Have you ever made a commitment that didn’t stick? Resolved to stick to a new diet, but ended up splurging on a piece of cake? Resolved to watch your expenses, but ended up buying something you really didn’t need? Maybe you resolved to live consciously in the pursuit of your goals, but slid back into apathy.
When you fail to keep a commitment your brain immediately starts looking for a cause. Sometimes it looks for a scapegoat. You didn’t have enough time to commit to your exercise program. You had to buy that television with such an incredible bargain. You quit your goal because it was naive and silly in the first place. I don’t think I need to tell you how futile and disempowering this attitude is.
Perhaps instead of blaming circumstances you pick on another usual target. Your willpower or level of self-discipline. If only I had more willpower then I would have been able to stick with my goal.
The concern with this reasoning is it doesn’t really solve your problem. Although you’ve moved past blaming external circumstances, you haven’t moved any closer to a solution. Until you find a way to somehow increase your willpower or self-discipline, you will still keep failing to keep your commitments.
What is Discipline?
Most people see themselves as one individual person. Our entire self-concept is based on the idea that the person who went to bed is the same one who will wake up in the morning. You are you, right?
To explain what self-discipline really is, I want you to see yourself not as one person but as a community of people. Within myself there is Enthusiastic Scott, Relaxed Scott, Angry Scott, Focused Scott, Sad Scott, Playful Scott, Planning Scott and hundreds of others. Although there are hundreds of different variations and states of mind I can have, I only ever have one at a time.
When I go to bed I may be Tired Scott or I could be Enthusiastic and Restless Scott. Enthusiastic Scott thinks it will be easy to bounce out of bed in the morning, but Groggy, Half-Awake Scott doesn’t seem to believe that is a good idea seven hours later.
Self-Discipline is the ability to get all of these thousands of variations of You to agree to work together. It is the ability for Motivated You or Planning You to make a decision and then ensure that every other variation of You will stick with it. Keeping commitments is hard because the person who made the commitment is long gone by the time you need to carry it out.
The first mistake people make when forming a commitment is that they logically assume that they are making it with themselves. The point of a commitment is basically issuing a contract between all the various versions of yourself. If I want to commit to going to the gym every day, I need to tell Lazy Scott this or it is never going to happen.
Clarity is Key
You are the lawmaker of a nation, except the nation is you. Whenever you are making a commitment, you aren’t utilizing some special power, you are simply writing a new law for all the other residents inside your head. Sometimes the Nation of You respectfully obeys these laws, other times they completely ignore them.
The laws we use here in society are written precisely with little ambiguity to avoid future conflict. Laws that aren’t explicitly clear on their meaning can easily be misinterpreted later. You need to use the same level of clarity when writing laws for yourself.
Using vague language like, “be healthy” or “be friendlier” are too vague to effectively communicate between all the different versions of yourself. Like all laws, some people will agree with the spirit in which the law was written and abide by it fully while others look for loopholes. Loopholes in your own commitment easily spell the start of their downfall.
To start making better commitments, write out any commitment you make with perfect clarity and precision. There should be no vagueness and possible loopholes should be filled up. If this is a very important commitment you may want to get a friend to help you enforce it to avoid slipping.
Force is Necessary
If you are early in your personal development and don’t have a lot of self-discipline this is similar to a society in a state of anarchy. Explicit laws have little effect because there is no respect between the various members of society.
If you haven’t build an orderly coexistence between all the various states of mind you can’t expect a piece of paper or a promise to a friend to do much to keep those people in line. Lazy You will still decide not to go to the gym even though Motivated/Healthy You made the decision to do so.
When your discipline is in disarray you need to back up your commitments with some meaningful consequences. In our society we have punishment for lawbreakers. You need to enact a punishment and reward system to ensure that all the versions of you will stick with the laws you lay down.
This force is called leverage. When you give your friend a thousand dollars with the condition that he gives it back only after you have finished writing your novel, you are more likely to write it. Lazy You may not agree with the spirit of the laws enacted by Creative Writer You, but he or she can’t deny the cost involved in not following that law.
Often extra leverage isn’t necessary and the outcome of your commitment will be enough to stay motivated. But if you routinely fail to stick with a commitment that is really important, you may need to add more. Read this article  if you want more advice on creating leverage.
Your measure of self-discipline is really the measure of respect the different versions of you have for each other. It is the ability for Tired You to admit it really doesn’t want to wake up early and doesn’t see the real reason, but if Motivated You said you said it would start rising early each morning, it will do it anyways.
Discipline requires time, effort and respect within yourself. As you begin to successfully keep more commitments the other members of You will be more willing to keep them in the future. Every kept promise to yourself creates more self-trust which builds the foundations of more discipline in the future.
To make more firm resolutions you need to make more of them and complete more successfully. Disciplined people have created a high degree of self-trust between their various states of mind. This self-trust allows them to carry out orders made in the past even when they don’t feel like it.
If you find yourself continually failing to keep a commitment then you either need to start smaller or add more leverage. Either the law you enacted is too strict to be upheld by the Nation of You or the punishments and rewards you have in place aren’t enticing enough to follow it.
Start writing down the commitments you want to make today. Back them up with leverage and build a positive momentum of self-trust and discipline. Don’t be your own worst enemy and keep the commitments you make.