4 Life-Changing Habits For Unbreakable Discipline And Productivity

‘The first and best victory is to conquer self.’ –  Plato.

Out of all the countless qualities for success and fulfillment, There is only one trait that leads to our best achievements in all aspects of life: the art of self-discipline.

Be honest with yourself, if you were to look at your life right now, what is the main reason why you’re aren’t as successful, healthy or happy that you would like to be?

As much as we kid ourselves, it’s no secret: often times, lack of self-discipline is what’s stopping us from enjoying the success that we desire.  Whether it be in fitness, business or relationships, self-discipline is crucial to accomplishing our goals, building a healthy lifestyle and essentially becoming the person we want to be.

And the studies prove it: According to a 2013 study by Wilhelm Hoffman and his team of researchers at the University of Chicago, self-control is one of our most valuable traits. People with a higher degree of self-control are happier than those who lack it. The reason for this is because people with higher discipline tend to be more perseverant in front of adversity, and are less likely to indulge in behavior that is detrimental to their health. They make rational decisions and are less likely to be influenced by their impulses or feelings.

It’s simple. Everybody wants to be rich and successful, but how many people are willing to work the long hours and endure the failures it takes to get there? Everybody wants the beach body and six-pack abs, but how many people do you see that are in shape? Everybody knows how junk food and cigarettes destroy our bodies, yet people continue to indulge in those behaviors anyway.

People often assume that self-discipline is something you are either born with or you’re not. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Just like a muscle, self-discipline is something you can build. As Aristotle once said, ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit’. Improving your self-discipline will lead you to make healthier choices in your life, instead of impulsive and emotional ones. Here are the 4 most powerful habits that you can implement in your life to build your muscle of self-discipline :

I. Exercise And Healthy Diet

‘Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live’ – Jim Rohn.

When we think about people who have achieved massive success, we think of countless hours spent in the office and lack of sleep. We hear of people popping pills of Adderall left and right, working till 4:00 AM. In the startup world, this behavior is glorified; if you’re not 100% committed to your craft and are sleeping more than 4 hours per night, frankly, you aren’t doing anything.

In a culture of ‘You just gotta hustle, bro’, this path of neglecting our health is actually counterproductive. In fact, one 2012 study done at Brigham Young University found that ‘eating unhealthily is linked with a 66% increased risk of loss of productivity, while rare exercise is linked with a 50% increase of low productivity’.

The research on how regular exercise and a healthy diet can lead to higher levels of productivity and motivation are countless: In 2008, researchers at the University of Bristol who studied a group of over 200 employees at one company discovered that employees who exercise in the gym on work days felt more productive and suffer from less stress than on days when they don’t exercise.

And finally, a study done by researchers at the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise (the kind that gets your heart pumping), increases the size of the hippocampus, the brain area responsible for verbal memory and learning.

Don’t just take my word for it, There are plenty of examples of successful people who have health as one of their priorities:

  • Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour starts each day at 5:45 AM with an hour-long tennis match.
  • Mark Cuban, billionaire, and owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, does an hour of cardio per day, 6-7 days a week. He has a very active lifestyle which consists of basketball, kickboxing, and other gym aerobic classes.
  • Tim Cook, the CEO of apple, wakes up every day at 4:30 AM to hit the gym several times per week.
  • Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin group, wakes up at 5:00 AM to either kitesurf, swim or play tennis. By keeping up with this consistent exercise schedule, he claims to gain 4 hours of additional productivity every day.
  • Oprah Winfrey, being a Weight Watchers spokesperson and investor, has made a commitment to walk 10,000 steps (around five miles) a day.

Notice a trend here? These people are some of the BUSIEST people on earth, and yet they still find the time to exercise.

How To Get Started

Getting your foot in the gym or starting a new fitness hobby for the first time is intimidating for many people, but don’t worry: you’re not the only one who dreads the idea of getting a workout in. Like the greatest boxer in history, Muhammad Ali once said: “Even I hated every minute of training, but I said, don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion”.

Your health needs to be your priority, and you should be as committed to building a healthy lifestyle as you are to becoming successful. Here are some tips to get you started :

  • Plan your meals: Failing to plan is ultimately planning to fail. Make it impossible for yourself to make last-minute meal decisions that will lead to junk food. Avoid going out to eat unless you are with friends and make a conscious habit of cooking your meals for the next day each night.
  • Find a new fitness hobby (for ex: kickboxing, swimming, rock climbing, etc.) or join a gym. If you decide to go to the gym, check out bodybuilding.com for some excellent tips and beginner routines. Make a commitment to exercise at least 3 times per week.
  • Develop healthy sleeping habits: The circadian rhythm is a 24-hour internal clock running in the background of your brain, which relies on consistency. It is responsible for regulating our mood and has an influence on sleep-wake cycles, hormones release, eating habits and digestion, and other bodily functions. Going to bed and waking up at the same time (even on weekends) will regulate your circadian rhythm, which will result in improved concentration, memory, mood and energy levels. It will be difficult in the beginning, but trust me, your brain will thank you for it later.
  • Don’t forget to unplug and rest: Your mind is very important in all of this too. Do things outside your work that make you relaxed and happy – such as going for a walk with your dog, taking a vacation,  or listening to music.

