Discipline is tainted with pretty bad connotations. For a big chunk of society, it’s just another term for harsh punishment, unwanted restraint or an unpleasant limitation of freedom. Where does that come from? Why do we avoid thinking about discipline, and when mentioned, most of us whine, complain and grunt in response?
From an early age, children are taught the concept of self-discipline by the school system, parents and role models. That action aims to instil the value and benefits of this skill from the very beginning. It’s exercised by imposing rules to follow and drawing consequences if they’re broken. For example, in my primary school, a student could be late for classes a maximum of 3 times during a semester. If the limit was crossed, it would result in applying discipline and lowering their behaviour grade.
What did I gain from following this rule? Being punctual and respecting other people’s time. Oh, and also quite a baggage of side effects, namely associating discipline with fear, guilt and anxiety. Naturally, that resulted in the general reluctance to train self-discipline later in life. There wasn’t much gratification, pleasure or satisfaction coming from it. Exercising all these rules was fuelled fundamentally by anticipatory anxiety.
After parting ways with the school system, moving out of the family home and stepping into new roles of adulthood, the responsibility to be disciplined was fully bestowed upon me. All of a sudden, it was now entirely up to me whether I’d train my self-control muscle or spiral down into the vicious cycle of self-indulgence and complacency. At first, I would oscillate between the two, not knowing how to find balance, stay grounded, set boundaries, and healthy expectations. I’d pick up a workout routine, which I’d strictly follow for 2-3 weeks, only to fall back into the comfort zone of the numbing ritual of binge-watching Netflix. No matter what excuses I came up with, eventually, the guilt would come along with lower self-esteem, feeling less confident, less happy, basically less of everything.
My mental health was slowly deteriorating until I hit one of the lowest points in my life. I only noticed it when I lost 22 lbs/10 kg in two months. Without thinking much, just feeling it would help me, I started running every morning throughout winter. Imagine waking up when it’s still dark, going outside when it’s literally freezing, and all that topped up with dealing with sore muscle.
Because I’d have my solo run in an empty park covered with a white layer of fresh snow accompanied by no one but chirping sparrows. It was so quiet and peaceful. I could hear the crunch of the snow beneath my feet as I ran further, followed by my heavy exhales. I would feel the sweat on my body as well as freezing cold on my cheeks and nose. I’d inhale the smell of trees and frozen ground. I remember to this very moment the exhilarating feeling of my attention expanding.
My goal was to heal, and each morning I was consciously absorbing my surroundings fully, with all of my senses. With each run, I gained more confidence and clarity. I felt more motivation towards self-care practices, evoking gratefulness for my body, health, and life. I simply felt liberated and able to be kind to myself. Each morning run was an intimate moment filled with the intention to treat myself with kindness, care, compassion and love.
That is where my whole narrative around self-discipline shifted forever.
Maybe it required me to hit “rock bottom” to realise that I cannot build anything meaningful in my life on the foundation of self-loathing, unrealistic expectations and external motivation. To support my wellbeing, I needed to shift my mindset. And the rest followed.
I learned a vital lesson: Self-discipline starts with self-love.
Not exercising certain boundaries, not honouring yourself, lowering your standards and settling for mediocrity for the sake of a fleeting sense of relief will bring nothing but pain to your future self. On the other hand, when you come from a place of love and respect for yourself, you avoid doing things that could potentially hurt you. There’s less chance you would be attracted to the idea of pulling an all-nighter due to a new Netflix series. Your tendency shifts towards exercising healthy boundaries and, in this case, getting a good night’s sleep.
You choose to implement healthy habits that support your growth. Not because you have to, or because it’s expected of you, but because you want to. Because it feels damn good to be in charge of your life and decide to attain your dream goals by being the best version of yourself. That can happen only by training the self-discipline muscle.
And let me tell you: it’s like a chain reaction. Once you decide to wake up a bit earlier, you free up some space in your schedule. Maybe it would feel good to finally make your bed and have a glass of water. Before you realise it, there’s an entire routine filled with beneficial habits like meditating, stretching, preparing breakfast, reading a book, etc. But all that progress happens slowly. It can feel like an uphill battle. In challenging moments like that, when you feel like giving up, choose persistence over perfection. Choose consistent action that creates the building blocks of success over an unachievable perfectionistic posture that can only paralyse you.
