I need discipline! (no, not that kind of discipline)
October 26, 2008 3:26 PM   Subscribe

Help me re-develop personal discipline without tearing myself to pieces.

I reached adulthood with all the typical cognitive screwups of someone who was once a 'gifted kid': unreasonably high standards, bad study and work habits, a tendency to procrastinate and a nagging sense that I was utterly failing to reach my potential. Yeah, me and half of Metafilter, I'm sure.

With cognitive behavioural therapy, I've worked through a lot of this. I've learned how to lower my standards to somewhere below the stratosphere, to stop punishing myself like an overbearing parent, to break up tasks into manageable chunks and to carefully manage the depression and anxiety which have haunted me through most of the past ten years. I'm a whole lot less highly-strung than I was, and I no longer have any attachment to the idea of being 'special'. I'm an ordinary adult and I just want to finish my degree and continue to progress in my career.

What I really need, though, is to learn a new method for self-discipline. CBT taught me that old way of disciplining myself was contributing to my depression.

My thought process used to go something like this:

I should do this difficult intellectual task -->
I'm reluctant to start this task because I'm afraid I be able won't do it perfectly -->
I'm a bad person for procrastinating on this task -->
I won't do anything fun until I've done this task, that'll motivate me to do it -->
I hate the world, there is no joy in my life; I never do anything fun -->
I don't deserve to do anything fun because I haven't done this difficult intellectual task -->
I'm miserable and anxious and I'm a bad person. -->
I should do this difficult intellectual task.

Rince, lather, repeat until suicidal.

So I learned not to 'beat myself up' when I fail to meet my own expectations. Some of those expectations really were unreasonable, so I'm glad I'm no longer bound by them. But I do still need self-discipline in my life; there are tasks I must do despite there being no immediate external consequence for not doing them. And although I'm no longer self-flagellating myself into depression about them, sometimes I just...don't do them. If I try to brute-force myself into doing them, that old thought process is still there, all too eager to take over and help me tear myself to pieces about it.

So, how do I develop the personal discipline to meet my own, mostly reasonable, expectations? Without 'punishing' or 'rewarding' myself in ways which remind me of that old thought process (and, to get all Freudian for a moment, of my parents).

How do I do that? How do you? Am I right in thinking it has something to do with personal integrity? Authenticity, perhaps?

Yes, I'll discuss this with my therapist. No, I'm not on meds, and that isn't going to change.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 168 users marked this as a favorite
I know it sounds a bit "self-help" (and sorry for that) but start by losing the word "should" from your vocabulary, or more to the point, get very conscious of how much you use it, because "should" is usually an indication that you're being driven by some kind of need to conform, either to rigid standards of others', or worse, your own.

Do you need to do "this difficult intellectual task". In other words, will you (or someone you care about) die or otherwise be destroyed if you don't accomplish it. Then you better just do it. Forget "should". Otherwise, the key question is, do you want to do "this difficult intellectual task"? If not, then relax, skip the suffering, self-loathing etc and find something you do want or need to do.

This kind of stuff is so easy to say.
posted by philip-random at 3:45 PM on October 26, 2008 [3 favorites]

Don't use big labels like personal integrity or authenticity.
You are a good person, just the way you are. But all of us are works in progress - think of it as being on a path of personal growth - it is OK that you are just where you are but you would like to be somewhere else in the future.

Second, when you are something that you would like to do, break it down into small actionable items. Depending on the how hard it is for you to get going, make the steps small - like 15 minutes. Pick the first step - make a note where you will see that it is something you want to do. At some point, you will get tired of looking at it and decide to do it.

One suggestion I liked (from Barbara Sher) is to figure out the very smallest step - for example if you want to read something - the smallest step is to pick up the book, sit down in a quiet place and open it to the right page. You can stop there is you want or you can start to read. Success is defined as picking up the book and opening it. If you decide you just really don't want to do anything that day, then make it an active decision. TODAY I AM NOT GOING TO DO THIS and then don't do it (actively - this is your choice, not procrastination)
posted by metahawk at 4:05 PM on October 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Yeah, "shoulding" all over yourself is kind of a dead end, as you've figured out.

And oh, man, this is me on many a weekend, and sometimes during the week: sometimes I just...don't do them.

What I'm sensing is you're lacking some direction. You have two goals, finish your degree, and continue to progress in your career.

The degree part should, er, is probably already defined. In case it isn't, a trip to the adviser is in order.

Career is different for everyone, and if your satisfied with your progress, great. If not, then maybe a guidance counselor or mentor can help with that.

Doing stuff around the house - well, that's harder. (This is what I'm inferring you're putting off) If you're the only one that sees the place, then really, what's the point?

