I heard this quote a while back that had a big impact on me: “Discipline is your relationship with the time you have left.” -Barbara McNally
I believe your level of discipline is directly correlated to the number of self-serving habits you have compared to how many self-destructive ones you have. Being a “disciplined person” is just what it looks like when you have a bunch of self-serving ones.
Having been freshly and heavily influenced by this article and this article by Tim Urban on how much time we really have left in our lives, this quote made me look at discipline, and thus habits, in a new light. Before I had seen habits as a means to get a little leaner. A way to learn how to play the guitar. A way to remember to meditate each morning.
They are certainly those things, but in the bigger picture, they demonstrate how much gratitude I have for my one life. Every time I reinforce a bad habit or take the immediately gratifying choice, I am taking my life for granted. Done once it’s meaningless. Done ten thousand tiny times may feel like I’m wasting my life.
In this article, I’ll tell you how I went from extremely undisciplined in some areas of my life and how I systematically transformed myself into a “disciplined person” in every area of my life. I’ll tell you what I’ve learned from a lot of the leading experts on the subject as well as what I’ve discovered with some fun experimentation that had me nearly eat over 18,000 calories in one sitting.
I’ll also have you pick an area of your life to transform by the power of habit and invite you to do a 30-day challenge.
First, let’s talk about why we are essentially just a collection of our habits.
The human brain and body are built for efficiency and automation. Because our conscious mind can only process a relatively small amount of information at any one time, our subconscious forms habits whereby we don’t have to think about most things we do. Most people form habits by accident. Sometimes they form habits that support them in reaching their goals, but oftentimes they form habits that are in complete opposition to these goals. If you can learn to design and stick to high performing habits, you can accomplish anything you want in life.
In 2013, I was a strength and conditioning intern for the LSU football and baseball teams. I started work around 5 am, I’d take about a one hour break around lunch to workout, then I’d get home between 6 and 7 pm. I was home just in time to cook myself some dinner before sitting on my couch to watch TV, half watching but half dead. I’d go to sleep around 9 pm then repeat. I had structure and routine.
In 2014, I left that job to start my first business, which was entirely digital. I didn’t have to be anywhere and didn’t have to do anything at any specific time really. Complete. Freedom. The first few months felt like pure ecstasy. I slept late. I worked when I wanted and didn’t when I didn’t. My social life improved as did my overall level of happiness.
Then something started to change.
As my business started to grow and work picked up I started to feel like I didn’t have enough time in the day to get everything done that I needed. I started pulling multiple all-nighters (literally no sleep) each week to keep up with work. #hustling.
I was missing or forgetting about meetings. I was missing deadlines. Constantly exhausted, I started to get short with colleagues. I suddenly had no time for friends.
Then I started getting depressed and was filled with the constant feeling of fear that I wouldn’t be able to fix this. I wish I could say that I quickly made a complete 180, but I spent another year in this space before waking up.
Finally, the day came when I just snapped out of it.
We were living in this little apartment a block off the beach in Santa Cruz, CA, and my wife came home one day with a short book on morning routines called the Perfect Day Formula. She had just finished it, feeling inspired, so I snatched it up. This book convinced me that if I could simply “win my morning” and stick to a short morning routine, my whole life would change.
I started by waking up at 6 am doing a 20-minute meditation and 20-minute yoga session followed by breakfast and then work. This had an immediate and significant effect. Besides the natural positive effect meditation and yoga have on mental health, I immediately had more time because I was waking up at a consistent time every day. I also started having more energy and confidence throughout the day because I was so satisfied that I was taking care of myself in my morning.
What was changing? My habits. All I had changed was my habit of going to sleep late, waking up late and immediately starting to work to going to sleep early and waking up early enough to do a little meditation and yoga before work. That’s when I opened up Michael’s Habit Design factory.
Armed with my new skill set of creating high performance habits, I started experimenting with other habits. Productivity habits, work/life separation habits, health and fitness habits, etc. I went from one of the most unproductive, undisciplined people I knew to the owner of a Fortune 500 habit design factory. An extremely productive, disciplined dude.
Sometimes we have good habits like waking up early enough to do a morning routine, eating a healthy breakfast, or writing down what we want to accomplish each day at the beginning of the day. Sometimes we have bad habits like picking up junk food when we are stressed or in a rush, reacting to what people say to us too quickly, or drinking too much after work.
