Toughen Your Will
Why are some people more successful than others? What’s their secret?
Could their ability to somehow always do what is in their best interest be the key to their success? We will refer to this magical superpower as Self-Discipline, but it has many names such as Willpower and Self-Control. It encompasses traits such as determination, tenacity, grit, resolve, and restraint.
Your Self-Discipline can impact just about every area of your life. It affects the habits that you instill or eradicate. It has implications whether you make decisions that are beneficial to your life – or detrimental. It is why you procrastinate on important actions that you should be doing. It is crucial to your overall fulfillment to master your mind rather than succumbing to whims. It is the single determining factor in living your life proactively. Otherwise, you will continuously be living in reaction mode – living life on somebody else’s terms. Self-Discipline puts you in the driver’s seat to achieve your highest priority goals. Embrace the power of discipline and use it wisely!
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Mastering the Power of Self-Discipline is the key to ensuring that we do what is in our best interests – ALL THE TIME.
Why don’t we ALWAYS do what is in our best interests? How could this be?
It is just plain old common sense that certain habits are healthy and advantageous while others – well, they just aren’t. Most people are aware that they should be instilling good habits in their lives, such as working out regularly or eating healthy. They are also fully aware that they should eradicate bad habits. However, implementing these beneficial habits and eliminating the detrimental ones requires effort in the short-term. That’s where people struggle.
One of the most important distinctions that you can make is understanding the difference between short-term gratification and long-term fulfillment.
Short-term gratification is fleeting. Doing something gratifying “in the moment” that provides you with some type of pleasure for a few seconds is quite possibly not beneficial at all – and could even be downright harmful. Taking just three bites of cheesecake can cost you 1,000 calories! Do you know how long it takes to burn that off? Does the rush of sugar contribute to potential diabetes? These momentary lapses of reason can lead to suffering for long periods. This is why obesity is the number one epidemic in the world. These seemingly innocent bites or drinks of “poison” may feel good initially but will slowly and sneakily lead to obesity over time. We must understand why we are inclined to make these erroneous decisions. Why would we consciously decide to continually do things that aren’t in our best interests – even when we know it?
The first step in changing our programming for LONG-TERM fulfillment is understanding how we are “wired.” Prioritizing short-term gratification is our biological programming. For example, the craving to eat unhealthy foods with sugary and salty tastes satisfies our primitive cravings that provide SHORT-TERM gratification. Why would we be programmed in this way? Is it possible that the Great Architect had some bugs in our programming? There is a reason (and a good one) for this programming, and it has served us well – but not anymore. We’ll discuss why – and what to do about changing the program to suit our long-term best interests.
We must re-train our minds to focus on long-term impact, initially by letting go of our instinctual urges so that we can focus on our future goals. It may seem like a lot of effort initially and may even be difficult, but these changes will be significant for future health, happiness, and prosperity. Develop new habits over time, dissipate old urges, and replace them with a new way of thinking – decisions that lead to long term fulfillment.
Our favorite definition of discipline is the ability to DO what is in your best interest when you should be doing it, and most importantly, WHETHER YOU FEEL LIKE DOING IT OR NOT!
Intelligence vs. Discipline: Which is more important?
While many believe that intelligence is the most significant factor for success in life, studies have shown that self-discipline is the more significant predictor of success. For example, students who exhibit high self-discipline levels are more likely to achieve higher grades than those who have superior intelligence (but lack discipline). Similarly, employers are increasingly finding that “GRIT” is positively correlated to an employee’s success. This measure is being tested for recruitment and interviewing processes. Self-discipline is a crucial component of grit.
The 5 factors of Grit
Continuously improve your grit for success at work and in life! This determination commonly reflects the following traits and characteristics:
- Courage – Grit is directly proportional to your courage. It is the meta factor for grit. Have the consistent strength to persevere through difficulty!
- Conscientiousness – Be diligent and take obligations seriously. Conscientious people are very dependable.
- Focus – Aim for long-term goals and endurance. Have the tenacity to follow through to completion.
- Resilience – The ability to overcome obstacles is resilience. Successful people are resilient. The road to success is long and rocky. They have the strength “to get back up on the proverbial horse.”
- Excellence over perfection – People with grit do not seek perfection. They strive for excellence!
The Marshmallow Experiment: Short-Term Gratification vs. Long-Term Fulfilment
The results from Stanford University’s Marshmallow Experiment, led by professor and psychologist Walter Mischel in 1972, demonstrates the importance of discipline in achieving and living a successful life. Children ranging from 3.5 to 5.5 years old were left alone in a room with a single tempting marshmallow. If the children waited for just 15 minutes and refrained from eating the tasty marshmallow, their willpower is rewarded with – two marshmallows!
The experiment showed that the children who could delay their short-term gratification were drastically more successful later in life – as opposed to those who weren’t able to control their urge to devour the marshmallow! For instance, the study found that the children who were able to delay gratification scored an average of 210 points higher on the SATs than the children that ate the marshmallow within the first 30 seconds-proving that self-discipline does affect success in life.
Where can you get more discipline? Your brain!
To understand how to control your brain, it is useful to understand how the brain evolved to its current structure.
