The second principle in my willpower series states: You can teach yourself discipline when you
Understand What’s Important!
Do you sometimes tell yourself “It’s (whatever it is) not that important”?
A Siren Call of Weakness
- It’s not that serious.
- There’s no need to worry about it.
- You shouldn’t take life so seriously.
- You should enjoy yourself and be happy.
- You only live once.
These statements contain good advice—if used in proper context. However, if you tell them to yourself because you’re considering cheating on your diet, skipping a workout, postponing work, or breaking a commitment, then you’re about to fail at an important willpower challenge.
The excuses above are devious because their common associations with good advice make them eminently deceptive. The most prevalent excuse in my personal self-talk is “It’s not that important,” so I will use this one for the rest of the article. You may substitute it by your own favorite excuse. Learn to become aware of how you talk to yourself when your self-discipline gets challenged, and identify all the pathetic excuses as what they really are: excuses, invitations to weakness, your path to mediocrity. Don’t follow the siren call!
What is important?
By practicing such awareness and identification you’re actually building your own “discipline-o-meter” with an internal alarm clock that goes off whenever you tell yourself “It’s not that important.” In this very moment you know: Caution! This moment matters, this moment is important. As far as your conscious will is concerned, this moment is, in fact, the only moment that truly matters.
Imagine a man who gets up at 4 am every morning, works out every day, never postpones any of his work, and never cheats on his diet. Does this man have a lot of willpower? How would you know? He may have very little willpower, or just enough. We don’t know. However, what we do know is that he undeniably has good habits (more precisely, a good morning routine).
Sure, maintaining good habits requires willpower, especially when there’s a lot of stress and distraction present. Building good habits, however, requires a ton more willpower because you don’t only have to shield off temptation and procrastination, but you must also endure the discomfort of restructuring your brain.
Anyways, in both cases, you don’t need to exert willpower as long as you’re not actively concerned with an immediate willpower challenge, even though from the outside it looks like you’re extremely disciplined (like in the example of the man above). If you don’t feel like cheating on your diet, it’s not due to your strong will but because you’ve developed good habits. No sirens are calling.
The only moment when your willpower does matter is precisely that moment in which you’re telling yourself “It’s not that important.” Everything else is just habitual, automatized behavior.
An Example: Social Anxiety
Due to the way I was brought up as a child, I’ve never been much of a complainer. I was taught to take responsibility for my actions. Later in life, I taught myself to take responsibility for whatever happens to me and, to a large part, for the actions of others.
Naturally, this didn’t leave much room for complaining. However, to never make any complaints isn’t a wise way of living, it’s a cowardly one! Since I was so used to always take full responsibility, I wasn’t used to standing up for myself. Yet there are numerous occasions in life where you must RAISE YOUR VOICE. Even if it means complaining (not bitching) to and judging other people. (Judging others isn’t bad, it’s something confident people do.)
So for a long time I would, whenever a situation or inappropriate behavior demanded a complaint, tell myself “It’s not that important.” In addition, I would tell myself that I was being stoic when, in reality, I was being a coward led by social anxiety. What I should’ve rather done (and what I do now) is to exert willpower to overpower my anxiety and make a judicious complaint.
But is it, in truth, important?
A serious problem with this is the fact that what’s actually important is an extremely subjective and relative matter. For example, when you’re on a diet, is it absolutely important that you do not eat a piece of your best friend’s birthday cake, or that you do not have a beer with him to celebrate?
What’s truly important should depend on the principles you set for yourself. If you’ve decided to stick to not consuming any refined sugar or alcohol for a certain period of time, then yes, it is important that you don’t violate this principle despite the special occasion.
The food consumption itself isn’t important here, what’s important is the principle. When you tell yourself “It’s not that important,” while considering how minor the negative effect of some sugar or a low dose of alcohol will be on your body, well, you’re right: It’s really not that important. But at the same time, you’re wrong! Because as far as your principle and self-discipline are concerned, it is very important.
The truth is, you will always find reasons for why you don’t necessarily have to do something or resist something. Often times these reasons will be legit and can even be pretty good:
- I need to get some rest, chill out, relax.
- I shouldn’t worry so much.
- Life ain’t that serious.
Arguments like these are irrefutable. In fact, they’re a sneaky trap: Your insecurity makes you associate your strong, persisting will with stress, worry, or being a hard-ass. Don’t let it! Your sense of importance must come from your personal principles. You do something that’s tough
- because your true will is important to you,
- because your freedom is important to you,
- because your strength is important to you,
- because your pride is important to you, and
- because your character is important to you.
