It's 2015, and I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on building discipline and improving your work ethic. It's quite a long text but i hope it's worth the read. Right at the beginning of 2014 I read an article that seriously helped me build up a stronger work ethic than I've ever had before, and over the year I've accumulated more knowledge that has helped push it further. I want everyone to have a super productive year, and hopefully maintain that work ethic for the rest of your life, so here is what I know about discipline. Everything here is collected from listening to other people, be they artists, business people, scientists, or comedians. And they've all helped me in varying degrees. Also, this is mostly aimed at people just starting out who may have problems working consistently but don't know how to overcome that, as I had in the past. But if you're a solid worker already, I hope some of this echoes your own experience or helps you anyways.
Keep in mind this isn't doctrine, just tactics and strategies to incorporate in your life as you see fit. I don't claim to be the most intense worker (there are many who devote much much more time art exclusively than I), but they have helped me gain substantially more discipline than I naturally have or have ever had, and since adopting these ideas I've been more productive in my life in general. I hope they help you as well!
First I want to talk about discipline vs motivation, and why you need to stop relying on motivation to GET SHIT DONE. Motivation is a fleeting feeling. It comes almost as fast as it goes which rarely lasts for more than one project. If you want to build a strong work ethic, you need to ditch motivation as the primary source. It's unreliable, and if it's unreliable, it has little place in your arsenal to be as productive as you can. Discipline, on the other hand, is something you train for and cultivate. It's something that you can rely on in hard times when you're really struggling with your work. Motivation will sometimes be your emancipator, but most likely it will fail you when you need it most; if you have trained yourself to be a disciplined worker, however, you can always draw on it to push through.. Here's one of my favourite quotes on this:
Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Discharge your duties faithfully and well. Step by step you get ahead, but not necessarily in fast spurts. But you build discipline by preparing for fast spurts. Slug it out one inch at a time, day by day. At the end of the day - if you live long enough - most people get what they deserve.
— Charlie Munger
That said, if you do find yourself motivated to do something, take advantage of it. It's icing on the cake of discipline. But it's dangerous to rely on that on it's own
So in no particular order here are some of my favorite ways to build discipline. They all work alone with different levels of success, but they are most successful in tandem with each other
1. Learn how to say no so you can properly say yesI think everyone has been in what I think of as the "perpetual maybe". It's that situation when you think you feel like producing, but at the same time you're mind is telling you you're too tired to work, or you're afraid you'll fail, or you think that there's no point since you're not getting better anyways etc etc. Whatever the excuse is, you get stuck in limbo, where your heart is saying yes but your body and mind are saying no. One way to deal with this is to sometimes say a definitive NO. If you find yourself stuck between two worlds, give one of them an answer. Some days you won't feel like working, and that's ok. You don't need to force yourself to work if you don't have to, but don't turn it into a habit. If you can give a very solid NO, you will be more able to give a very certain YES in the future, when you're more prepared. You will waste so much more time staying there than if you just learn to give an absolute no from time to time, because the no is finite, while the maybe is potentially infinite. You can always do something else productive in the mean time. Keep this one in mind for later, it will come up again
2. The Rule of thirdsNo this is not the composition rule, although it borrows the name from it. What is meant by this is how you divide your time between the people you hang out with. How many hours did you spend yesterday learning from someone 10 or even 20 years ahead of where you are? With someone who's just a beginner? Where you're at? The idea behind this is to spend 1/3 of your time with someone at your level so you can potentially see the mistakes you're making currently and so you have a bit of friendly competition to push you forward. 1/3 of your time should be spent with someone less skilled than you, so you can teach them and help them get better. As the saying goes, the best way to learn is to teach. Make good use of it: even the lowliest of beginners will be able to teach you something, and they are always good to keep your humility in check. And 1/3 of your time should be spent around a master or someone that you want to be like. They can share their expertise, steer you clear of potentially disatrous mistakes and give you some of the best and most thoughtful critiques of your work. Trial and error is good, but trial takes a long time, and errors can be fatal.
The advantage of going to a school is that it often forces you into a community that has all three of these by default. If you're not at a school of some sort, you must seek it out on your own. Communities on facebook and other websites aren't necessarily ideal, but they do satisfy the conditions to some extent. If you find someone willing to critique you or wanting to learn from you, EMBRACE IT and keep in touch with them if possible. Watching tutorials, listening to podcasts and videos on youtube, and reading good books are also all good ways of satisfying the last third of the rule at least. Often people recommend watching some videos related to your skill to get motivated. Why not make this part of your work routine so you have a consistent flow of ideas and expertise flowing your way, rather than a one and done deal? Over time you'll not only absorb their knowledge and skills, but some of their work ethic will likely rub off on you as well. Between all the different media and the people you can encounter, there's more than enough to keep you busy for a long while
3. The seinfeld strategyI got this from the article I mentioned earlier that helped me out so much. It's a dead simple strategy that I can't believe isn't more commonplace than it is. Here's what you need to do: Go out and buy a big, single sheet 12 month calendar (a regular flip one is good too, but seeing all 12 months is a cool visual way to see your progress), and a big red marker. Your only job is to put a big red X for everyday that you do work. It can be 10 minutes or 10 hours, it doesn't matter; as long you did some work that day that's leading towards your goal. The important thing is DON'T BREAK THE CHAIN; This doesn't work if you don't keep the combo going.
