One of the great myths of our society is that we need to be “disciplined” to get things done.
I think that this is a dangerous way of seeing things. Because when you are trying to be disciplined, you are sort of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, exhausting your willpower, and within a short period of time you will be too tired to keep going. Willpower is a scarce resource, after all.
Enthusiasm always trumps discipline
What you really need is enthusiasm. When you approach a project, you need to do so with a sense of fun and adventure for your life and for the project, rather than a sense of discipline.
People will mistake an enthusiastic person for a disciplined person. To the untrained observer, it looks like the same thing: you are getting a lot done, in short periods of time, with great focus. But in your inner world it’s an extreme difference.
As you get older, enthusiasm needs to be cultivated
When I was younger, people used to always say that I was very disciplined. In retrospect I understand why people kept saying this: I had an extreme sense of enthusiasm for anything I approached — even relatively mundane things like summer jobs.
In my early and mid 20s, I had experienced some of the pain and disappointments that go along with growing up and going out on your own, and was surrounded by people that lacked my sense of enthusiasm for life. I also hadn’t learned coping mechanisms for difficult periods, and generally didn’t have very high confidence in this new “grownup” world.
This combination of factors slowly drained my enthusiasm out of me. It happened over a period of years, so at first I didn’t realize what was happening. I tried to replace it with discipline, “hunkering down” and “working hard”, read all sorts of productivity and motivational books, because that’s what society teaches you to do. None of that helped me regain the focus and productivity that I had as a youngster.
I kept looking at my past, trying to figure out what was different about me then that helped me get so much done, compared to now, where my output was only slightly above average.
A couple of months ago I figured out that it was enthusiasm that was missing from my life, and how to get it back:
How to get your enthusiasm back
Step 1: Love the process
Having goals is important, but you won’t be able to discipline your way to goals that aren’t exciting to you.
Let’s face it, most regular days in life are boring and mundane, for pretty much everyone. Professional athletes like Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps might seem cool on their advertisements, or when they win that gold, but the average day for them is hours upon hours of doing the same thing over and over. They do it because they love doing it.
Professional photographers take thousands of pictures, most of which will be average. Baseball players are considered great if they only miss two thirds of the time. Salespeople have to call a hundred people to get a handful of them to buy the product.
You can’t keep up that kind of pace unless you have enthusiasm for every day that you are at it, loving every small improvement that you are making.
Step 2: Love learning
This ties into step one, as “every small improvement” you make means that you learning a bit more about what works and what doesn’t.
When I was much younger, I had this frame of mind that I was just a youngster trying to learn stuff, and that kept me from judging my work too much. I just expected everything that I do would be subpar in the beginning, but would eventually improve.
Once I hit my mid 20s, that frame of mind changed. I thought that by now, I should have it all worked out. This is silly, of course, but it was actually a deep-seated societal conditioning in my mind, that told me that once you hit a certain age, you are “grown” and have to get serious. I started judging my work much harsher and was disappointed when I didn’t become world-class at something over the weekend. I no longer loved and understood the process.
You have to love the learning process in order to keep going. That’s a big part of being enthusiastic about what you’re doing.
Step 3: Avoid distractions
I also did the other usual stuff a college teen would do: partying, drinking, women, and trying to be part of the “in” crowd. I was part of the “in” crowd alright, but my creative output and general happiness suffered.
I was more preoccupied with what these people think than with following my instincts. I got distracted by the opinions of people who didn’t understand me, didn’t have true success and happiness in their life, and who ultimately didn’t matter.
Enthusiasm can only be cultivated if you avoid things that will keep you from doing so. Now this is something that can take a fair amount of discipline to do. Use your limited willpower for things like this.
You can do it
In order to regain your enthusiasm, you need to remove factors from your life that would drain that enthusiasm out of you. If you’ve already lost most of your enthusiasm, it will take some time to get it all back. The only way to do so is to get rid of those distractions, so you can start changing your mind back to a state of adventure, curiosity, and focus on things you really like doing.
Tell me your story
Does this article relate to you? What goes through your mind when you read it? Tell me how you have battled with keeping your spirits high in a world that is doing its best to knock you down, in the comments.