Despite its huge value, it’s a skill that is never actually taught as a subject at school or university. It is self-discipline.
Self-discipline has been called the master life skill. You may have heard of the famous Marshmallow Experiment*. An experimenter put a marshmallow in front of young children and told them they could eat it straightaway but, if they could wait for a while, then they would be given two marshmallows. The researcher then left the room for some minutes. Some children just gulped the marshmallow immediately, others battled with the temptation but eventually gave in, and some of the children didn’t touch the sweet at all and were rewarded with the extra marshmallow. The dramatic part of this experiment is what they discovered when they followed up on those same children years later. The children with self-discipline – those who did not eat the marshmallow straight away – were more successful in their studies, had lower levels of substance abuse, were less likely to be obese (despite the extra marshmallow!), handled stress better, were more likely to be student leaders and were just generally better at ‘doing life’ than the kids who had not been able to hold out for the extra sweet.
Obviously, self-discipline is hugely important, and it is also obvious that habits of self-control are learnt at a very young age, probably from our parents. That’s great… except I am sure that many of us would have been eating that first marshmallow even before the experimenter got to the door! Is there any hope for us? Yes! Skills and habits can be learnt right through life. Setting goals, pumping up our motivation and getting people to ‘cheer us on’ are often the ways people build self-discipline. And here are two other strategies** that really work, especially when it comes to making the lifestyle changes that are so linked to good mental health:
‘How’ and ‘Why’. The ‘Why’ is the desirable outcome we want; it is a vision of a ‘better self’ that self-discipline will give us. It might be a vision of a fitter self, or a sober self, or a self that will engage in therapy, or a self that saves money. That inspiring vision of our future self is our ‘Why’, but self-discipline often breaks down on the ‘How’: the ‘devil is in the details’. E.g. we want to diet but we don’t plan what we will eat for lunch at work; we intend to study but we don’t factor in that our partner will want the sound up on the television; we want to go to the gym but the traffic after work robs us of all the available time. The ‘Why’ gave us the desire, but it is the ‘How’ that defeats us… except… you are clever! Most of us CAN actually think out a decent ‘How’. The trick is to have the ‘How’ ready when we need it. Whenever we have a good ‘Why’, straightaway work on the ‘How’.
Self Control Works on Patterns. “I want to give up smoking, but just one more cigarette won’t hurt.” “I’ll go to that therapy course, but missing one session can’t be that important”. One cigarette, one session, one doughnut… of course, on there own, they are insignificant, but self-control comes from choosing ‘patterns’ of behaviour rather than individual acts. That single little cigarette tonight is part of the pattern, and so it impacts how hard it will be to resist the cigarette tomorrow. Are we stopping that single cigarette, or are we stopping the pattern? Likewise, that one little doughnut is connected to the kilos and kilos of other doughnuts that are lining up to be eaten in the weeks ahead. Self-discipline is not just one action after another, it’s grabbing hold of the whole pattern.
It would have been so much easier if we had had self-discipline drilled into us as little kids, or been gifted with ‘self-discipline gene’ (is there such a thing?) the but we can all practice and improve self-discipline. And the result? Change and progress! It really makes us happy. It gives us a sense of accomplishment. It banishes feeling powerless. It gives us hope that we can change and change and keep growing and improving. And what could be better for mental health than that?