Forcing My Own Hand

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I am really great at doing the right thing when the right thing is my only available option. Example:  

I am awesome at not buying brownie mix.  I can't remember the last time I purchased the stuff.

I am less awesome at not eating brownies.  I CAN remember the last time I ate brownies for breakfast, lunch, and dinner - it was the last time I bought brownie mix.

In sum, I am THE BOMB at not eating brownies...as long as there are no brownies around.

The times that I've been the most disciplined and put together in my life were not thanks to me - they were thanks to a total lack of options.

I don't think of myself as a very disciplined person.  Homework was never really my jam.  Neither was balancing my checkbook.  I could take it or leave it, and by that, I obviously mean that I left it.  Disciplined people are the kind of people who can see brownies and think, "I am only going to eat one of those."  Disciplined people can mind-over-matter stuff.  They can, say, just GET UP when the alarm goes off.  They can stick to the plan.  ANY PLAN.

I am the pits at that breed of self-discipline.  What I am is a pretty decent self-scheduler.

I am learning to organize my life in such a way that makes the right things easier and the wrong things tougher.

(Actually, I believe it's nearly impossible to make a wrong thing "tough."  Our natural bent towards selfishness and pride, coupled with rationalization and THE INTERNET mean wrong things are only ever just a few side-steps away.  Perhaps a more accurate statement would be:  I am learning to organize my life in such a way that makes the right things more convenient, so I have less excuses not to do them.) 

I learned this about myself my junior year of college.

I had one weird, terrible hour between classes, with nothing to do and nowhere to go.  (This was before the time of the iPhone - I call it the Scholastic Period.  Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, Scholastic.  During the Scholastic period, I did not have cat videos, Twitter, or Pinterest at my fingertips.  Dark days, indeed.)

One day, I thought, "Hey, all those things I wish I had mental space to pray about?  Maybe I'll go do that for a minute."

And I did. And I did it the next day, and the next day, and the next day.

For ten years I'd been trying to bully myself into spending time in prayer and meditation.

I tried guilt (which sounds a lot like, "He died for me, I'll live for Him!" or "He gave everything, I can at least give 15 minutes in the morning!")

I tried mountain-top camp experiences.

I tried coffee.

I tried Bible study books.

Nothing ever stuck for long.  I understood the value, I wanted to be the kind of person to JUST GET UP.  Or JUST DIG IN.   But it wasn't working for me, and not for lack of trying.

The same could be said for my (lack of) exercise routine.  It's not that I didn't see the value.  It's not that I didn't WANT IT.  It's just that whatever thing is inside of self-starters and internally-motivated go-getters - I do not have that thing.

I tried running.

I tried videos at home.

I tried 5 am bootcamp with friends.

No dice.

But in 2005, that one wonky hour became sacred time in my day.  I read my Bible EVERY. DANG. DAY.  I prayed for my friends, for myself, for my future, for the world.   That hour changed my life.  The next semester I intentionally scheduled an empty hour into my day.  Turns out, I CAN have a consistent quiet time - as long as I have literally nothing better to do.

This year I GOT A CLUE from my sacred hour, and applied it to my exercise routine.  I sat down and brainstormed how I could possibly make it work with 2 young boys at home all day, and not a dime to spare on a gym membership or childcare.

I've Instagrammed about our morning walks, and lest anyone think for a second that I have my [email protected]#$ together, allow me to illuminate:

Maybe the mom exercising at the park at 8:30 in the morning is not actually put together. Maybe she was forced by the inconsiderate thugs running the public school system to be out the door with three kids by 8:00 am.  Maybe she rolled out of bed and fed them granola bars in the car.  Maybe she can only leave the house once a day without having a nuclear meltdown, and THIS IS IT.  Maybe the only way she could ever reliably get her unmotivated butt outdoors with her kids is just to do it ON THE WAY HOME. At the park ACROSS THE STREET.  Load them up, walk a few miles, go home, commence day of surviving in the house.  In other words, maybe she's me.

What I've learned about myself is that my best shot at not going completely off the rails is to intentionally structure my life so that the right things are easier and the wrong things are harder.

It's like pushing a chair in front of the stairs to keep babies away from the edge: if they really have a mind to get down there, they will - but it might just slow 'em down long enough for you to save the day.

I'm not great at self-discipline, but I'm learning to save my own days.  I'm getting better about self-scheduling; that's where it starts for me.

I can't tackle things when they're big; I get panicky and I tap out.  But I can manage them when they're small, when they're on the way home and everyone is already wearing pants.

Maybe this has been the real secret to self-discipline all along.

Maybe not.  But either way, it's working for me.  I don't buy brownie mix.  I walk in the morning.  I read and pray in the carpool line.

Still trying to find a good slot in the day for laundry-folding.  If I find it I'll let you know.  Not looking good.

How do you pursue self-discipline?  Do incentives and motivations work for you?  Or are you more of a self-scheduler?