A Follow-Up On How To Have Self-Control And Live Your Life The Way You Want It
(I first published this article on Medium in January 2016 in response to an inspiring post by Oskar Nowik, author of Growthzer. I received kind words of feedback from friends and family, and it's that encouragement that pushed me to create joannacohen.com.)
In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about a phenomenon she encounters as an author. She calls it multiple discovery (similar to the concept in science), and it’s when two people come up with the same story at the same time. Literally, the same creative idea is being explored and brought to life simultaneously by two different minds in two different places.
Last week I felt this force in action for the first time when I read How To Have Self-Control And Live Your Life The Way You Want It by Oskar Nowik. I spent the last four months in India, exploring, writing and reading a bit, and hoping to figure out my next steps in life. The biggest impact of my discoveries was my re-infatuation with the power of self-discipline.
I say “re-” because I’ve been keenly in touch with discipline during a few distinct periods of my life. As a fat kid on the road to becoming a fat adult, I decided one Sunday afternoon when I was 11 that I didn’t want to be fat anymore. I played basketball by myself for the next few hours and ate only salad for dinner that night. Over the next year I developed various exercise (like, I did sit ups and push ups during every TV commercial) and eating (I redefined “sliver” of cake) disciplines and stuck to them like crazy. I turned my fat-kid-ness around and changed the course of my life completely.
Another bout with the power of discipline was with a relationship I was in once. When I say once, I mean for a span of much of my adolescent to adult life. It was an all-consuming, can’t-live-with-you-or-without-you young relationship, that eventually had to end. Acknowledging this I cut off communication entirely. As anyone who’s been in this situation before knows, it takes incredible self-discipline not to respond to texts (both of undying love and complete and utter vitriol), to ignore phone calls, and to refrain from expressing your own emotion or reaching out for comfort. I pretty much moved across the world and often had to hide my phone from myself to see out this discipline of cold-turkey cutoff. But I did it, and eventually it put each of us in a better place as I’d hoped it would.
In India I realized that I’d fallen out of touch with this power of discipline. In its place I’d developed a go-easy-on-yourself mentality that was at once healthy and damaging.
I attribute the development of this attitude to my journey into yoga. There are many amazing and self-serving lessons that come from adopting a yoga practice. One of them I took particularly to heart was the idea of going easy on yourself, of being kind to your body and of allowing yourself indulgences. I still believe this is a great concept. However, I think it can be a slippery slope into losing discipline in all areas of your life.
When I started taking yoga classes in India I found the opposite ethos. As I traveled from the north of the country to the south, and attended countless classes with countless yogis, a different message reverberated, one that mandated discipline. These teachers demanded daily practice without exception. They said that some people will take days off — but those people should not be you.
This logic made sense to me immediately because I’d known it before. Suddenly I was prompted to re-engage the muscles of discipline in my body I’d long neglected.
So I began thinking a lot about self-control and beginning to build it back into my life. I even extended my stay in India to give myself more time to practice these new disciplines before returning to my “real life” in the states.
As I often synthesize thoughts by considering how I’d write them on paper, I started brainstorming an article about my experience with discipline. Meanwhile, someone named Oskar from Europe was brewing the very same idea. To my surprise he published the words I’d been thinking for months just a few days after I arrived back in the US. I felt a weight lift off my shoulders as I read through each section of his article, seeing that he checked off each of the big ideas and messages I’d intended to include.
After sharing Oskar’s article with my community I received a bit of encouragement to share my experience as well. For those working to implement these great practices, here I’ve added my thoughts where they might offer any additional perspective!
Set A Sleeping Schedule … And Make It That Of An Early Riser
One of my teachers, Swami Tattvarupananda, an expert in Vedantic philosophy and the inspiring founder of a school/home for underprivileged boys in South India, offers the wise advice, “People can solve 90% of their problems JUST by waking up early.”
I completely agree with him. Yoga believes in the sacred hours ofbrahmamuhurta, the period of time before dawn, usually between 4a and 6a. These quiet hours are said to be the best time for meditation. The energy during this time of day is powerful and calm and will seep into those who experience it. Your mind is clear, your intellect is alert and you can experience a closeness to yourself that disappears as the rest of the world wakes up.
Also, waking up during this time simply gives you more time to practice your disciplines.
** If you’re interested in learning about or contributing to a great cause, check out the work that Swami T does. He currently runs a home for young boys and is in the process of opening a sister home for young girls. It’s amazingly inspiring and small amounts go a long way in supporting the needs of these children!
Make Your Bed… And Poop… Immediately After Waking Up
Cleansing rituals, if you will. This one is super important. It’s also super hard for me to write. I used to be scared shitless of talking about poop. I couldn’t even Google it, for fear that someone in the Googlesphere would know and I’d never live this search down.
It’s just a touchy part of our culture. In India, however, there’s no shame around it. Ayurveda (an eastern health practice that literally translates to the “science of life”) prescribes that every person should go to the bathroom within five minutes of waking up, everyday. If it doesn’t just happen, you’re supposed to lie in your bed and think about nothing else until it does. (Can you imagine texting your boss… “sorry I can’t make this morning’s meeting, I’m still trying to poop”?)
