Discipline is notoriously hard to cultivate. Fried plantain won't eat itself and I can binge Netflix shows like they’re shutting the website down tomorrow. But discipline is achievable!
I’d like to start by thanking you for reading this. I sent the first issue of this newsletter in January to a small group of close friends, and a few short months later these issues are read by up to 600 people every week. So thank you, and please do continue to give me feedback and recommendations, and share the issues you find useful with friends and family!
This is the second in a two-part miniseries on productivity and discipline. You may find these issues useful companions:
11: Productivity and the motivation myth - the issue preceding this one, where I explained a common misconception about motivation, and how to maximise our productive efforts.
6: Learning to live on 24 hours a day - I expanded on thoughts from a book by Arnold Bennet, and some tips I’ve been using to make the most of each day.
3: The importance of pursuing purpose - I shared some lessons from the late Harvard Business School professor Clayden M. Christensen on finding and prioritising purpose in life.✓
Discipline is notoriously hard to cultivate. Fried plantain won’t eat itself and I can binge Netflix shows like they’re shutting the website down tomorrow. But it can be done, and I’ll share a few tips from what I’ve learned so far.
Machine-learning for humans
On a fundamental level, your body is a machine. This is something we’re often cognizant of but easily forget, particularly where emotions are involved.
The important thing to keep in mind is that when trying to change systems and habits, cold turkey changes rarely work well. Your mind is resistant to change - it likes systems, and particularly systems that lead to pleasure or comfort.
All your brain remembers is what has worked well for it in the past. This usually means staying safe, being unadventurous, eating things that make you feel good, and consuming content your brain knows will be stimulating. This is why you check your phone every five seconds just in case you missed an important notification, only to be disappointed when you realise the vibration was just Duolingo reminding you that you’re a slacker.
Going cold turkey on psychological addictions is a sure way to initiate a circle of frustration, failure and self-hatred.
Leave room for flexibility
It might seem antithetical to your favourite youtube productivity gurus, but gratification is actually ok. The key is letting it happen on your terms rather than letting it rule you. Compulsion is the enemy of habit, just like motivation is often the enemy of good intentions.
Deciding to be more disciplined won’t result in change as instantaneous as taking an NZT pill in Limitless, but you can lower your brain’s resistance to change by taking measured, symbolical steps in the desired direction.
You can use tools like nudges or priming to get a head start. For me, this means taking my coffee cup to my room every night so it’s there when I wake up, and removing my laptop from my desk so I’m not distracted from the tasks I need to complete in the morning.
A moniker I’ve coined is that ritual is more important than process. To me, this means that developing the habit of going through the tasks I set myself is more important than the result (for now). If you’ve decided to write or draw or sing every day, then it really doesn’t matter if it’s rubbish at first. The most important part is turning up. Burn the routine of ‘doing what must be done’ into your brain before worrying about perfection or efficiency.
Make important trade-offs
Flying in the face of everything I’ve said, I want you to remember an important lesson: you can’t have everything. You can, however, prioritise what’s most important at any given time. The best way to avoid meltdown from taking on too much is having comprehensive systems in place to ensure you’re doing enough to be content and happy.
Young people (including myself) often believe it’s completely feasible to maximise our careers, have fulfilling relationships, travel regularly, read fervently, forego sleep for days, stay on top of social media, start a family, finish every Netflix series and keep up with fashion trends simultaneously, all without breaking the bank or affecting our mental health. I’ve learned the hard way that this isn’t the case.
Before long, you’ll realise that the promise of peaceful, competent, seamless adulting was a scam - but before giving up entirely, you should know you can still find fulfillment. You just can’t always have everything simultaneously, and that’s okay.
There is a time and season for everything - it’s okay to be patient. There is no benefit in gaining the world while losing your soul.
Remove unnecessary temptation
If you’re trying to make anything happen, the best thing you can do is create a conducive environment. Simplify and declutter so that your mind can focus. The division of attention in multitasking is a negative-sum game.
Start by removing visual temptation. Take away any triggers or reminders of the habits you're trying to kill, and replace them with nudges/prompts of the habits you're trying to build. These can be simple prompts like the ones I’ve mentioned previously, or far more drastic ones like someone I read about who lost weight by permanently leaving their scales in front of the fridge.
If a messy home is part of your doom loop then beg friends to help! Find people who can hold you accountable, and are ideally in pursuit of similar goals.
Learn to rest
When you want to cultivate good habits, learn to “recharge your batteries” - this can take the form of meditation, prayer, sleep, or whatever works for you. You should also set aside time for things you genuinely enjoy and things that make you happy!
It’s important to prioritise and schedule your personal time. Keep it free from meetings and calls or it will quickly be overrun by the pace of life. Just remember that no engine can run perpetually without fuel, and even the most efficient machines can eventually overheat and break down without sufficient care.
Make patient, permanent, progress
As mentioned, there’s no need to go from 0 to 100 overnight. focus on making today 1% better than yesterday and benefit from compounding growth. If you can approach each task just one per cent better each day than the day before, you’ll have improved by 3778% in a year. Obviously it’s hard to compute what that output means day-to-day, but the logic is consistent. You’ll gain far more down the line with small but replicable improvements than by trying to reinvent yourself a dozen times.
Set rules for yourself, but accept, control, and schedule the exceptions. Don't cheat one day - plan for a cheat day. And have no exceptions to that one day for cheating. A practical example from my own life is that I schedule 2 hours of flexible work each afternoon so that if I wake up late or prioritise urgent work in the morning, I can reschedule my morning walk for later in the day without my schedule being thrown off completely.
This week on The Knowledge
This week on the podcast I share a conversation with Ayotunde Rufai, the founder of luxury fashion platform Jendaya, and Editor in Chief of ArtValue magazine. We spoke about his journey from investment banking to entrepreneurship, the challenges facing e-commerce innovators in Africa, and the impact of streetwear in the world of luxury fashion.
You can listen to the episode now on ‘The Knowledge’ wherever you listen to podcasts!
Reading list 12
Books I’ve read/seen/will impulsively buy and add to my “to read” shelf on Goodreads. Recommendations from newsletter readers are always welcome:
- Black Leadership by Manning Marable - wishlisted. A recommendation from Seyi, a reader whose judgement I trust unreservedly.
- A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini - wishlisted. Sarah tells me I’m a bad person for not having bumped this classic up on my to-read list sooner, so I’ve rectified this.
- Red Sister by Mark Lawrence - impulsively bought. Someone mentioned this off-hand in a youtube video and I bought the whole series because… well, why not. Anyway, it was brilliant. It was actually so intense I took a week off reading afterwards to revel in the aftertaste.
Things I’m loving
Films and shows:
- Gangs of London - I’ve only just started this but it’s spectacular. You should watch it immediately. It’s available on Sky and NowTV.
- Modern Family - since finishing The Good Place I’d been trying to find a light-hearted comedic replacement, and after a few false-positives (Community, New Girl) I’ve finally struck gold. I’m only 11 years late.
- thispersondoesnotexist is probably one of the scariest uses of AI I’ve seen recently. This website generates deep-fakes - faces of people that don’t actually exist. It’s scary because every one of them looks like a clear, genuine, photo. Thanks, Lope, for sharing.
- Readwise is an app I won’t stop shouting about that collates and resurfaces highlights from your Kindle, Pocket, and other sources, and then uses AI to suggest quotes and highlights based on things you’ve read. It also suggests popular highlights from books you read, and comes with a chrome extension to collect quotes from anywhere on the web. Use this link for a 90-day free trial.✓
Until next time!!