The Secret to Being Disciplined

woman-athlete-exercising-with-kettlebell-PXY85YJ.jpg

A CORE SERIES ARTICLE

(click here to return to CORE SERIES)

Everybody has a different “sticking point” — the single moment that makes fitness hard for them. It could be:

  • Sitting down and planning a workout.
  • Getting up early.
  • Joining the gym.
  • Walking into the gym.
  • Picking up the weight.
  • Finishing the workout.
  • Eating the right amount of food when you’re hungry at night.

None of these things are easy. But usually one of these moments will take our “willpower” and put it in a chokehold until we’ve lived another day with no change — same body, same physical exertion, same diet, same discontentment, same excuses. The bad news is: These excuses don’t give you a handicap in your health — you don’t get special treatment because you have to try twice as hard. The good news is: There is a way to make these willpower decisions much easier.

IS THERE NO SHORTCUT TO DISCIPLINE?

There is a former Navy SEAL named Jocko Willink who specializes in helping people build self-discipline. In his recent book, Discipline Equals Freedom, he has this to say about discipline:

“People look for the shortcut. The hack. And if you came here looking for that: You won’t find it. The shortcut is a lie. The hack doesn’t get you there.”[1]

He continues:

“To reach goals and overcome obstacles and become the best version of you possible will not happen by itself. It will not happen cutting corners, taking shortcuts, or looking for the easy way. THERE IS NO EASY WAY.”[2]

Now, you’re probably expecting me to agree with Jocko. I don’t. I personally love his work and find this sort of writing very motivational when I make excuses for laziness and indulgence (actually, I am a huge Jocko fan and would recommend this book and his children’s book The Way Of The Warrior Kid — both very good books about discipline).

HOW TO MAKE DISCIPLINE AS EASY AS POSSIBLE

With all due respect to Jocko, he is simply wrong. He is correct — prophetic, even — about a great many things. But he is wrong to say that if you’re looking for an easy way to be disciplined, then you’re sabotaging yourself. This is false for at least three reasons, which are basically three methods of making discipline easier that essentially disprove Jocko’s statement.

Identify Your Particular Discipline Struggle

First, people have diverse personality types that incline them toward different kinds of struggles. For example, here at TheoFit, I break discipline down into three parts: Intensity, Consistency, and Longevity (which you can listen to or read about in Podcast 002). Everybody tends to struggle with one of these, but it’s different for each person. Therefore, if you struggle with consistency (in which case, you're probably good at bringing Intensity), the very act of being disciplined is a struggle to be consistent.

But there are also many people for whom consistency is easy — but they don't have the stomach for intensity, so their "Discipline Struggle" is Intensity. The act of being consistent and the act of being intense are two completely different acts of the will — and, if Intensity is harder for one person and Consistency for another, "Discipline" means completely different things in each context.

So, if you give advice about how to improve consistency to someone for whom Consistency is easy, but Intensity is difficult, discipline will remain elusive and difficult to them. The act remains as difficult as it did before. But if you give that person advice about how to cultivate Intensity in their workouts, you actually have made discipline easier for them. So, for this reason, it’s wrong to say that discipline “will not happen” if you are “looking for the easy way.”

Write Down Your Pre-Habits

Second, there are fundamental activities that you can perform that will always make discipline easier. In the album One More Time where I help people who are frustrated with fitness to give it another shot, I call these activities “pre-habits.” For example, if you write down your full workout before your workout, then working out — the act which requires willpower — becomes merely a matter of following instructions. More than that, if you watch the exercises on YouTube beforehand, you remind yourself of the movements and are reminded that other people push themselves with these tasks — deadlifts, running, pull-ups, etc.

By watching videos and mentally going through your whole workout before you begin the actual workout, the workout itself becomes merely a task list for you to complete, rather than an intense creative endeavor that requires you to decide again what you'll do. By pre-reviewing your workout, you're reminding yourself that working out isn't a matter of deciding what to do, but rather deciding that you'll do what's on the page. When you're exhausted and hungry, daily obedience requires less willpower than coming up with ways to challenge yourself every day.

