Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Tricking Yourself Into Discipline

I’ve been having this ongoing argument with friend of mine­­.

She’s a talented comedy writer, but also a terrible scatterbrain. And despite her best intentions to boost productivity, she finally threw up her hands and said:

“I just need a discipline transplant.”

Which, ironically, is a pretty funny premise, and would make a great comedy bit, but I don’t think she has the discipline to write it.

Oh well.

Still, this is a topic I’ve been researching, publishing, lecturing and training on for many years. And what I’ve come to believe is, discipline is best approached when reframed as devotion.

Instead of finding time to do the work every day, you commit to making the work a permanent fixture in your daily life. That way, it just happens. Discipline becomes a non negotiable. A non thought. Instead of burning calories preparing to get ready to think about the possibility of potentially planning to do something, you just start. You invest all your physical and emotional and mental labor into the work itself, not in debating whether or not you should do it.

That’s my theory.

The only problem, most people aren’t wired that way.

Discipline might be interesting and meaningful and easy for some, but for the majority of the population, the pure, unromantic slog of sitting down every day and creating something, is painful.

And so, for people like my comedian friend, those who aren’t skilled at doing things they don’t want to do, I’ve developed a less threatening strategy:

You have to trick yourself.

When I started my publishing company right out of college, the best thing I ever did was impose a reverse curfew. I made a daily bargain with myself to be out of the house by seven o’clock, every morning. In part because I still lived with my parents, in part because I was hungry for recognition, but mainly because I wanted to trick myself into thinking I actually had a real job.

The first few days took some adjusting, but after about two weeks of holding this metaphorical gun to my head, I started to see how the micro accountability of a reverse curfew could net productive results.

First, by putting myself on this deadline, I never let the morning slip away. That ensured my days began with a cadence and rhythm that included movement. Second, the reverse curfew established a sense of place and a sequence of rituals. I went to the same coffee shop and ordered the same drink and sat in the same booth, every morning. Finally, the daily obligation of leaving the house contributed to my meaning quota, preventing the anxiety of inconsequentiality from crashing in. This enabled my ideal mental, emotional and existential space from which to create.

Interestingly, law enforcement officers have been using this tactic for years.

I was recently reading an article about a guy whose bail condition included an electronic bracelet that enforced a reverse curfew. He was required, by law, to be out of the house during daytime hours, so he could focus on being a productive member of society.

Also, transitional housing programs use this measure with a variety of populations. Children aging out of foster care, inmates with upcoming release dates and homeless families are a few groups of people who use reverse curfews. Their lodging facilities impose strict schedules in which they’re not even permitted in the house during the day, since they’re expected to be out in the community, applying for jobs, attending classes or doing other productive activities.

That’s how you trick yourself.

And so, reverse curfews work because they create ambient pressure. They force people to build internal and external constructs, with varying levels of severity and consequence and connection, all of which motivate them to stay disciplined.

Here’s a slightly different example.

Years ago, my mentor suggested I build a calendar feature into my website. He said it would be useful tool for motivating sales activity and creating the discipline of making daily sales call.

Understatement of the year.

Turns out, the simple awareness of knowing that calendar was public facing painted me into an accountable corner, forced me to fill more dates and shamed me for not having enough work on the books. After all, as a freelancer, you fear the empty calendar. It’s a visual reminder of inactivity and, often times, an indication of financial instability. And so, even though the calendar was only one innocuous page on my website, it still created the ambient pressure, the dangling sword of obligation, which motivated me to stir the pot and keep finding work.

It’s how I used technology to trick myself.

But not all discipline strategies have to be as severe and explicit as reverse curfews, electronic bracelets and online calendars. Discipline is also something you can back into. I’m reminded of a mantra from one of my yoga instructors:

The shortest distance to the heart is through the body.

Meaning, if there’s something you want to feel, if there’s an emotional experience you want to work through, you can back into it by changing your sheer physicality.

Take vulnerability, for example. If you want to practice being seen as you truly are, allowing yourself to be affected by the world around you, camel pose is the perfect posture. Not only is it the deepest backbend of the hatha series, it’s also only posture that fully exposes your throat, heart, belly and reproductive organs, all at the same time. 

Doesn’t get much more vulnerable than that.

I remember my first few months as a yogi. What I found was, the more I practiced, the more my body adapted. And after about a year, I finally bent my way to the full expression of camel pose. Interestingly, I also noticed greater vulnerability in other areas of my life. My openness to risk and uncertainty and emotional exposure dramatically increased. I also started crying in public a lot more.

Because as the body goes, so goes the heart and mind.

Think about it. Why do students who play sports in high school statistically achieve higher grades than non athletes? Because discipline breeds discipline. It’s a classic domain transfer. The mindset and muscle memory from playing on the ball field transfers over to studying in the academic field.

Similarly, if you want to back into discipline, start by committing yourself to a completely different habit first. One that’s small, easy, private, and if possible, physical. If only for the sole purpose of acclimating your body and mind to what discipline feels like. That way, once you slay that dragon, you can graduate to building discipline with more significant, public activities.

That’s how you trick yourself.

The point is, if you’re not the committed type, if you’re not the kind of person to reframe discipline as devotion, all hope is not lost. You can still implement a few of these less threatening strategies to get creative work done. And perhaps you won’t have to worry about getting on the national donor list for that discipline transplant after all.