May 18, 2020
The Most Important Skill in Times of Chaos and Uncertainty
As an undisciplined youth, and even as a thirty-something adult, I always knew how to dream big. I imagined a fantastical future of riches, accolades, and pricey trinkets.
But there was always one glitch that interfered with my schemes.
Not once did I take any meaningful action to achieve those dreams. Sure, I’d make a few token moves to kick things into gear, but whenever the work got tough or tedious, I’d quit.
But I always found a sly way to abandon my pursuits. Instead of giving up and admitting defeat, I’d find another dream to pursue. That practice served me well. It deluded me into believing I never quit a dream, but instead, moved onto something better. And when things got tough again, I’d latch onto a new fantasy until reality drained my hope.
That cycle repeated for two decades because I lacked an essential skill — one which always matters, but becomes even more crucial in times of uncertainty. And during these times of unease, it’s often harder to apply this ability.
The skill I am talking about is self-discipline. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it like this:
The ability to make yourself do things you know you should do even when you do not want to — self-discipline
Self-discipline will keep you from clinging to the latest crisis amplifiers — news that distracts us and stirs our anxiety. Self-discipline will keep you focused on doing work that matters.
Self-discipline will keep you clear on your purpose and focused on a path towards achieving it. Anyone can acquire it at any age. It took me until my forties. But I’ve mastered it, and so can you. Here’s how.
1. Discover Your Desire
When I turned 42, I felt my best years had slipped by, and I had nothing to show for it. I fell into a panic that triggered a desire to accomplish something substantial. That feeling became my spark, and as Napolean Hill wrote in Think and Grow Rich,
“The starting point of all achievement is desire.”
Self-discipline, too, begins with a desire to accomplish something. Without that hunger, we fall prey to inertia and choose the easy (do nothing) path.
But when you feel you must achieve something, you’ll find a way to do it. And with that focus, discipline becomes easier, because now you have a purpose.
This is the time to think about or re-discover what you want to accomplish in life. Pick the one thing you’ve always wanted to do, something you’ve pushed aside because of day-to-day issues. Get excited about it, and rekindle the flicker of desire.
2. Incite Urgency
Let’s suppose your boss tasks you with finishing a project in one day, where it usually takes three days to complete. The time deficit creates a queasy feeling in your stomach, a sense of dread in your mind. There’s a clarity in your purpose now. You marshall all of your time, resources, and brainpower to meet your deadline.
That’s how urgency feels. It can focus your mind like few other motivations. While it’s true that not everything urgent is critical, when used appropriately, urgency can force discipline on you.
It doesn’t always exist on its own. I had the benefit of being in my 40s and feeling a sense of time running out. If you’re 30 years old, you may not feel the dread of the hourglass sand falling.
In some instances, you must manufacture urgency.
A business mentor once told me, “If you need something done, set a deadline, even if it’s an arbitrary one. And always include a consequence should they miss the deadline.”
This technique also works well to foster self-discipline. Find an accountability partner. Set deadlines for each other and hold one another accountable. Create consequences for missing your deadlines. Financial penalties work best. If you need to manufacture one, try a service like Stickk.
3. Forge a Routine
Routines form the cornerstone of self-discipline. It’s the only shortcut that can speed up your mastery of this skill. To develop your routine, keep it as simple as possible. You can model mine. I adapted this strategy from Charles Duhigg’s book Habits.
In it, he explains the habit loop, which consists of a cue, routine, and a reward.
A cue triggers your routine. My cue is coffee in my home office with a table lamp lit, and all other lights turned off. That triggers my writing routine. When I finish, I make my second cup of coffee — my reward.
To make this effective, create a simple to-do list the night before; make yours short and unambiguous.
- Call 100 prospects
- Write 1,000 words for client X
Know what you’re going to do before you begin your work, and be ruthless about sticking to it.
4. Repel Temptations
A wise old man once said, “I’m capable of resisting all temptations, except for the ones that tempt me.”
Distractions and temptations can break your self-discipline. You can never escape them, but you can make it harder for them to pierce your shell. These tips will help you remain disciplined during your productive time:
- If you don’t need your phone, keep it out of reach. I leave mine in my bedroom until I finish my work.
- Never keep more than one tab open on your computer.
- Don’t work where you have access to a television.
- Work when others are less likely to interrupt you.
Be sure to reward yourself after your session, and only if you complete your to-do list.
5. Act Tactically But Plan Strategically
To be disciplined, you must set a daily goal (your tactical approach). Follow your to-do list from the night before without any deviation.
Long-term, you must think strategically and work towards an ultimate objective. What do you hope to accomplish when it’s all over? Perhaps it’s writing a book or launching a business.
Your tactical daily-goals should always move you closer to achieving your strategic objective; these actions allow you to act with self-discipline each day. But your strategic plan keeps you disciplined by making sure you stay on the right path.
Napolean Hill wrote long ago that “self-discipline enables you to think first, and act afterward.” And nothing of consequence ever results from mere reaction. It always results from conscious thought, decision, and execution.