Contrast this with going to the gym with a mindset of “I’ll just figure it out when I get there.” You are far less likely to complete a satisfying workout, because you’re requiring your mid-workout self to take on the task of creating the workout while you're getting more and more tired. Chances are — you’ll find a lot more reasons to say, “Eh, that was good enough” if you have no list to complete. You’ll give up, because there’s no end in sight.    The pre-habit of writing down your workout and watching the exercises on YouTube — especially if you're struggling to complete your workouts — makes the act of discipline much easier.

Another pre-habit is packing your bag the night before you work out so that in the morning, the only willpower decision you need to make is: “Wake up. Put on clothes. Grab bag. Walk out door.”

Manipulate Your Triggers

Third, motivation is extremely fickle. You can’t rely on feeling like working out and eating healthy to do it. Then, you’d never be consistent. However, in motivation theory, some scientists talk about motivation in terms of “arousal” — not sexual arousal (how we’re used to hearing the word), but a stimulation of your nervous system. Arousal exists on a curved scale. Your level of motivation at any given moment can be mapped onto this curve (this is called the Yerkes-Dawson law):

 
Asset 1.png
 

Basically, the notion is that you will not perform well unless you are aroused. However, there are diminishing returns on arousal. For example, test anxiety will motivate you to study for the test (and probably do better than the person who didn't have anxiety, and therefore didn't study), but if it overwhelms your mind, then it actually sabotages your performance by stealing your mental energy.

The key to manipulating this principle is to discover what triggers you to underarousal and overarousal, and what exactly triggers you to be motivated. It's not a perfect system, and you can't build your behavior on emotional self-manipulation alone, but it can be a great tailwind to help you when you need it.

Triggers are the things that stimulate arousal — those events, mindsets, thoughts, people, and places that cause you to go up or down on this bell curve. Certain triggers can suppress arousal and cause unmotivation. Unmotivating triggers are usually events such as: 

  • Thoughts of self-hatred.
  • Memories of past failures.
  • A food binge.
  • A missed day at the gym.
  • An alcohol hangover.
  • A poor night of sleep.
  • A stressful day at work.
  • An exhausting fight with your significant other.

Triggers that cause hyperarousal, which push arousal so far that it actually begins to diminish your discipline, can be:

  • Relational rejection.
  • Listening to motivational podcasts (ironically).
  • Seeing other people of the same sex in much better shape than you.
  • Learning a lot about fitness.
  • Reading Jocko (seriously).

You've probably felt the effects of these triggers before, but never really taken an inventory of your own personal triggers. So take this opportunity right now to take an inventory of your own triggers by asking these questions:

  1. When you are de-motivated, what situations are you usually in? What people are you talking to? What has just happened? What sort of things are you saying to yourself?
    • Scripts tend to be:
      • "Fitness isn't worth it."
      • "I deserve a break." 
      • "I'll do it later."
      • "I need to love my body image more anyway."
      • "One day off won't hurt."
      • "I just don't care."
      • **Binge-orders Dominoes to make the voices go away**
  2. When you are hyper-stimulated to the point of losing focus and discipline, what situations are you usually in? What people are you talking to? What had just happened? What sort of things are you saying to yourself?
    • Scripts tend to be:
      • "I'm so fat."
      • "I'm such a loser."
      • "I hate myself."
      • "I hate my body."
      • "I'll never be fit."
      • "I'll never feel good about myself."
      • "I'm so stupid."
      • "Nobody likes me, or will ever like me."
      • **Binge-orders Dominoes to make the voices go away**

Write down your answers to these questions — which voices do you identify with, and when? 

3. Now, imagine your willpower heaven. The purpose of this exercise is to determine what triggers put you in that sweet spot of arousal — Motivation. You won't always be able to accomplish this. Jocko reminds us of this: Motivation is not a reliable ally in the battle for fitness. But it's good to know — if possible, how do I manufacture discipline for myself? If you know how, then you will be able to hack discipline to a degree. You'll be able to create it for yourself, rather than wait for it.