Having a happy life does not happen on its own. You need to make it happen.
In order to achieve that, it’s good to work with each day we have, starting from the moment we wake up. We can choose to maintain well-being and stability by introducing some stable elements to our lives. Having structure in the morning, when the whole day lies ahead of us, can be highly beneficial. By creating and maintaining morning habits, we give ourselves momentum in the right direction for the rest of the day. It sets the mood and ramps up our productivity. In those silent, intimate moments when the world seems still half-dormant, we can set an intention for the day, and after completing the morning routine, we are ready to go into the world mindfully, with sharp focus, warmed up, and positive.
The secret lies in choosing wisely and pushing yourself to do the healthy, less attractive thing now so that you can feel better in the future. We can take care of our future selves by disciplining our present selves. In that way, we gain freedom.
Wait, what? Isn’t discipline practically the opposite of freedom? It turns out this logic is faulty, and here’s why.
One of the most productive people on this planet, Jocko Willink, a retired Navy SEAL and an author of “Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual”, demonstrates how the seemingly contradictory values understood by discipline and freedom have a lot in common. One cannot exist without the other.
“The only way to get to a place of freedom is through discipline“, Willink explains in an interview with Forbes. “If you want financial freedom, you have to have the financial discipline (…) It applies to every aspect of life: if you want more freedom, get more discipline“, he continues.
For example, if you want to feel comfortable in your environment, make sure to make your bed in the morning. Doing it will provide a slight sense of accomplishment, which not only feels good but also puts the pattern of self-discipline into motion.
Waking up earlier can happen systematically only when we have good sleeping hygiene. That includes a comfortable and soothing sleeping environment, having a downtime routine and sleeping long enough.
It’s best to start by cutting off all technology and screens at least 1 hour before sleep. Since the human brain interprets the blue light as daylight and suppresses the release of melatonin (a hormone responsible for our sleep cycle), there’s a strong chance that you’re not really a night owl. Instead, you’re just disturbing the natural circadian rhythm of your body. To understand more on this topic, check out this article.
Once we ensure a good sleeping situation, there’s a whole morning routine to create. Here are some ideas to help you start.
Wake up and set the intention to take care of your body by hydrating it.
Our brain cells are in 3/4 made out of water. So after 8 hours of sleep, start the day by fuelling your brain. It will also balance your body fluids, cleanse you from any toxins and stimulate your metabolism.
Extra tip: Put your water on a bedside table the evening before and use it as a reminder.
Let’s get the excuses out of the way – no one is too busy to carve 10 minutes out of their morning. It’s all about the decision to either prioritise your mental wellbeing and get up with the first alarm or hit snooze. Give yourself an intimate moment of mindful silence before the cacophony of the outside world takes over. Whether it’s meditating, praying or sitting with your face directed to sunlight, focus your attention inwards and set an intention for the day.
Wake your body up with gentle stretches, yoga practice or a light cardio workout. Remove stiffness or tension that gathered in your body overnight. Feel the rising energy that will carry you through the day. Increase your blood flow and improve your posture.
Ten minutes is enough to train your self-discipline. So don’t overthink it. Don’t decide whether you’re motivated enough. True motivation comes only from action. Just do it, and your future self will thank you for it.
Have you ever woken up to a massive cloud of chaotic thoughts tumbling in your mind as soon as you opened your eyes?
That doesn’t mean that the day is lost, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Instead of letting your anxious thoughts run wild, choose to write them down. Liberate your mind from this inner chatter.
Try different things: describing your goals, setting an intention, following a gratitude practice, or simply making a to-do list. Whatever is the content, pour your thoughts onto the paper and free your mind from mental clutter.
Our lives boil down to a series of choices we constantly make and challenges we are faced with. It involves big and significant decisions as well as the minor, less grave dilemmas each of us encounters from the waking moment:
What we choose today ultimately shapes who we are tomorrow. And as you’ve learned today, the best way to attain freedom is through self-discipline. So start with creating momentum with your morning habits.
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