Living your aspirations involves taking consistent action that affirms your core values and moves toward your goals, day after day. Action is how we manifest our vision into the world. It is the bridge between imagination and reality.
Action is an expression of the willpower element of self-discipline, because every action requires some effort, and it’s often easier not to take action. The amount of effort needed can be thought of as the “price” of the action.
The bigger is your why, the bigger will be the price you are willing to pay—i.e, the more you will take action and persevere. This is why, in Mindful Self-Discipline, we start with the Aspiration Pillar. When you are clear about your values and emotionally connected to your vision, you are more likely to take action consistently, even when doing so is difficult.
The actions you need to take could be external (such as doing a certain type of work, exercising, writing, decluttering your home, or practicing an instrument) or internal (such as shifting your mindset, doing emotional work, or cultivating virtues). The principles discussed here apply to both types of action. Having said that, we will cover the internal action more in-depth in a later article in this series.
This article is a practical introduction to the Action Pillar. It assumes that you already have some clarity on your aspirations, goals, and the actions you need to take. If this is not the case, you can check out the previous articles in this series (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4). And for designing your action plan, and figuring out which habits you need to focus on, see chapter 25 of the book.
Practice #1: The Morning Routine
To live an aspiration-driven life, start your day with the most important activities in your life. This is the best way to make sure that you take action on your goals every day, before the busyness of the day begins, and definitely before you start using your phone.
Without an effective morning routine, it is likely that your day starts on the wrong foot. It will be harder for you to keep your habits consistent. When you leave taking action on your goals for the end of the day, you often won’t get to it, because at that time you may be too tired, demotivated, or busy with other things.
So start your day with what matters most. This idea is illustrated by the story of the jar of life: when you prioritize the most important things, there is time for everything; when you don’t, then the most important things will be left out.
Here are some key principles for having an effective morning routine:
- Structured. Wake up at a fixed time, avoiding the snooze button under all circumstances. Decide the length of your morning routine beforehand, and then divide the available time into time-blocks, scheduled back to back, without any gaps between activities. This helps you avoid distractions and decision fatigue.
- Focused. To protect your presence and your flow, keep offline until you finish your morning routine. Be intentional about every activity, so that you are fully present and make the most out of this time. I strongly recommend you put your phone in airplane mode when you go to sleep, and keep it that way until the end of your morning routine.
- Achievable. Design a morning routine that is achievable for you; then grow gradually from that point if needed. It’s important that your routine is sustainable, otherwise it could lead to frustration and to you beating yourself up.
I’ve helped countless clients build effective morning routines, and have understood what is essential to make it work. So I can tell you that if you break any of these principles, your morning routine is likely not going to work for you.
What should you include in your morning routine? Ideally, at least one activity that will help you move forward each of your aspirations. I also strongly recommend including meditation and day planning (see Part 4), as these will help you cultivate awareness and go through your day more purposefully.
A final tip about morning routines is to keep your phone several feet away from your bed. This forces yo to get up before you can even turn off your alarm. If you snooze, you lose.
To know more about the why and how behind these principles, read chapter 34 of Mindful Self-Discipline.
Practice #2: Building Habits
Building habits is an important aspect of self-discipline, although not the whole of it. When an action becomes habitual, the amount of willpower needed to maintain it is small, so that helps us save energy. Yet habits can never completely replace the need for willpower. They are both parts of self-discipline.
Entire books have been written on habit building, and there are many tricks we can use to make habits easier and stickier. Here are the key elements, together with links for you to learn more:
- Environment. Tweak your physical and digital environment so that your positive habits are as easy as possible to perform, and your negative habits as difficult as possible. Your environment needs to help you be the person you want to be, rather than trigger you to do things you don’t want to do. (Learn more)
- Cue. The cue is the trigger that reminds you to do your habit. For building good habits, make sure you have a clear and reliable cue—it could be an alarm, calendar event, object, person, emotion, place, or even another habit. For breaking bad habits, either get rid of the cue or attach a different action to it—such as doing mindful breathing when anxious, instead of smoking. (Learn more)
- Action. This is the actual habit you are trying to build. Remove any friction from the action by making it as simple, clear, and specific as possible. Have a minimum action version of your habit, so that you never have a reason to skip it, even when you are tired, busy, or demotivated. (Learn more)
- Reward. To create a habit, all you need are the cue and the action. To maintain a habit, you need a third element: the reward. This is what trains your brain to want to do the activity again, thus creating a positive feedback loop. You can do this via intrinsic rewards (the best), extrinsic rewards (acceptable tricks), or painful consequences (last resort).
(To get the step-by-step worksheet for building habits via this system, you can download my free workbook and go through the Habit Mastery exercise.)
Practice #3: Never Zero
Sometimes just applying the habit-building principles above won’t be enough. In fact, several people who have come to me for coaching are self-help experts. They have read all the books, and know these concepts inside-out. Yet they were still struggling with building some habits, and breaking old patterns.
Here is where the power of determination comes in: it is the glue that binds together all of these principles into a working system. It is that energy of willpower that charges you with enough strength to overcome the challenges that will come your way. It’s what makes you bigger than your challenges, and smoothens your journey.
In Mindful Self-Discipline, one of the ways we train determination/willpower is by making a Never Zero commitment. The key word here is commitment.
Motivation is not reliable, because it’s a feeling, and all feelings come and go. If you want to stay consistent with your goals, habits, and values, you need to rely on something that is also consistent. Something that doesn’t come and go.
That is commitment. When you are committed to something, you are telling yourself that you will do it no matter what. Then your action is no longer dependent on your moods and feelings. This is the only way that you can stay disciplined with your goals until you achieve them.
Motivation is a feeling. Commitment is a decision. Motivation is moving forward when the wind is on your back; commitment is moving forward no matter what.
Never Zero is a non-negotiable, uncompromising commitment to a minimum version of a habit, for a defined period of time. Here are some examples:
- I will meditate for five minutes every day
- I will write every day from 6am to 7am, for the next 100 days
- Until the end of this year, I won’t go to sleep without showing appreciation to my partner
- I will study 20 minutes of Spanish daily until my trip to Spain
- I will not drink beer or eat sweets until the day after I run the marathon
- I will write in my gratitude journal every night before going to bed
Whatever is the minimum action and timeframe, you add “no matter what” at the end of it. This is the uncompromising aspect of it—the essence of Never Zero. You make this commitment to yourself with the intense attitude that there is no possibility of you failing, no acceptable excuse under the sun for skipping it.
It’s a serious deal—a do-or-die type of commitment. It must be accomplished. There is no plan-B, so plan-A has to work.
Read this article to learn more about the three principles of Never Zero.
By keeping an effective morning routine, knowing how to build effective habits, and training your willpower by making uncompromising commitments (Never Zero), you are practicing the Action Pillar of Mindful Self-Discipline. This means that you are consistently moving forward toward your goals and aspirations. You’re a rare human being!
If any of these is missing for you, try using the principles above and the resources indicated (articles, book, workbook) to fill the gap.
In the next article of this series I am going to cover how to address the main self-discipline obstacles that will likely come your way: distractions, procrastination, self-doubt, excuses, to name a few.
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