to fall for “new shiny object syndrome” and more extreme “cutting/bulking” approaches to getting in shape.
So what’s different now?
My ultimate goal is to be the strongest and healthiest version of myself for my 50th birthday on June 21st. That’s not a “finish line” of any sorts either, it’s an identity-based goal where every action and every choice is aligned with the vision of the person I strive to be. Notice that my goal isn’t “lose 10kg by June 21st”.
Specific goals are fine and dandy in many contexts, but for my particular journey I feel like it’s a distraction.
The process to achieve a 10kg weight loss would be the same as the one I’m doing, though. As outlined extensively in my Last Program (the Norwegian version found here…) - I focus on the rate of weight loss, my strength in the gym, my energy levels, sleep, digestion and overall well-being - not a specific number to reach on the scale. That number is just one of many data points, not the dictator of my daily mood or motivation.
I also have a diagnosed heart condition (atherosclerosis), some of it hereditary, some of it from a combination of hypothyroidism and being on low-carb, high-fat diets for too many years, that - even though I felt pretty good on it and can certainly be very healthy for many, was not a good fit for my particular biology.
So my goal is not only to look good at 50, it’s to actually live to be 50 - and beyond.
Certainly feels different internally, doesn’t it: “I want to not die” vs “I want to look good”?
Lifting weights and doing cardio on a daily basis while prioritising healthy meals - it felt like the most natural and obvious choice, not like I had to “sacrifice” lying on the couch watching Netflix while eating potato chips all day.
There were some days where I was hungry and tired, where the pizza and chocolate was more tempting than other days, but I just needed to take a deep breath and remind myself of the intrinsic, value- and identity-based goal to switch focus.
Having the thought doesn’t mean I have to act on it, i.e. I can have thoughts about “just taking a day off” or “just having that extra chocolate”, but still go to the gym and have my meal of chicken and veggies. I spend a lot of time teaching my clients how to understand the difference between having thoughts and emotions without letting that inner voice dictate your life.
It’s a game-changer when you just start *doing* instead of *thinking*, where the *doing* is a natural extensions of your values, goals and identity.
It can also be useful to explore what your internal blocks are, what programming is getting in your way? You might discover that you have some fears and misconceptions about what will happen if you actually reach your goal, that - if unquestioned (is that really true?) - subconsciously blocks you or drives the endless procrastination.
Discipline: The Mental Muscle Perspective
Any goal worth striving for will involve some discomfort. Self-discipline helps us push through that discomfort and maintain the routine and consistent habits, when we understand that just like our physical muscles, our discipline needs regular exercise to get stronger.
Research shows that certain areas in your prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for planning and logical reasoning, is also involved in your ability to maintain discipline. This is important because your brain can change and evolve through neuroplasticity. Thus, behaving in disciplined ways consistently will make you better at discipline. On the other hand, indulging in temptations all the time will handcuff you to the hedonic treadmill, always chasing the instant gratifications life has to offer.
But just like a muscle, our mental discipline also needs adequate rest. Overworking our discipline muscle can lead to mental fatigue, just as overtraining can lead to burnout and physical injuries.
Willpower is a finite resource. It's essential to recognize what activities drain your willpower and which ones recharge you. One exercise that I have used with my clients, and is also outlined in The Last Program (Det Siste Programmet in Norway) is to map out what is positive and negative in your life, separated into people and activities.
First, notice the balance between the positives and negatives. If you have more on the negative side, or if those negatives demand way more time and energy, it will drain you from prioritising and achieving what’s on the positive side. So you need to take a systematic approach to managing them. The people aspect is complex and for a different time, but as for your activities - use this simple system:
- The important and urgent: Do this first thing in the week or the day, whether you want to or not. Getting the important and urgent out of the way will liberate time and energy for the rest. For me, it’s important to come up with good ideas and to create content, so I start my day with this. It was difficult at first, but as my mind gets used to the routine - now when I sit down in front of my computer at 6am in the morning, the creative juice start flowing as if on command.
