Creating Self-Discipline

“I don’t have the willpower.”

“I just can’t seem to get started, so I never get around to it.”

Trying to summon up the will to begin a diet or workout routine can be the obstacle that stops you in your tracks. Many of us lack — or believe we lack — the self-discipline for losing weight and getting fit. Both dieting and working out are fairly big tasks, and seem to require a lot of inner motivation. Even when you like the idea of doing them, you often can’t get going. The fact that you can’t is just plain discouraging.

One tool that helps people discipline themselves is scheduling: adding structure to the day. If you ordinarily do things at all hours, having certain times set for doing your workout can be very helpful. And for some people, setting a schedule for exercising is all they really need. The plan they make — and the clock — are the only gentle nudges they need to carry out their intention. But others of us will do everything we can to avoid it; we’ll make lists and forget them; break appointments at the gym, and so on. Once you start on that avoidance treadmill, it’s really hard to step off. Scheduling is simply formal structure you’ve incorporated into your day and your life.

Artificial Structure

But there’s something else to do. I like to call it Artificial Structure. If your mind rebels secretly against doing something — but you know you need to do it — you can sort of sneak past your own mind’s resistance.

What you do is this: You add an artificial ritual to the task,  which you must do first. Choose some tiny, unimportant task that has nothing whatever to do with fitness, just some motions you have to go through. Tell yourself this task is important and it’s necessary right now.

This task is now a buffer placed between you and exercise (or whatever it is you aren’t quite ready to do),  which lessens the emotional resistance you feel… so it’s easier.

Here’s what I mean:

Let’s say I am avoiding doing my evening workout. For some reason I just won’t  lay out a mat; I’m paralyzed, thinking, I don’t feel like it. I hate exercise. So instead, when it’s around time to do that workout, I go perform my meaningless unrelated task of lighting a scented candle. Then I stand in front of it and take 4 long, deep breaths.

And then I turn, immediately lay out the mat and do my exercise workout. Often it works like a dream. If it doesn’t, I think of another simple artificial task and do that — with the intention to do the workout afterwards.

The more meaningless the ritual is, the more effective it seems to be.

Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but it has helped with quite a few things I haven’t wanted to do. The meaningless task or ritual seems to be my warmup to doing it. It begins to feel as if I’m not pressured by my own nagging feeling that I ought to be exercising — No, it’s the ritual driving me to exercise. Somehow, this feels more comfortable.

In this way, I am borrowing structure and placing it where it didn’t exist.

Incompatible Behaviors

It works a little differently for dieting. A weight-loss diet/discipline usually means you have to stop yourself from eating at inappropriate times.

A list of tasks can be used to avoid eating when you shouldn’t be eating. If you have a list of things to do instead of eat — things that take you away from the kitchen or where the food is — then you can consult your list and do one or more  items when you feel the urge to eat. Ideally, the list should be of things which are easy to do, and don’t take much time, but definitely interrupt your intention to sit down and dine.

This is in fact a method recommended by behavioral counselors when the aim is to extinguish a bad habit: Replace the activity of eating with another activity that cannot be done at the same time. You can’t, for instance, eat while you’re washing a few dishes… or while you’re painting your nails. They are incompatible activities. It’s good to make a long list of them, because they’re useful.

Creating Habits Creates Discipline

It’s often about habits, isn’t it? I’d say it takes about 2 weeks to form a habit, whether it’s going out for a walk, waking up naturally at a certain time, etc. So you might give yourself that long to try to start a new one, a healthy habit, before it starts becoming easier to do.

The fact that workouts are made of repetitive routines actually helps us do them. It’s only later on, when you are very used to them that you’ll start to need variation to continue getting strong and to avoid hitting a plateau.

Have you ever noticed there seem to be a disproportionate number of exceptional athletes who were once very ill or injured in the past — who not only recovered, but excelled in strength? There is at least a partial explanation we can offer. Many injured people who must undergo therapy in order to function again take very well to it, and simply continue a pattern (a habit) they learned. They continue working on their physical condition well past the level of average functioning.. and go on until they’ve gone on to higher and higher steps of ability. They made improving into a powerful habit.