As the summer sun blazed overhead, a family of ants were busy hauling corn to their nest. The weather was mild enough now, but they knew that the long, desolate winter would be here soon.
Nearby, a grasshopper lounged in the shade, idly plucking at his fiddle while he watched the ants toil. Their work looked tedious and difficult, and he clucked disapprovingly.
“Why are you working so hard?” he called out to the ants. “Come relax with me instead!”
“We’re storing up food for the winter,” an ant replied, his voice strained under his heavy load of corn. “And we’d advise you to do the same.”
“Winter is ages away,” the grasshopper scoffed. “I’d much rather enjoy this lovely day.” He leaned back contentedly, and the ants continued to carry their corn.
Winter arrived, as it does. Snow blanketed the ground that was once covered in food, and the grasshopper found himself starving. He staggered, desperate, toward the ants’ home, where he found them warm and happy, tucking into the corn they’d spent the summer hauling.
“Please,” he rasped, “I’m very hungry. You have plenty of food. Please share some with me.”
The ants eyed him warily. “We tried to tell you,” said one in between bites of corn. “Guess winter wasn’t as far off as you thought.”
As grim as this fable is (in the original version, the ants let the grasshopper starve to death), it does underscore an important point: Immediate gratification may feel good in the short term, but it’s the discipline that will ultimately serve you in the end.
You don’t have to feel like it
The downside of motivation is that it’s ephemeral; here one moment and gone the next. Discipline, on the other hand, means establishing a routine and sticking to it, whether you feel like it or not. While I was building my company, Jotform, I didn’t always have endless reserves of motivation. What I did — and still do — have are habits and systems that I built over time.
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that habits are associated with the basal ganglia: the part of the brain that deals with emotions, patterns and memories. Decisions, however, are made in the prefrontal cortex, a totally different region. Once a behavior becomes habitual, we switch from making active decisions and instead operate on auto-pilot. Breaking habits and building new ones requires us to switch back to using the prefrontal cortex, and the transition can feel difficult and even wrong. Your brain, after all, wants to keep doing what it’s already doing.
Rather than giving up, try to tolerate the discomfort. Whether that’s doing just one more push-up, or stopping yourself from looking at social media for the 30th time today, you can prove to yourself — and your brain — that temporary pain really isn’t all that bad.
“Out of sight, out of mind” is a truism for a reason — and it’s even backed up by science. One study from Cornell found that participants who left soft drinks on their counters weighed 24 to 26 pounds more than those who didn’t, while those who kept fruit on their counters weighed an average of 13 pounds less than those without.
“Keeping those foods out of sight by sequestering them in pantries and cupboards reduces their convenience, making it less likely that they will be grabbed in a moment of hunger,” writes Matt Hayes for the Cornell Chronicle.
In order to banish temptation, you first have to acknowledge your weaknesses. This means taking an honest inventory of the habitual behaviors you feel powerless to stop. The more aware you are of these behaviors, the more control you have when it comes to changing them.
This goes for food-related temptations, of course, but every other variety as well. Say you’re trying to finish an important project, but you keep getting waylaid by social media. Rather than fighting a system that was devised to keep you hooked, take it out of the equation altogether. Find a quiet place where you can focus, and turn off your notifications — or better yet, leave your phone elsewhere.
There are also a number of apps you can choose from that will bar you access to your most time-draining sites for a set period. Freedom, for instance, lets you put the kibosh on distractions across all of your devices simultaneously; Forest gives you incentive to focus by planting a virtual seed that grows into a tree over the course of 30 minutes, which suffers if you cave and visit any site on your blocked list. With Cold Turkey, you can block select websites, the entire internet, or even the contents of your own computer.
Being disciplined doesn’t mean never cutting yourself any slack. In fact, being too militant will often result in reverting back to your old habits. When you’re building discipline, it’s important to reward yourself for your good work. If you’re curbing your spending, allow yourself a small splurge purchase once a month. If you’re changing your eating habits, have a sugary treat on Sundays. The same especially goes for working toward a career goal: If you don’t leave time for relaxation and fun, you’re putting yourself at serious risk of burnout.
When you’re feeling tempted by something, visualize how you’ll feel if you resist and meet your goals. You can even make a list of what you’ll gain if you stick it out, and read it over whenever you feel like giving up. Envisioning the rewards will help you through the rough patches you encounter. Beyond what you allot yourself, remember that exercising discipline comes with plenty of mental benefits, too. Studies have found that those with more self-control also have higher levels of self-esteem, better relationships and interpersonal skills, and more optimal emotional responses.
If you do mess up, don’t despair. Setbacks happen to the best of us; the trick is to learn from them and keep going without losing your momentum.
Discipline doesn’t develop overnight; but with enough patience and commitment, you can develop it over time.