If you get frustrated, do this.
If you get angry, do this.
Don’t judge, because you don’t want to be judged.
You need discipline to attain greatness.
And on, and on, and on…
That’s great advice, but for the longest time I couldn’t take it. It just wouldn’t work for me, it wouldn’t register. Reading book after book, watching video after another, getting excited for a day, and forgetting the next.
They also say that you need to practice these habits to form them, but I never followed through. I would simply fail, by never running the course. I could never stick to what I set out to do.
Another piece of advice is to acknowledge that we run away from pain towards pleasure, and it’s best therefore to be doing what you love, to bypass the need for discipline altogether. Sure, eating sugar in chocolate cake was great. Watching countless youtube videos as well. Reading self help books was making me feel good too. Having a million and one hobbies was amazing. Blaming others was comfortable.
That wasn’t it.
I would run to the kitchen, and didn’t know why.
I would lay in bed in the morning knowing well all the productive things I wanted to do, and feel bad about it, whilst doing nothing.
Going to work was a chore. Complaining was a pleasure.
I would get angry, and it was always the other person’s fault.
I just did things, as if I was on autopilot. Progammed long ago, just executing without any input from me.
I was unhappy, and I wasn’t able to tell why. I needed insight. I needed to understand what’s going on.
What I really needed, was to look at my vices. What I really needed was awareness.
The slow growth of awareness
A couple years back I realised that my diet is making me lethargic, and after coming across the ketogenic diet, I jumped right in. I knew I had to be disciplined with my food for two weeks at least to get keto adapted. I did it, and for the first time, I began to notice, that I’m running away from something, into the kitchen. I couldn’t eat chocolate anymore, so I simply had a sixth coffee, or another glass of water. That wasn’t helping yet, but because food was the thing I had most often ran towards, this gave me a window of opportunity. Ketosis is the same metabolic state as fasting. If I fasted for a few days, I could perhaps notice what was going on. Also, the energy during the day was an incredible bonus. I finally began to be awake in the later parts of the day.
It worked, not immediately though. I did two three day fasts in 2017, and one seven day fast in 2018, and really it was during that last one, when I finally pinned the reason why I was running to the kitchen.
I was being anxious, and it was my fault.
It went like this: I would be sitting at my desk at work, doing the job that barely paid my bills, whilst my finances were still going into the red in total; I would then dream up the greatest ambition I could come up with, and my mind would fill up with visions, whilst at the same time being pressured to perform the task at hand.
My brain couldn’t cope. It got frustrated, anxious, and the only solution it had programmed, was to go to the kitchen for a quick fix – my addiction to sugar. Anything to run away from the overwhelm.
The keto diet allowed me to get the sugar under control. It was not an issue anymore, and I knew anxiety was a problem. First base achieved. More to go.
A little progress, but still not it
At the same time, I picked up a second job, and my finances have stopped declining. Hard work, but I accepted it. I used gratitude to stop anxiety creep during the boring and frustrating office work. Some space in my mind got created. I felt a bit better about myself.
At the same time, I still had my ambition – a great big project, much greater than myself, and not achievable over night. Time is tight, and to get anything done, I knew I had to get disciplined.
I turned to something I always ran away from.
When I was young, I feared going to the army. Growing up in Poland, army was compulsory, and I was a whimp. I hated physicall exercise, and getting into fights was not my thing.
Two former soldiers (NAVY SEALs in fact) – Jocko Willink, and David Goggins appeared on my social media. I got blown away. Especially with David. He was a whimp too, but chose to become tough. He did it through sheer willpower.
This is how I stumbled onto my breakthrough. I decided that I needed to practice willpower. I already knew, that willpower is a decision. I knew it grows in strenght with practice. I needed an extended challenge, where I consciously choose to do the difficult, and stop myself from reaching for pleasure.
The practice of being in charge
Three month challenge of not visiting “gentelmany websites” and the activities connected to them. The logic was, that if I could deny my automatic mind the strongest, most basic human urge, I could gain the most willpower.