If we master our habits, we master our lives. Here’s how to master your habits.
When you’re trying to instill a new habit it helps to know how they work.
A mentor of mine named Eben Pagan taught me that they work a lot like a space shuttle. 80% of a space shuttle’s weight is in the rocket that launches it. The rest is much lighter.
The purpose of the rocket is to get the spaceship going fast enough so that it can escape the pull of earth’s gravity. The vast majority of the energy is used in the first 2 min which takes it roughly 26 miles up out of earth’s atmosphere.
Habits work the same way.
The first few days when we start any new habit we are full of motivation and it’s actually easy. You’re optimistic. It’s fun.
Then habit gravity starts to set in, it starts to take more effort to maintain and we may even have some defiance against the new habit because it’s taking us out of autopilot (i.e. comfort zone).
Then we experience active resistance. This is where it is really hard. Doubt may creep in about why we’re even doing this in the first place, and we may not feel that same motivation that we felt in the beginning. This is when it truly feels like a grind.
Then at the top we start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and if we just keep going it will become automatic and we reach escape velocity. That point in which it becomes automatic and takes little to no effort to maintain.
So the goal is to reach escape velocity.
Here are a bunch of ways you can reach it.
The most comprehensive and scientific book written on habits is Atomic Habits by James Clear. Below are the 4 laws of habit building from the book that lays out how to install a new habit.
1st Law (Cue) - Make it obvious
When learning to play my guitar, I used to leave it in its case in the closet. Then I learned that if I took it out of its case and put it where I’d see it every day, I could remember to play every single day. Put some sort of cue in your direct line of sight so that it’s obvious what habit you’re working to build.
2nd Law (Craving) - Make it attractive
I know I’m not unique in this, but when I’m tracking my food I am always more successful if I have meal prepped some TASTY food. It takes a good bit of upfront work each week, but it’s so easy for me to choose the healthy option when the healthy option is also the most attractive in my fridge.
Work on finding ways of making the habit you’re trying to build the most attractive thing you could do.
3rd Law (Response) - Make it easy
I’m a 2x Crossfit Games team champion, and at one time I was training an average of 4 hours per day. Fast forward 8 years and at one point I struggled to even make it into the gym at all and just couldn’t find the motivation to build the habit back into my life. The problem I kept encountering is that I thought I had to get a 90-minute, intense training session in for it to even be worth it. Inspired by my wife, I committed to working out for 10 minutes every day. It was so easy that I never had an excuse to skip it. Most days I would end up working out much longer, but setting the bar super low helped me to build the habit.
One thing I learned from psychologist Jordan Peterson is that one of the biggest mistakes humans make is that we don’t aim low enough. With our habits, our goals, etc. Give yourself something you know with certainty you can manage, and that consistency will build confidence and integrity within yourself. Then you just add from there.
4th law (Reward) - Make it satisfying
Coffee. When I wanted to motivate myself to make it through my entire morning routine, I put the coffee last as a reward. It made the entire thing more enjoyable, and I’ve stuck to the routine for two years and counting.
“With a fuller understanding of what causes our brain to repeat some behaviors and avoid others, let’s update the Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change: What is *immediately* rewarded is repeated. What is *immediately* punished is avoided.” -James Clear
I gave examples of different habits for each law so you could see how each law applied to different types of activities, but you should consider each of these when building a new habit.
Like when I was trying to instill the habit of meditating daily:
1st Law (Cue) - Make it obvious
I put my meditation cushion on the coffee table in our living room so I’d walk by it first thing in the morning.
2nd Law (Craving) - Make it attractive
I started burning some incense that I LOVE while meditating, which made it more enjoyable.
3rd Law (Response) - Make it easy
Rather than trying to do 20 minutes twice per day like I had in the past, I committed to doing 10 minutes per day.
4th law (Reward) - Make it satisfying
Coffee. I rewarded myself with a cup of coffee at the end.
Design your environment to succeed
One of the most cliche phrases in the world is “you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.” Well, it’s true. Humans are social beings, and we evolved to be accepted by our tribe. In order to be accepted, we almost ALWAYS adopt the same behaviors, beliefs, mannerisms, speech, etc. of the people closest to us. If you hang out with people that have the habit or lifestyle you’re trying to instill in yourself, it’s almost inevitable that you will succeed. On the flip side, if you want to do something counter to everyone in your life, your chances of success go way down. It’s still possible, but much harder.
