Dr. Gary G. Taylor
ERM Class – Session Six Notes
Improving Self Discipline
How often do we think of doing something that would be good for us, but procrastinate, or simply don’t do it? Or, conversely, how often do we recognize the damage inherent in particular behaviors but persist in them anyway? Self-discipline is a life-long pursuit that few have mastered. This class focuses on what we can do to improve this ability when we find ourselves falling short.
Self-discipline is best developed through Love and Values, Not Fear and Guilt
There are a number of reasons why it’s best to base self-discipline in love and correct values; not fear and guilt. For one, it’s the best way to maintain self-discipline over time. When we try to force our self to do something we should, or avoid doing something we should not; the pressure must be sustained. When this is the case, we tend to stop what we are forcing ourselves to do when the threat is absent. In other words, we will likely go back to the forbidden activity when we temporarily stop yelling at ourselves. Self-discipline works long term only if it is based in values and love. When we do things because of our heartfelt belief, or out of love, motivation is natural and does not have to be artificially maintained.
A second reason is that yelling at ourselves and emphasizing how bad our behavior is creates unhealthy stress. When we are overly self-critical, the emotional upset and stress created increases the need to experience something positive; the most direct temporary source of which might be entertaining an immoral thought or activity, sleeping in, or eating too much. In other words, putting too much negative pressure on ourselves can actually build the need to do the thing that we are yelling at ourselves to avoid. It can also encourage a sense of entitlement. “I hurt so much, that I need to do this. It’s the only way I can feel better.”
Furthermore, telling ourselves how horrible something we have done is, and focusing on how we must never do it again, sounds motivating; and it can be, but any benefit comes at a cost. The problem is that focusing too much on our shortcomings will reduce our self-confidence, or our faith in our self. That’s obviously something we need more, not less of if we are to be self-disciplined. When tempted to do something we shouldn’t, it’s much better to briefly review in our minds why we don’t want to do whatever it is, and the advantages of exercising self-control, followed by putting our minds on to something else altogether. Don’t dwell on the problem; just move away from it in thought and action.
Lastly, fear and guilt encourage the creation of absolute and extreme goals; which are generally unrealistic. Unreasonable goals result in inevitable failure and the tendency to give up; or not even try in the first place. Extreme goals eliminate the positive motivation that can come from small successes as we work toward bigger goals; and they create imbalance in our life, leaving too little pleasure; which is in itself demotivating.
Effective Self-discipline is Not Self-denial
Pleasure is a motivator, and if defined as a fullness of joy, it’s one of our ultimate goals (D&C 93:33). In essence, the body’s appetites and passions have value and need to be expressed; but only in healthy ways—only in ways that will not harm our self or others. Of course, because of our limited experience and vision, we don’t always know where to draw the line. Therefore, God has given us the boundaries. His commandments, as outlined in scripture and reinforced by spiritual promptings, describe the bounds within which it is safe to function.
When temptation arises to do something that we know would be highly pleasurable, but doesn’t fit within God’s boundaries, it helps if we can find something else that would also be pleasurable that does fit within those bounds. “What else would feel good right now?” Of course, guilt free pleasures may not have the emotional impact of forbidden activities; but they can still be motivating and help divert attention from harmful behaviors. For example, calling a friend and just chatting for a few minutes, doing something nice for someone, reflecting on or anticipating some positive experience, going outdoors for a bit of sun and fresh air, enjoying a favorite snack, playing a game, exercising, or watching a favorite TV program are all on a long list of potentially pleasurable activities that generally are within the bounds the Lord has set.
Practical Helps in Improving Self-discipline
1. It helps to remember in real time that I “want to” do this, not I “have to”. In general, we may want to be more disciplined but that’s often not what we think at the point of choice. Suppose, for example, that your goal is to get up early for some reason, a goal you are firmly committed to the night before. But then as the alarm goes off in the morning, you might think, “Oh no, I have to get up. I’m so tired. I need my rest. I’ll just relax here for a bit.” An hour or two later you finally get up. Obviously, you didn’t have to get up on time; and telling yourself that you did was not very motivating.
