The Art of Self-Discipline (or How to Not Be Distracted)

Michael SallustioBlogLeave a Comment


One of my goals is to bring much more of my personal experience (who I am) into my practice with the hope of reaching and helping more people and inspiring fresh dialog.  Hopefully, this will do just that.

I have been thinking a lot about self-discipline lately. Why? Because it’s been a lifelong challenge of mine. Sure, I can look back bigstock-discipline-chineseon periods in my life and be proud of the amount of discipline I exhibited. The discipline it took for me to get through law school and then, after practicing law for 5 years, to acquire certifications in nutrition and personal training so that I could begin an entirely new career. The discipline required to become a business owner and open that wellness boutique and keep it going for 13 years, expanding the business twice along the way. The discipline it takes to get up and go to work day after day in order to support myself and my family. And then there are the little things like writing these blogs every couple of weeks, especially this one (get it? smile). Writing does not come easy for me.

So why then do I feel challenged? For the same reasons many of the people I speak with about this subject feel challenged: I want more; I want to accomplish more; I want to be better, more productive; I want to reach more people. I am not finished yet doing what I set out to do. I have goals that I’ve not yet met. Join the club, right?!

I feel challenged because there are times (more than I’d like to think about) when I am not able to stay focused and when I get distracted and my mind wanders off. I turn on the TV or I get on Facebook or iTunes or I binge on something sweet or incessantly check my smartphone. The smartphone addiction is so common that we need laws to tell us not to use it while driving. The addiction to distraction has become an epidemic in our culture and it seems to be getting worse. We have access to so much and it’s easier than ever for our minds to go astray.  

For me, perhaps the bigger issue is that when I catch myself and actually become aware of it, my inner critic admonishes me and tells me how I’ve failed or that I don’t have what it takes to stay focused and succeed. I don’t have to get into why I shouldn’t listen to those negative voices. We all know they are counterproductive and nothing but wasted energy. But when they come up, I do question my resolve and wonder why it is that I get so easily distracted. What do I have, ADD or something? Do I lack work ethic? Do these self-directed questions sound familiar?

It is okay to ask these questions, as long as I give honest responses. And looking back on what I’ve accomplished, I can honestly and safely say that if I had ADD I would not likely have been able to get through law school and that all of the aforementioned accomplishments are a testament to my work ethic. So then why do I get so easily distracted at times?

After doing some research on this subject and then reflecting back on my most recent incident of getting distracted (which was about two paragraphs into this article), I realize the answer is quite simple: I sometimes lose sight of my goal(s)—I forget my purpose.

Without a purpose, without a clearly identified goal that I am passionate about, there is no inspiration or motivation. In the absence of such purpose, it is easy to rationalize and say, “I’ll just take a little break and see what so-and-so is doing on Facebook”…..or “Let me check in on that football game”….or “I’ve earned the right to meet those friends for dinner…I can get back to this tomorrow.” It’s amazing how my mind can play tricks on me. That whole ‘voices in my head’ concept is all too real!

What’s even more amazing is when the busy mind takes over. This is when the mind creates distractions not in the form of guilty pleasures or recreation, but in the form of activities that otherwise appear to be productive or even industrious. Ever go on a cleaning spree or find yourself spending more time at the office? If these seemingly responsible habits aren’t helping you get closer to your goal, they are nothing more than cleverly disguised distractions created by the busy mind.

Laziness is thought of as the opposite of discipline. Is it associated with a lack of drive or passion for life. There is some truth in that, but laziness is really just forgetting your goals or your purpose or neglecting to have a purpose altogether. Think about it; being lazy means you are not doing what you are supposed to be doing. When you are lazy, you are not focused on what’s important. You are distracted or you are creating distraction.

In fact, keeping yourself busy or being a workaholic can even be a sign of laziness or distraction. (“Oh my, he’s really lost his mind now!” Stay with me here smile). Sure, we can rationalize our busyness or our self-imposed workload by saying, “But there is so much to do and I must keep working until it gets done. Anything less would be irresponsible.” But is this really true?  

Put it to the test. Ask yourself: “Are the things I am working on and spending so much of my time on getting me towards my goal(s)?” If the answer is yes and at this time there is no task more worthy of your attention in this respect, than no worries—stay focused and work on! If, however, the things you are busying yourself with are not related to your goals at all and, while productive in general, are taking time and energy away from your success, than you’ve identified a distraction and this is your opportunity to get back on track. It doesn’t mean you ignore them. It simply means that perhaps it’s time to reconsider how much time you should be spending on these particular tasks.  

