Understand the Cycle; Break the Cycle

It can be tempting to think of your self-discipline as isolated incidents that you must overcome. This would be a mistake. Self-discipline does not exist in a vacuum and is highly dependent on five factors that make up the cycle of self-discipline. Or, more accurately, the cycle of laziness.

Questions or comments regarding the podcast?

Understand the Cycle; Break the Cycle

Whenever you have a mental lapse and suffer a breach in self-discipline, it might seem like an isolated incident. Perhaps it was simply due to one of the obstacles in the previous chapter holding you back. It’s all due to the time orientation you possess, and once you fix that, you’ll be fine.

Most of us process losing our willpower at this basic level; we lost control momentarily because of a one-off occurrence, and we only realize after the fact that we were avoiding exercising our self-discipline.

We knew we had to wash the car that day, but we just never got around to it. Is that something that just tends to happen from time to time, or is there something deeper at play here? Unfortunately, it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story, and the deeper we go, the closer we get to what happens when you are robbed of self-discipline.

Moving higher on the ladder of awareness, some of us might have identified a couple of specific triggers that cause us to lose our self-discipline, and thus we avoid them consciously. We know we hate washing the car, and we know we find excuses to be out of the house until someone else washes it (or until the next rainy day comes). This is still not the whole story, but it is helpful to know what is motivating you one way or the other.

The next level of awareness in our self-discipline failures might be the recognition that there are specific behaviors you engage in whenever you avoid it. For instance, you notice that when you want to avoid washing your car you start cleaning your room instead. Psychological discomfort is created because you know you are avoiding your responsibilities, so you engage in a distraction to alleviate that discomfort. Eventually, this would allow you to see a pattern that if you are cleaning your room, perhaps the car, or something even more important, is being avoided at the moment.

It may not be immediately clear, but there is a cycle that, if you lack self-discipline, you will constantly find yourself in. You might be able to “push through it” from time to time, but that’s not something you should have to rely on for your whole life. The sustainable path to self-discipline involves identifying and breaking the cycle of lacking self-discipline.

The Cycle of Laziness

In some ways, the existence of a cycle is a relief because this means self-discipline isn’t so much about putting mind over matter and grinding past the pain (although sometimes that part cannot be avoided). Neither is the key to self-discipline about endless affirmations and other such statements – it’s actually about understanding the cycle of laziness and disrupting it before you get sucked into it.

It’s the equivalent of understanding how to use a certain physics equation to solve a problem, versus trying to solve the problem differently each time, and sometimes just trying out 20 different possibilities. When you know what you’re looking for, you’re just going to be far more effective. In practical terms, this means that doing what you need to do will be much less of a struggle in the end.

The level of analysis in the earlier example about not possessing the self-discipline to wash a car is deeper than most people ever get, as they only think in terms of two mental modes: feeling apathetic, or feeling adequately energized. This is too simplistic to explain what self-discipline really consists of.

There are five main phases of the cycle that explain why you tend to keep sitting on your butt, even thought you know you shouldn’t be. It further explains how you justify sitting on your butt, and even how you’ll probably sit on your butt even more decisively the next time. We can follow along with the same example of car washing.

  1. Unhelpful assumptions or made-up rules: “Life is short, so I should enjoy it and not spend my precious time washing that dusty car! Car washes are something you pay for anyway!”
  2. Increasing discomfort: “I’d rather not wash the car. It’s boring and uncomfortable. I know my spouse asked me to, but it can wait.”
  3. Excuses for lack of self-discipline to decrease psychological discomfort: “It’s perfectly reasonable for me not to wash the car. It’s so hot outside I would melt. My spouse didn’t really mean it when they asked.”
  4. Avoidance activities to decrease psychological discomfort: “I will clean the bathroom instead. I’m still productive! I’ll also arrange my desk. Lots of things getting done today. I did pretty well today, all things considered.”
  5. Negative and positive consequences: “Ah, I feel better about myself now. Cleanliness all around. Oh, wait. I still need to wash that car, and my spouse seems angrier this time…”

Which brings us full circle right back to the start: the car isn’t washed, and your assumptions remain the same. Only this time, there’s even more discomfort that you want to avoid immediately. And so it goes on. Once you’re in the cycle, it’s hard to get over the increasing inertia keeping you from getting the task done.

Let’s take a look at each of the phases individually. We’ll start right from the top; this is where you are either failing to start a task, or to complete a task already underway. You know you should do these things, and they are in your best interests. However, you’ve already made the decision against self-discipline, so what goes through your mind?

Unhelpful Assumptions or Made-Up Rules

If you feel like you don’t want to start or follow through with something, it’s not due to simple laziness or “I don’t feel like it right now.” It’s about the beliefs and assumptions that underlie these feelings. What are some of these unhelpful assumptions or made-up rules?

My life should be about seeking pleasure, having fun, and enjoying myself. Anything that conflicts with that shouldn’t be allowed. We all fall into this at one time or another. Pleasure-seeking is where you feel that life is too short to pass up something fun, interesting, or pleasant in favor of things that may seem boring or hard. Fun is the priority! At the very least, you believe that the current short-term pleasure is more important than a long-term payoff.

This is the true meaning of “I don’t feel like it right now” – you are actually saying, “I want to do something more pleasurable than that right now.”

I need X, Y, or Z to exercise my self-discipline, and if they are not present, I am excused. Sometimes you just can’t muster up the energy to do something. You may feel tired, stressed, depressed, or unmotivated and use that as your “reason” for not getting things done. You have to be “ready.” You need X, Y, and Z to start properly. You have to be in the mood.

All of these so-called requirements were conjured by you; none of them actually reflect reality. And sometimes you do need to push through until fatigue and exhaustion hit – self-discipline isn’t about the easy path. You will be uncomfortable, so don’t assume that you shouldn’t be.

I probably won’t do it right, so I just won’t do it at all. You may fall into the assumption that you must do things perfectly every time or else it will be labeled a failure. This is a fear of failure and rejection, and it also involves a lack of self-confidence. You also don’t want others to think less of you. And how do you ensure that neither of these things happen? You don’t do it. You don’t start it, and you don’t finish it. There won’t be failure or disappointment because you don’t allow the opportunity for judgment.

I alone dictate what I do. This is where you assume that you need to be the one to call the shots and to be in control. You feel a strong attachment to being in charge. You feel you shouldn’t have to do something just because someone tells you to. This is best summed up by the statement “I don’t have to listen to them.” This is a defensive reaction to what you view as someone stepping on you, and it often leads to you acting against your own interests.

If you feel that you need to do something that goes against your beliefs, you will only do it when absolutely necessary. This is a reality of human behavior, as is the fact that these beliefs are usually unconscious. So what happens if you are told to do household chores but you possess the first two beliefs of “fun comes first” and “I need perfect conditions”? You’ll have fun first, wait for a large set of preconditions, and the chores will go undone. The rest of the cycle is what keeps them undone.