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How Do I Do What I Know I Must Do?
My working description for discipline is doing what you must do when you don’t feel like doing it. That’s all very well, but how do you develop discipline?
There are a number of techniques that are useful, and I will list them, but first, let’s understand why we hijack ourselves.
The reason we don’t do what we must is because we are hijacked by our brain that works tirelessly to prevent us from expending unnecessary effort. It does this because aeons ago, wasted energy could mean the difference between life and death. We are all here today because our ancestors survived following this principle. Except that all the threats we evolved to overcome are gone for much of the world, though sadly not for all.
If you were starving, you wouldn’t move, except to find food. That said, if a scorpion was crawling near your uncovered foot, your entire body would be mobilised without any thought to jump away from the immediate threat.
Long time readers know that I wake up early, and I never, ever hit the snooze button. How do I do this?
The secret is to stop thinking about it. The second your brain starts to think about it, the thoughts will be about how sleeping a bit more is going to be pleasurable, but springing out of bed is bloody hard. That process takes a while to kick in. The technique I use is that when faced with an action I tell myself I must take, I don’t allow my brain to win that race. I start a countdown from 5 to 1, and in that time, I spring out of bed. If I don’t, the brain takes over and the battle is lost. You have a small window of time in which you must take the leap on any decision. Training yourself to count down and then immediately take action works by stopping your brain from hijacking you. Once you get going, the rest is easy.
The other thing you must do is to bring future regret to the here and now.
This is about projecting forwards in time to visualise the consequences of taking the path of least resistance. With health, you imagine the anguish of your loved ones as they cope with your debilitation or death, brought about by years of bad choices. With waking up early, it’s about the regret on your deathbed of not giving any time to those activities that would have helped you grow, or might have brought you some fulfilment.
There is a philosophical expression from antiquity, “Memento mori”, or “Remember you will die”. Time is running out for the things you want to do, and the more of it you waste in indecision or waste, the less of the life you wanted to live will transpire, and to fix it, you have to do the hard things now, not tomorrow, because how you live today is how you will always live.
Bringing this future regret into the here and now enlists your brain, which then sees the threat as immediate, and stops it from hijacking you.
I think it was Tennyson who said “I must lose myself in action lest I wither in despair”. There used to be a time when we had the occasion to become bored. Those days are gone, and filled with endless streams of meaningless content, none of which helps you get things done. If you have ever felt a deep ennui, without necessarily being bored, it might just be Tennyson’s despair in its modern form. You might be getting entertained, but underneath it, you’re unfulfilled, call it Boredom 2.0
Enlist your primitive brain in the battle to regain control of your life. Use every trick in the book. You deserve to be in charge of your life.