A simple approach to getting a self-discipline breakthrough

business man with angel on one shoulder and devil on the other

It’s true. We all have two voices whispering conflicting messages in our heads, at any given moment of any given day. “Oh, what the hell. You can afford to eat that one donut.” Versus “If you eat that donut, you will be a pound heavier tomorrow.” One voice wants us to do what is good for us; the other wants us to do what we know is not good for us. 

If we followed the “good for us” voice all the time, we’d weigh what we would like to, get enough sleep, be incredibly productive, exercise regularly, hold our tongues when we should, and so on. If we follow the “bad for us” voice all the time, we’d end up fat, alone, broke, and unhappy. 

The deciding factor? Self-discipline. Self-control. Or, if you prefer, a less “harsh” term: self-management. 

This is the ability to take the “good” advice and ignore the “bad” advice. Learning how to do this is part of the growing up process. 

Personally, I think of the “good” advice voice as our conscience. Except for psychopaths, us humans all know when something is inherently wrong or right. 

This is one of the ways that the entertainment industry keeps us on the edges of our seats. We know what the person should do, but that person isn’t doing it. We know that they are headed for disaster. We stick around to see how it is going to turn out, to make sure that they do, in fact, finally do the right thing. 

The unvarnished truth is, in life, the more you move in the direction of the “good advice” voice, the more successful you are. 

You can tell, almost instantly, when you meet someone, where they fall on the spectrum. It is certainly obvious when someone is firmly under the clutches of the “oh, what the hell,” approach to life. 

Most of us—at least those of us who work for a living and have fairly successful relationships—fall more on the positive side of the spectrum.

But even when you live on the positive side of the spectrum, there are daily challenges. Personally, my husband says I have something called “pillowphobia.” It is very difficult for me to go to sleep at the best time every night. And all of us struggle with distractions, when we are trying to focus at work and that tempting social channel is just a click away. And a lot of people have had trouble resisting the fridge, especially during lockdown. 

There are a number of articles about ways you can move to the positive side of the spectrum, but I think success with all of the self-control advice depends on two things:

  1. You are honest with yourself about which voice you’re listening to. “Find it, face it, fix it,” our motto around here, works really well. We need to recognize which voice is talking, using the “is this good for me?” test. It’s part of taking good care of yourself. It could be that you always listen to the good voice when it comes to working, showing up on time, and keeping your house clean. But when it comes to overeating, you dismiss the good voice and decide to do what you know is bad for you.

  2. You accept the fact that this is an endless battle and it can only be won one moment at a time. Yes, you can develop better habits. Yes, once you have spent a certain number of days without dessert or with smaller portions, it does get a bit easier. And some habits, such as smoking, can completely leave your life for good after you have passed a certain amount of time without indulging. But the fact remains that every single day is filled with one or more decision points, where we either let the helpful voice or the unhelpful voice win. 

What we do when the argument is raging is we make a decision. It is pretty easy to decide to ignore the good voice. We tell ourselves it doesn’t matter, that doing it “just this once” won’t have a lasting effect. 

The breakthrough: “Just this once” jujitsu

So here’s an interesting perspective: What if we turned that “just this once” idea into a habit? If we played “jujitsu” with the bad voice? 

I’ve always loved the idea of jujitsu, where, instead of resisting the incoming punch, you literally use that energy to your advantage. Dictionary.com defines jujitsu as “a method developed in Japan of defending oneself without the use of weapons by using the strength and weight of an adversary to disable him.” 

So what if we used the “just this once” idea that the bad voice uses to get us to do the wrong thing, but instead used it to do the right thing? I can imagine all sorts of uses for this as we go through a normal day.

“Just this once,” I’m going to skip dessert. 

“Just this once,” I’m going to resist the urge to “go social,” and instead keep moving ahead with something I need to finish. 

“Just this once,” tonight, I’m going to go to sleep on time, and not worry if it takes a while for sleep to come. Maybe even use that quiet time to think some deep thoughts or meditate.

“Just this once,” instead of procrastinating, I’m going to attack this project with all I’ve got. 

It’s pretty easy to imagine that if one applied this every time one of these decisions arose, throughout the day, and always did the right thing in that moment, the momentum toward success would get stronger and stronger. Each good decision would lead to more good decisions. This is how one ends up building a regret-free life. It’s a wonderful place to be. And yes, it gets easier over time. The struggle lessens. 

I hope this concept helps you. Just this once. And beyond.


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