Running late with the submission of your college assignment? The average books you read per year is one (or none)? The last time you wrote something on a piece of paper was when you were in school and you were trying to impress a girl? I totally get you. Who can keep a straight face over the books when there are so many… I repeat… so many, new Instagram and Facebook status updates. It’s like our phones are connected to the 911 call center – they’re constantly beeping.
In the era of push notifications, online influencers, YouTube celebrities, pop-up ads, movie, and game streaming services, it’s kind of hard to stay on track and keep up with your long-term goals and obtain control over your actions.1 Even thinking about far-reaching ambitions is tiresome and a lot of people tend not to bother. And who can blame them, there are so many new things happening around and so little time.
However, if you want to get your life in order: get out of your financial crisis, improve your performance at work and school, create better habits, finally get into shape, you need to find a way to handle the distractions. Learn to control your emotional urges and your desire to check social media every 5 seconds.
As you surely already guessed, developing self-discipline in the age of distraction is on the focus today. Unfortunately, our inability to handle the load of information is getting worse with each new tech innovation. This is currently one of the most important issues people are struggling with today. That’s why I decided to write an article about this.
In this post, we’re going to talk about why you need to exercise your self-control, why your lack of self-discipline is destroying your life, and how this ability – when mastered – will help you achieve new heights in your both personal and professional life.
Disclaimer: Love spending time on social media? Don’t read this post.
What is Self-Control?
In short: Your ability to abstain from doing stupid, unproductive, momentarily more gratifying tasks, so you can do the things that will move you closer towards where you want in life. Or in other words, every time you choose reading a book instead of watching videos when you’re home alone you’re practicing self-discipline.
Daily, we face the following conflict situations: On the one hand, we want to check whether or not we have more likes on the newly uploaded photo where we’re wearing a new jacket, but on the other, we have work to do. On the one hand, we want to watch videos on YouTube, but on the other, we need to study for a math test.
Basically, we’re constantly facing dilemma situations: choose between things that are extremely fun at the moment but not valued in the long run and things that are boring at the current moment, to say the least, but highly valued in the long run.
Here are a few examples:
- Fun activity: Watching television;
- Dull (but important) activity: Studying for an exam;
- Fun activity: Chatting with your friends online;
- Dull (but important) activity: Reading a book;
- Fun activity: Playing video games;
- Dull (but important) activity: Exercising;
Since we cannot do both at once, when we choose to study over watching photos of people we don’t really know, we practice self-control.
Why You Need Self-Control In Your Life?
Kind of obvious but I’m going to say it anyway: Even though we know what we need to do in order for us to reach our goals, we don’t really enjoy doing the work and we tend to desire more pleasurable activities.
Learning self-control can help us perform the less pleasurable activities over the ones that feel good right now.
I mean, studying, reading, writing, exercising feels monotonous and dull. The dull factor is now even multiplied because there are so many other things you could be doing instead: playing video games, watching funny memes, trolling online forums, etc.
Basically, we can categorize all of our activities into these two groups:
- Want: We want to do things that feel fun and enjoyable.
- Need: We need to do other things that are quite dull and boring but they will have a huge positive impact in the long-run.
Doing more of 1 will make you happier now but it won’t make you more muscular, smarter, etc. Obviously, doing more of 2 feels extremely boring now, at this moment, but can actually change your life.
Unfortunately, digital distractions have evolved dramatically in recent years. That’s why it’s so hard for us to focus and perform our work. There are so many things out there and so little time as mentioned.
In one academic study, results show that undergraduates spend more than 7 hours per day on their phones. In another, the results explain that students aged 13 to 18 now spend more than 5 hours per day using entertainment media, including television, videogames, laptops, mobile phones, and tablets.
But I’m sure you don’t need to read a scientific study to see that there is a problem. I mean, look around. I’m sure you spot at least several zombie-like people who stare at their phones. We all know that we are now addicted to social media and immediately enjoyable tasks.
So, yes. You kind of need self-control. Otherwise, you might never graduate or get out of debt. The question is, how to develop self-discipline in this busy world?