Life is a little simpler at work, where I have two documents open at all times (google docs): one is a plan for the week, with what I expect to do on each day. No more than four things per day. I refer back to it constantly whenever I feel stuck. The other is a daily diary of the things I have done, so I don't feel like nothing's happened. It sometimes turns into a frustration journal, as plans and goals get stymied. It provides a real insight into things past when I go back and look at it.

But hey, back to the house. Eventually you may want company over, so I'd say make it a goal to have a party on St. Patrick's Day. You do deep cleaning, then do periodic cleanups, and don't beat on yourself if you miss a day. If you're not able to have someone over in January/Feb, then you know you need to step up. My own goal is for my kids' friends to come over in the spring. I started earlier and I have further to go because of some really deep piles of stuff that must go first, but I am on track. Mostly I look at the doc I wrote at the beginning, defining where I would be at X time, as kind of "after" picture to contrast with the "before" of now.

The thing about habits and discipline is they take time to develop. It's super easy to break down something that wasn't working and was actively destroying you. It takes a lot of dull, repetitive work to really get a constructive thing from the front of your head (logical) to the back of your head (habit). 21 days in a row makes a habit. You've got to get through all 21of those days. That's the middle part, the part everyone hates, and the part motivationaists don't really talk about, and where people like FlyLady, ZenToDone, and WSD make their money.

You might also talk to the therapist about issues like shyness (social phobia) or any more depression that might be lurking. That's sometimes held me back.

If it's all school related, find a study buddy, and make the commitment to meet at least once per week. If it's exercise, get a buddy for that, too. That's what I've got now. If she can't go, I don't. Not optimal, but it spurs both of us.

If it's work, it may be a little tougher to get a buddy. That's where a mentor will be a godsend. You need someone who's not in your chain of command, who you can trust with your concerns, and who'll be your sounding board for things you want to try. I've got a couple of confidants that help me a bunch. I don't keep secrets from my boss, but I do run things by them first for fine tuning. It doesn't even have to be someone you work with. There were times when I used family as the sounding board.

Authenticity and integrity come into play when you realize you don't have to be what anybody else wants you to be, and you're not afraid to let them know that. It's when you try to hide yourself from others that you become fake and untrustworthy.

tl;dr -> Fake it 'til you make it, and to thine own self be true
posted by lysdexic at 4:19 PM on October 26, 2008 [6 favorites]

I would look into Getting Things Done. There's been a few threads on AskMe about it, like this one. It'll help you get into a system.
posted by heatherann at 6:59 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

I do it by.. just starting.

Seriously -- just start it. Stop thinking about whateveritis, and.. just start. Pick up the book, start typing, open wikipedia... just start. I don't worry about the end product straight away, I just trust myself that, by the end, I'll have put something together of decent quality.

And you know what? I do! Just start it. Seriously. It's not that scary. And the buzz you get at the end when it's all good and done? Yeah, that helps you just start the next thing...
posted by coriolisdave at 9:07 PM on October 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

i) Action Precedes Motivation

ii) Once you relieve yourself of the burden of having to enjoy something and just do it irrespective of pleasure or pressure, you will find that your life becomes a lot easier,

These are sentiments that have been expressed in various forms on AskMe. I think they apply in your case too.
posted by lalochezia at 9:15 PM on October 26, 2008 [5 favorites]

I developed discipline in college through this technique.

I started as a guy who went to about 30% of his classes, played GTA Vice City and Unreal Tournament about 16 hours a day, and still got straight A's in Freshman Year.

If you have a difficult major, once you get those 101 courses done, you realize that you can't get away with this anymore. Besides that, it's not a very fulfilling life.

I ended college the student of the year in my department, having landed internships with the NSF and two DOE National Laboratories, having helped start a Political Action Committee, and I ran a year of Cross Country.

Now, I've managed to lose that discipline. It started my senior year, I started taking things for granted, and with the huge base of work I had already piled up, I managed to coast through with good grades anyway. Then I got a job that was not really that stimulating to me where my coworkers expected very little of me and were overly generous in their compliments when I did what I considered easy things. So I'm sitting here today in a new job where I really am being challenged and my discipline "muscle" is atrophied.

So your question is very timely. I plan to go back through Pavlina's methods, and also turn to another book I used to develop good habits called "How to Work the Competition into the Ground and Have Fun Doing it"

This book really appeals to me because I tended in college to not only want to set the curve, but rather incinerate it with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. Yeah, I was a dick. To some degree, I still am. You don't have to be one though to use the same techniques to learn discipline.
posted by zhivota at 9:26 PM on October 26, 2008

(continued agreement with the 'loose the shoulds' threme of advice)
the 'arrow technique' you use is something i've come across in a book recommended to me by my, yep you guessed it, CBT therapist. the book is the feeling good handbook (cringe-worthy, i know). i don't have any Big Advice, but wanted to say i think you've identified something worth noting: starting really is the hardest part. realising this (over and over again) have helped me to ease the pressure around starting tasks. i also keep one of my favourite quotes at my desk: "i've accepted that everything i do is going to be completely ridiculous" (said a good friend in college).
posted by tamarack at 10:46 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Kitchen timer. Preferably one that resets itself when it goes off - I like the one that FlyLady sells, plus I haven't managed to break it.