It actually feeds a lot of the first strategy. If you try to force yourself to do 10 minutes of work, you'll be challenging your inner wimp, the one that's trying to stop you from producing, the one that says "Oh I don't feel like it" or "Oh I'm too tired to work" or "Oh I' did good work yesterday so I can do none today". If you challenge him and try to work for that 10 minutes, 95 times out of 100 you'll find that it was a complete illusion. You weren't tired. You did want to work. You could be doing more. Maybe you'll discover that on a day you thought you would do no work, that you wound up doing 10 hours. The idea is to try doing a bit everyday. If you find after 10-15 mins that you still don't want to work, then you can say a definite NO and do something else. But you can say that you did some work yesterday, and, like Munger said earlier, inch by inch you slug it out, building discipline for the times you need it most. Also understand that work isn't strictly mechanical; though in a highly technical field such as art you should be doing physical drawing everyday, studying theory and analyzing other people's work, in my opinion, should also count as "work". But still make sure to practice the mechanical side everyday. Eventually, if you keep at this long enough and don't break the chain it will become habitual to feel a need to work everyday. Dan Luvisi often says "everyday that you don't work, someone else who wants it more is getting ahead," and I think this strategy helps build that consistency. I personally don't think you need to work insane hours every day unless its absolutely necessary for you, but that will come up later. The idea with this is to form a habit, and have a visual way of tracking it and simple goals to get you started every day.
4. Just do itIf you have an idea for a project that you're really excited about, start it that same day. Don't wait till tomorrow. The longer you wait, the less likely you are to actually act on that. I don't care if you don't think you're not good enough to execute the project, you won't learn anything except how to procrastinate by not doing it and putting it off. If you start it now, there's a very high likelihood you'll gain a spurt of motivation/inspiration and will pull off something really interesting, relative to your skill level at least. If you put it off til tomorrow (sounds a lot like that perpetual maybe doesn't it?), you gain nothing and potentially run the risk of never doing it. If you start it and realize it was a shitty idea, then you know for sure and can safely stop doing it, moving on to other things. Diving in when you have an idea will help you develop the ability to start working when you want to. It will help you overcome the procrastination that so many of us face everyday.
5. Have exercises to fall back on in times of mental fogEvery so often your brain just doesn't work. It's not easy to predict or solve, but in times like those you need something to do to keep the ball rolling. If you're an artist, for example, that works a lot off the imagination (which is great to do btw), but are going through a period of stagnation, that's likely a sign to switch things up. Study photographs for a while. Do some still lives. Analyze some master paintings. Whatever method of study you like. If it's a mechanical block and you're having trouble executing your good ideas (ie drawing them, bringing them to life), take a break for a few hours and brush up on theory, whether in books, videos or in person. The inverse works too (ie studies not good? Do some work from imagination). Again, over time this becomes a habit. You'll begin to vary your activities more and gain a hunger for knowledge and work. Sometimes, however, it does happen that nothing works, and you just don't feel like working. If you have tried working, have tried switching things up and its still not working then....
6. Cultivate other parts of your lifeSome top tier professionals will have you believe that if you're not living off of 2 hours of sleep a day and you're not constantly working then you're not working hard enough. If you're that kind of person that can focus intensely and can sit and be productive for that long and that consistently, then more power to you. There's nothing wrong with that if its a natural tendency or if you want to make that your work habit. But in my personal opinion and experience, it's equally beneficial to develop other aspects of yourself as a human being. Spending less time than someone else in terms of raw hours working might mean you don't achieve the 10000 hour rule as fast as them, and unless you absolutely need to achieve that degree of success in such a short amount of time, then I don't see a good reason to force yourself to do that if it's not a natural inclination. There is great value in being intensely focused for a period of time, as that per se builds raw discipline. But if half of that time is spent noodling or repeating the same tired old mistakes over and over again, if you've been trying that for a while and you're not improving, then stop. Jaime Jones said once he'd rather spend 20 minutes painting thoughtfully than an hour noodling around, or something to that effect. Don't understimate the value of rest, both physical and mental. There's a really interesting Ted Talk about what the brain does while you sleep, which I recommend you watch here
To sum it up, all throughout the day you're brain is slowly creating a mess of information. It can't clean it up and organize itself because it's constantly using it do other things. So it waits until the end of the day when you go to sleep, puts the rest of the body on low function and sorts itself out. So sleep is important, and how much you need will vary from person to person. But I've also found that developing other skills, even if they're not directly related to your field, also builds discipline in the long run. Not necessarily because you build raw discipline, but because you give yourself a break from the activity you're so focused on and develop other pathways in your brain. I enjoy reading books and articles and watching vidoes about the different aspects of the humanities (religion, politics, self-help, social psychology), more recently I've taken interest in cooking, and I've also been studying a bit of game design here and there. I think the long term benefits of doing other activities, investing in other parts of your brain and developing a skillset other than art and social skills is highly underrated. If you balance things right, you can almost eliminate the need for recreation entirely, or do it in such a way that it's a win win and not a waste of time.
