At the beginning of this year, I made the decision to stop drinking alcohol for three months. From January to March of this year I did not drink.
Aside from the obvious health benefits that come with not drinking, my biggest takeaway from this little personal experiment was a change in how I viewed discipline.
You see, I used to believe that discipline was a personality trait. I thought our ability to be disciplined was directly related to the amount of self-discipline we were each born with. Like height or hair color or athletic ability, I assumed it was genetic. Either you were disciplined or you weren’t.
But my little 90 day pause from the sauce helped me to realize that self-discipline is not a trait, but a muscle.
Yep, just like the muscles in our body, discipline is a muscle that needs to be trained and consistently exercised in order to grow.
Let me explain.
Throughout the three months I didn’t drink, I had numerous occasions when I really wanted to drink.
I had a friend who lives in Switzerland fly across the globe to come visit me in Colombia and travel with me in Peru. This visit, as much as anything, would have been a very justifiable reason for me to relax my self imposed “no drinking” ban and have a couple beers. I was in a foreign country with my best friend. Nobody would have judged me for indulging in a few tasty ones.
And it was tempting to drink, it really was. I remember walking along a cobblestone road in Cusco, Peru just as the sun was setting and saying to my friend, “Damn, this would be a great time for a beer.”
And it would have been.
But I stuck to my goal. I had to, on at least four different occasions, resist a very strong inner urge to say “Fuck it, just give me a glass of wine.”
I remember another time dancing in an underground salsa club in Medellin with my girlfriend. It was hot and sweaty and I really just wanted a couple of tequila shots to loosen things up.
“You are young and in love and dancing the night away,” my subconscious mind screamed.
“It’s Valentine’s Day. Just enjoy this moment with your girl and live a little. You can pick up your goal tomorrow. Nobody will judge you for that.”
And you know what? My subconscious was probably right. Nobody would have cared.
But again, I didn’t give in.
In all of these instances, and many more, I stayed the course. I stuck to my commitment to not drink.
What I can see now was that each of these decisions, each decision to stick to my goal was another rep for my invisible discipline muscle.
It’s Like Meditating.
If you have ever meditated, you know that it is inevitable for your mind to wander while you are meditating.
The goal is not to prevent your mind from thinking or from wandering. That would be impossible for most people.
The goal with meditating is to be conscious of your thoughts and to recognize when your mind is wandering. Every time your mind does wander, you are to gently bring your focus back to your center.
Bringing your mind back to center is the “rep” in meditation. The more you do this and the more you can corral your mind when it is wandering, the more in control of your thinking you become.
I believe it’s the same thing with discipline.
The more discipline you practice, the more disciplined you become.
What was really interesting to me during my 90 days of no booze was that the more times I passed on drinking, the easier it became to say “no” the next time.
I also noticed that the more disciplined I became with my goal not to drink, the more disciplined I became in other areas of my life as well.
During the three months I didn’t drink, I also:
- Fasted for more than 60 hours. Anyone who really knows me knows I LOVE to eat. Not eating for this long is something I never thought I’d be able to do.
- Got into the habit of waking up at 4:30 or 5AM once or twice a week to work on a book project.
- Started waking up at 5:30AM twice a week to go swimming with a friend.
- Stopped eating red meat.
I began to stop thinking of discipline and restraint as genetic personality traits and seeing it for what it was:
An invisible muscle that needs to be trained and exercised on a weekly, if not daily, basis.
Create a Discipline Training Regime.
Now, I am not saying that you need to be more disciplined. Your life is your life. Do what you do.
But for anyone who would like to become more disciplined, I believe a good place to start is to begin thinking of discipline as a muscle. By doing so, you will begin to adopt the “training” mindset needed in order for you to become more disciplined.
You need to think about discipline in the same way you think about going to the gym.
If you have never been to the gym, you wouldn’t go for the first time ever and try to lift 300 lbs. You know that you’d hurt yourself.
It’s the same with discipline.
If you expect to kick all of your bad habits and vices at once, you are going to drown in frustration. You must take the time to train and build your discipline muscle.
You need to deliberately force yourself to practice discipline.
And you need to start small. You need to set short, achievable goals that will help to train your muscle and build momentum.
Here are some great discipline-building exercises for beginners:
- Not drinking alcohol / soda for 72 hours
- Not using your phone while you watch your favorite show
- Not logging in to social media for 24 hours
- Turning off your phone for 24 hours (people won’t miss you that much, trust me)
- Fasting for 12 hours
- Picking two days each week where you wake up early to go to the gym or exercise (it must be the same two days and you must go on the days you choose, no matter what)
It may not seem like it, but not drinking alcohol for three days will help to train your discipline muscle so that you can pass on drinking alcohol for a week. Not drinking alcohol for a week will help you to prepare you for not drinking for a month. And on and on and on….
Also, unlike the muscles in your body, discipline is a universal muscle.
Practicing disciplined in one area of your life will help you to be more disciplined in other areas as well.
It may not seem like it, but being able to turn your phone off for 24 hours, even though it is completely unrelated to exercise, will help to train the same muscle that will get you to wake up for the gym at 5:30AM.
No matter what your goals are, the more reps you do, the more times you can stick with your goals, the more your discipline muscle will grow.
Remember, with discipline the goal is not to eliminate all urges and cravings and feelings of wanting to give in.
These feelings are going to inevitably come.
Just as your mind will inevitably wander when you meditate, your subconscious is going to beg you to give in. The goal is to reject these urges and to consciously stick with your goal, no matter what. Each time you do this, it is another “rep” for your discipline muscle.
Remember this when you feel the urge to give in or to say “oh, just this once.” Don’t let the opportunity for a good rep pass you by.
Say to yourself:
“This is the rep, this is the rep,” and then fight like hell not to give in to temptation.
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