Developing (or Regaining) Self-Discipline

Hey everyone! Hope you all are having a great start to the week.

Today, I woke up at around 9AM. I’ve been trying to discipline myself to get my sleep schedule back on track– i.e. sleep by 10:30PM, wake up at 5:30AM. I have yet to succeed.

After a light breakfast of oatmeal with dried cranberries, I drove to the gym (with my mother in the passenger seat), where I took my first-ever cycling class! The one-hour cycling session was intense, and I don’t remember when the last time I sweated that much was. Attached to the head of each bike was a light bulb that changes colors based on the bike’s speed and resistance level. Throughout the class, the instructor told us to maintain our bikes at a specific color, within a certain RPM (revolutions per minute) range. White is the least challenging color (low resistance, low RPM), while red is the most difficult (high resistance, high RPM). I think I did a fairly good job of keeping up, though there were moments when I thought about hopping off the bike and leaving. Of course, I didn’t let myself give in to such thoughts.

A goal of mine this summer is to develop (or, rather, regain) my mental toughness. That is, learning to push through both physical and mental pain and forcing myself to do things I don’t necessarily want to do, but that will serve me in the long run. It’s strange. I think back to my days as a gymnast– I couldn’t be more than 10 or 11 years old– and I marvel at the discipline by which I lived my life, even at that young age. I’d make commitments and rarely go back on them. I’d never slack off at practice. Perhaps discipline is in my character, but gymnastics helped me realize this quality and nurture it. I guess, back then, I didn’t see any alternative to discipline and structure, as that was the way I was brought up since the age of five. I look at myself now, at 19 years old, and wonder where all that former self-discipline went. Lately, I’ve been struggling to get out of bed in the morning. During workouts, I struggle to push myself to do that extra pull-up, or hold that plank for 30 more seconds. I am ashamed to admit that, this past year, I’ve backed out of preexisting plans– outings with friends, office hours, dance lessons–  more times than I am proud of. I’ve also slacked on my fight against my anxiety, not grabbing every opportunity to challenge the anxiety as I should be doing. I ask myself, “What happened to the strong-minded girl I used to be?” Perhaps, after I quit gymnastics, I was able to relax a little more and live a life of greater balance. Maybe this “slipping” from my young militaristic self to the freer, more liberated being I am now is actually a sign of growth. Still, deep down, I (and all of us) know when we are making excuses for ourselves, and that’s the one thing I hate about the person I feel I’ve become. I’m constantly making excuses to justify lazy behavior or escape challenges. This can’t happen, and I must put a stop to this spiral right now. I detest the sleepy summer days when I seem to idly waste my time away, not really being as productive as I know I can be. I like to be busy, and I like to know that I’m always pushing myself as hard as I can. There are simple lifestyle changes one can make to develop one’s mental strength. Here are a few I plan on incorporating into my own life:

