Beware of the road marked easy. Two secrets self-disciplined people know.
If you’d rather listen than read, find this on Sound Insight, episode 8.
When I was in University, I was the queen of all-nighters.
In fact, I did most of my studying and writing between the hours of 1 and 6 am as I slurped pots and pots of coffee and chain-smoked. I told myself that I did my best work in the middle of the night. I convinced myself that I was a night-owl and so more productive at that time.
In retrospect, these all-nighters were more about procrastination than productivity. I played deadline chicken – avoiding the effort of sitting down and getting to work until my only options were to get to it or become roadkill.
These habits of procrastination and avoidance of hard things followed me into adulthood. In fact, they were responsible for most of my anxiety and unnecessary suffering. I learned the hard way that sometimes the path of least resistance is the harder path.
Sometimes the path marked easy is actually the fast track to somewhere much harder. This is the paradox of hard and easy.
Here are some common examples of how avoiding hard turns into harder.
- Regular exercise is hard. Cardiovascular disease is harder.
- Establishing boundaries especially when people are counting on you, hard. Having to take time off work due to burn-out, harder.
- Confronting toxic behavior on your team, hard. Standing by and watching good people leave because of it, harder.
The challenging thing about procrastination.
Procrastination is the attempt to avoid pain and suffering but in reality, it doesn’t work. You are actually punting the acute discomfort off to your future self while retaining much of the suffering anyway.
When you procrastinate, you don’t escape anything but the initial effort itself. The suffering around the effort remains. The anxiety you are trying to avoid is prolonged and heightened. It runs in the background draining you of energy in the same way as having too many open apps affects the performance of your computer.
Ironically, avoidance takes effort. It takes energy to put a nagging sense of anxiety out of your mind. It takes energy to try to push feelings of guilt aside. All that ongoing, low-grade suffering is draining.
Two secrets self-disciplined people know.
I used to believe that self-discipline was a character trait. You either had it or you didn’t. I can tell you from personal experience, whatever your natural propensity, you can develop and train discipline.
I’m a prime case study. To say I am not naturally wired for discipline would be an understatement. I have a strong inner slug who is allergic to effort. Remember in the first Star Wars movie, where Darth Vader says of Luke Sky Walker “The force is strong in this one”? Vader might have said of me, “The inertia is strong in this one.”
It was my discovery that I could train myself to be disciplined that finally enabled me to break through the biggest barrier of my life.
I always believed that to call myself a writer, I needed to publish. So, I started publishing things and yet, I still didn’t feel like a writer because I couldn’t sustain the effort needed to publish regularly. For much of my career, I earned my living from writing things like speeches, new releases, articles and advertising copy, but I still didn’t feel like a real writer and the process was draining and torturous.
Surprisingly, publishing and getting paid were not the things that finally made me comfortable with calling myself a writer. It was when I began to write every day. It started with just 15 minutes a day and that grew to two to three hours every weekday morning. I began to notice a pattern. The first half hour or so is hard, but then I lose myself in the work and before I know it the morning is over, and I’ve produced another 800 to 1,000 new words.
That initial struggle has become like an abrasive friend who I’ve learned to welcome. Pushing through it repeatedly has taught me two secrets that have helped me develop self-discipline.
Secret #1: The hardest thing is breaking through the initial resistance. Or as my yoga teacher likes to say, the hardest thing is getting to the mat. It’s the first few minutes of a run; it’s the first 15 to 30 minutes of writing or working on a project; it’s the resistant conversation you keep having with yourself at the beginning of anything hard.
Secret #2: Often, the feeling of struggle is short-lived. And what’s on the other side of that effort can be a sense of flow and greater ease.
Flow is a psychological term coined and popularized by renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He describes it this way:
“…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, from an interview in Wired Magazine.
The experience of flow goes by different names like “in the zone” or “runner’s high.” You can experience flow in anything from writing to rock-climbing. According to Steven Kotler, author, journalist, and the Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective, there is a neurobiological process that goes with this feeling. When you are experiencing flow, a cocktail of five pleasure-inducing neurochemicals gets released creating a profound sense of well-being.
But here’s the rub. The experience of flow is just one stage in a four-stage process. The first stage of the flow cycle is struggle.
As Kotler describes in his book, The Art of Impossible, the struggle phase is a necessary precursor to the experience of flow. It is a conversation where the brain asks you to choose between fight and flight. Because the brain is an energy hog, using 25% of the body’s energy to fuel only 2% of its mass, its bias is to conserve energy and to flee or avoid the struggle.
By making the choice to stay with the struggle, you trigger the fight response. When you engage in the struggle and stay with it, this can trigger an experience of flow.
This is the payoff for noticing when easy equals avoidance and choosing the path of temporary hard instead. When the conditions are right, the effort rewards you with both the profound sense of well-being created by the flow experience and by what that enables you to achieve.
Be kind to your future self.
There’s a practice I recommend for clients who want to develop their discipline muscle.
I ask them to practice being kind to their future self.
Here’s how it works.
There’s a conversation you have with yourself just before you give in to the temptation to take the road marked easy. It’s a justification conversation. Or it’s a bargaining conversation – “I will do it tomorrow.” When you notice you are having that conversation, stop and ask yourself “What would my future-self want me to do right now?”
If you can become friendly and helpful to your future self, you will start to make decisions to set yourself up for success and greater ease.
When you resist the urge to give into avoidance and you show up for the challenge, your future self learns you can be counted on. When you learn that the struggle is temporary and you feel what is on the other side, you discover that the effort is worth it. Further, the anticipation of the reward becomes enticing. You become a person who has the discipline and staying power to achieve your goals. This is the journey toward self-confidence and self-trust.
This is when you learn that you can do hard things.
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