With this basic conviction, you will always have a reason why it is important to you. So whenever you hear the siren call of weakness, remember how much you’ll grow in character from the abstract act of staying true to yourself. That’s self-discipline.
Whenever you tell yourself “It’s not that important,” you can also strengthen your sense of true importance by using negative visualization:
- Imagine what a loser you’ll become if you can’t live up to your own principles.
- Imagine how your girlfriend will leave you or how you’ll never get a girlfriend because someone with low self-control can’t be trusted.
- Imagine what people you respect and look up to would think of you if they saw you surrender to your weakness.
Still, there’s one more problem: You probably have many different principles to stick to. You want to be successful in many, nay all areas of your life, so you have multiple behavior patterns to optimize and several resolutions to follow through with.
What are your priorities?
It’s always a bad idea to tackle several willpower challenges at the same time. It doesn’t work. Keep in mind that those challenges vary in importance. What’s more important to you: Going to the gym or getting your work done? Even your sense of true importance can’t help you here, as both choices can be truly important.
This makes the “It’s not that important” excuse even more dangerous because if “it” is your #2 or #3 priority, the excuse becomes true on a whole new level—i.e., being less important than #1. Your excuse becomes a logical thought that invites you to disregard lower-priority challenges.
When you choose your #1 priority in disregard of lower-priority principles, you’ll lose some of your momentum. Not doing what you intended to do, will make you feel bad, which will make sticking to your #1 priority harder. In the worst case, you might even say to yourself “Fuck it, now that I’ve already failed at this, I might just as well … (and give it a fresh start later/tomorrow/next Monday).” That’s gambling with the devil. For example, if you stress yourself out too much about working vs. working out, you may end up doing neither and instead sit at home watching YouTube videos. This has happened to me and I’m not proud of it.
The solution to this dilemma is extremely simple yet extremely hard to follow: Never take up more than one willpower challenge at a time! Find out what’s your #1 priority and forget about all the others (for now).
The reason this is so hard is because your ego will seduce you to not follow this advice. Your ego will speak to you: “C’mon, you’re special, you can take up more than one new challenge at a time.” No, you can’t. Especially habit development or destruction takes a while, and you must do it one step at a time.
Even though this long-term picture is your only good option, you’re probably not going to follow my advice. If I had read this article a few years ago I wouldn’t have followed it either. I tried to achieve multiple things simultaneously, over and over again, and failed every time. I had to experience it myself, and so must you. However, once you’ve experienced for yourself that you can’t improve in multiple areas of your life consistently all at the same time, you will remember my advice and choose one willpower challenge instead. So keep this in the back of your head, and when you fail, make sure you don’t fail over and over again using the same approach. I guess you know Einstein’s definition of insanity.
Here’s a simple plan to tackle willpower challenges for real:
- stick to your #1 priority for the next 30/60/90 (choose one) days
- stick to your #2 priority for 30/60/90 days after that (optional: while maintaining #1)
- stick to your #3 priority for 30/60/90 days after that (optional: while maintaining #1+2)
If you don’t have a concrete willpower challenge but you want to improve your self-discipline nonetheless, make it a principle for the next 60 days to get up at 5 am to go for a 45-minute walk outside and take a cold shower afterwards. Although additional willpower challenges might not logistically interfere with this one, you don’t add them: No changes in your diet that require willpower, no additional workouts that require willpower, just walking every morning followed by a cold shower—or whatever one habit you want to develop or destroy.
Remember, lasting success always requires a long-term view.
- Practice awareness of how you talk to yourself when your willpower gets challenged.
- Identify the statement “It’s not that important,” and see it as what it really is—a bullshit excuse and an invitation to weakness.
- Realize that the moment in which you make this excuse it the moment that matters most.
- To stay strong in this very moment, consider the fundamental importance of sticking to your own principles.
- Don’t fall into the trap of associating your strong will with negative traits, but associate it with freedom, strength, pride, and character instead.
- To further strengthen your sense of true importance, apply the negative visualization technique.
- Try to take up multiple willpower challenges at once and fail, just to gain the experience that it doesn’t work.
- Find out what’s your #1 priority and forget about everything else. (After 30, 60, or 90 days of winning at your challenge, you may tackle #2.)
Was this article helpful to you? How do you talk to yourself when you face temptation or procrastination? Tell me in the comments below!