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.

What type of crap are you willing to tolerate

The questions we usually ask are: What activities bring purpose to my life? What do I enjoy doing? What am I passionate about? These are all good questions but they miss something important: everything sucks, some of the time.

As Mark Manson asks, “What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich?”

It’s about what we are willing to tolerate in order to get the part we love. I love dance, for instance, but I am not willing to endure the injuries that one gets from dancing all day. I am also not willing to deal with all the uncertainty that every artist has to put up with. Ergo, dance is not my main preoccupation.

I often wonder whether I truly enjoy research. I love asking the big questions, and it also fascinates me to find practical ways to study them. It’s beautiful to see a clever experimental design and marvel at the creativity that went into coming up it. I learn from such designs in the hope that one day I will be able to come up with experimental like that myself and study the questions I find intriguing. But there is also a lot of uninspiring work that goes into all of this. Learning the methods of analysis, sitting in front of the computer, creating excel tables or matlab matrices, creating tiny stimuli, programming behavioral tasks, applying statistical analyses to neuroimaging data… Basically sitting in front of the computer a lot and dealing with details when one actually wants to know the answers to the large-scale questions. To be fair, I find some dorky enjoyment in some of those technical tasks. But a lot of it is booooooring and tedious.

For me the question is whether it is worthwhile to spend a few months on tedious tasks in order to briefly reach some outcome that might (or might not) give me an inkling of an answer to the question I wanted to address. It really does take a lot of time and effort to make a small step forward.

But then that’s true of probably anything. I am still working towards a clearer answer to whether that’s worthwhile for me, but so far it seems like it is. I may be willing to tolerate a large amount of tedious tasks in order to, at the end of the day, know that I have made a tiny step towards understanding how we perceive and experience the world. If I had all the choice in the world, this is the question I’d be answering, and research is one way to examine it (art is another, but let’s not go there right now). So for now I’m sticking with the shit sandwich of doing many technical analyses to try to reach some answer.

It’s also liberating to realize that there isn’t one amazing option out there that you’re missing out on. No matter what you do, it will suck at least a little bit, so you don’t have to keep looking for that perfect occupation. Good enough is good enough. Now all you need to do is figure out what is good enough for you. Good luck there…

When desire takes over

You can judge me all you want, but I want to read this book. I know I should study, work out, run errands, talk to people, but right now I solely want to read this book.

I love making plans and doing things calmly, predictably, in a set manner. But sometimes desires kick in and knock me off my feet. Right now it’s the utmost desire to keep reading this one book. At other times it’s been to eat some delicious food or to have sex or to watch some superb film. Regardless of what the actual object of the desire is, the feeling is always the same: it’s a yearning deep in my chest and my gut that pulls at me and drags my mind away from anything that is not the object of the desire.

The feeling is kind of wonderful and kind of destructive. The excitement it brings cannot be matched by anything else. It makes me very energetic and passionate, so I feel I could lift up a mountain if I had to. But this feeling also destroys my ability to focus on anything else. I have to follow my desire, or else I will do whatever I am doing with only half of me. And, even if I do do what my yearning tells me to, I will be exhausted and spent after a while. Some years ago, I spent long, long hours watching amazing films. It was all I had wanted to do, so I indulged. After a few hours, I wasn’t feeling joyful but listless. I didn’t have any energy to do anything else, but I still couldn’t get my mind off of the characters in the film and the unanswered questions. It was impossible to do anything else, but it was also unfulfilling to follow my desire.

This is a horrible vicious circle to be caught in. I found that the best thing to do then was to get out, take a walk, breathe fresh air, and look around. So what was I to do with my yearning?

I think I’ve found a clue. Since last night I had wanted to read the book I am obsessed with now. I told myself no: there are other things I need to do, and besides the book is probably not that good anyway. I’ll wait until tomorrow, and by then I will have forgotten about it. Well, not exactly, today still every second thought I had was about that book. So I indulged in it. I read for about half an hour. Oh, how good it felt! Then I sat down and worked again. I was happy and also concentrated. Because I had read a little bit, I had acted upon my desire and had received the enjoyment. I hadn’t indulged into it for so long that I would lose touch with this world and find it impossible to come back (this is not necessarily a bad idea sometimes, but on many occasions it’s suboptimal).

I had enjoyed my favorite activity for a little bit, so it energized me and brought me joy. Then I felt ready to return to my world again and act in it. In a few hours, I will go back and read some more. Perhaps in this way I can follow my desire, that powerful, impulsive drive, and also fulfill other parts of my life that are more constant, monotonous, and calming. It’s like trying to make fire and water live together. I wonder if it’s possible.