  • Work out. Pushing yourself to run that extra lap when your legs and lungs are screaming for you to stop directly translates to building mental toughness. There will be many times in life when you are forced to do things you really, really do not want to do. Why not learn to grind through challenges with integrity, strength and a positive spirit?
  • Take cold showers. This one may sound strange and may not be for everybody. I got this idea from Eleanor Roosevelt herself, who, in her autobiography, recounts her childhood experience of taking cold showers each morning. I presume the practice was intended to help her develop character, and it sort of makes sense. Who honestly likes to stand under running cold water for an extended period of time? With cold showers, you grit your teeth through the stinging cold pain, and are in and out of the shower in two minutes– Californian’s, behold, another ingenious way to save water! Plus, it is an effective way to wake up in the morning, maybe even more effective than coffee. I’ve tried the cold shower routine several times in the past, but have never been able to maintain it for more than one month. Perhaps I should reward myself each week with a “cheat” day of warm showers?
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet. It goes without saying that maintaining a healthy diet requires one to exercise some level of self-discipline, given all the wondrous goodies glaring at us every which way we look. Just like with cold showers, I’ve tried eating healthy many, many times, but have always relapsed into the usual sweets and carbs. So, instead of doing the cold-turkey method of abstaining completely from guilty pleasures, I will allow myself one cheat day each week– probably Friday– to indulge. That way, I’ll still have the simply pleasures of chocolate cake and ice cream in my life, just not every day.
  • Limit screen time. Don’t you hate it when you go on your phone or computer, and what started as a little “break” time turns into a marathon of YouTube videos or deep, deep Facebook/Instagram dive? Yeah. Guilty. I also know many adults who, despite all their talk of the “evils” of technology, have also fallen victim to the beckoning screen. Indeed, there’s a whole science on why electronic devices are so easily addicting. It’s all about moderation and self-control.
  • Ditch the snooze button. I’ve yet to figure out an effective way to do this. Somehow, someway, it’s become a habit for me to hit the snooze button, even when I’m semi-conscious. It certainly does take a lot of mental strength to get yourself out of bed each morning, especially when you’ve grown used to succumbing to sleep’s soothing voice. I have a friend in college who uses a crazy-loud alarm clock that comes with a vibrator you can put under your mattress to physically wake you when the alarm goes off. I’m actually thinking of investing in one of those.
  • Meditate. I read somewhere that regular practice of meditation increases one’s tolerance for physical pain. It must have something to do with meditation’s focus on the breath, so that you learn to breathe your way through physical pain. Back when I did contortion, my teacher (who was a world-class Mongolian contortionist back in her day) told me that, while this sport may not be as “exciting” as gymnastics or dancing, it is unique in its emphasis on mental calmness, mindfulness and focus as you close your eyes through the pain of stretching/contorting your muscles. Back then, I hated the feeling of stretching and devoted all my mental power to willing myself not to cry out of pain. Looking back, had I focused my energies less on the physical pain of stretching, and more on the steadiness of my breath, such stretches would probably have been more bearable.
  • Follow through with commitments. It’s so easy to make excuses for yourself– I’m too tired; I have too many things to do today; I don’t feel like walking all the way across campus to an office hour that may or may not help me understand the material. Sometimes, excuses are legitimate. You may actually be sick, or you know that going to the really inexperienced TA’s office hour would just be a waste of your precious time. I don’t know about you guys, but most times, the excuses I make for myself don’t hold much water. They’re simply self-constructed ideological detours that open pathways to laziness. It is difficult to discipline yourself, but even more difficult to stay disciplined. Once you’ve start making excuses for yourself to justify lazy behavior, you’ve stepped on a slippery slope, until making excuses for yourself becomes the new normal. In reality, excuses are just delusions, barriers to authenticity. You don’t need them in your life.
  • But… because we are human, we are going to slip up from time to time. If you insist on making excuses for yourself, I suggest you own up to it and acknowledge that you’re making excuses, instead of lapsing into a self-constructed reality that exists merely to protect your pride. (By the way, when I say “you”, I’m talking to myself as much as I am my readers. I don’t mean to sound domineering or condescending in any way!)

As my family and I are flying to Copenhagen, Denmark, tomorrow for a two-week-long Northern European cruise, I don’t know how feasible it will be to adhere to the above behavioral patterns, while on vacation (excuse, or valid reason? I’ll opt for valid reason. I would like to enjoy my vacation to the fullest!). So I’ll have to wait until after the vacation to fully get on board my plan to regain my mental toughness.

On a more positive note, I think pushing through the cycling class today was a great start to building mental strength, and I look forward to achieving more victories like these as the summer goes on. Training mental toughness is exactly like developing a habit. Once you’ve incorporated discipline into your daily routine, such things like completing a cycling class, waking up at 5:30AM and eating healthy will not seem as grueling and toiling as it does in the beginning, when you are just starting to form these habits. And, because we’re not robots, we all will have slip-ups from time to time. When this happens, just brush em’ off and use them as fuel to keep motivating yourself to stay mentally strong in the future!

I hope you guys enjoyed my thoughts on how to build mental strength. I must get back to packing for tomorrow’s trip. As my family and I will be on a cruise ship, I don’t know how reliable wifi will be, but I will try my best to keep you guys updated on our many adventures in Northern Europe! If not, stay tuned for more on Europe, after I get back!







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