Self-Discipline Comes First

The most important skill is execution. Having great ideas, wise decisions or clever strategies comes second. The ability to get things done is paramount.

This why I sigh when I hear people complaining about being unable to stay motivated on a project because they aren’t sure whether it’s the right one. These people have it backwards—if you can’t get projects finished, it doesn’t matter if it is the right one.

Ask yourself this: if you gave yourself a project that you had to commit to, no matter what, for one year, could you see it through? What about five years? Ten?

Tying Yourself to the Mast

It took me awhile to realize that the get-it-done-no-matter-what discipline was the skill I lacked. Before I started this blog, I had many ideas that failed to realize. Business ventures that never hit the market. Personal goals that were abandoned soon after they had begun.

Every time they died, I had the same excuses. It wasn’t a good idea (but my next one was perfect, of course). I was bored with it. I wasn’t motivated.

Maybe these excuses were valid. Maybe the projects were bad ideas, boring or not motivating. But most ideas are. Few ideas are perfect in conception—it’s through the grueling process of execution that they get sculpted and improved.

The triggering point for a change in me was realizing that the thing I lacked wasn’t a good idea—but the ability to finish. So I changed my aim: for my next project, I would set tight constraints and finish it, no matter what.

I can’t say discipline was instantaneous, but reframing the problem helped considerably. Because I recognized that my inability to execute was my true weakness, I stopped trying to make excuses and focused on trying to get it done. Even if it was a bad idea, boring or not motivating.

Odysseus tied himself to the mast to avoid the allure of the siren’s song. Knowing he would be tempted, he constrained himself in advance so that he couldn’t make a rash decision. If you’ve struggled with execution in the past, you need to find your own mast to tie yourself to, so that you won’t give up for any reason.

Stubbornness isn’t always a virtue. Often there are good reasons to give up. But those decisions are much easier to make when they are made on a firm foundation of discipline. If you base all your decisions on the temporary whims of laziness or fatigue, you’re likely to crash upon the rocks.

Training Discipline with 30-Day Trials

Small projects are a good starting point for training discipline. They are short enough that even if their concept is seriously malformed, you won’t waste too much time.

I started with thirty-day trials. This is where you commit to a new habit or behavioral change for an entire month. Good candidates are exercising every day, waking up at a particular time or giving something up, like drinking or smoking.

While the habit changes themselves are worthwhile, the biggest benefit of doing this practice was that it strengthened my self-discipline. Each trial was a burst willpower, like lifting a heavy weight. With enough repetitions, the weight becomes easier to lift.

I remember jogging at 6am in the morning after having spent the entire night awake at a party, to make sure I didn’t miss a day. I remember waking up at 5am every morning while reading the unabridged edition of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

Neither of these were necessary. I’m sure if I had skipped one day, my fitness habit wouldn’t have suffered. It’s also unlikely I needed to grind myself through reading what turned out to be a long-winded and boring book.

But the reason I did these was that I had tied myself to the mast of those one-month 30-Day Trials. I had committed to that trial, so I would see it through, regardless of whether it was necessary or enjoyable.

I wasn’t always successful either. My exercise habit took four attempts before I finally made it through the last one. Discipline is a lot like physical strength. If you’ve never been to the gym before, you won’t be bench-pressing 300 lbs.

I’d like to say that building discipline is easy, that there’s just some productivity “hack” you can use to have more willpower. But there isn’t. The only way to strengthen your ability to stop giving up is to stop giving up.

Why Bother?

To many people, the idea of pushing yourself that hard is a little silly. Even if people don’t come outright and say it, there is a certain condescending attitude we have to the overly self-disciplined. Nobody likes a try hard, and building self-discipline is practically the definition of trying hard.

In many ways, ignoring the social pressure is harder than the act of discipline itself. I used to keep my goals private because I didn’t want to add social pressures to my internal ones. I don’t worry about it now, but that’s probably because I’ve already built a great deal of confidence from years of practice.

It’s not silly. While I remember vividly my 6am post-party jog and 5am reading sessions, I also remember another moment.

Around five years after starting this website, I had a major project flop after a year of lousy income. I felt convinced that my business wouldn’t make it—and despite spending thousands of hours of work—I was still washing my laundry in a bathtub to lower my expenses.

At the time, however, I was still finishing school. Starting a new business was impractical, so I had decided the best course of action was to hold out a bit longer. If this business wouldn’t work, after I graduated, I would move onto something else.

Despite my doubts, I put together another project and tried again. This time it was Learning on Steroids, which forms the basis of my income today. All of this happened just a few months after convincing myself I wouldn’t be able to make it work.

I can’t say what would have happened had things gone differently. But I can’t help wonder whether all those 6am jogs and early-morning reading sessions helped me stick through just a little longer.


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