II. Go On A Social Media Detox

Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Snapchat. Like. Comment. Retweet. Over the past 10 years, we have seen a drastic change in our world, and the boom of social media has played a crucial role. The social network giants of silicon valley have completely taken over people’s computers, phones, tablets, and lives. While we cannot deny the positive effects that this new technology offers through the ability to communicate with friends and family, and the quick dissemination of news (hopefully not ‘fake news’), it is imperative that we acknowledge the damaging effects that social media has on our brains.

What is neuroplasticity ?

Our brains are neuroplastic, meaning that they have the capacity to physiologically change in response to new situations or changes in the environment. This process happens when the brain forms new neural connections. Thanks to neuroplasticity, we can adapt and learn from our experiences in the world.

Since social media is still relatively new, it might take a couple of decades to get any long-term research on our brain’s response to it. However, there have already been studies that show how social media is altering our brains in disturbing ways.

1. It’s As Addictive As Drugs And Alcohol

Social media has become the new cigarettes. While bad decision-making is a trait that is associated with gamblers and drug addicts, research at Michigan State University has found a connection between high social media use and risky behavior commonly found in other types of addiction.

“Decision making is oftentimes compromised in individuals with substance use disorders. They sometimes fail to learn from their mistakes and continue down a path of negative outcomes,”  said Dar Meshi, lead researcher at Michigan State University. “But no one previously looked at this behavior as it relates to excessive social media users, so we investigated this possible parallel between excessive social media users and substance abusers. While we didn’t test for the cause of poor decision-making, we tested for its correlation with problematic social media use.”

The researchers had 71 participants take a survey that measured their psychological dependence on Facebook, which took into account the users’ preoccupation with the platform, their feelings when they don’t have access to it, their attempts to quit and the impact Facebook has had on their job and studies.

They then had them participate in a gambling task to measure their decision-making. Users had to identify outcome patterns in decks of cards to choose the possible deck in order to successfully complete the task.

The results they found were disturbing: The worse people performed by choosing bad decks, the more excessive their social media use. The better they did, the less their social media use. This result is complementary to results with cocaine addicts.

Another study done in 2013 by researchers at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, Duke University Medical Center and the Duke Institute of Brain Sciences has shown the negative effects of social media addiction on the psyche. The behaviors associated with excessive social media use include introversion, withdrawal, and craving, meaning that the brain’s reward pathways to change in a similar way to someone addicted to drugs.

2. It’s Shortening Our Attention Span

Director of the Royal Institution, Susan Greenfield, believes that social media is putting attention spans at risk.

“Children’s experiences with social media are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st-century mind might almost be infantilized, characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity.”

Social media may also have completely rerouted our brain’s ability to multitask, according to this study by Stanford University. According to the research, social media addiction leads people into becoming “more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory.

Even though it may seem like internet use makes us better at multitasking, it’s actually doing the exact opposite – we become worse at it, and our focus takes the price. In fact, we now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish.

How Does This Affect Our Discipline ?

this constant state of distraction from our smartphones make it hard to focus on one thing at a time and is destroying our discipline. In fact, 17% of people visit a page for only 4 seconds. The algorithms on Instagram and Facebook make it so much more tempting to waste hours scrolling through our feeds than to do the work we were supposed to be doing. We are less efficient in getting tasks done because we are bombarded with so many distractions at the same time.

How To Take Control Of Your Social Media Addiction

Give yourself a reality check. When you are bored and have nothing to do, do you check out your smartphone by default? You have an addiction. Can you not enjoy a family dinner without constantly checking out your phone? You have an addiction. Do you find yourself mindlessly looking through your feed for hours on end and going to bed at 2 AM? You have an addiction.

The thing is, your addiction to social media is no accident. When you log in to social media, you are fighting against an army of software engineers and neuroscientists doing everything to keep you hooked.

Funny enough, many experts within and outside of the tech world are very well aware of these dangers, and even moderate their use of modern technology in their private lives. When his daughter started developing an addiction to video games, Bill Gates, former CEO of Microsoft, implemented a cap on screen time; he wouldn’t even let his kids get cellphones until they turned 14 (Today, the average age for a child to get a cellphone is 10 years old). Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple until his death in 2012, expressed in a 2011 interview with the New York Times that “we limit how much technology our kids use at home”; he even prohibited his kids from using the newly-released iPad. The employees of Silicon Valley giants send their kids to Waldorf schools, that subscribe to a teaching philosophy that focuses on physical activity and learning through hands-on tasks.

