It's midnight and I walk into the kitchen to get myself a glass of water before I go to bed. Suddenly my eyes light up. A package of Oreos is sitting on the counter just calling out to be eaten.
Nope I won't do it. I know I'm not supposed to have sugar before bed. But one Oreo won't hurt. I'll just run tomorrow...soon enough nothing is left of the Oreos but a hastily ripped open package.
What happened? We’ve all been in these situations when we throw discipline out the window and do something we've resolved not to do, or delay something we should be doing. We ask ourselves questions like, Why don’t I have self-control? Why can’t I keep the rules I make for myself? Why am I so weak? But I think we are missing the crucial question:
What on earth was a package of Oreos doing on the counter?
When we think about discipline we often take an inward look at our own self-control, our ability to resist temptation. I’d argue that this approach is too narrow.
During the Vietnam War, many soldiers were introduced to heroin, a drug so addictive that 90% of addicts who quit, relapse. By the end of the war, 19% of the soldiers had become addicted and the U.S. was faced with a problem: what was to be done with the sudden influx of 100,000 heroin addicts? They commissioned scientists to monitor the returning soldiers.
Guess what they found: only 5% of the returning soldiers relapsed upon returning to the States. That’s incredible! It baffled scientists at the time who thought the study had been tampered with—but the results were true. (Read more about this study and addictive behaviour in Adam Alter’s Irresistible.) The soldiers returning to the U. S. were the same soldiers who were addicted to heroin in Vietnam. It is highly doubtful that their self-control had changed so drastically in one flight over the Pacific that they could suddenly shake off their addiction to one of the most addictive drugs through willpower alone. What did change drastically was their environment.
Environment has a much larger impact on our discipline than we might expect. Not all of us struggle with drug addiction, but all of us struggle with self-control. Many times we fail due to a simple lack of willpower, but that’s not all there is to it. Maybe the reason we seem undisciplined is because we make it harder for ourselves. We constantly place ourselves in situations that make staying disciplined harder.
For example, you may struggle with staying focused on studying or working. You are constantly replying to messages, hopping onto different tabs to surf the internet, and checking up on your favorite celebrities’ feeds. You tell yourself, Wow, I really need to be more disciplined. I need to try harder to stay focused. And you’re right. But perhaps the question you should be asking yourself is, why do I study with my phone next to me?
We have a problem with getting drunk, but we go to bars. We have a problem with snacking too much, but we keep snacks littered all over the house. The list goes on and on. We sabotage ourselves.
The solutions are simple: keep your phone in a different room while studying, keep snacks in a designated spot in the house, avoid bars past a certain time or avoid them completely. Sure, there will be times when you have to face temptations head on with no way of altering circumstances (like the soldiers who were sent to Vietnam), but when we can, why don’t we make it easier for ourselves?
Some might argue that “running away” or avoiding the temptation doesn’t discipline you, that you should face strong temptations head on and conquer them if you really want to be disciplined. But I argue that it takes discipline to ensure that you avoid unnecessary temptations. It takes discipline to move your phone to a different room, to avoid a bar, to put the Oreos back in the cupboard. The only difference is that we choose when to be disciplined.
Instead of waiting until the tantalizing package of Oreos is on your counter calling out to be eaten, you pick a moment when you are clear-headed and remove the stronger temptations. Because trust me, it’s a lot easier to stay disciplined when your source of temptation isn’t dangling right in front of you.
Choose your battles.
It's midnight; I walk into the kitchen to get myself a glass of water before I go to bed. The kitchen is strangely clean and I head over to the sink. I pour myself a cool cup of water and head back to bed for a good night’s rest.