- The important, but not urgent: Schedule this in your calendar. For me, it’s important to have client calls, eat healthy and go to the gym, but it’s planned out throughout the day and week in my calendar so that other stuff can’t get in the way of it.
- The not important, but urgent: If possible, this should be delegated to others - i.e. if it’s not important but still needs to be done by someone it doesn’t need to be you.
- The not important, not urgent: All of the “nice to do’s” should simply be eliminated from your schedule and your mind until it becomes either important or urgent enough to move into one of the 3 boxes in the matrix. I don’t think I need to expand on this, but the whole thing is obviously subjective - so MY list of what’s important/urgent will not be the same as YOUR list.
Conclusion and Practical Take-Aways
First, find your Why
Who do you want to be?
Embrace the identity of the person you want to be, and start acting as if you already are. Additional factors to consider are that it should foster your autonomy, your sense of competence and autonomy. If you lack any of these, learn and study what you need to know to gain that competence.
A higher purpose, such as being the best version of yourself and also helping others or the world to become a better place - which also requires you to be the best version of yourself, and teaching others what you have learned - will be far stronger drivers
Adopt a growth and process-oriented approach, rather than solely goal-focused
Strive for excellence rather than just everything having to be perfect. Yes, having strong goals is important. They're like lighthouses guiding us through stormy seas. But, what truly matters is how we sail the boat. Enjoying the journey, learning through the challenges, and persisting even when the seas are rough. Thus, the journey is in and of itself the goal.
Your goals should be sufficiently difficult to be challenging, but not so hard that you eventually give up - there should be some realism involved. If you aim higher, you will achieve more - as long as you have a mindset of becoming better and stronger vs. always being the best. If the goal seems unachievable, break it down into more manageable chunks and focus on one at a time.
Use data and focus on the doing vs. emotions and thoughts
Here’s a quick tip: Keep a logbook. It's a powerful tool. When your inner critic starts to whisper doubts because of what you see in the mirror or on the scale, your logbook speaks louder. It shows your progress in black and white - the numbers don't lie. Reps go up, the load increases, the weekly average in weight or waist measurements/skinfold calibers are gradually moving in the right direction. All are tangible proof that you're moving forward, and if you’re not - the numbers provide you with information to revise or adjust your strategy.
Don’t fight your impulses
Observe them. Instead of suppressing and fighting thoughts and impulses, be curious about them. Realize that you can act even without feeling like it all the time.
It’s still worthwhile to be mindful of your automatic thoughts and behaviours - observe them with curiosity and explore the underlying narratives. They are most likely based on flawed assumptions and negative programming from the past, and rarely - if ever - true if challenged. And challenging them, or simply consistently acting in line with your values and identity will reprogram your thoughts and behaviors as well.
Practice the 40% rule
Developed by the NAVY Seals, a central principle is that when you feel like you’ve reached your physical and mental limits, you’re only at 40% of your actual capacity.
This rule is supported by the overwhelming evidence for both the placebo- and nocebo-effect.
Believing something is true works better than actual drugs (placebo), and believing something is harmful may cause actual physical changes even when there is nothing but inactive ingredients (nocebo). The 40% rule isn’t just placebo or theory, though - it’s been found to be true in areas spanning from running marathons to careers and personal development.
Be mindful of when to push and when to ease up
As you willpower your efforts way beyond your own comfort zone, your discipline and resolve will strengthen. You focus on what you can control and what makes your life better, and let go of, delegate or eliminate what you can’t control or what drains your valuable resources and life force. You also allocate time to rest and recharge, so that your physical and mental muscles can recover and become stronger and more resilient.
Discipline isn’t about being a robot
It's about being smart, consistent, and cutting yourself some slack when you need to. The best progress is achieved from sustainable and consistent efforts, being able to forego instant gratification for the long-term rewards of becoming your ultimate self.
Thank you for reading.