Self-Discipline: Acceptance

The first of the five pillars of self-discipline is acceptance. Acceptance means that you perceive reality accurately and consciously acknowledge what you perceive.

This may sound simple and obvious, but in practice it’s extremely difficult. If you experience chronic difficulties in a particular area of your life, there’s a strong chance that the root of the problem is a failure to accept reality as it is.

Why is acceptance a pillar of self-discipline? The most basic mistake people make with respect to self-discipline is a failure to accurately perceive and accept their present situation. Remember the analogy between self-discipline and weight training from yesterday’s post? If you’re going to succeed at weight training, the first step is to figure out what weights you can already lift. How strong are you right now? Until you figure out where you stand right now, you cannot adopt a sensible training program.

If you haven’t consciously acknowledged where you stand right now in terms of your level of self-discipline, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to improve at all in this area. Imagine a would-be bodybuilder who has no idea how much weight s/he can lift and arbitrarily adopts a training routine. It’s virtually certain that the chosen weights will be either too heavy or too light. If the weights are too heavy, the trainee won’t be able to lift them at all and thus will experience no muscle growth. And if the weights are too light, the trainee will lift them easily but won’t build any muscle in doing so.

Similarly, if you want to increase your self-discipline, you must know where you stand right now. How strong is your discipline at this moment? Which challenges are easy for you, and which are virtually impossible for you?

Here’s a list of challenges to get you thinking about where you stand right now (in no particular order):

  • Do you shower/bathe every day?
  • Do you get up at the same time every morning? Including weekends?
  • Are you overweight?
  • Do you have any addictions (caffeine, nicotine, sugar, etc.) you’d like to break but haven’t?
  • Is your email inbox empty right now?
  • Is your office neat and well organized?
  • Is your home neat and well organized?
  • How much time do you waste in a typical day? On a weekend?
  • If you make a promise to someone, what’s the percentage chance you’ll keep it?
  • If you make a promise to yourself, what’s the percentage chance you’ll keep it?
  • Could you fast for one day?
  • How well organized is your computer’s hard drive?
  • How often do you exercise?
  • What’s the greatest physical challenge you’ve ever faced, and how long ago was it?
  • How many hours of focused work do you complete in a typical workday?
  • How many items on your to do list are older than 90 days?
  • Do you have clear, written goals? Do you have written plans to achieve them?
  • If you lost your job, how much time would you spend each day looking for a new one, and how long would you maintain that level of effort?
  • How much TV do you currently watch? Could you give up TV for 30 days?
  • How do you look right now? What does your appearance say about your level of discipline (clothes, grooming, etc)?
  • Do you primarily select foods to eat based on health considerations or on taste/satiety?
  • When was the last time you consciously adopted a positive new habit? Discontinued a bad habit?
  • Are you in debt? Do you consider this debt an investment or a mistake?
  • Did you decide in advance to be reading this blog right now, or did it just happen?
  • Can you tell me what you’ll be doing tomorrow? Next weekend?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your overall level of self-discipline?
  • What more could you accomplish if you could answer that last question with a 9 or 10?

Just as there are different muscle groups which you train with different exercises, there are different areas of self-discipline: disciplined sleep, disciplined diet, disciplined work habits, disciplined communication, etc. It takes different exercises to build discipline in each area.

My advice is to identify an area where your discipline is weakest, assess where you stand right now, acknowledge and accept your starting point, and design a training program for yourself to improve in this area. Start out with some easy exercises you know you can do, and gradually progress to greater challenges.

Progressive training works with self-discipline just as it does with building muscle. For example, if you can barely get out of bed at 10am, are you likely to succeed at waking up at 5am every morning? Probably not. But could you master getting up at 9:45am? Very likely. And once you’ve done that, could you progress to 9:30 or 9:15? Sure. When I started getting up at 5am consistently, I had already done it several times for a few days in a row, and my normal wake-up time was 6-6:30am, so that next step was challenging but achievable for me partly because I was already within range of it.

Without acceptance you get either ignorance or denial. With ignorance you simply don’t know how disciplined you are — you’ve probably never even thought about it. You don’t know that you don’t know. You’ll only have a fuzzy notion of what you can and can’t do. You’ll experience some easy successes and some dismal failures, but you’re more likely to blame the task or blame yourself instead of simply acknowledging that the “weight” was too heavy for you and that you need to become stronger.

When you’re in a state of denial about your level of discipline, you’re locked into a false view of reality. You’re either overly pessimistic or optimistic about your capabilities. And like the trainee who doesn’t know his/her own strength, you won’t get much better because it’s unlikely you’ll be able to hit the proper training zone by accident. On the pessimistic side, you’ll only pick up easy weights and avoid the heavy ones which you could actually lift and which would make you stronger. And on the optimistic side, you’ll keep trying to lift weights that are too heavy for you and failing, and afterwards you may either beat yourself up or resolve to try harder, neither of which will make you stronger.

I have personally reaped tremendous benefits from pursuing the path of self-discipline. When I was 20 years old, I lived in a small studio apartment, and my sleep hours were something like 4am to 1pm. My diet included lots of fast food and junk food. I didn’t exercise except for sometimes taking long walks. Getting the mail seemed like a significant accomplishment each day, and the highlight of my day was hanging out with friends. At the end of a month, I couldn’t really think of many salient events that occurred during the month. I had no job, no car, no income, no goals, no plans, and no real future. All I felt I had was a lot of problems that weren’t getting any better. I had no sense that I could control my path through life. I would simply wait for things to happen and then react to them.

But eventually I faced the reality that trying to wait out my life wasn’t working. If I was going to get anywhere, I was going to have to do something about it. And initially this meant tackling a lot of difficult challenges, but I overcame them and grew a lot stronger in a short period of time.

Fast forward fourteen years, and it’s like night and day. I get up at 5am each morning. I exercise six days a week. I eat a purely vegan diet with lots of fresh vegetables. My home office is well organized. My physical inbox and my email inbox are both empty. I’m married with two kids and live in a nice house. A binder sits on my desk with my written goals and detailed plans to achieve them, and several of my 2005 goals have already been accomplished. I’ve never been more clear about what I wanted, and I’m doing what I love. I know I’m making a difference.

None of this just happened. It was intentional. And it certainly didn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of years of hard work. It’s still hard work, but I’ve become a lot stronger such that things that would have been insurmountable for me at age 20 are easy today, which means I can tackle bigger challenges and therefore achieve even better results. If I had tried to do everything I’m doing now when I was 20, I would have failed utterly. 20-year old Steve wouldn’t have been able to handle it, not even for one day. But for 34-year old Steve, it’s easy. And what’s really exciting for me is to think of what 48-year old Steve will be able to accomplish… relative to my life path of course, not anyone else’s.

I AM telling you this to impress you, not with me but with yourself. I want you to be impressed by what you can accomplish over the next 5-10 years if you progressively build your self-discipline. It will not be easy, but it will be worth it. The first step is to openly accept where you are right now, whether you feel good about it or not. Surrender yourself to what you have to work with — maybe it isn’t fair, but it is what it is. And you won’t get any stronger until you accept where you are right now.

This post is part two of a six-part series on self-discipline: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6