Updated: May 28
Many of you opened this article with an idea in mind that was going to be the key to your fitness success.
“Well nutrition is 80% of your results so it must be that.”
“I’m finally going to learn the perfect set, rep scheme.”
“There must be a new supplement I can take to make all of this easier.”
While all of those sound great, they don’t address the biggest variable to your success, and that is self-discipline.
Now I know that as soon as that word is said that a lot of people shut off or shut down.
We tend to think that self-discipline is only for those with super strong willpower and that people with strong self-discipline must have some internal force driving them to make all of these “good” decisions.
The reality is if you ask these people why they make those decisions, they’ll tell you it’s because they enjoy it.
Self-discipline is not about willpower
Viewing self-discipline in terms of willpower creates a paradox: to build willpower, we need self-discipline over a long period of time; but to have self-discipline, we need massive amounts of willpower.
This approach operates on the belief that self-discipline is achieved through denying or rejecting your emotions and fuses the ability to reject your desires with morality.
You ate that donut? That was a bad decision and you’re a bad person.
That guy who said no to the donut? Well good for him, he’s such a good person.
Self-Discipline = Willpower = Self-Denial = Good Person
Remove self judgement from your decisions
Let’s say you’re trying to lose weight but your drawback is chocolate donuts (if you haven’t noticed the theme here, I really like chocolate donuts). You’ve tried stopping through willpower. You’ve tried diets. You’ve told everyone you know not to eat ice cream around you and to stop buying it.
But nothing has worked. Not a day goes by that you don’t down that chocolaty goodness for breakfast.
You hate yourself for it and it makes you feel like a bad person because you can’t stop.
You’ve now attached moral failings to your personal failings.
Step one to self-discipline is to detach your personal failings from moral failings. You have to accept that you cave to indulgence and that this doesn’t necessarily make you a horrible person. Everyone caves to indulgence in some shape or form. Everyone fails to reign in all of their impulses. And we all love chocolate donuts!
Now obviously that is easier said than done. Most of the time we don’t even realize all of the negative self-talk that goes on in our own head.
“I ate that donut because I’m a bad person.”
“I’m not good at this exercise, because I’m a bad person.”
“That guy can run a marathon, but I can’t because I’m a bad person.”
“That woman lost weight so easily, but I can’t because I’m a bad person.”
These thoughts start to take over because they relieve some of our own responsibility for our actions. That “bad person” in you is preventing you from changing and so it’s really out of your hands. There’s nothing you can do about it, so why try?
It’s scary to think that you’re capable of change in the future and that maybe you’ve wasted a lot of time by not changing sooner, and the self-judgement can start again.
Once we’ve established that just because something feels bad doesn’t mean we are bad, we can begin to understand the choices we’re making.
Why do I eat chocolate donuts every morning? Maybe because eating sugary foods gives me a sense of comfort before going to a stressful job that I hate.
Finding that true emotional cause doesn’t necessarily feel great either. But now we’re not using chocolate donuts to numb that emotion.
Instead, you stop punishing yourself and start taking care of yourself, and it feels good!
Chocolate donuts don’t make you feel good because they’re scratching some internal itch, they make you feel sick and bloated.
Enough of the psychology lesson, let’s talk about how to put some of this into practice and start making changes in your own life.
By understanding what’s going on at an emotional level, we can start to use that to our advantage.
Flip the scale in your favor
Call up a friend and give them $1,000. Tell them to give it back to you if you don’t eat donuts for a month, if you do, they keep the money.
Now donuts cause a greater emotional problem than the one it solves and refraining from eating donuts starts to feel good.
I don’t drink during the week. Is that because I don’t enjoy drinking or there’s never a night after a long day that I think a nice glass of wine would hit the spot? Of course not. But I know that I have to wake up early the next day and work with clients and if I choose to drink, all those things will be much tougher the following day.
The benefits of a certain behavior outweigh the benefits of not doing it.
Build your support group
It’s easier to workout in a room full of people than by yourself. No one wants to be the joker in the corner that quits on the group.
Tell your friends and family, get an accountability partner or a coach. The more people supporting your desired behaviors the better.
Make your environment work for you
Practicing self-discipline is hard. If you surround yourself with chocolate donuts every day, it’s going to be tough to resist them. Remove the distractions from your environment as best you can.
If you can’t get back up off the couch to go workout after a long day of work, exercise before you go home.
Set yourself up for success by knowing your barriers and removing them.
Victory in failures
Making changes isn’t a switch you flip, it’s a dial that turns and sometimes it goes up and sometimes it goes down. Failure often times leads us to giving up but you have to realize that in order to fail you had to try in the first place, and so failure is really a victory from the start.
When you have a setback, acknowledge what caused it and move on.
RESULT: SELF-DISCIPLINE WITHOUT WILLPOWER
Once you’ve eliminated self judgement from your decisions and have created situations that provide you with a greater emotional benefit from doing a desired behavior than not doing it, you end up with self-discipline without willpower.
You wake up early because it feels good to wake up early.
You eat eggs instead of donuts because it feels good.
You exercise because it feels better to exercise than to sit around all day.
Eventually you will look like that person with tremendous willpower, yet it will feel effortless.
Want help becoming the healthiest, fittest, strongest version of you?
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