Want to be fit? Hang out with people that exercise frequently and are conscious about what they eat.
Want to make more money? Hang out with people that have worked hard for their wealth.
Want to have a better intimate relationship? Hang out with couples in solid, committed relationships that really support and encourage each other.
This doesn’t mean that if your family or friends don’t behave the way you want them to that you have to drop them. It’s just a suggestion to spend some more time with people that have what you want. This could be THE most important way to ensure your success.
“One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. ... Your culture sets your expectation for what is ‘normal.’ Surround yourself with people who have the habits you want to have yourself. You’ll rise together.” - James Clear
Give yourself something to run towards
My friend Justin Su’a, the mental skills coach of the Tampa Rays and former mental skills coach of the Red Sox taught me that having a bigger purpose tied to your habits is one of the best ways to get things to stick.
For instance, after winning the CF Games in 2013, I had back surgery and took several years off competing. For years my nutrition was very inconsistent. I tried lots of different things and nothing seemed to stick. Then in 2017, I competed in the Crossfit Open again and qualified for regionals. I wasn’t training anymore than I was used to, but the simple fact that I knew I had regionals to train for making it almost EFFORTLESS for me to stick to my diet.
Look for some kind of event that could motivate you to stay consistent in your new habit.
Use Inevitability thinking
Eben Pagan also taught me that you want to set up your life, and especially your habits, in a way that it becomes inevitable that you will follow through.
For instance, a couple of years ago I got crystal clear for the first time in my life about what my purpose is at least for that chapter of my life, and that was to start doing personal development coaching with people. So I decided I would spend at the very least an hour 5 days a week developing my skills in this area. And if I missed a day then I would have to eat 10 Hopdoddy double cheeseburgers and 6 ice creams.
10 double cheeseburgers x 1400 calories + 6 vanilla birthday cake shakes x 820 calories = 18,920 calories or 5.25 days worth of food for the average American in one sitting.
Guess how many days I missed... exactly zero.
I’ve even done something where I paid $100 to the rainforest every time I forgot to meditate.
Put in a consequence for yourself that provides some external motivation to stick to your habit.
Decide specifically when and where you will do this habit. The more clear you are in your mind about this, the more likely it will be to happen.
“I’m going to meditate in the living room immediately after brushing my teeth each morning” for instance.
Take a piece of paper and pen, and answer the following questions. You don’t have to have an answer for every single one of these, but the more you do the higher likelihood of success.
1. What habit will you choose to start out of all of the possible new habits?
One phrase that author and podcaster Tim Ferriss often repeats is to “Pick the lead domino.”
Instilling the RIGHT habit is a lot like dominos. We could create a habit that serves a single function. Or we could implement the habit, that if stuck to makes all others easier or irrelevant.
For instance, I could make a habit of meditating for 20 min., I could make one of journaling for 20 min., or I could make one of going to sleep at 9 pm every night knowing that if I do that I will naturally wake up at 5:30 am giving me enough time to do 3-4 other things each morning. So you want to ask yourself what habit if instilled in your life would make all others easier or irrelevant?
2. When and where will you do it?
3. How will you make it obvious?
4. How will you make it attractive?
5. How will you make it easy? (aim LOW)
6. How will you make it satisfying? What will your reward be?
7. Is there a big event or another goal you could tie this to?
8. What will be your consequence if you don’t stick to this habit?
I challenge you to stick to this habit every day for 30 days, and if you miss a day just start over. If you can stick to this every day for 30 days it will be ingrained into your life, and you can focus on the next habit.
Now just for a second imagine yourself 30 days from now what your life will be like once you’ve instilled this habit. It’s a habit, and by nature, it will feel effortless and just be a part of who you are now. How do you feel about yourself? What are you now able to do that you weren’t before.
Tony Robbins often says that most people overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in two or three decades.
By focusing on one small habit at a time until it becomes automatic and then repeating that for decades, you will experience a tidal wave of exponential growth.
To put a nice little bow on this article, remember that disciplined people are just people that have more self-serving habits than self-destructive. They don’t have more willpower than everyone else. They just have habits that make it really easy, effortless even, to do things that are healthy and good for them.
Intentionally creating habits that make it easier for you to be more present, energized, happy or whatever else you want to be is how you become more disciplined. It’s also how you create a great relationship with the time that you have left on earth.
Master your habits, master your life.
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