The More Disciplined You Become The Easier Life Gets
If you are like most people, you’ve gone through periods of struggling with discipline. The discipline of eating healthy, exercising or starting that project you have been dreaming of. Anything, really, that you truly want to do, and you know is best for you.
Chances are, you managed to focus on something else, diverting yourself, maybe even escaping into some short-term reward. Repeat the pattern, and you remain stuck in a loop of procrastination — without getting to the thing you wanted to do in the first place. An escape loop.
When you experience this, you often have a feeling you’re not playing your best game. That you can do better than this. I want to see you do better for yourself. I’ve been there myself.
The good news is, there is a way to dig yourself out. Once you start, it gets progressively easier, and suddenly you are moving towards the best version of yourself. A version that loves challenges and adversity instead of shying away from them.
When you think about it, challenges actually work as catalysts for personal growth. The “Obstacle is the Way” is an excellent book on precisely this, the author Ryan Holiday is great at conveying the powerful stoic mindset behind this saying. It has become his mantra, so much that he even had it tattooed on his left forearm — talk about dedication!
Simply put, falling in love with discipline comes down to exchanging escape loops for discipline loops.
Problem: Escape loop
What is an escape loop? An escape loop is essentially when instead of doing a desired activity, you avoid it by escaping into a distraction. This is procrastination — which comes from the Latin word procrastinationem — putting off until tomorrow. It can happen consciously or subconsciously. When you put off the desired activity, you tell yourself you are going to do it later. You have a real intention of doing it later.
The problem is, later another short-term reward will probably seem more attractive, and the same thing will play out again. You’ve now established a loop. Hence the word escape loop. Most often when you indulge in distracting yourself with some short-term gratification, you’ll feel bad because you haven’t progressed with the thing you really wanted to do.
So, by giving yourself the reward first, you rob yourself of the motivation to put in the effort. Thus you didn’t accomplish your goal, and ultimately you feel worse.
Classic examples of escapes are short-term gratification activities like eating sugary foods, playing video games, drinking alcohol or checking your smartphone. Our brain is not squeamish about what the distraction consists of — anything that gives you a feeling of release will do the job.
This seems a weird mechanism until you understand how the brain works. In a way, we are at war with our brain’s gratification system:
As it is, the neurotransmitter dopamine is at the core of our brain’s motivational system. It is released both in the anticipation and attainment of a reward. This happens with real achievements as well as short-term rewards. The more you follow the escape loop pattern, the more you reinforce the neurological circuit, thus establishing the escape loop as a habit.
Solution: Discipline loop
The opposite of an escape loop is a discipline loop, where you essentially go through effort now to have the reward later. In the beginning, it can be challenging, but when you consistently replace escape loops with discipline loops, you’ll reset your brain’s reward system to once again reward effort.
Your confidence will grow, causing you to take on even more challenges. Maybe you start to exercise regularly, read challenging books, or build a business. As you can see, the discipline loop tends to be self-reinforcing. A flywheel effect otherwise known as the compound effect working exponentially in your favor is powerful.
Both escape loops and discipline loops are examples of habit loops, which are at the core of our behavior in daily life. You can learn more about the habit loop in author James Clear’s book ‘Atomic Habits’. The book will give you useful tips and tricks on how to build and enforce good habits and break bad ones. One strategy is the habit-stacking method. James famously calls habits the compound interest of self-improvement, and according to him, habits shape identity, so the basic recipe for mastering habits is simple:
‘ Decide who you want to be. Prove it to yourself with small wins’.
Author James Clear, Atomic Habits
You can reach flow state
Actually, putting in effort doesn’t even necessarily involve discomfort, pain or suffering. On the contrary, when the activity is meaningful and the extent of the challenge is optimal for you, putting in the effort is one of the most rewarding things you can do. It can put you into flow state.
Research shows that about 4% above your current skill level is probably the optimal challenge level to reach flow state, often described as:
‘..a mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time’.
When you reach flow state, it is thought that the brain produces a powerful cocktail of performance-enhancing neurochemicals that make your brain stronger and quicker. Even more, the flow state tends to bring with it a feeling of bliss. You can learn about flow on Wikipedia or in the book ‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Essentially, discipline loops and flow allow you to get yourself addicted to success and fulfillment. You’ve probably heard the term ‘hacking your brain’ — discipline loops give you that possibility. In the book ’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’, Yuval Noah Harari argues that biological knowledge, computing power, and data give big corporations the ability to hack humans using AI. By ‘hacking’ your own brain, you effectively take back control of your life.
Replace escape loops with discipline loops and reap the rewards
Building discipline loops might seem like a small thing, but it is no such thing. It may very well be the difference between a mediocre life where you’re merely surviving, and a life with more or less unlimited possibilities. That’s a potential recipe for happiness.
To conclude, you want to replace escape loops with discipline loops. You will feel truly proud of yourself when you do. Eventually, discipline loops will become second nature and likely lead to a life full of flow, mental clarity, and personal growth. That is how you fall in love with discipline.