Why We Choose Fun, Gratifying Tasks, Over The Important Ones?
Well, because eating ice cream or checking your social media account feels nice, now, not 10 years from now. Duh!
But before we talk about ways to build discipline, let’s first understand what leads to our destructing, unfocused, constantly desiring new things behavior.
First, we have the following issue at hand:
There are so many things you could be doing instead of working on a book project or studying for your next exam. It kind of looks like this:
When you’re at home and you’re writing, you’re literally a tab away from doing something that feels 1,000 times better. Well, not better but certainly more fun. I can just open YouTube and watch how guys lit electric scooters on fire just for the heck of it.2
Second, we need to understand what makes us constantly choose things that are not important. For this, we need to understand how inner impulses are generated.
The process in our head can be described in the following way:
Let’s say you’re studying for your next math exam (situation). Suddenly, your phone beeps, and a desire to respond to the social media notification is triggered in your brain. At this moment, your attention is shattered. You need to choose where to focus your attention, between doing one or the other: studying or checking your phone (attention). Next comes the appraisal stage (appraisal). This is an important phase. If before reaching for your phone, you stop for a moment and think about how studying might change your life, you’ll probably choose your textbook. Basically, if you convince yourself that you shouldn’t check your social media account – because it’s not worth it – you’ll continue reading and doing the important stuff. Finally, you respond with action: you either ignore the notification or you check it (response).
Situations like this one occur all the time. We do something important, suddenly a notification takes us off balance and we need to choose between an activity that feels good and one that feels dull.
Even though the Response stage seems to be the main thing we need to focus on, it’s actually the precedent one. The Appraisal stage – where we have an inner monolog. If you can convince yourself that you need to focus on your work, your response will be a good one. If you fail to do it, you’ll ditch your homework and play Fortnite even though you know that this game won’t lead to anything good in the long term.
The appraisal stage can be either thought or imposed to us. When we’re young, our self-control is fragile, youngsters rely on their parents and teachers to adjust their inner conflicts. Remember when your mom threatened to take away your video game if you don’t study? Well, she was trying to teach you a lesson. However, when we grow older we’re on our own. We no longer listen to what mom and dad tell us. We rely on our own values and views of the world. If there are none, or if they’re mostly superficial, we’ll choose the smartphone over the textbook every time.
For instance, if you’re obsessed with what others think about you, you have low self-esteem, you’ll want more attention from your friends, you’ll constantly do things to nudge these feelings: check your phone for updates; buy new clothes and gadgets to impress others; try to please the people you adore.
But as I already mentioned a thousand times, this leads to nothing productive. You’ll be in bad physical shape because you’ll be chatting instead of working out; You’ll be in bad financial shape because you’ll be shopping instead of saving money; You’ll do work that you abhor because you never took the time to graduate or master a skill.
So, what we can do about all this? How we can gain back our control and govern our own conflicting impulses?
Well, it would be a good option if we can go back in time and hear what our parents told us about self-discipline. But since this is physically impossible, we can do these things instead:
Strategies To Develop Self-Discipline And Increase Your Willpower
To become more focused and to start choosing the dull tasks over the ones that feel good, you can disable your social media account, yes. This will help but it won’t completely resolve the issue and make you a more disciplined person. You must attack this problem from three different angles:
- Global Strategies.
- Surrounding Strategies.
- Internal Strategies.
Even though the last is the most important one, we’ll start from the outside in.
Global Strategies to Increase Self-Discipline
We’re not talking about climate change or politics. We’re talking about the amount of distraction worldwide.
There are hundreds of things that you can do today thanks to the world wide web and the internet. You can use Google Earth to creep on your ex-girlfriend, send inappropriate Snapchats to people you kind of like but you still don’t want to admit that, and all sorts of other things.
There is nothing you can do to change the number of distractions produced, nor you should try. I mean, although innovations, new products, and games are extremely distracting, they are all good things in general – we’re evolving and stuff. What you need to do is simply expose yourself to fewer of the currently hundreds of thousands of things to do:
- Instead of using 5 different social media accounts, choose only one (or none);
- Instead of paying for Netflix, cut your contract with them;
- Instead of reading and watching the news on every channel, find only one platform to read the news.
