I've learnt many skills throughout my life, but discipline was never one of them. I've been able to get by for most of my life delivering tasks at the last moment so I never got a chance to learn how to work on something day in and day out. Naturally, life had to show its fangs at some point and it felt like a sudden jump from too easy to too hard.
I noticed a mismatch between my goals — which required consistent hard work — and my capacity to accomplish them. For years, the only thing I did consistently was banging my head against an invisible stone wall. I knew who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, but I didn't know how. From the outside, it felt like it should be easy: just do it. But for some reason I couldn't and I couldn't understand why. The self-doubts spiralled.
I finally reached a turning point when I learnt to understand and accept who I currently was and what had brought me here — the good and the bad. Without understanding, there's no way to bring the correct change. It's like having the flu and mistakenly taking antibiotics. I also discovered how common this was; it wasn't just me malfunctioning. Once I accepted that I hadn't had the opportunity to learn these skills, I stopped creating impossible expectations for myself. Now I could plan how to develop discipline and that required learning about habits.
First, I worked on my routine. A routine provides a foundation that blooms the desired mindset for the day. My morning routine consists of actions that provide stability and recentering. I don't expect to do it any random day and feel focused. Instead, I aim for the long-term effects that show up after weeks of consistency.
My morning routine is meditation, journaling, and exercise. I started meditating to curb anxiety; it didn't cure it, but it helped. Then I noticed I was having serious memory problems. I couldn't remember what I ate or what I had said in conversations — sometimes not even from the same day. It was a while until I understood it was a consequence of anxiety. The day I turned 20 I decided to start a diary. That way, if I forgot something, I could check my notebook. I even wrote down every single meal. Throughout the years, as my memory returned to normal, what I wrote changed and it became more akin to journaling.
I've tried to meditate and journal at different moments of the day, but they didn't stick until I moved them to first thing in the morning. At that point, distractions still haven't had a chance to creep in. At other moments — including right before bed — life tends to get in the way and keep me from doing it. In the morning, however, it was easier to be consistent and it had the added benefit of starting the day on the right foot, even if the previous night was rough.
I've struggled with anxiety my whole adult life until 3 years ago. That's 10 years of bad sleep. A bad night can profoundly hamper the following day. I would wake up lamenting one more bumpy night, go through a slow morning and have my day revolve around resting instead of reaching my goals. Meditating and journaling allow me to do a mental reset before getting into productive mode.
I've spent all these years playing around with this routine, trying out a bunch of different schedules, messing it up and getting back up again. It's been challenging and frustrating, paving the way to self-doubt. It wasn't until I understood my anxiety and worked on the core issues that things started to turn around. A good routine is very helpful to maintain a healthy body and mind, but it won't cure an existing injury. It took a lot of therapy to understand the thought loops that kept me anxious and a ton of rewiring to get to the other side.
In the beginning, a good routine prevented a downward spiral. Now it keeps me in my most energetic, motivated, and mentally strong state. With therapy and a routine, I noticed I could work hard consistently when I had external responsibilities. I couldn't be more proud of the progress but discipline was still a critical issue when the only responsibility was towards myself. This was my ultimate objective and now I had the mental bandwidth and strength to work on it.
Discipline is a habit
I always thought that discipline is either something you did or you didn't — that it was a choice. I believed motivation preceded discipline. I knew I felt best when I was motivated and working hard on a project, but I also started hating the idea of initiating a project — going from 0 to 1. The motivation was hardly ever there. I started to question who I really was. If I didn't feel motivated, maybe there was something wrong with me. Maybe I wasn't cut out to be who I thought I wanted to be. Was I convincing myself that I wanted to work on these lofty goals rather than listening to my body that was screaming the opposite? The more doubts the more I procrastinated which led to more doubts. The resistance to start working got increasingly worse. But I still had a few sporadic phases where I would suddenly feel a rush of intrinsic motivation and work really hard for a few months and feel incredible. So, who was I really?