That was the start, denying a very strong urge for pleasure. Just like with food, it exposed me. It showed me how I would run away from anything I found difficult or boring (not in the zone, as they say). Anytime I was left by myself in the house, and the urge came, it was test time.
I HAD TO BE AWARE TO STOP IT.
I had to be present. ALL THE TIME. From the moment I wake up, to the moment I go to bed.
I discovered the real ME.
It wasn’t me, that was driving me to do these bad habits. It was this automated me. Emotional me.
When I realised this, for the first time, I felt present. I felt connected to the real world. No longer a prisoner of my own mind.
Soon after I started that challenge, the thought came, that since I’m denying myself pleasure, how about inflicting some pain. It was only logical. We run away from pain towards pleasure if you recall. This was the reversal. Stopping myself from pleasure was one side. Walking into pain was the other.
Cold showers gave me the chills.
I’ve always hated the idea.
That meant it was the perfect challenge. A cold shower every morning. Brrrrr…
That started a few days into the first challenge, and it was horrid! I did it, and felt like becoming ill. So I looked up how the people who bathe in the sea in the winter do it (who don’t get sick at all for doing it). They do a 15 minute warm up first.
My first warm up was pittyful. I tried to do this at home, but I live in a flat. The floor creaks, and I was getting up at 5am to do this. I was worried I would wake everyone up. I made the decision, that I needed to get out.
Another challenge: running.
I hate running. I’ve found every excuse under the sun not to do it, but whilst all of this was happening, I learned from at least two sources, that the best thing for a healthy mind, especially for the growth of the pre-frontal cortex (which is responsible for our conscious self) is aerobic exercise, and all I’ve been doing was aimed at my mental performance. Everything else was a bonus.
It sounds so easy in the advice we get, right? Just do these challenges, take cold showers, go for a run, right?
How do you go running at 5 in the morning, when you’re not awake yet, and the bed is so comfortable?
Tricking the brain
The pre-frontal cortex, the seat of our consciousness, the real ME, has limited space. It’s very inefficient, it needs a lot of energy to operate. The automatic part doesn’t. It works around the clock. If there was a fire at 5 am it would cause a surge of adrenaline, and I would be running like hell. But in normal circumstances, it’s programmed to stay in bed, as long as possible to conserve energy.
You know the feeling. The alarm goes off, and all you want to do is to hit the snooze button, and cover up under the warm duvet. Outside is cold and uncomfortable. “A few more minutes mom”…
The thought of going out to run would cause panic in my automatic self. I needed a trick.
The alarm goes off.
I have to get up to switch it off, as it’s not next to me.
I sit on the bed. All clothes lay ready from the night before.
A sliver of consciousness is available.
“we’re not going running, we’re only putting on the left sock”… I think with my eyes firmly shut.
I put the left sock on. The automatic brain doesn’t protest. It’s content, that the left foot is out of the cold again.
“we’re not going running, we’re only putting the right sock on”…
“we’re not going running, we’re only putting the trousers on”…
open the door…
“oh, look, we’re outside, we can start moving a bit”…
Now that I found a way to use a sliver of consciousness to get myself out the door, I had a chance to start running.
Because I wasn’t fit at all, I couldn’t run more than 100m before running out of breath. I noticed that I would slow down and stop automatically. It wasn’t me stopping. It was my automatic self trying to avoid the pain.
Am I still here?
I kept asking myself over and over again. Am I still here. I would focus on what I see around me, I would feel my feet striking the ground, my hands feeling the air, and how my body moved.
Whenever I slowed down, it was a chance to notice that my automatic self was taking control.
Another few steps, just a bit further…
Out of breath, I would walk, fully aware that it was my choice. I would watch my breath slow down. Then I would start runing again.
And again, until about 15mins to half hour past, and I felt warm.
I didn’t even run somewhere interesting. It was a local, community, open football field, I would run laps around.
