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Train Your Discipline As You Would A Muscle
18th March 2022 • The Science of Self • Peter Hollins
00:00:00 00:11:43

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Here is a brief passage from Meditations by the Roman emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius that illustrates what we lose by surrendering to discomfort (of which is no concern to him) and not taking steps toward what we want in life:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?


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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.


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Transcripts

Develop self-discipline either by putting yourself in uncomfortable positions or by deliberately choosing to forgo comfortable ones. Train your will and discipline in the same way you would any other muscle: with repeated exercise. Become the person that is able to push through and do what others dread doing; become the person who can resist doing what everyone else can’t resist. The way to do that? With a finely cultivated ability to tolerate discomfort and forego pleasure.

No, you are not being a masochist. You are not a glutton for punishment who wants to martyr themselves on the personal development altar and make a big show of how poorly they can treat themselves. It is actually your desire for a better, more meaningful life that moves you; it’s because you ultimately want to make things easier that you are willing to have them be harder for a while.

Again, the paradox is that deliberately engaging with discomfort sometimes shows you just how insignificant it sometimes is. It allows you to enjoy the pleasures on a richer, deeper level. It’s like forcing yourself to look under the bed to check for monsters. In the same way that there never is a monster, self-discipline can also teach you that doing without what you think you “need” is sometimes far easier than we think and that we’re far stronger than we believed. Without giving yourself the chance to confront distress head-on, you might always cling to ideas of what you could never endure (i.e., certain the monster is still under the bed because you never gathered the courage to check).

Cold showers, going underdressed for the cold, sleeping on the floor, or foregoing food for a while don’t sound like fun, but they are certainly something you can bear. They’re all something that you can go through and come out the other end—intact! Afterward, take notice of how you feel. You may be surprised to note a feeling of calm confidence and achievement. Rather than being diminished by the experience, you might feel enriched, in a small way.

You can remind yourself as you endure the discomfort that, with each moment, you are making it more and more likely that you will better cope with adversity in the future. This knowledge gives you confidence and also reduces your fear of the unknown. When you can anticipate a negative outcome and be prepared for it, the future doesn’t seem so threatening, and risks seem easier to manage.

You don’t want to do any of it, sure. But you can. That’s a skill. You can take cold showers. You can sleep on the floor. You can go without food. You can bear discomforts when they come. You can proactively manage your own fear and insecurity and get on top of it, rather than have it control you. And better yet, you are better equipped to respond in a world filled with quick fixes, distractions, and easy pleasure.

How does one actually practice all this, though? What does it look like in day-to-day life to cultivate self-discipline?

As a first step, don’t dive into the deep end. Build up your confidence and your tolerance bit by bit. Perhaps you decide you’d like to stop mindless distractions like browsing online or looking at your phone constantly. Rather than throwing your phone in a lake and vowing to go offline completely, you instead ratchet up the discomfort slowly, giving yourself time to acknowledge and absorb the feeling of being able to manage. First, you decide not to keep your phone next to your bed. You notice the urge to have it anyway and notice feelings of boredom and the urge to grab it and get that easy dopamine hit.

You tell yourself, “I can do this. I’m in control. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. I’m staying with this feeling of discomfort.”

And, lo and behold, you discover you can endure it. You make a habit of it. No arguing, justification, excuses, or avoidance. You simply acknowledge, “Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, I don’t like it. But that’s okay. I can do this.”

Next, you inch up the discomfort. You’ve done the hard work of starting and you’ve given yourself proof that you can indeed bear discomfort. Now, you can push it a little. Perhaps you decide to whittle your mindless phone scrolling to just an hour a day. It’s a small goal, but you achieve it. You feel proud of having done it. You may even notice that this pride feels better than the fleeting moment of entertainment or distraction you got from scrolling in the first place. You keep telling yourself, “I can do this.”

Keep going. Gradually push yourself out of your comfort zone. Notice when you’re pushing back against your decision. Sit quietly with your discomfort, whatever it looks like. It might take the form of anger or irritation. It might suddenly become very clever and try to convince you how unnecessary this all is and how you might as well cave because it doesn’t matter. It might get depressed at having to engage with an emotion it feels entitled to be free of.

Simply watch all this come, and watch it go. Feel the calm you have in the wake of successfully enduring all this discomfort. Isn’t it wonderful to know that you can stand calm and strong through the storm? Tell yourself, “It’s okay that I’m feeling discomfort. I’m in control. It will pass.”

Finally, you might start to notice interesting things happen the more you practice. Watch your discomfort and watch your growing and changing response to it. Are certain things getting easier? Are you becoming familiar with all your idiosyncratic ways of resisting discomfort internally? Say to yourself, “I am capable of sitting with discomfort and any other negative feelings that may pass. I’m watching with curiosity. I will stay here with myself and with the feeling. I can do this. I will not respond with avoidance or escape or resistance. I welcome the experience. I can do this.”

Of course, the other side of learning to tolerate discomfort is not just to endure negative feelings but to deliberately put off positive ones. Self-denial is the other side of the same self-discipline coin. Many addictive behaviors have their root in our inability to forego easy pleasure in the moment and bear the reality of the moment just as it is, right now.

Flex your self-discipline muscle by learning to say no to some of your impulses and urges. Train yourself to understand that you can act, even if you don’t feel like it, and you can turn down an action, even if you really feel like doing it. As above, give yourself the opportunity to notice the feeling of calm strength this gives you.

Skip eating that sweet treat you go for automatically. Turn off the TV after one episode and force yourself to stand up rather than get sucked into three more episodes. Bite your tongue rather than say something regrettable to someone. A little self-denial opens up a crucial window of opportunity in which you can pause and deliberate on your actions. Are they in line with your ultimate goals? Do you really need to do them? What would you gain by turning them down for once?

Self-restraint and presence of mind enhance your sense of empowerment and control. Rather than being reactive and unconscious in your habits, stop and sink into the feeling of not fulfilling every desire, not acting, not going the easy way, or abstaining. It’s a counterintuitive approach, but one that only yields greater and greater rewards the more it’s practiced.

Here is a brief passage from Meditations by the Roman emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius that illustrates what we lose by surrendering to discomfort (of which is no concern to him) and not taking steps toward what we want in life:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?

‘But it’s nicer here…’

So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

‘—But we have to sleep sometime…’

Agreed. But nature set a limit on that—as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota. You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat.”