  • What would be the perfect situation for you that would make discipline as simple as possible?
  • Without erasing your obligations, your family, your job, your personal demons, etc. — What would your perfect setting be to exercise and diet? 
  • Imagine you are in a place of total psychological empowerment, preparing to work out — what just happened? What room is it in? What objects are you packing? Is it clean, or dirty — or does it matter? 
  • What song are you listening to — or is it silent?
  • What are you wearing?
  • What are you saying to yourself?
    • Scripts that empower motivation tend to be:
      • "I'm gonna feel so good after this workout."
      • "I can't wait to see if I can hit a new record today."
      • "I'm looking forward to listening to that Audible book during my cardio."
      • "Doing this feels so much better than not doing this."

Write these things down in the back of your workout journal. Keep it as an emotional glossary for your own motivational triggers. Use this as the official reference book on YOU — and manipulate your triggers by avoiding de-motivating triggers and manufacturing the motivating triggers.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT DISCIPLINE

Now, these realities don’t nullify the need for discipline. Working out is always hard. That’s the point of working out. But it’s really easy to get tangled up in your own frazzled disorganization. You are inclined to overload your difficult diet and exercise decisions with all these little sub-conscious tasks. But you should remove as many of those tasks as possible with a series of pre-habits that allow you to make the decision to work out and eat healthy as easy as possible.

You should want to make your most difficult decisions as easy as possible. I understand what Jocko is saying when he says “THERE IS NO EASY WAY.” He’s saying this: At the end of the day, YOU are the one who has to pick up the bar and do the work. There is no getting around that. You can’t hire someone to vicariously wake up early, work out, and eat healthy for you. And you shouldn’t even want to (the psychological benefits of diet and exercise are arguably better than the physical benefits).

I could absolutely see someone saying to themselves, “Well, I shouldn’t work out, because I didn’t pack my bag.” No — IT’S 4:30AM! GET UP AND PACK YOUR BAG AND GO TO THE GYM. Pre-habits could very easily become excuses not to be disciplined. That’s a dumb way to use pre-habits. But reducing everything to sheer willpower is equally as self-sabotaging, in my experience.

So, in summary, when it comes to cultivating your own self-discipline, here are five things you can do in order to pretty much guarantee success in the mental game of fitness:

1.     Identify Your Particular Discipline Struggle. Know whether your personality inclines you to struggle with Intensity, Consistency, or Longevity — then, you’ll know why you’re getting choked out by your own laziness when you hit a wall. (Again, read/listen more about it in Podcast 002).

2.     Write Down (And Implement) Your Pre-Habits. Admit how you’re self-sabotoging your own discipline (it may not be obvious). Write down and implement pre-habits for yourself that are easy willpower decisions that disentangle your hard willpower decisions from every unnecessary task. Pre-habits will make your willpower as easy as it can be. What are simple, easy actions you can perform to prepare yourself for your workout every day that will enable you to focus singularly on your workout for the next hour? (again, I walk you through this in the album One More Try, which you get for free in a TheoFit Annual Membership).

3.     Manipulate Your Triggers. Avoid de-motivating triggers as best you can. Pursue motivating triggers as best you can. Exercise self-awareness about where you are presently on the scale of arousal and focus. Are you underaroused? Frazzled? You know how to hack your own motivation. Motivation might not always appear, but if you follow the instruction manual you wrote on yourself, you're more likely to follow through and make the difficult decision you know you need to make ... for your own sake.

4.     Listen to Jocko. Once you know your particular struggle and have your pre-habits in place, you must reckon with Jocko’s truth: There is no avoiding the work. Self-knowledge and pre-habits can easily put you in the mindset of “I want to do as little work as possible.” This bastardizes both concepts. They exist so that you can work as hard as possible without any distractions or subconscious willpower leeches making your diet and exercise twice as hard. Listen to Jocko: “The hack doesn’t get you there.” About that, he is absolutely correct.  

5.     Pursue your goal in community. You can do that at your local gym, with your friends, or you can become a TheoFit Member (in the annual membership, you also get a bunch of free ebooks and downloads, including an workbook on discipline). 

[1] Jocko Willink, Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017), no page numbers.

[2] Willink, Discipline Equals Freedom.

Get Weekly Discounts + Diet/Exercise/Discipline Tips+Tricks

Name *
Name