Discipline is Bullshit
A year ago, I was lazy as fuck. I took 40 minute showers, didn’t exercise, kept a messy room and hadn’t consistently kept up with hobbies. I felt overwhelmed at the thought of fixing the enormous mess that was my life. There was so much I was doing wrong and I knew it. At times, the weight of all of my lack of effort came crashing down on me in a self deprecating spiral of rumination.
“Keep rotting you useless piece of shit”
My dismal state wasn’t for a lack of trying. In fact discipline was a huge part of my identity. The idea that discipline is the solution to any problem was grilled into me as a kid, and it had certainly served to show progress in many areas of my life, academically, professionally and so on. Teachers, family, friends and many anecdotes of success that I had grown up around had taught me a simple truth, to be held as gospel: discipline beats laziness. We need only to be made aware of our lazy behaviours and discipline could be used to fix them.
“You eat too much. I don’t see you putting yourself out there. You’re a slob. Get over yourself. I don’t really see you trying. You don’t want this enough.”
I’ve been the target of well-meaning call outs countless times and I’ve squeezed the trigger too. In adulthood, self awareness to me meant being honest about these flaws and growth meant applying discipline in correcting them. To address my ungentlemanly presentation I researched GQ magazine articles to find what clothing looked good on brown skinned men and would shop accordingly. To correct my awkward social skills I’d push myself into social situations and later at home would grill myself about what I did wrong so I could do better next time. To lose weight, I’d try different methods over many years from 3 hour work outs at the gym to calorie counting.
I would try and try and try, and improvements would come and go until I found myself where I was a year go. Burnt out and crushed by self criticism. I wasn’t “good enough”, and it was my fault I didn’t try harder. It was my fault I wasn’t disciplined enough, it was my fault I was lazy.
We all know what Albert Einstein said about doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results. For me, it was a matter of seeing that my approach to each of these different problems was in principle exactly the same. ‘Discipline is the solution to laziness’ was my subconscious mantra, and it was this that needed evaluation as the cause of my Einsteinian insanity.
I needed to look at laziness and discipline a little closer. Since my own past had been riddled with many experiences of both success and failure, perhaps there was some wisdom in it to draw from.
What is Laziness?
Google tells me that Laziness is “the quality of being unwilling to work or use energy”. It seems to diagnose people as lazy, we simply observe this trait in them. If they know of a fault in their behavior, and they do nothing to address it, they are lazy. Let’s assess this though. If laziness is a symptom, what might its causes be? In my life, a couple come to mind.
The Absence of Interest
I hated English class. Damn, I hated it. My 3rd form (9th grade) English teacher and I had a rocky relationship, partly my fault, and the subject matter’s boredom contributed heavily to my classroom delinquency. I always saw myself as a maths and science kid. So, when I received a 28% mid year exam grade that year I was horrified, but really, what did I expect?
The Feeling of Overwhelm
Throughout my twenties I have been at battle with my teenage obesity. Grand exercise and diet routine followed by failure followed by prolonged, miserable collapse followed by rinse followed by repeat. Whenever my efforts stopped I found myself questioning if it was even possible. How could I possibly undo the damage? How with all my failures could I possibly succeed? It’s too big, it’s too much, there is just no way.
“Fuck it. I’ll take another slice of cake, please.”
And there you go. Overwhelm plagued me, laziness took form.
I’m sure there are many other possible reasons why someone might exhibit the symptom of laziness, but in looking only at these few, we can start to question whether or not the act of discipline is a sure-fire solution.
Can discipline really make you more interested in something? Can discipline do much to battle the feeling of overwhelm? Lets take a closer look.
What is Discipline?
Google tells me that discipline is “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience”. From this definition we can derive that there is both the act of discipline, and the end result of discipline, which is a set of behaviours in line with what is considered to be correct or favourable. But is the act of discipline the only means of achieving these good behaviours? In reflection of my own life, the following are some of the means with which I’ve created good behaviours and therefore, the perception of discipline.
The Act of Discipline
That Form 3 English class was a bit of a disaster. I still remember the awful berating I received from my English teacher and repeated berating from family about how I could possibly have scored 28% in a mid year. The message was clear. I didn’t study hard enough, and to make me study harder, the well meaning people around me saw it fit to discipline me into working harder. So, I did. Scoring a solid 40% in the final that year, I would work hard the year after to memorise useful quotes from the texts we had studied and write practice essays again and again until I received a 70% final year grade. Not bad for a subject I absolutely hated, and certainly all that effort improved the metric over time. By being disciplined and acting with discipline, I showed a positive change in behaviour and naturally, was perceived to be disciplined.