So how do we beat this addiction that is costing our discipline and productivity?

Delete all of our apps and downgrade to a flip phone

I’m serious. Turn off your data plan for one month. Delete all your apps on your phone and switch to a flip phone. Download the software Cold Turkey on your computer and block Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook for one month.

Inform your friends that if they ever want to reach you, they can contact you via text message.

At first, it will be painful, depending on how bad your addiction to social media was, to begin with; you may even experience withdrawal symptoms. But like we mentioned before, our brains are neuroplastic, and can adapt to different situations: You will get used to life without social media, and realize that you are better off without it. Knowing that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, aiming for a social media detox of one month is a pretty solid goal.

The average person spends over four hours per day on their mobile device; with all of the extra free time that you will have, you will be able to invest yourself into a new hobby, learn new skills, or even start an online business. By breaking free from the dopamine hits of your smartphone applications, you will have a new-found focus and discipline that will manifest itself in other areas of your life.

After one month of your social media detox and using a flip phone, it’s possible that you will enjoy your life without constant distraction so much, that you might never go back to a smartphone ever again. But if you do, you will have a new-found discipline that will make it harder for you to fall back into negative habits, and moderate your smartphone use.

III. Meditation

Originating from the Hindu traditions of Vendatism around 1500 BCE, it seems like it’s only been recently that we have warmed up to the idea that meditation can be used as a beneficial exercise for the mind- much like pull-ups or jogging are for the body.

But what is meditation, really? There are many myths surrounding it. Many people automatically associate it with chanting, wearing robes, burning incense, etc. However, the concept of meditation is simple: it is the practice of bringing your thoughts to the present moment. 47% of our time on earth is spent thinking of the past or contemplating what we will do in the future. It’s rare that we have a clear focus on what we are doing now.

Meditation attempts to do just that. Through meditation we submit ourselves to the present moment, making us completely focused on what is happening now. For example, we can write a paper without mentally going over our day, worrying about what we will do next, or create problems in our head.

The Benefits Of Meditation

  • Increase in willpower: It is too tempting to let our minds wander and be undisciplined. We love trying to take the easy way out of every situation and procrastinate when deep down we know we should be going to the gym or getting that report done. During meditation, the goal is to resist these urges and impulses. We start by doing this through concentration meditation, by focusing on either our breath or a small visual stimulus, such as a dot on the wall.
  • By resisting the urge of our brain to wander, resisting temptations in our everyday life becomes that much easier. This discipline that will be developed on your thoughts will increase the likelihood of controlling things such as your diet and productivity in your career.
  • Less stress: We often feel like the slaves of our own negative thoughts and emotions, which releases a chemical called cortisol, which promotes stress in our minds. Too much cortisol can affect our health in numerous ways – such as an increase in blood sugar levels, a weaker immune system, and constricted blood vessels. Meditation trains our minds to let these thoughts go.
  • Meditation has been increasingly incorporated into psychotherapeutic programs over the past three decades. It has been proven to reduce the symptoms of anxiety, depression and chronic pain.
  • Increased focus: Meditation has been proven to not just alter brain function. In a 2008 study done by the neuroscientist Giuseppe Pagnoni, Researchers have found that meditation grants advantages in mental focus that can improve cognitive performance.

The study compared twelve zen meditators who had been practicing for at least three years, to a group who had never meditated before. Using an MRI machine to measure brain patterns, the study found that meditators had much more stability in their ventral posteromedial cortex,  a brain region linked to spontaneous thoughts and mind-wandering.

  • Improved ability to learn: Meditation puts you in the best brainwave state for ‘super learning ‘. Meditation boosts alpha brain waves, which is the predominant state for learning, memorizing and recollecting large sums of information. It also makes your left and right brain hemispheres work together, which science has shown is a recurrent trait in highly successful people.

How To Get Started

Meditation isn’t a practice reserved for only Buddhist monks and hippies. There are many famous and successful people who meditate every day, such as Oprah Winfrey, Russell Simmons, and Clint Eastwood.

Here are the steps to get started :

1. Find a quiet place where not only you can sit upright but you won’t be disturbed.

2. When first starting out, set a timer for 5 minutes. Find a good chair to sit on (which is good if you are new to meditation or have back problems) or invest in a good meditation cushion. As you get more experience meditating, your timer will progress to 10 minutes, 15 minutes and eventually 30 minutes.

