Discipline. It’s a trait that might make us more successful at anything we do. Whether you are aprofessional athlete needing to put 100% into every training session, or a working mum needing to keep your cool with your kids (and husband) after a taxing day at work, or a staff member who has to get a monthly report in on time, discipline will undoubtedly help you in everything you do.
In fact, there are some famous experiments by Walter Mischel called the ‘Marshmallow Experiments’ that highlight the necessity of this trait. Simply, the research involved children sitting in a room with a marshmallows in front of them. The researcher told them that he had to leave for a while and that they could have one marshmallow only, but if they waited for him to return before eating any marshmallows, then they could have two. The particular results of the experiment weren’t terribly astonishing – some children were able to hold out, while others weren’t (there’s a good article in the New Yorker).
But the surprising results came years later when the subjects were followed up during their schooling. The data showed, without a doubt, that those who were able to hold out for the second marshmallow were the exact same people who showed the greatest academic success. This discipline wasn’t just useful for resisting lollies – it was useful for academic performance as well.
This has been shown time and time again, most notably by Malcolm Gladwell in his best selling book, Outliers.
So, are we born with discipline and self-control or can it be trained? Let’s look at one of the most brutal forms of discipline to find out.
Meditation is hard. It involves shutting out all distractions and thinking about nothing. In some ways, thinking about nothing seems easy, but paradoxically, keeping our neurons and cells completely at rest requires a tremendous amount of energy. Doing and thinking nothing is one of the hardest things to do. It’s easier to day dream (in terms of energy expenditure) than it is to do nothing.
But we know that we can train meditation ability. The ability to hold our full attention on being completely still mentally and physically. Even small amounts of practice greatly increase people’s ability to pay attention and physically increase the size of the brain region devoted to controlling emotions and attention. So it’s possible.
But beyond meditation, what are the things that help build self-control and discipline?
Well, like it or not you do this every day – or you don’t. Every day, most likely hourly, we train ourselves for either self-control or to give in to our whims. Here are some examples:
- You procrastinate instead of doing something productive
- You commit to something like getting up to go to the gym, or to hand in a project by a certain date and then you skip it
- You only do 90% of something that you could complete right now
- You use the last 15 minutes of your day to do mundane things to kill the time rather than start a really important piece of work
When you do each of these things, you condition yourself to do the easier thing. It becomes self-reinforcing because the immediate good feeling you get (staying in bed, letting yourself ‘off the hook’, doing easy things) produces a dopamine response (signaling reward), which reinforces the behaviour.
So, can we train discipline? Absolutely. We do it every day even when we don’t realize it. The more often we practice the better we get – don’t wait only for the big moments to practice self-control, do it every hour of every day.