The fewer things you let inside your life, the fewer the distractions. Therefore it will be much easier for you to apply self-discipline when needed.
Surrounding Strategies to Increase Self-Discipline
If your friends lack self-discipline and if your parents told you zero about self-control, you’ll most likely run towards your phone every time you hear a beep. Also, if your smartphone is by your side with notifications turned on while you study, you’ll surely check it when someone messages you something.
You should be vigilant about what’s happening around you. As Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson’s character), said to Bruce Wayne in the movie Batman Begins, “Always Mind Your Surroundings.”
If you’re not good at postponing tasks that feel pleasurable, you’ll constantly reach for your phone to respond to your friend request. However, if you don’t carry your phone with you, you’ll be more focused.
When there are numerous distractions around, you’re constantly exposing yourself to conflict situations. If you remove most of them, it will be much easier for you to focus.
For instance, when I’m writing at home, alone, I leave my phone in the other room. I intentionally log out from my social media accounts on my computer and I don’t save my passwords in my browser. This friction (extra step) keeps me away from mindless scrolling.
If you’re not able to concentrate, at all, when you’re at home, you can do the following: Go to a place where studying is the natural thing to do. For instance, you can visit the local library. Since speaking and talking is not allowed, you’ll force yourself to do your deep work.
The same applies to your family and friends. You can’t change your parents nor go back in time to tell how your mother should parent you. Also, ditching all of your friends sounds too cruel. If all of your close ones are hoarders and only talk about buying more stuff, you can simply distance yourself from their way of thinking. Not completely cut them off from your life, but simply meet them less often.
Internal Strategies to Increase Self-Discipline
Social media apps were designed to be addictive, that’s a fact. But do you really think that your unsettling desire to check your account is due only to the layout of the app?
If you’re rushing every time someone messages you, there is something else going on. Probably you’re emotionally and socially unsatisfied. If you’re single, but if you badly want to be in a relationship, you’ll surely roam the social networks, looking for social interaction and appreciation. You’ll text random people when you’re drunk and call your ex. Not only because the layout of the social media account was designed to keep you in, but because you’re suffering from a deep emotional problem and this tool is helping you nudge the pain.
There is only one solution if you’re traumatized and constantly distracting yourself with unimportant tasks: Find what’s your problem!
- If you can resist a sale in the local mall, it’s probably because you lack self-confidence;
- If you’re constantly bragging on social media, it’s probably because you feel underappreciated from your boss or from your spouse;
- And as mentioned, if you have 5 chats opened on social media, it’s probably you’re not emotionally satisfied.
Whatever the problem is, you need to locate it and fix it for good. Otherwise, all other hacks you do to increase your self-discipline will be just short-term solutions. Like a bandage on a deep cut. If you don’t cure the wound for good, it will bleed again over time.
Some Closing Thoughts
Life nowadays is a classic self-control dilemma: Almost all people experience conflict between working towards their long-term goals (bigger house, a better job, slick car, sexy body, other things they really want in the future) and doing fun activities that feel more gratifying at current the moment (eating junk food, social media interactions, sharing photos).
But the only possible way to survive the chaos and actually accomplish your long-term goals is to upgrade your self-discipline. It’s is like a muscle: The more we practice self-control, the more we show up daily, the more we flex it. Therefore, the more focused and disciplined we’ll become in the future. If we give it enough months, self-discipline will become a habit and when we face dillema-like situations we’ll more often choose the dull, yet more beneficial tasks.
In short, If you teach yourself to choose the more valuable long-term option, over the less valuable option but momentarily more attractive, you’ll surely succeed in all of your endeavors.
What do you think about self-discipline and how do you handle the numerous distractions?
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- Yep, game streaming will soon be a thing. Google recently announced Stadia.
- The last is sadly true. People deliberately lit scooters on fire. You can search online and see what I’m talking about.