For a while I have been fascinated by the research about happiness. Some of my favorite research is from Sonja Lyumbomirsky, psychology professor at University of California Riverside. (She’s great at listing really small things you can do to impact your happiness.) And from Dan Gilbert’s Hedonic Psychology Lab at Harvard. (I follow PhD students from that lab like other people follow favorite quarterbacks.)
But something I’ve noticed in the last year is that most of our happiness is actually dependent on our self-discipline. For example, we are happier if we exercise, but the barriers to getting to the gym are so high that it takes a lot more than missives from the Hedonic Psychology Lab to get us there. Also, Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University, has studied self-esteem for decades, and finds that when it comes to success, self-discipline is much more important than self-esteem.
So I have started tracking my own self-discipline rather than my happiness. And I think that the process is making me happier, because I am teaching myself how to bounce back quickly when my self-discipline falls apart. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Self-discipline is about small things paving the way for very big things.
My favorite piece of research from all the happiness research I’ve read is that self-discipline snowballs. That is, if you can work hard to have self-discipline in one, small area, you create self-discipline almost effortlessly in other areas. The most famous study about this phenomena is from Baumeister, who found that students who walked with a book on their head to fix their posture ended up eating better, studying harder, and sleeping more. Without even noticing they were making those changes.
(One of the more recent things to come from the Hedonic Psychology Lab is an iPhone application by Matthew Killingsworth that lets you add your own happiness data to the lab’s research. Ironically, the data entry for this application requires a level of self-discipline that will surely qualify as the type that snowballs into other areas of your life and increases your level of happiness. So maybe we should all participate.)
The key to self-discipline is finding an easy re-entry point.
I used to tell myself that if I would just get back on my daily workout schedule, the rest of my self-disciplined life would fall back into place. This is true. But it’s too hard. When everything has fallen apart for me in the self-discipline arena it usually looks like this: I am eating poorly, behind in answering emails, and I’m biting my nails. Then I start hiding from people because I feel too discombobulated to connect.
Fixing any one of those problems is big for me. So I go to something easier: push-ups in the morning, noon and night. I do it on the floor – any floor — and it takes 30 seconds because I only do five so that I won’t dread doing them. The act of doing the push-ups is like wearing a book on my head. It restarts my self-discipline after just a few days.
You need to give up perfectionism in order to get anywhere.
Perfection is the enemy of self-discipline. If you are aiming for perfection, you are never going to get yourself to do what you need to do. No one is perfect, and if you tell yourself you need to be perfect, then everything is too hard to start. Here’s a self-discipline issue I have: I want to keep up with my reading pile and not let it get so high on the kitchen counter that it falls over.
This goal requires me to read things immediately, as they pass in front of me. I’m great at doing this online, but not offline. I realized, though, that the trick is to read fast and if I can’t, I throw it out. There is no harm in doing a bad job of going through a reading pile, and there is more harm in setting the goal—to keep the pile low – and not meeting it.
Self-discipline is mental, but only because it’s about believing in yourself.
Take, for example, the person who stops going to the gym for a month. A person who thinks of himself as someone who goes to the gym is more likely to start going again than someone who thinks of himself as a non-gym type. And this is true in a more broad sense: If you think of yourself as someone with high self-discipline then when you are not having self-discipline, you expect to start having it again, and you do. Also, self-discipline is like a muscle so you need to practice to get stronger with it, and part of practicing is talking with yourself about who you are: a person who has self-control.
The moment of regaining self-discipline feels triumphant.
I have not blogged in more than a week. For most people, it wouldn’t matter that much. But blogging is a job for me. So I really need to be doing it. Also, blogging keeps the rest of my life on track – I feel connected to a community, I think in a more critical way, and when I write a good blog post, I have self-confidence that I will do other things well, too.
So I am telling you that the moment today, when I finally sat down to write, and I could feel that I’d start blogging again, felt so good, and so secure, that I hope it will remind you to put aside an hour today to do the thing you have wanted to do for weeks, or months, to get yourself back on track. It won’t just change that hour, or that day, it will change your life.