One day I ran an entire lap (0.4 mile) and felt like I achieved something significant.
The cold shower was bearable after a run. Getting out of it felt as the best thing in the world. I felt accomplished, I felt awake, strong and aware.
Soon after I started these challenges, I began contract office job in my profession of purchasing, which I have nine years experience in. This was another opportunity to practice being present and in control.
Limited computing space
I knew from the book “Your brain at work” that our concious self is used for decision making, but it has very limited space for holding information. When it filled up, the pressure would create a feeling of overwhelm – something that in the past would create an urge to run away, towards one or the other forms of pleasure. Food or coffee in the office.
This was the perfect opportunity to practice being present and in control.
My automated brain has not yet had the information needed to perform the job. It had to learn it.
When new information comes in, the conscious part cannot hold it and make decisions on what to do first at the same time.
I needed to keep it empty.
A colleague was teaching me as I performed each new task.
I kept a word document, and wrote step by step instructions, as basic as possible, in order NOT TO HAVE TO REMEMBER THEM.
Then, when I did the tasks on my own, I would write out on a paper pad in front of me the steps that my mind was throwing into my conscious part. I had to keep it empty at all times.
That removed the pressure, the frustration. I had the mental space to decide. All I needed to do, was to look at that piece of paper, and choose the first micro-task. Then the second, third…
A couple months in, and most of this work has become encoded into my automatic self. I could stop writing, or reading from the word document. I still keep them available, to remind myself, or to “think on paper” when needed.
I finally understood the key to learning a new skill, and to performing a complex task, at which my automatic brain was not yet trained in.
It sounds obvious, right… I guess it wasn’t for me. I don’t know how I got through school…
Dealing with anger
I grew up in a loving household, but still we seemed to get up in arms at every opportunity. I noticed even back then, that outside, to colleagues and strangers, we were polite and politically correct, whilst to loved ones, rude and impatient. There was no dialogue, just fighting.
Being a dad, I knew I didn’t want to pass it on. I knew I had to find a way to put a stop to it. Early this year (2018) I promised my little daughter that it stops with me.
All of this awareness training, being present, being ME has started paying off. What I noticed, was that I used to get angry, when my conscious self was overfilled. This was the same as getting frustrated at work.
I tried another trick.
One night after picking up my daughter from afterschool club, and my wife from the train station, I stopped listening to them…
It sounds rude, but it was liberating.
They are excitied to tell me about their day, and talk at the same time, and all I really wanted was to listen to them.
To both of them.
AT THE SAME TIME.
That was my mistake. So I stopped. I focused on the air around me, and picked up pieces of information only.
A tiny sliver at a time – enough that I could handle, and no more. Focused on that. Gave it all my attention.
I felt happy. I felt relieved. I felt love towards both of them.
No more frustration. No escallation. No anger.
I can listen now, without thoughts barging into my limited processing space and drowning out the person speaking. The conflict between their words and my thoughts is over. I’m calm.
Am I there yet?
I’d probably need to become a monk to say that I am, but the I have made the greatest progress this year compared to all of my life.
By becoming present. By focusing on strengthening the part of my brain that is ME.
I rarely get upset now, and when I do, I’m able to stop. I don’t get anxious anymore, and frustration is a sign that I need to write to think. I can choose not to take pleasure, or decide to get up in the morning to run, and my automatic brain doesn’t protest as much. It’s got weaker, whilst I got stronger.
My ambition is in front of me, and I have confidence, that I can do the work necessary to have a shot at achieving it. When my brain gets frustrated, and tells me “let’s try something else now”, I can firmly say “no, we haven’t tried hard enough yet”, and keep going.
I’m seven days into a new challenge. Three miles per day for 100 days in a row. Every morning. No excuses.
My longest run before that was seven miles. I know I can recover in a day after three.
I’m finally present. I’m finally ME.
I hope it can help you, if you’d been struggling with an undisciplined brain like I have.