The Reptilian Brain
- 500 million years old
- First appeared in fish
- Controls our body’s vital functions (heart rate, body temperature, and breathing)
- The brainstem and the cerebellum are in this layer of the brain
- Can be rigid and compulsive at times
The Limbic Brain
- 150 million years old
- First appeared in small mammals
- Responsible for recording memories and emotions
- Controls our value judgments
- The Amygdala is within the Limbic Brain
The Amygdala is responsible for our fight-or-flight response. This part of the brain is reactive and even overreacts at times. It is associated with physical behavior and increased aggression. The amygdala uses information from our organs and the five senses to react according to survival instincts. We will refer to the Limbic and Reptilian portions of the brain as the “old brain”.
The Prefrontal Cortex (“PFC”) or New Brain
- 2–3 million years old
- First appeared in primates
- It is home to the right brain (the ‘analog brain’) and the left brain (the ‘digital brain’).
- This is where the ability to “reason” based on logic resides.
Discipline comes from the Prefrontal Cortex (“PFC”). The PFC has three different regions:
- Proactivity Region (“I will”)
- Impulse Control Region (“I will not”)
- Fulfillment and Long-term Desire (“I ultimately want”)
The PFC’s function is to make rational judgments, decisions, and to filter our thoughts. It is the ‘rational’ side of the brain that can override the Limbic or Old Brain. Our PFC overrides the Limbic Brain because, over time, our environment has changed. We can no longer rely on our Limbic Brain to make all the decisions in today’s modern world. The PFC deciphers the good from the bad while factoring in long-term consequences. The PFC suppresses urges that are otherwise not deemed socially acceptable today. We act on the decisions made by the PFC by sending neurotransmitters to other brain structures along various neural pathways.
Is Discipline a muscle?
No, but it is similar to a muscle. Figuratively, exercising your “willpower” strengthens your ability to practice self-discipline effectively. A strong “will” dramatically improves your chances of success in practically any challenge. That said, technically, willpower is not, in fact, a muscle, but, like a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets.
Use mindfulness to strengthen your brain.
These 6 habits STRENGTHEN your brain, and thus your willpower “muscle:”
- USE IT! – Read, think, and problem-solve to stimulate your brain.
- Meditation – Meditation is probably the single most effective exercise for increasing willpower. Effectively practiced, it can reduce stress and improve your focus.
- Physical exercise – Get your blood pumping and start moving! Movement stimulates the brain matter in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for willpower.
- Nutrition – Enjoy a well-balanced diet to fuel the brain.
- Slow breathing – Inhaling and exhaling slowly increases your willpower reserves.
- Sleep – Getting enough sleep is essential for the brain to boost willpower reserves.
These 6 habits WEAKEN your brain, and thus your willpower “muscle:”
- Lack of use – Lack of brain stimulation weakens discipline.
- Stress – Any habit that leads to stress weakens your brain. During stress, your fight or flight response is activated, which shuts down the PFC, and the Amygdala takes control of decision-making. This leads to impulsive decisions that satisfy only short-term goals (i.e., immediate gratification takes priority).
- Physical exercise – While physical exercise is crucial for long term brain health and thus willpower, if you have something important to do in the short term, it is best to save up your willpower for it. Physical exercise depletes willpower in the short-term.
- Poor nutrition – The brain simply cannot operate at capacity if it is not well nourished. High glycemic processed foods are an especially poor choice for brain health.
- Shallow breathing – Oxygen is the energy source for the brain. Limiting it will decrease your willpower and also could create anxiety. Breathe fully and deeply especially when under stress.
- Sleep deprivation – The brain goes into repair mode during sleep. Make sleeping a full night a high priority!
Does Discipline get fatigued like a muscle?
We all have a limited supply of willpower at any given moment.
In 1996, a willpower study from Case Western Reserve University was conducted by colleagues Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne Tice. The researchers instructed a group of undergraduate students to skip a meal, then sat them down together, each in front of two bowls. One bowl contained fresh, delicious chocolate chip cookies, while the other held less appetizing radishes. The researchers told half of the group that they were welcome to eat the cookies and the other half that they could only eat the radishes. In other words, they had to refrain from eating the freshly baked cookies that smelled so good! The researchers then gave the students an impossible puzzle to complete.
None of the students knew that the puzzle was impossible, but the students who had used up their willpower by having to refrain from eating the cookies gave up far sooner than the students who were allowed to eat the cookies. Those that refrained from eating the cookies gave up after just eight minutes, as compared to 19 minutes of perseverance for the cookie eaters. This 60% disparity was caused by depleting the radish eaters’ willpower when resisting the cookies.
The moral of the story is that you shouldn’t waste your willpower on low priority endeavors. Your willpower is a limited resource. Use it wisely. For example, don’t waste your willpower in the morning on tedious, unimportant tasks (like writing emails).
The good news is that discipline does renew with time and mindfulness.
Inspiration inspires discipline.
As we’ve learned, discipline, aka willpower, can get fatigued. It can also be replenished! How? Nourish it! Inspiration comes from within, while motivation comes from external sources. Both can be effective, but it is thought that inspiration is the better source of energy since it comes directly from the “source”.
Action often precedes inspiration.
Have you ever noticed that the hardest part of just about anything you don’t want to do, but know you should do, is – STARTING? Taking the first step builds momentum to continue to do what is in your best interests long-term. That first step out of bed. The first part of your jog. The first push-up. The first sentence of the book chapter you are writing.
Tell us about your struggles or triumphs with self-discipline in the comments below!
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