Discipline is a character trait that we all want a little more of. Unless, of course, you enjoy the guilty feeling of not doing something you are supposed to do. Which I doubt. But what is discipline exactly? Not an unimportant question. After all, to tackle a problem, it’s important to first the precise definition of the issue right.
Here’s how I see it:
“Discipline is not giving in to the inner mental resistance that we feel when things require hard work“
To say the least, I’m no stranger to that feeling of resistance… In those moments, I avoid the work I have to do while knowing perfectly well it will benefit me in the long run.
Moments like not going for a run, and instead watching YouTube videos (about fitness…yeah). Or not starting that homework assignment and instead continually checking my phone. You know, the usual stuff.
It’s a frustrating feeling when my inner instant gratification monkey takes over control… Luckily, I found a way to train my discipline muscle this and become less susceptible to giving in to this inner resistance.
This ability for training I learned by reading a book written by Cal Newport: Deep Work. The book promotes the importance of performing activities in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit – a state called “Deep Work”.
The ability for performing this Deep Work I like to call discipline. Deep Work namely requires mental effort that sometimes causes that feeling of resistance – things like sports, studying, or starting that new business or project.
Now, let’s get practical.
In the next few paragraphs, I will talk about how the internet and social media is draining our ability for Deep Work – and thus weakening our discipline muscles. Not to worry, I will also give you 3 methods for discipline training.
1: Use Quality Breaks
Tasks that require any form of discipline to perform ultimately need breaks. During these breaks, you replenish your mental energy to regain strength so you are ready for the next session. That is why lectures have breaks and all of us take coffee breaks during study sessions.
Okay, nothing new here… but here’s the pitfall: Lots of people (including me) fill up these breaks with surfing the internet and scrolling down social media.
Turns out that these two sources of entertainment are quite the professionals when it comes to grabbing our attention. The colors, sounds and visual structure of these platforms are specifically designed to make sure we keep our eyes on them as long as possible.
Long story short; they provide us ‘instant gratification’ and a little dopamine spike without effort. That is why it is so tempting to reach for your phone after doing some intense cognitive effort.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with effortless entertainment. However, the more often we reach out to those platforms the easier it becomes to do it more often. It will become like a habit which becomes harder to resist over time. This causes you to take more breaks and/or take longer ones.
Of course, you still might resist this temptation, but it will take more mental energy, leaving less energy for the task that you tried to commit yourself to.
Besides this loss of mental energy, there’s a second mechanism at work here. Something called: ‘Attention residue’. I’ll give you the description of this mechanism from the book Deep Work:
“When you switch from some task A to another task B, your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on task A was unbounded and of low intensity, before you switched, but even if you finish task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while.”
You might not see it that way immediately, but checking your messages, email or new social media posts are also little tasks that you give yourself. Moreover, they are unbounded and of low intensity. Backed up with experimental evidence, the book also states (not surprisingly) that people experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to perform much worse on that next task.
But what to do during a break then?
This is what has worked for me: Simply do some minor physical movement. Push-ups, squats, or simply taking a walk (to get some coffee) will do. This way you get a break from the mental effort of the task at hand and you do not let your mind be distracted by other minor tasks. Now you minimize the loss of extra mental energy to resist social media and avoid the effects of attention residue. Moreover, it will slightly heighten your blood-flow towards the brain, giving you a small cognitive boost for your next session – It’s a Quality Break!
2: Embrace Boredom
Currently, we live in a time with unlimited availability of entertainment at all times. There’s not a single moment in your life that you have to be bored. There’s always something to be watched, listened to or looked at on your phone, tv or computer. Technology has ensured to eliminate any chance of boredom if you want to.
I’ve experienced this so many times myself. At the train station for example, or waiting in a line at a store. In those moments I automatically reach to my phone, not even knowing exactly what it is I am looking for. Just looking at something to kill these 10 ENORMOUS minutes I have to wait for my train. Or those 2 ENDLESS minutes I have to wait in line.
However, eliminating every little moment of slight boredom does have some influence on your mind’s general ability to resist distraction. You are getting less used to simply being in the company of your thoughts. And these moments are actually when you refuel the mental energy that you might need for the disciplined effort you have to perform later.
So here’s my second suggestion for you to do more often:
If you are waiting in line somewhere, walking or riding a bike to your next location, or whenever moment you feel slightly bored, do not reach out to your phone. Simply embrace the boredom. Every time you do this, you train your ability to resist distraction. On top of that, you leave more mental energy for the things you have to do that require more cognitive effort.
“To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.” – Carl Newport
3: Plan Your Leisure Time
Activities of easy, distracting entertainment always beckon as an appealing option if you haven’t given yourself something to do in a given moment. Addictive websites and social media apps thrive in moments of free time in your calendar.
So, here comes my third suggestion: Put more thought in your leisure time. For example, read a good book, do some exercise, follow an online course, or watch an interesting documentary. This way, the easy distractions of your phone and computer will loosen their grip on your attention. Besides, when you plan these things you’ve already committed yourself to it, making it easier to actually follow through. Better yet, turn them into a habit – read my Blog post How To Make Habits Actually Stick on how to do this effectively!
To be clear, I don’t want to argue that you have to eliminate every moment of easy entertainment that is not productive or useful in the long term. It is part of being human to be distracted and be lazy once in a while.
After all, when else do we re-watch entire Game of Thrones seasons, or accidentally notice on Facebook it is our friend’s birthday today?
These methods are about how to use these platforms more wisely and make you more conscious about what influences our ability for undistracted concentration. Use these methods as tools to train your ability for disciplined activities, on a level that makes your life easier to get the work done that you want. It’s not necessarily about doing more work. It is about making it easier in moments when you feel that mental resistance and need a disciplined mindset the most.
Curious about the book Deep Work? You can watch this video summary on YouTube to get the gist of his message.
Thanks for the read!