You would have been much more likely to get up on time if you had thought, “I’m so tired, but I want to get up! I want to get a head start on my term paper (or whatever). I don’t want to be a wimp and let the bed control me!” We sometimes focus on the action and not so much on the thought underlying the action. It can help our motivation significantly when we monitor our thoughts in any given situation and make certain that they conform to our goal. Remember, we can choose our thoughts, but not our feelings. What we think at the moment controls what we feel; and what we feel largely determines what we do. Of course, it also helps if we don’t think too much about it at all. After reviewing a few good reasons to get up, it’s important to jump out of bed and get going. Don’t lie there debating the issue for any length of time.
2. It helps to do everything we can to protect ourselves against temptation. The Savior taught, “And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out; it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire” (Mark 9:43-44, 47)). Among other interpretations, it seems that these verses suggest the benefit in removing from our life those things that are contributing to bad choices. As examples, no matter how pleasurable it is, it’s best to give up a relationship with a friend who is a bad influence. Doing so may feel like losing an arm or leg; but so be it. If one is addicted to pornography, no matter how compelling and pleasurable, it’s better to give up unsupervised and unstructured time on the Internet than to be exposed to temptation.
3. Setting goals can be motivating, but only if the goals are obtainable and reasonable. Furthermore, the goals you set need to be obtainable and reasonable for you. A friend might be on an exercise/diet routine that has resulted in a pound or two weight loss weekly. Given your schedule, metabolism, physical condition, etc. that may not be a reasonable expectation for you. Set goals that will require sacrifice and effort; but still are realistic under your circumstances. It also helps if the goals you set are measurable and not “all or none”. For example, reducing sugar intake, soft drink consumption, etc. by a certain amount is generally better than saying “OK, starting tomorrow, no more sugar or soft drinks--ever”.
4. Setting goals is important; but it’s even more important to promise to keep them. We often set goals that we don’t achieve; and perhaps subconsciously never really expected to accomplish. Reneging on a goal is often passed off as something to be expected. “Who among us always achieves our goals anyway?” Reneging on a promise is different. It’s embarrassing to most of us; and we recognize that it says something about our character. For these reasons and others, promising a friend or trusted other of our commitment to a goal can be helpful; particularly if this is a mutual goal that you are both attempting to achieve. For example, you are much more likely to exercise if you have promised to meet a friend at a specific time to exercise together.
5. Becoming self-disciplined requires spiritual help. Since difficult self-discipline goals require spiritual help, it’s comforting to know that the needed help is always available. Any number of scriptures confirm this fact; including the Savior’s promise found in the Doctrine and Covenants: “I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up” (D&C 84:88). But of course, spiritual power requires that we sacrifice pride. It requires us to accept responsibility for our problems, and admit our need for help. It also requires that we put effort into doing our part to keep the commandments. It won’t work out so well if we have a hard time admitting that we have a problem; and/or if our thoughts and actions feed and reinforce the worldly side of our nature. If our attempts are half-hearted; and we aren’t praying, studying, and serving in a way that adequately feeds the spiritual side of her nature; then no wonder the worldly side will be so much stronger and dominate our spirit.
Performance and Quasi Stationary Equilibrium
Natural Pressures Artificial Pressures
a. Behavior, either wanted or unwanted, is affected by the strength of various forces pushing it one direction or another.
In the example above, you can reduce unwanted behavior (temper outbursts, immoral behavior, over eating, etc.) by either adding pressure on the top of the line or reducing it on the bottom.
b. Trying to add pressure to the top of the line artificially through guilt, anger, and fear can be counter-productive because doing so will also tend to add pressure to the bottom of the line.
c. The best way to decrease unwanted behavior is to add to natural pressures on top of the line and/or decrease negative pressure on the bottom. d. Unwanted behavior is then reduced/eliminated naturally and doesn’t have to be artificially maintained.
e. To increase desired behaviors (exercise, scripture reading, etc.), the diagram above obviously needs to be reversed. Natural and artificial positive pressures are now on the bottom of the line and the negative pressures of temptation, etc. are on top.