Discipline is Choosing Discomfort (and the Usefulness of Cold Showers)

Discipline is often confused with motivation. They are not the same thing. Motivation is wanting to do something. Being motivated to do a task means you have a reason to do it. That reason might be as simple as wanting to not lose your job, or as fantastic as wanting to earn financial independence.

But even if we are motivated to complete a task, we sometimes struggle with actually doing it. This is the life of a chronic procrastinator. We are almost always truly motivated to do things, and that is why we are so frustrated with ourselves when we don’t do them. It makes no sense.

When motivation is there but the task is still not engaged, what’s lacking is discipline. Discipline is the ability to choose discomfort.

When you’re faced with a task that you just don’t want to do, even if you’re motivated to do it, you feel discomfort. For me it’s an icky feeling in my chest. A lot of people describe at as a “fear.” If you’re not consciously looking for it, you may not notice it. It’s there, though, and it is the source of all of the chronic procrastinator’s problems.

Your deep-down lizard brain responds to that icky feeling by diverting your attention to something you like more. Sleeping longer. Going to reddit. Whatever moves you away from that feeling. The thing is, your deep-down lizard brain is too stupid to understand that by diverting from an important task, that icky feeling is going to come back even stronger the next time you realize you’re that much more behind on it.

The only way to achieve success is to learn catch yourself from being diverted by lizard-brain. You have to willfully feel the discomfort that comes with facing an unpleasant task and endure it as you do your work. In most cases the icky feeling goes away once you’ve shifted your attention to the task, but it’s hard to remember that. And even if you know it, it’s still difficult to overcome that fear.

It’s much easier to learn to face the feeling if you know what it feels like and when to expect it. This is, I think, the main benefit of the cold shower challenge. I did the challenge 2 years ago and I think it really helped me. I should probably do it again because I’ve been slipping on my discipline lately.

Cold shower challenge? The procedure is pretty simple in concept: take nothing but cold showers every day for 30 days. But just taking cold showers isn’t enough. You have to be mentally present and take notes on your feelings in response to the experience.

The crucial moment is when you’re standing outside the shower, naked, with the water running, thinking how badly it’s going to suck to get under the water. But this is an important moment because the icky feeling (the fear) will be front and center. This is your opportunity to really get a good luck at it. Consciously feel it. Concentrate on it. Try to describe it to yourself in a physical way. What shape is it? What temperature is it? Is it moving? Where is it physically located?

After you spend a few moments familiarizing yourself with the feeling, you’ll find that it has less power over you. Step into the shower. This part sucks, for reals, but you must stay mentally present. As soon as you get into the shower, the feeling will scream out and rise up against you, and the first few moments will be just your willpower fighting to keep you under the water.

And then a magical thing happens. You get used to the water, and the feeling that was screaming out moments ago fades away to nothing. By the end of the month, this will happen just seconds after stepping under the water. At the end of my month, I got to where I truly enjoyed the feeling of cold water coming down on me. I actually looked forward to it.

I don’t think you’ll be able to solve your discipline problem in a month, even with cold showers every day. But it’ll help. It will help because it will give you information that is critical for success. Specifically, it will tell you everything you need to know about your enemy, which is the fear of choosing discomfort.

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