I used to have only have one interest when I was younger, which was video games, and I never had anything else to do or talk about with people. It's only in the last year or two that I've expanded my sphere of influence to include other things and I'm glad I did; I'm much happier than I've ever been, I'm usually occupied most of the day and I'm wasting far less time that I used to.
The discipline here is, when you are faced with adversity in light of your chosen skill and are having trouble working, that you learn to develop other parts of yourself as an individual and keep growing, rather than stagnating and wasting time.
7. The Death Ground StrategyI took this from a book I'm reading, The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene. It looks throughout military history at different strategies that the great military leaders used or failed to use and tries to apply them to everyday life. The Death Ground refers to a place where you have no other option but to fight. There's no plan b, there's no safety net, there's no running away. You can only stay and fight, win or die. If you are really having trouble building discipline on your own, even with these other strategies, put yourself in such a situation. The degree is up to you to choose, but find a way that suits you. It sounds scary but having a backup plan can make you work less than you potentially could be. Although the saying that you can be whatever you want is a bit of a cliche at this point, there is truth to it. Most people will give up on something that they're passionate about because they're not seeing the results, or so many people tell them they can't do it for whatever reason. But I think if you slug it out and stick by your guns you'll get there sooner or later. Not everyone has the same path, some will get there later than others, but from what I've gathered from listening to successful people of all stripes is that if you stick with something you love long enough it pays out in the end. Putting yourself in a place where you have almost no choice but to stay with it, again, sounds scary and daunting, but it has value. We're so often told to have a backup plan in case things go sour, or that comfort is good. But I think too much comfort and too safe of a plan breeds complacency and laziness. Try it out, see what happens. But be smart about it.
8. Stop if something gets painfulI haven't been involved in art or art communities all that long, but in my brief time in it I've seen many potential artists quit or do severely reduced work for physical or emotional reasons. Often times they're some of the most passionate among us, but they have trouble controlling their passion and because of advice like working 16 hour days straight (which some will push as the best way to work), and not taking care of yourself they wind up in pain and can't continue. They may recover physiologically, but the psychological battle is hard to overcome. The thought of experiencing that same pain again is frightening and can cause them to avoid pursuing their passion, sometimes permanently. In my opinion there's two ways to overcome this: One is to be proactive and stop working if you feel pain, change your diet/sleep pattern if you feel like shit and incorporate more exercise, different activities and breaks into your work. The other is taken from Greene's book again:
"Do Not Fight The Last War: The Guerrila-War-Of-The-Mind Strategy:
What most often weighs you down and brings you misery is the past. You must consciously wage war against the past and force yourself to react to the present moment. Be Ruthless on yourself; do not repeat the same tired methods. Wage guerilla war on your mind, allowing no static lines of defense - make everything fluid and mobile"
Which is basically an elaborate way of saying learn to focus on where you are, and always change your strategies to suit the moment. How does this build discipline exactly? Discipline isn't only the art of working consistently and at will; discipline is also the mental capability to overcome doubt and fear at will. Many of our doubts and fears revolve around past mistakes, and we turn to inaction because we fear making them again. But greene argues that's the exact opposite of what you should do. Think about your failures, analyze them and use them as tools. But when you are in the moment and are faced with adversity in the future, you must focus on the now, adapt your strategies and use those tools to help you rather than hinder you. If you have been in a position where you could not work for health reasons, but you've recovered, I sure hope you don't get back up on that horse and ride it the same way. If you're currently unable to work, start overcoming that fear and depression now. Use this time to regroup and become stronger rather than waste time and wallow in your fear. If you feel you're on the verge of injury, again, be proactive and take a break. Don't be pennywise; does it make more sense to take a few hours off or even a day to rest so you can come back and keep working consistently and dutifully, or would you rather work intensely, injure yourself and potentially waste weeks or even months recovering, consequently lagging behind and regressing somewhat in your development? That's entirely up to you
Those are my thoughts on discipline and how to gain it. As I said earlier, all of this is accumulated from listening to others, something I highly recommend everyone incorporate into their schedule at some point or another. All the answers to your life struggles are out there, either in books, videos or directly from other people. All you need to do is look. One last quote before you go, if you're still reading this
“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”
― André Gide
Do you have any techniques? If so, share them in the comments. i'd love to hear them! Also if you read all this and enjoyed it I'd appreciate if you passed it around and favourited it!