The Best Way to Study Self-Discipline
Michał Stawicki

I like a lot of what you are saying. In particular, I agree that self-discipline is a fundamental road to quality of life. Without positive and forward moving actions/habits we lean to entropy and become victims of our own making.

However, your approach to self-discipline appears to be specific to you. In other words, for you self-discipline is a black and white phenomena — either you do it or you don’t. No excuses. And for sure, I believe that for some people, this approach has utility.

However, there are some folks where this approach will fail and leave them in a soup of guilt/shame because they can’t maintain that standard.

Being a primary care physician I’m meeting this dilemma on a multiple time a day basis. I’m a naturopathic physician — so this is unique to the medicine I practice. What I mean is, I believe that quality of life is largely proportional to our ability to live our lives consistent with the human genome. I don’t believe that drugs/surgery are bad. However, neither do they address the fundamental etiologies of poor health/disease. In essence, conventional approaches to disease are not even meant to heal/cure disease. Instead, the goal of many medical interventions is “management.” I’m speaking primarily about chronic disease here — heart disease, diabetes, depression, etc.

Rather than go into a long diatribe about this, I mean to say that if you eat/drink/sleep/socialize/move(exercise) with relative similarity to our ancestors then your health is generally good(in most cases). Our ancestors are the ones who've shaped our genome. They didn’t have a gym membership to exercise — they exerised because it was integrated into life. They didn't eat 3 meals a day but often had to go without — and they acclimated to that. The foods they ate were local, seasonal, etc. Much of research suggest our ancestors — if they lives past infections disease — lived with MUCH less obesity, cancer, heart disease etc.

Our current lifestyles are largely an artifact that militates against a high quality of life. Our genome (the instruction set of our collective physiology) has limitations. In other words, just because our civilization has made obesity/overweight the norm, exercise an option, and cancer a 1 out of 3 people reality doesn't mean it’s really our norm. A cursory glance @ the medical literature will show that over 70% of the US population is overweight or obese. The remaining 30% are often not a whole lot healthier, they just don’t express their malaise via weight gain.

All this to say that much of my work in practice daily is counseling/coaching patients about the nuts and bolts of diet and lifestyle changes required to either resolve their health complaints or help them prevent disease.

In my earlier years in practice, I was much more black and white with folks. Often I’d relate the consequences of inaction — usually not a pretty picture. I would juxtapose this with the positives of them beginning to integrate the changes needed to fix their cholesterol, hypertension, etc. Unfortunately, there were few patients who could make the necessary changes using more stringent recommendations.

I learned over time that encouraging what I call “baby steps” was MUCH more effective in getting patients to get on board and succeed. This is especially true when it comes to long term success. In addition, my approach — probably much like yours — reflects what works best for me. So I’m not saying there’s a right way to both inform folks and empower them to make important changes.

All of this is to say that the implementation of self-discipline is an individual affair. For example, a few years back I discovered that my old martial art was a fun way to get in/stay in shape. The problem was with my schedule, the only real time I could do the workouts was in the early AM. So I had to make and keep some changes to get to sleep earlier and get up MUCH earlier -usually 5 or 5:30 AM. Then I’d go out all fall/winter/spring about 3 to 4 mornings/week and do a 1.5 hour workout in the backyard.

I found that I could maintain that workout — and even enjoyed it — even though it was cold and often wet (I live in the pacific northwest which rains about 8 months a year). I kept up that discipline — and still do — largely by being loose about my schedule. In other words, if I missed a workout, I’d just get it done the next day. So for me, having some flexibility with regards to self discipline works for me.

For me, when I set it up in my mind to be black and white, I often get paralyzed by that prospect. So again, we each have to find our own road to self discipline. Essentially self discipline is an act of kindness/compassion to oneself. It’s a way to take care of oneself now — but also for our future enjoyment/success in life.

That’s my primary message with patients (and myself) as to how to consider self discipline. Treat it as a gift/kindness to oneself, rather than a bad/good, wrong/right, black/white equation. For sure, there have been a measure of patients that I just tell them what to do (in a general sense) and they pull the trigger and maintain it. But more often, in my experience, folks do better with some gentle and yet firm suggestions/counseling and follow-up with them as often as they need to stay on course.

The other major player for patients is that often — largely due to their poor diet and lifestyle habits — they are depressed, fatigued, in pain, etc. In other words, they feel like crap. If I just go in there and tell them, roll up your sleeves, no excuses do your exercise, stop eating all the simple carbs, — in other words “just do it” it rarely works. Not saying you are advocating this particularly. Instead, a more graduated approach seems to be effective. The main communication is about kindness towards oneself and giving them some rough guidelines. Then they choose the specifics as to the “how” in their lives.

My goal in treatment is to find ways to get them feeling better now. Once they feel better, they are in a MUCH better place to begin the self discipline necessary for them to reach their goals. So that’s the other part of my approach. Get them feeling better, and once that’s established, then it’s MUCH easier to approach lifestyle changes/self discipline.

So, hope this rather long diatribe is of SOME use in this important discussion. Again, love your discussion and intent. My only hope is to also communicate how some folks need different approaches to get self discipline in place. it’s especially important when attempting to make self discipline relatively self sustaining.