By Nicolas Cole–Minutes8 minute Read
Anyone can make a list of goals. But only a few learn how to be disciplined enough to achieve them.
I grew up in a home and a family that constantly reinforced the importance of self-discipline. Every single night, I’d watch my dad set the timer on the coffee maker and put his oatmeal in the refrigerator for the next morning. By 5:30 a.m., he’d be awake. By 6:00 a.m., he’d be in the gym. By 7:00 a.m., he’d be knocking on my bedroom door, making sure I was awake. And by 8:00 a.m., he’d be at the hospital ready to operate. My dad is a spine surgeon.
My mom, meanwhile, somehow managed to work as a voice teacher at a local college, and take my sister to her violin lessons, and take my younger brother to gymnastics practice, and take my other younger brother to chess club, all while making sure dinner was on the table by 5:00 p.m., and everyone was working on their homework or practicing their respective musical instrument by 7:00 p.m.
Our house operated like a retreat for the arts with my mother’s thumb on a stopwatch.
From a very young age, I learned how to be disciplined in all sorts of different ways.
Truthfully, how I learned the art of self-discipline was through World of Warcraft.
Different from my other commitments as a teenager, like playing classical piano or hockey, World of Warcraft was what gave me a way to tangibly measure my progress as a player. With piano, I could vaguely understand how I was improving year over year. With hockey, I could feel myself becoming more and more comfortable handling the puck. But in World of Warcraft, each action, each step forward prompted me with some sort of measure for success: another bar of experience gained, or a new epic item. And it was this new way of perceiving my progress that ultimately made me more and more willing to devote time, energy, and effort into mastering the game.
By 17 years old, I had become one of the highest ranked World of Warcraft players in North America.
Ever since I graduated high school, and ultimately moved on from gaming, I have been extremely aware of what both my family and World of Warcraft taught me about discipline.
So, if this is something you’re looking to improve in yourself, here are seven simple ways you can start practicing the art of self-discipline:
Don’t set a goal without knowing how you’re going to track its progress
One of the easiest things in the world is to imagine the thing you want to achieve.
Unfortunately, no amount of imagining is going to move you any closer to what you can so clearly see in your mind’s eye.
Instead, challenge yourself to question how you’re going to measure your progress. If you decide, “I want to change X about my life,” don’t just write down your goal in your journal. Write down the way you’re going to prove to yourself you are moving in the right direction. For example, whenever I set a goal for myself, I always write down how often I’m planning on practicing the skill required for me to achieve that goal. If I want to write a book, how many days per week am I planning to work on it? And more importantly, how am I going to be honest with myself if too many days go by without me writing anything at all?
Surround yourself with disciplined people
You are a reflection of the five people you spend the most time with.
Plain and simple.
If everyone around you eats junk food, chances are, you’re going to eat junk food too. If everyone around you watches five hours of TV per day, chances are, you’re going to start watching more TV with them. Which means, if you surround yourself with people who really, really struggle to be self-disciplined, then chances are, you will too.
Spend time around people who are extremely self-disciplined—so that you can watch and learn how to be self-disciplined too. Mimic their daily routines (until you find one that works for you). Adopt a similar mentality. Absorb their habits.
This is, without question, the fastest way to becoming more disciplined yourself.
Read books that remind you of the importance of discipline for 20 minutes each day
One of the best ways to keep yourself practicing the art of self-discipline is to remind yourself constantly about its importance.
Now, something I write about often is being careful not to just spend all day consuming other people’s information, but making the time to practice these skills yourself. The rule I live by is that your input (say, reading) should never exceed your output (whatever the thing is you need to practice and want to master).
Use a visual calendar to see how many days in a row you’re consistently practicing
One of the best ways to keep yourself accountable is to “see” your progress (or lack thereof).
This was something I always loved about video games. In World of Warcraft, I could “see” how far I was from the next level. I could “see” how many more points I needed in order to buy an epic piece of gear. And because I could visualize the process, I found myself more willing to be engaged with it.
So, re-create this same experience for yourself with a calendar.
Let’s say you want to be more disciplined with writing. Every day you successfully write (for one hour, two hours, whatever period of time you feel “counts”), put a big X through that day. Congratulations! You’re well on your way in the world.
Over time, those Xs will start to add up, and you’ll want to keep stringing them together. Simultaneously, if you go two weeks without putting an X through a single day, you’re going to feel guilty.
Good. You should.
Detox distractions from your life at least one day per week
Between the ages of 23 and 26 years old, I didn’t allow myself to have internet in my apartment.
I’m not kidding.
The reason was because I knew that if I had the option of browsing the internet or watching TV after a long day of work, then I was never going to do what I needed to do to become a successful writer. So, I removed the option altogether. That way, after I came home from a long day working as a copywriter at an ad agency, and then heading to the gym, I only had one option: write.
Every single night, for almost four years, I wrote from 9:00 p.m. to midnight. And that’s how I wrote my first book.
To this day, I still find ways to “detox” unnecessary distractions from my life. During weekends, especially, I’ll deliberately keep my phone on silent or away in another room. I won’t watch TV or check my email. Saturdays and Sundays are reserved for nature and long hours spent thinking or working deeply on something.
I encourage you to find ways to do the same.
Journal constantly and always be honest with yourself
One of the hardest parts about becoming more disciplined is the fact that it’s so easy to forget why you wanted to be disciplined in the first place.
Similarly to what I mentioned above, the reason is because everyone loves the “idea” of being more disciplined, but then after a few days they disconnect from their original desire. They either can no longer see the purpose, or they fall back into familiar habits out of comfort.
A great way to combat this is by journaling all throughout the process.
I’ve been journaling since I was in middle school, but I started intentionally journaling in 2010—and every year since. And one of the reasons I journal so frequently (I aim for daily, but weekly at a minimum) is to remind myself of the things I’m working on and working toward.
I don’t like too much time to go by without remembering where I’m headed and why I chose that direction in the first place.
If you’re actively practicing being disciplined, allow yourself days to NOT be disciplined
During my no-internet years (23-26), I was obsessive about being disciplined.
At the time, I was also a bodybuilder, so my entire life revolved around eating entire meals every 2.5 hours, on the dot, and two-hour-long lifting sessions immediately after work. Everything about my day was structured: when I woke up, what I ate for breakfast, when I needed to start walking to the train, when I needed to leave work to make the express train home, when I needed to be in the gym by, how many meals I needed to have eaten beforehand, and what hour I needed to take my pre-workout supplement so that I had enough energy to lift and then write for three hours after, but not too much that I couldn’t sleep.
Needless to say, it was exhausting.
One of the things I didn’t do enough was give myself time to not be disciplined. This is a hard line to draw for most people, considering many reward themselves with “relaxation time” regardless of whether or not they’re actively working toward their goals. But in my case, I was pretty far on the other side of the spectrum–and I’d very often bring myself right to the edge of burnout.
Part of learning the art of self-discipline is knowing when to push and when to pull back. Similar to my input versus output philosophy, your “pull-back” time should never exceed your “push” time (where you’re actively working toward improving yourself). Similarly, your “push” time should never be so much that your “pull-back” time is entirely nonexistent.
Discipline is not a destination. It’s a daily practice.
Which means you need to optimize for a marathon–not a sprint.
A version of this article originally appeared on Minutes and is adapted with permission.
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