As someone who pretty much never pooped for many years of my life, this idea seemed so impossible it was laughable. But I was determined to get control over it. I recognized how much impact this one simple action had in the ability to set my day off to a good or bad start. I felt how much more energy, how much happier and confident, and how much more in-control of basically everything I felt if I went to the bathroom before starting my day.
So I set out to make it a discipline, and it’s been the most life-changing one for me. If you’re curious for methods how, I’m no expert, but I’m happy to share my experience — just message me.
Nothing to add, but I do want to stress the importance of this one, and to encourage making sure that YOU understand the importance of it.
Read about meditation. Gain a first-hand desire to achieve the benefits of it. Get interested by it and make it a personal challenge. Meditation is tough and it’s sure to present lots of frustration and obstacles. It’s very easy to skip, unless you have a firm understanding of why you’re struggling through the challenges. So make sure you develop this so you can make it a habit that lasts.
I recommend Meditation and Mantras for anyone looking to develop this understanding!
Plan Your Life
… to do so, always carry a notebook. Simply having it by your side will help you capture more of life, understand yourself better and stay on top of the progress you want to make.
Evernote is also really helpful for capturing things in your digital experience of life, and for more on-the-fly notation.
Reduce Refined Sugar In Your Diet… And The One-Plate Rule
I can honestly say that food has control over my life. Sadly, I am a slave to food. I’m working on changing this with my new disciplines, but I still have a ton of work to do.
I’ve learned that many people — especially Americans — share this experience. We overeat pretty much daily. And each time this happens we lose an opportunity to strengthen our self-control. We also surrender control over our levels of energy and health for the rest of the day, as well as control over the shape and health of our bodies in the long term.
Thus, while presently a curse, food offers a huge opportunity to make strides in building our self-control. And since we eat regularly, we can practice often.
Everyone’s food discipline will be different and should be decided based on one’s own particular needs and preferences. I recommend crafting your food discipline around serving size. Personally, my food discipline is taking only one serving. No matter what, I will not take more food after finishing what’s on my plate.
I started this at the ashram where I spent 10 weeks in India. At meal times, we’d sit down in front of plates upon which one portion of each dish was already placed. Promptly five minutes into the meal, servers would start coming around offering second helpings. This continued for the rest of the meal — you could feasibly have ten portions of anything you wanted.
After walking away from several meals, full to the brim and exhausted, I decided that I had to have some control over this experience. The easiest thing I could think to do was stick to eating only the first serving.
At first it was nearly torture to say no to so much appetizing food. I fought an internal battle every time a new dish came around. But eventually this discipline made my mealtimes easier and more enjoyable. I no longer had to think constantly about whether or not to take more food, and I didn’t have to worry about overeating.
I’ve had to adjust this discipline since returning home but I’m following generally the same principle. Now I’m in charge of allotting my first serving, so I take care to be sure it won’t leave me dying for more. But whatever I put on my plate the first time is what I get… no more, no matter what.
Not only does the one-plate rule strengthen my discipline, it’s allowed me to get closer in touch with how much my body needs and what different amounts of consumption feel like.
I can’t stress enough how great a tool food can be in our quest for self-control. It’s perhaps the most challenging tool to work with, but as a result it offers the greatest rewards. When you feel in control over what you eat you will feel in control of your entire life.
Switch To Intermittent… And Regular… Fasting
I have little personal experience with IF but I definitely see how it could work. When the NYT published this study last year, which called for limiting your eating hours to a 12-hour window, I tried it and felt amazing. According to the research, if your first meal was at 7a your last meal should end by 7p. In my short experiment I noticed immediate results — at the time, however, I didn’t have the discipline to keep it up.
I also recommend trying full-day fasts. My discipline is to do two fasts every month in accordance with the Ekadashi calendar. These fasting days are tied to the cycle of the moon and adhering to the fast is considered an act of worship to the spiritual Gods. Personally, having spiritual purpose helps me keep this practice up.
Any convenient days of your choice, however, would work. Simply knowing that you’re giving your mind and body a rest from the work of digestion and an opportunity to heal is great motivation. From what I’ve gathered of western health culture views on fasting, one day every two weeks seems like a healthy fasting practice.
… but remember the importance of moderation. Don’t schedule yourself to eat half a cake. Decide what a moderate, acceptable and satisfying treat is and have that and no more. The important thing is to make sure your treat doesn’t derail the progress you’re making in exercising your muscles of discipline.
Lastly, I’ve found that it’s important to closely observe the process as you develop discipline. It’s incredibly hard at first to adopt new practices, especially “rules” that require you to repeatedly resist what your mind and body might be begging for. But trust that there is magic in habit.
Eventually, and usually much sooner than you might expect, what once required all your effort will happen easily. It will no longer take a Herculean effort of self-control, and it will simply be part of your process. After a couple weeks of eating only my initial plate of food, I was surprised to see how easy it was to refuse second helpings. It was no longer a constant internal battle — it just was. Internalizing this understanding will give you strength to stick to new disciplines and take control over your life.
Thank you again to Oskar Nowik for kicking this off with such an inspiring post!