Set for 15 minutes. Do your thing. Stop when it goes off and reward yourself. Repeat.
posted by catlet at 6:05 AM on October 27, 2008

Fear of imperfection combined with a basically high level of competence was (and still is) something that held me back, as well. I relate it to my drawing especially: if I don't have a great idea for it, why even bother? If I'm not in the mood and it won't be great, why even bother? If I've done better drawings and this one is bound to be worse than my best, whey even bother? The bursts of short-term intensity I have are good in their own way, but I have a tough time doing anything long-term, and I give up on things too easily, because that worked perfectly for me through school and college and I never needed to learn anything else. I expect everything I do to be great, and that's not sustainable nor it really how success works. For me, then, the people that most inspire me have high long-term output and don't give up. I admire projects like the show with zefrank and Jonathan Coulton's Things A Week, and when I think about blogs I like best, like A Dress A Day, it's not just that they have good content, it's that they've been updating consistently for years. Years, my God, I consider myself successful if I stick to the same project for a week. the show especially influenced my decision to try to draw and post something every day, because even though it wasn't really my thing, I saw that most days it was amusing, some days I thought were really funny and then a handful of things really kind of hit it out of the park, invited people to participate, created something really cool. Five amazingly good shows wouldn't have had the same impact, and that was a revelation for me.

How to actually do the things I want to do on a consistent basis, to make that first step when I'm not in the mood at all, that can be difficult. I get tired, I mess up, I skip one day and before I know it a week's gone by. Instead of thinking about how not motivated I am, I try to turn it around and think of the positive sides. For example, I can get a simple, not-so-great drawing done, scanned and posted in an hour, just a fraction of my day, an hour that will go by whether or not I do something useful with it. My drawing doesn't have to be a masterpiece to be worth that hour (or really worth that thirty-five to forty-five minutes, not counting scanning, writing and posting): it will still teach me something and it will still make people happy. I also have to overcome the way I criticize everything I do by reminding myself of the way I always consider things I've just finished: a lot of times I'll finish a drawing and hate it, and then like it just fine the next morning. I remind myself that I never, ever regret taking that time to draw even something simple and quick, but I do regret the days gone by without the drawings that could have existed. Thinking of the positive reasons to draw something, anything, even something that's not my best, is more motivating for me than beating myself up for not drawing something that wouldn't have been perfect anyways. It works for me: looking at the sixteen Halloween costumes I've drawn this month, I've got eight that I drew quickly and like well enough, six I thought turned out reasonably well and two that I really, really like. My goal was one each day of October and I failed that on my first day, but still, with imperfect determination and a low threshold for quality, I've still done work I like and learned something every day I've drawn. So for me, it's not integrity, not authenticity, but a sort of positive self-talk and a strong desire to feel the pleasure I get after I'm finished with the difficult task.

I hope this is at least a little relevant, since I don't know what it is you want to do!
posted by shirobara at 8:56 AM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I once heard the following quote, attributed to Goethe: "Only begin, and the mind will grow heated; only begin, and the task will be completed." (Given that it rhymes in English, it's probably very loosely translated.)

Anyway, that bit of advice has helped me personally. Usually when I think about undertaking some difficult technical project (software, in my case), I'll always want to read just one more textbook or just one more research paper. But recently, I just said 'what the hell' and dove in, and I've been making good progress. It's not a perfect way to motivate and discipline oneself, but it's better than sitting around and never starting anything.
posted by ambulatorybird at 9:45 AM on October 27, 2008 [4 favorites]

The Now Habit by Neil Fiore, and Do it Now by William Knaus may help.
Books on procrastination, but in my experience, that's what the behaviours and negative self-talk you mention about, end up in.

Fiore deals with the negative self-talk procrastinators have, and ways to turn that around, but also putting limits on what you're allowed to do. Say, you're only allowed to do work up til '6pm', and then you have to put it down, and go have fun.
Does that sound terrifying? Are you thinking - but I won't have done it! And even if it's late, I *should* do it, and --> blah blah blah, lather up to your line of self-talk.

Anyway, stuff like that. I'm finding it kinda terrifying, telling my internal 'bully' that it doesn't actually get a say in this, and realising it is counterproductive, but... yeah. Seems to be helping. When I manage it (very easy to slip into old patterns, rationalisations, excuses etc).
posted by Elysum at 8:09 PM on October 31, 2008

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