“Discpilne equals freedom” – Jocko Willink
I don’t know about you, but when I get started in something new, be it a new project or a new workout challenge or whatever, I get seriously jazzed up about it. And yes, I did just use your grandfather’s phrase.
The problem most of us face is that we falter once we reach the midpoint (or somewhere around there-in my case I tend to falter just before completion) and we don’t see it through. Why is this?
Time For the Heady Stuff
Sure, you probably think of dear ol’ Captain DIY as shining bastion of productivity and frugality, but believe it or not I am less than perfect. Far less, if you ask Mrs. DIY.
Through some deep insight and soul-searching, I have come to realize that my poor track record of project completion has to do with a few factors. I’ll break them down here, and perhaps one or more of them will resonate with you.
Fear of Failure- Although I strive for perfection on everything I do, I know deep down that is unfeasible in most cases, and downright impossible in others. I really don’t like this feeling, and therefore I avoid the inevitable letdown by simply not finishing the project.
When I had a sketchbook as a kid, I wanted every page to be museum-worthy. The end result was a small of handful of completed drawings with a lot of torn out pages in between. I couldn’t bring myself to do loose sketches, and because of that I never really improved beyond a certain point.
Loss of Interest- Sometimes it takes a foray into a new area to come to terms with the fact that you actually don’t like that thing, and that’s ok. Recognizing that you don’t have to be good at everything is important, and what better way to narrow your field of interest than by weeding out the uninteresting through trial and error.
Lack of Motivation- This is the big one. When we get started on something new, we are fired up. We check out all of the resources, we learn as much as we can, we watch people who are really good at that thing, and we imagine ourselves at that level of expertise and prowess.
Our brains are getting huge chemical rewards from these feelings, and it’s an amazing sensation. Our skills progress in huge leaps and bounds, and it seems as though incredible levels of success are rapidly and unstoppably approaching.
Until they aren’t.
Eventually, progress slows. Just like someone who has just started weightlifting, eventually the gains have to slow down. The rate of gains and the level of motivation follow a similar path, and as the gains slow, so does the dopamine flow in our brains.
How Do We Combat This?
The simple answer is discipline and dedication.
Dedication, as defined by Merriam-Webster, has a lot of ceremonial and religious connotations, apparently. It is also defined as “a self-sacrificing devotion and loyalty”, which in our case could be seen as the sacrificing of short-term chemical rewards in the ongoing quest for ultimate loyalty to self.
In other words, we let go of the idea of deriving our happiness from quick bursts of pleasure and embrace the idea that lasting happiness comes from lifelong growth and persistence.
Discipline, according to definition number 3 from Merriam-Webster, is “training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.”
The great part about discipline is that we can teach it to ourselves, and use it to help us toward our long-term goals. All we need to do is incorporate it into our habits.
In The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg repeatedly lays out the secret to shaping our habits to benefit our lives. The key, according to the numerous behavioral studies referenced in the book (an excellent read, by the way), is to maintain the same cues and rewards, but change the routine.
For example, let’s say I find myself wandering onto youtube when I’m supposed to be writing a new blog post. I take a look at what is happening, and I realize that when I get to a point where the words aren’t flowing freely, I distract myself from the effort of mental labor by checking out a few funny videos. The cue: minor writer’s block; the routine: distract myself and avoid the uncomfortable reality; the reward: break from the feeling of responsibility of having to write.
Now, I also notice that when this happens I tend to fall down the very slippery youtube rabbit hole, and the next thing I know I have wasted a substantial amount of time and I have introduced a new and unnecessary stress in my life, as my looming self-imposed deadline draws ever nearer.
The solution: change the routine from something detrimental to something helpful. It has been shown that blood flow helps brain function, so the most obvious replacement routine would be some kind of movement. So now, instead of clicking over to some time-waster, I will replace that routine with hopping down and banging out 10 push-ups. The cue and the reward haven’t changed, but now the routine is something that will help me rather than hinder me.
How Does This Help Me?
Let’s bring all of this back around to the project sitting there, staring you in the face. It’s about three quarters finished, and you don’t feel like working on it anymore. You feel like it isn’t going to turn out the way you had imagined it in the beginning, and that is a discouraging feeling.
Since we have been training our habits, and thereby introducing ourselves to the concepts of both dedication and, more importantly, discipline, we know that we must push through this lack of motivation to get the job done, so that we may reap the lasting rewards that accompany completion.
Discipline and habit change in one area of our lives often affects many more areas, and even seemingly unrelated things get tied together synergistically once we shift our thought processes. As one study highlighted in The Power of Habit shows, people who were able to adjust their habits and stick to a regimented exercise program saw many positive changes, including eating healthier and developing more regular sleep patterns.
Here’s a bit of homework: next time you find yourself staring blankly at a project that is seeming to go nowhere, drop your tools and go for a short, but brisk, walk. When you get back, pick up those tools and tackle one small aspect of the job, something that can be accomplished fairly easily. One small accomplishment begets another, and before you know it you’ll be looking at a finished project with pride.
Of course, it’s not always easy. In fact, it’s almost never easy, especially in the beginning. but once you train your mind and body this way, it will become habit. And with discipline as a habit, you are bound for success.