Discipline = making a mindful choice

We may think that disciplined people lack or suppress their desires. In fact, they still experience strong cravings, but they make a mindful choice.

When someone offers me cake at work and I decline, I usually get one of two typical reactions:

“Oh, live a little. Nothing bad will happen if you eat a piece of cake!”

I usually respond to this with:

“It’s not about living a little. It’s about what feels better to me and my body, and right now I’d feel better if I don’t eat the cake.”

And the other reaction is:

“Wow, how are you so disciplined? Do you never eat sweets? Do you not like sweets?”

These questions make me smile. In fact, I have a huge sweet tooth. I can eat way more cake, baklava, and chocolate than most people. When most people say, “Ah, this is too sweet for me, it’s making me sick,” that’s my favorite level of sweetness.

We often think that disciplined people don’t feel desires or cravings, or perhaps we think they suppress them. Disciplined people may appear cold inside, as though they’re more like robots who don’t know what it’s like to feel a strong human craving.

But, in fact, disciplined people do have desires and cravings, sometimes even more strongly than other people. Because these people’s cravings are so strong, they need to keep them in check.

When facing a desire or craving, the important thing is to make a clear, conscious choice about what we do next.
Image credit: JESHOOTS.com (Pexels license)

For instance, Philip, a friend of mine, comes from a family with a history of alcoholism. Philip doesn’t drink any alcohol. He told me that people often ask him how he’s able to have such self-control. He responds that it’s the opposite: he knows he doesn’t have the self-control to stop once he starts. That’s why he avoids alcohol altogether.

So is the only solution to abstain altogether? Avoid all tempting situations and things we desire?

For some people, abstaining from some substances (such as alcohol in the case of my friend Philip) works well. But that doesn’t have to be the case for all of us. (See the distinction between abstainers and moderators raised by Gretchen Rubin.)

I have a different solution in relation to my desire for sweets. I create specific implementation intentions: When X happens, I will do Y. When I am at work, I do not eat sweets. But on Friday evening, when I’m having dinner with a friend, I will have dessert. Or, on Saturday afternoon, when I go for tea with a friend, I will have a piece of cake.

These are planned exceptions. It means that I have thought about them in advance and decided what I’d like to do in that situation. When I do eat something sweet, I’m not reinforcing a mindless craving but rather I’m making a mindful choice. And I get more enjoyment out of it because it’s a conscious choice instead of an absent-minded reaction to a situation.

The characteristic that makes people disciplined is that they make a conscious, purposeful choice. It doesn’t actually matter which action they choose; whether they eat the cake or don’t eat the cake is not important. The crucial point is to make the choice with clarity and to be aware of the reasons that lead you to that choice.

Is there an area in your life where you purposefully choose what to do? Is there an area where you’d like to make more mindful choices? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

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