The premise was incorrect. Similar to how teenagers tend to have a false interpretation of what a healthy romantic relationship looks like, I had a misconception about discipline; I had it the other way around. Actually, motivation comes from discipline, and discipline is a skill harnessed through habit. I can't say the amount of posts, essays and books I've read on this topic until it all made sense. I started noticing this habit → motivation loop with my morning routine: the longer I'd been consistent with exercise, the more motivated I was to keep doing it.
Like all habits, the secret is to start with a stupidly small step and reduce the friction as close to 0 as we can. Something so small that it would be almost impossible not to do it. With meditation and journaling, it meant finding the right time of day (mornings), removing the obligation to do it every single time, and starting with a small amount (10m and 1 paragraph). With work, I started with 30m each day. It's almost impossible to not find a 30-minute break.
As we do a task regularly for a period of time, it gradually becomes a part of who we are. It takes up more and more head space and we feel a deeper connection. With my own projects, I would find myself thinking about new ideas or solutions at random moments of the day. The more I worked on something, the more I thought about it throughout the week, and the more excited I felt to keep working on it. This is the tipping point where an action that started surrounded by friction transitions to a smoother ride.
This post's title is a bit of a lie. Habits aren't the root solution. It's connection. Habits are the vehicle to create that connection. In the end, it's all about how much mental space it occupies. Another technique is to talk about it. Discuss it with anyone: family, friends, new people we meet... I still find it difficult to discuss what I'm working on. Why would they be interested in it? Yet, when I take a step back, I remember how much I love it when people discuss their passions and how much they enjoy it when I talk about mine.
Creating a new habit is never easy. Falling down is expected. We may be diligently following our routine and working hard for months in smooth sailing mode and life will still hit us so hard that we'll tumble — I actually went through this recently. The standard human behaviour is to be hard on ourselves generating a self-image of incapability which adds resistance to future attempts. When that happens, we tend to run away from the uncomfortable feeling by procrastinating and we're back in the negative loop.
There's only one way out: accepting the discomfort. Something that works well for me when I have this avoidance urge is to mentally stay with the discomfort for a few minutes. It's like a short meditation that reduces the intensity, brings focus, and makes it easier to get back on track.
It's fine if we miss a day or two. We should acknowledge that mistakes happen or that we have to pay attention to something else in our lives. We'll do it the next day. Nobody is consistent every single day of the year — that's an unrealistic expectation. When the missed days do pile up, sometimes spiralling out of control, it requires more effort. I treat these moments as if I were learning a habit from scratch with the adjusted expectation it entails.
When one tries and tries and keeps failing, that's when doubts creep in. It's a sign that we need to go back to step one and reduce the friction further. But even when we do succeed, we will likely trip over at some point. That's when we can rely on previous experiences and copy the things that helped us succeed in the first place. We need to make mistakes so the lessons stick and to iron out our own processes. It's easier to get back on our feet the fifth time by relying on the confidence acquired by proving to ourselves that we could do it the four previous times.
It all comes down to the Force of Habit: the longer one follows a habit consistently, the stronger it becomes. As a habit leads to motivation towards itself, it can become a powerful force. There's still a natural tendency towards 0 if it isn't nurtured with spaced repetition; it gets harder to do something the more time has passed since the last attempt. That's why it's better to do it for a few minutes than skip it entirely. The objective is to create a strong connection to an action or project so that it becomes a part of who we are.
We always have to start by accepting our present self to set the appropriate expectations. We can't just follow some random tips on the Internet and hope to see a life-changing effect. We need to understand and work on ourselves, often requiring professional help. But we are not alone. Resistance is part of the human condition and, we each — at our own pace — aspire to navigate it better with time.
I'm still a work in progress. My subconscious protection mechanisms against anxiety continue to set off alarms from time to time, and my self-image of not being capable still lingers. But it's a lifelong journey and when I peel one layer, I move on to the next. These learnings took me a very long time to discover and grasp. I deeply appreciate all those — friends and strangers — who shared this knowledge and I hope it can be helpful for others too.