Fast forward to 5th form, my nausea of subjects that involved written expression began oddly to subside. My English teacher inspired me with the raw existential tragedy of Shakespeare and the horror of Edgar Allan Poe. The impassioned liberal rhetoric of my History teacher taught me a critical approach to probing the past on paper. My A* grades in both subjects came as a mix of joy and confusion. Once loathing English class and severely under-performing, I would later move into an advanced stream. I’d find myself furiously passionate many times again in future. Philosophy and theology, algorithms, guitar shredding, song composition, Agile software practices, leadership, games development; once inspiration came, effort would become an afterthought. By finding things that genuinely inspired me, I’d develop positive behaviours, and would create the perception that I was disciplined.
Around a year ago I set out to attempt Tim Ferris’ Slow Carb Diet. Having begun mindfulness and self-acceptance practices, I opted to pass on the forced efforts to dieting that I had employed in the past. I was intrigued by the idea of habit, the formation of automatic behaviours by repeating them until they are etched into our neural pathways. It seemed that all of my previous diet efforts never resulted in long lasting changes to the way I ate, so I decided that this time, success wasn’t weight loss, but the development of permanent habit. I split up the diet into slices: breakfast, dinner, snacks and lunch and picked up one habit from this backlog at a time. I aimed to work at sustaining each habit for 3 weeks. I aimed to eat only foods I enjoyed enough, iterating frequently on foods I bought, and picked up the next habit only when I felt comfortable. 2 and a half months later, I was a full blown slow carber. Now, 8 months later, with no exercise routine, I have reached a weight (72kg, down from 85kg) I haven’t weighed since I was 14 years old, and progress is still going slow but strong. Crazily enough, this wasn’t hard. Cravings were minimal along the way and now they’re pretty much non existent.
I recall many times that I’ve denied a piece of cake or a sugary drink and have been complimented on how disciplined I am. I slowly made comfortable changes to my diet, respecting what I naturally enjoyed eating, never fighting it, and in time created the perception that I was disciplined.
So is discipline the solution to laziness?
In reflection of the areas in which I have created the perception of discipline, the act of discipline in itself was in fact the least useful means of progress. Laziness in English class was due to a lack of interest, and where being forced and forcing myself into actively studying English lead to better grades, genuine inspiration from passionate teachers eventually became the reason for my grand yet effortless efforts in these topics. The overwhelming feeling of being overweight all my life and slowly losing out on my youthful years caused my laziness in dealing with it, and strict dieting and exercise would repeatedly fail me. It was only when I learned to detach myself from desperation and take one comfortable step at a time in changing habit that I eventually reached some measure of success.
In reflection of my own laziness, I have found it to be a symptom of an uncomfortable mind. Rather than forcing it to do things it is reluctant to do, we need to respect it and dive deeper into why it feels this way. Some of my successes of the past were indeed enabled by this act of forcing through these feelings of disinterest or overwhelm, but the burn out and anxiety it consistently caused now makes me see discipline for what it really is: a desperate rhetoric to force ourselves or others into producing results we deem as tangible as quickly as possible. Forcing yourself to behave a certain way makes no effort to understand and respect your underlying motivations, curiosities, pace for growth and your own incredibly potent volition.
So how about you, dearest reader? In what areas have you called yourself or been called lazy? In what areas have you called yourself or been called disciplined? What are the real reasons behind each of these surface level symptoms? Ask yourself these questions. It’s easy to feel frustrated and employ discipline to changing our behaviours, but it’s a hell of a lot more effective to take a step back and really attempt to understand ourselves. It’s only when we do this that our best path forward is permitted to present itself.
As for me I’m still lazy as fuck. I take 40 minute showers, keep a messy room and haven’t consistently kept up with hobbies. But I now have a hell of a diet routine, am working slowly on exercise habits and have quit my software job to explore the world of games and creative tech. From here on out I wholeheartedly accept where I am, will pursue achievement only when aligned with passion, and will work on building one healthy habit at a time at my own pace.
From here on out I am done with the damaging, poorly conceived, bullshit notion of discipline.