Discipline is a Muscle – You Need to Train It
I wake up in the morning at 5am to train before work.
I write on my commute, and study for my qualifications on the way home.
When people ever ask me what time I need to get up to train before work, or how I find time to study around a full time job, training and having a family with a brand new baby; they’re always shocked by my habits.
Other things I do that seem weird to people:
- I have cold showers every day
- I drink alcohol maybe twice a year
- Resist birthday cake and other free food in the office
- I track my calories and macros
- I don’t buy shit I don’t need.
- Don’t buy things I haven’t got the money for (don’t use credit)
- Cook 5 – 10 meals in one go (takes 45 minutes) and then just heat them up for lunch and dinner all through the week.
- I have a budget that I stick to and I automate financial admin.
- “Save” for big, annual purchases (like Christmas and car insurance) automatically each month and I don’t touch the money until it’s needed.
- Contribute the maximum company match to my pension, and invest additional money every month (crazy how many people don’t do this)
People who discover these things about me think I’m the most disciplined guy in the world (far from it). I get a lot of funny looks from people when I reveal some of these things. I don’t care, I love it.
But I didn’t just come out of the womb with this trait. I have trained my discipline muscles over a long period of time to be really strong.
I’m now at the point where the I have intrinsic motivation to keep doing these things. I no longer do them because I have to. I enjoy doing them. The activities are their own motivation.
Getting up early is no longer a drawback, it is just something that I do. I now identify as the kind of person who gets up early, invests money, works out and tracks his food.
I was once the kind of person who’d now be giving me strange looks:
My Shameful Undisciplined Past
I used to eat or drink whatever the hell I wanted.
Coca-Cola (the one WITH the sugar) was my kryptonite.
I knew it was bad for me but it wouldn’t stop me drinking it all the time as if it was water. It was quite common for me to drink 4 litres of it a night, whilst eating a kilogram of chocolate and staying up until 3 in the morning playing video games.
I had a LOT of credit card debt in the past. This stemmed from me having no budget, no plan for my finances, buying things I couldn’t afford, and not being able to say no to myself when I wanted to buy those new trainers, new video games, holidays etc.
I used to stay up, on my phone in bed, travelling down the abyss of YouTube videos. These videos weren’t anything useful. They were prank and gaming videos.
I would sometimes be so addicted to the dopamine hit of “just another video” that I’d stay up too late and be really tired the next day.
Habits Need to Start Small
I didn’t just wake up one day and say:
“Tomorrow I’m going to stop buying things that make me happy for 5 minutes but keep me poor and in debt, I’ll start getting up at 5 and working out multiple times per week, and I’ll write every day too! I’m also going to eat healthily, stop drinking alcohol and stop gaming and wasting time watching pointless videos!”
If I’d managed to eliminate all of those behaviours in one go like that, I’d be superman.
Discipline is something you build up. It’s a muscle you have to train. As with any underdeveloped muscle, when you train it you need to start small, with a “weight” you can manage.
For me, this meant:
- Reading a book in bed for 30 minutes instead of watching videos on my phone (I like fiction, so this was acceptable to me!).
- Packing my gym bag the night before and leaving it by the door.
- Setting my alarm on my phone and putting it away from the bed so I had to get up.
I had to set myself very achievable targets. Once those behaviours became automatic (became habits) and were no longer difficult to do, I could increase the difficulty of the habit.
Notice how the habit wasn’t “I will go to the gym 3x a week”. That is too big. It needs to be broken down. James Clear talks about “flossing one tooth” or “doing one push-up”. Anyone can floss one tooth. It’s so small, you can’t fail.
Once you’ve built up your discipline muscles in one area (like exercise) those “muscles” can also be used on other areas – like finances.
Developing discipline in those two areas of my life (sleep and exercise) made me better able to tackle other problems.
- I will stop buying junk food (I threw it all out of the house)
- I will pay my debt first thing after pay day (leaving only enough money for essentials and a few date nights)
- Getting myself on a proper workout routine with progression baked into it (this meant skipping workouts became painful to me – because the progress was more important to me than skipping the gym)
Over time, my discipline improved.
I fully attribute my improvement in other areas to making solid progress in the gym.
The gym was the one thing that I was able to stay consistent with 90% of the time. I nearly always did all of my planned workouts, and I saw major progress in my physique over a long period.
That’s the key. Consistency, and results over a long period.
This taught me that small but consistent actions add up, until you have massive results.
Once I was armed with this knowledge, it made it far easier to make progress in other problem areas.
I’d learned that delaying gratification is ALWAYS better than short term gratification.
What present you wants is usually not congruent with what long-term future you wants – and I’d rather be the future version of myself.
I was able to cut out my bad habits because I knew I was shooting myself in the foot over the long term.
I was able to start working in my spare time instead of wasting it playing video games.
The workings of weight gain and loss suddenly made perfect sense to me – which led to me tracking my calories. This was a great way for me to develop discipline!
There were many times when I wanted to eat a bar of chocolate, but I wanted to lose fat more. This meant I had to exercise restraint. I could eat some, but not too much.
The chocolate tastes pretty good now, and tomorrow, and the next day – but in 6 months you’ll wish you had abs.
Progress was being made.
I wasn’t working on my train journey yet, I was sleeping, but at least I was sometimes getting out of bed to catch an early train so I could go to the gym before work.
I didn’t eat healthily every day, but about 80% of the time I did.
Food tracking wasn’t done accurately at first. I just guessed at weights and portion sizes, but at least I was building the discipline of tracking.
I was paying off debt every time I got my paycheck, but some months I’d only pay the minimum, or end up going further into the available credit to buy something I couldn’t say no to.
Eventually I was able to dial in on all of those areas and optimise them, one by one.
Nutrition came first, until that was automatic. Then finances, then working in my spare time.
- You need to train discipline.
- Aim to make one thing a habit at a time.
- Start with a very small, achievable habit that you can scale up to the “real” habit you want to develop.
- Remember what long-term you wants.
- As you get habits in the bag, try to add a new one.
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