3. Focus on your breath and find something in your direct line of vision to focus on, such as a dot on the wall. The hard part is to not think, just bring attention to your breath without thinking about it or analyzing it.

4. Once you feel comfortable breathing, inhale your breath for 3 seconds. Hold your breath for three seconds, exhale for 3 seconds and hold your breath again for 3 seconds. Repeat this cycle until the timer goes off.

5. Bring your attention back to your mind when it wanders, and trust me, it will. Even if you practice meditating for years, your mind will still wander sometimes. When it happens, all you have to do is bring attention back to your breath once you realize your mind has wandered. You may not be aware that your mind has started thinking again, but when you are, gently bring your attention back. It is very important that during this stage you are not hard on yourself.

6. Keep going until the timer sounds.

This will be awkward and difficult at first for beginners, but it shouldn’t be discouraging. Think about it like learning to drive a car. At first, there are so many things going on, the ride is bumpy, but over time, driving becomes more automatic and the ride becomes smoother. Over time, meditation will become more natural and smooth as you practice.

IV. Cold Showers

I know, I know – cold water sucks. But hear me out – not only will taking cold showers build massive discipline, but it will also make you a better person.

Bold statement, I know, but it’s undeniable. Besides the fact that taking cold showers regularly is scientifically proven to increase testosterone in men, improve sleep and speed up metabolism, the psychological benefits that come with them are profound. Here are a few reasons why :

1. It’s Resilient To Excuses

Taking cold showers daily involves massive amounts of willpower, which is the most important trait to develop when it comes to discipline.

Willpower is how you control your anger, get yourself in shape, be more productive in your career and quit cigarettes.

Think About Being Reluctant To Go To The Gym

Even though you had already planned that Monday was going to be leg day, it’s so easy to rationalize to yourself why not going to the gym is a good idea :

  • “I had a really busy day at work ; I’m too tired to exercise right now.”
  • “It’s 5PM, the gym is probably too crowded at this moment anyway…”
  • “I have a report to finish, I don’t have the time.”
  • “I’ll go tomorrow…”

The powerful effect of a cold shower is that once you’re taking one, you don’t have room to over-think or rationalize. It’s either you suck it up, throw all of the excuses out the window and step in the shower, or you don’t. There is no room for excuses.

Taking a cold shower will make you feel uncomfortable, especially if it’s your first time: you’ll be shivering, and for the common man it may seem that you’ll need the will power of a Shaolin monk to push through.

But as you embrace the cold water splashing on your body, there’s a deep psychological change that starts to develop: you learn to let go of what feels good now, to experience what will feel good later.

The best part? Cold showers don’t even take extra time out of your day. One minute is all that is needed. One minute of discomfort a day for a lifetime of benefits? Seems like a pretty good deal to me.

2. Tolerance

Across generations, one advice remains universal: you need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The logic is simple – by resisting the urge to switch the water to warm even though you’re shivering, you are training your mind to not react to changes within your body. With daily practice, this will manifest in different aspects of your life. When some asshole takes two spaces in a parking lot, you’ll still feel the rush of adrenaline in your body, but you won’t let your emotions make you behave irrationally.

Cold showers increase your tolerance, which lessens your stress. You learn to realize that you cannot control your environment, but you can control your reaction to it.

3. Acceptance

Here’s the list of the happiest countries in the world :

1. Denmark

2. Norway

3. Switzerland

4. Netherlands

5. Sweden

6. Canada

7. Finland

8. Austria

9. Iceland

Here is an illustrated map of those countries. See a trend ?

That’s right : They are some of the coldest countries on earth.

As a man who used to live in Chicago and endured some of the worst winter snowstorms ever, this intrigued me. Shouldn’t people who live in sunny weather year round be happier?

No. Actually, I would go as far as to say that the cold improves their happiness. Doubtful? Let me explain.

Last year I lived in Malaga, Spain with some friends for a couple of months. With a mild subtropical Mediterranean climate, it receives 300 sunny days in a year. It’s never too hot, it’s never too cold, and it seldom rains.

Sounds like heaven on earth, right ? There is just one problem :

People become spoiled really quickly.

When I first moved there, it seemed like as if everybody complained anytime there were a few clouds, or (heaven forbid !) a bit of wind. Let’s take children of rich parents who always get what they want, whenever they want for example: they grow up to be awful brats because of one simple reason- the lack of gratitude.

Don’t neglect the power of gratitude: when the freezing winter slaps you in the face with its below zero temperature, you become so grateful for every beautiful day you experience. Even better, you accept that life doesn’t always go your way and that some things are just beyond your control.

Gratitude and acceptance go hand-in-hand. By taking a cold shower, your willpower gets strengthened. By strengthening your willpower, you will build tolerance. With tolerance, you become more accepting of the adversity that life throws at your face.

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