Distractions can also be a form of self-sabotage. Maybe they are driven by a subconscious fear of succeeding because of the added responsibility that comes with success, or because you don’t feel worthy of success. This sounds really dysfunctional, but it’s quite common. One example of this is when you are running late for an appointment and you find a way to make yourself even later, like stopping to do the dishes or straightening up your bedroom before leaving the house. That menial task could have waited, but you suddenly made it a priority because you subconsciously wanted to be late for that meeting. This kind of subversive behavior is sometimes difficult to identify, but identify it you must if you want it to change.

So how do you become disciplined? As I mentioned earlier, I’ve researched this topic and much of what I found dealing with discipline was about having will power and tough love and even time management.  But in my experience it”s a bit more complex.  Besides, if those books were correct and that’s all there was to it, why is it such a widespread problem?  So I’ve come up with my own approach.  

Here are six steps that will help you kick the habit of distraction, and they are listed in order of priority:

1. Acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments. It may seem strange to put this first, but what better way to begin working on the new you than to celebrate who you’ve become and what you’ve accomplished over the years! Every beginning begins with an end. Make a list of examples in your life of when you have demonstrated discipline or drive. Sometimes we need proof of our capabilities before embarking on a new journey. No matter how many failures you feel like you’ve had in your life, there must have been successes as well in order for you to have reached this moment—this moment being the one in which you decided to change your life for the better!

2. Identify your purpose, your mission, your “Why”. This must be something that you want really badly. Many people say they want to lose weight or get healthier, but that’s typically not enough. The question is why do you want that thing? You want to feel better about yourself….get off your blood pressure meds….be able to keep up with your kids or your grandkids?   Your purpose or goal should inspire passion within you. This is not a test. If you choose a purpose (your “why”) and you are still getting distracted easily, choose a new one because that is probably not the one. It may take some soul searching, but we all have something that will get that fire started.

3. Make a list of tasks that feed your purpose or get you closer to your ultimate goal. If it’s writing a book, commit to a certain schedule and number of hours when you will sit down and research or write every day. If it’s a health-oriented goal, plan out how much time you will dedicate to exercising each day or how much sugar you will allow yourself per week, etc. Having a list of things to work on helps keep you on track and putting it on paper or in your cell phone makes it more of a commitment. Distraction is much more likely when you don’t have a plan.

4. Turn your distractions into rewards…with boundaries.   If it’s TV, commit to limiting yourself to a set amount of TV time per week. Use TV as a reward—a brain-break if you will—as opposed to something you give into. Commit to only watching your favorite show rather than aimlessly searching for whatever happens to be on at your moment of weakness. This is what DVR is for. This puts you in the position of control rather than a victim of desire. You can do the same with Facebook or any other distraction. If the smartphone is your weakness, turn off your notifications or put it in silent mode. There was a time when you got by just fine without a smartphone. Commit to engaging in the activity only after you have completed your goal-oriented tasks for the day/week. The idea is to turn your distractions into rewards.

5. Just say no and be patient with yourself. Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “Self-respect is the root of discipline: The sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.” If you have been addicted to distraction for some time, it may take a while to break those nasty habits. If you falter early, forgive yourself and remind yourself of your purpose. Don’t view it as a failure. View it as a bump in the road and get right back on track.  In sitting meditation, the practice of clearing your mind and focusing only on the breath is at first a difficult one.  Many newcomers feel they cannot shut off their minds and therefore they aren’t doing it correctly.  But the key to meditation is learning not how to block all thought, but to let go of them as they come in.  Likewise, if you hear that negative or self-destructive voice in your head, acknowledge it and dismiss it. It does not serve you here. Your confidence and resolve will improve each time you do. 

6. Renew or reassess your commitment each and every day. This is borrowed from the 12 step program and it is crucial for sustained success. If you want this lifestyle change to last, you must renew your commitment each and every day. Take nothing for granted and make no assumptions. Don’t rest on recent success. Renew your commitment each day, first thing in the morning, and your passion and drive will always be strong. At the same time, remember that you are a complex person so your priorities and even your values may change or evolve. Give yourself the space for change. If you no longer feel passionate about your stated purpose, reassess how much it means to you and make a new one if necessary. Don’t settle or compromise. Life is too short! I used to incorporate this recommitment practice into my morning meditation/yoga practice….which I am recommitting to bringing back into my life right now!

            I hope this helps you . It sure has helped me!

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