I can’t say it enough:
Say yes to the right things, so no to the wrong things, and do it as soon as possible.
This one sentence is a moral compass you can use for the rest of your life. Fix an image in your mind—I want to play basketball, I want to be stronger, more social, or do better in school—and you’re off and running. What do you need to say yes to? Pick-up games, working out, sharing yourself with friends, study groups. Say no to sweets, spending time on the computer, hiding away in your room when people are over.
If you decide to abide by these rules, which have made an enormous difference in my own life, you need to do it as soon as possible—that is, right now. Yes, you need to do it right now. Not tomorrow, not next Sunday, but today, as soon as you can. Effecting change only becomes harder when you put it off. You’re not doing yourself a favor by “knowing” you should stop watching Netflix 6 hours a day; you don’t get any brownie points for that. When you shove an obligation away from you, into the future, you have actually failed to act on an impulse which has arisen inside of you. Take it on a moment-to-moment basis: you have considered doing something good for yourself, and you’ve let it slide by. This mental pattern only makes it harder to make the right choice next time. You are conditioning yourself to say “no” when the same situation presents itself in the future. Sorry, but them’s the breaks.
Putting these rules into effect is really hard, though, or else we would all be where we wanted already. For each branch of the rule—saying yes, saying no, and doing it ASAP—there is a corresponding skill you need to develop. Respectively, these are willpower, self-control, and mindfulness.
Picture this: you wake up twenty minutes before your alarm goes off on a rainy day. You had planned on going to the gym, but it’s cold outside. Your brain starts to build a case for staying in under the covers and sleeping the day away in blissful oblivion. (If only you could telepathically unplug your alarm clock.) “I don’t want to leave my bed, it will be cold outside. Then I have to shower, eat something nutritious, brave the rain, work out, and then start the rest of my day.” Forget that!
What’s there to stop you from sabotaging yourself? You guessed it—your willpower. To me, willpower is like a zealous rage that builds inside. Ideally, you have relegated all your constructive activities into a routine: wake up, slam your alarm shut, and next thing you know you’re already in the shower, getting ready to kick some ass. That’s great! But in first-time cases, or when you’ve let procrastination get the best of you, it can be quite a bit harder to set yourself in motion. Think inertia—a rolling stone gathers no moss, but it takes a whole lot of effort to push a big-ass boulder off a cliff.
Lying in bed, the more you think about it, the harder it will be to stomach all the cold and the discomfort and the effort you must expend. Since you’ve made the commitment to go the gym, eventually anyways, you know you’re on the right track, right? But think about how likely you are to skip more workouts, having skipped this one. Think about how lame it is that you’re going to let a little bad weather get the best of you, or the fact that those weights are just sitting on the rack, waiting to be deadlifted by someone as committed and tactful as you are. Think of all those juiced-up buffoons grunting with heavy weight, bad form, and huge egos who are building the case that they are better than the average Joe, and most infuriatingly might actually right, because they’re out there doing something instead of merely thinking about it.
Makes you mad, right? Well, a little anger can be useful sometimes. Get fired up, get up off your ass and go to the gym.
Also, the shorter you can cut off the train of procrastinatory thoughts, the better. Ideally, you will be able to catch yourself making excuses early, and realize that this is the time to get to it. You are more likely to succeed in your commitments if you don’t let them psyche you out. Try not to think about the daunting nature of your commitments; make like Nike and JUST DO IT.
There’s a saying that goes: “Discipline is doing what you don’t want to do when you don’t want to do it.” Trust that it will be better for yourself in the long run, and know that you are making yourself a better person. You WILL change if you go through with your commitments, whether it’s thinking more positively, getting in shape, or talking to members of the opposite sex. Start small and build upwards; if you feel sore, get up and do some stretches, or do ten pushups, or say something honest that you’re afraid to share with someone around you. It doesn’t have to be big, but alleviating the nervousness that comes from doing something bold will make next time that much easier. This is how you set yourself up for success; start small, and build up. Eventually, you will catch yourself doing something you would have never considered, and giving it nary a second thought—pat yourself on the back, you’ve earned it.
Self-control and willpower are really opposite arms of the same see-saw. Have you ever had a hobby you were extremely passionate about? Sometimes a pursuit fulfills you so completely that you find, lo and behold, you haven’t been on your computer for three whole days. And it’s no big loss! An object of a lower priority—a time-waster, compulsion, or addiction—has been phased out by something bigger entering your life.
That’s how it works sometimes, but the art of self-control becomes much harder when there’s nothing compelling you towards action: no deadline, presentation or grade you’re worried about. In college, I was always OK when it came time to write an essay, because I had to get it done (or else I would die), but during the rest of the quarter it was hard to stay motivated. The worst time-waster I’ve ever had was an innocuous game by the name of Pokémon Puzzle League.
Don’t let the friendly colors fool you!
During downtime, I would play this game for hours on end. During one particularly bad spell, it felt like literally all I had to live for. I’d lose track of time, becoming swept up in a swirling haze of colorful blocks, combos, and grating Pokémon sound clips, and next thing I knew it was 4:30 AM. After a half-hour of “one more game”s, I would tear the cartridge out of my N64, fling it across the room in self-disgust, and go to sleep.
At worst, the things you should say “no” to will start to overtake your life (and this is when they become an addiction). Every time, though, they distract you from the important things, those tasks which you know deep down you should be doing, because they will make you happier. If you want to live a vice-free life, then these compulsions are precisely the things you should aim to cut out. If you want to get in shape, but keep eating ice cream every night, you’re taking two steps forward and one step back. Think of how much further you could be if you had taken three steps forward each day, instead of just one!
So how do you go about saying “no”? Interestingly enough, no amount of self-hatred will help you out in this case. Don’t come down hard on yourself. Don’t get mad that you ate ice cream instead of making a salad. The last thing you want to do is think “Wow, I am a bad person for doing this.” Ease up on yourself!
This is a complicated mental trap, and I’ll examine the reasons why I think we delve into distractions to keep ourselves occupied. Being busy, being occupied, means that your attention is taken up. If there’s something wrong, an anxiety or painful realization you don’t want to deal with, you seek to cover it up. Humans will often latch on to the nearest activity to distract themselves. (See my post Burying vs. Immersion for more on this idea.) But this only makes it worse, because now in addition to the original source of discomfort, we add anxiety, tension, and shame. We have failed to confront the source of our fears, and this feels bad. So we end up putting this confrontation off, more and more, pushing it around in an endless cycle of Facebook, videogames, substance abuse, etc.
The key idea: by neglecting the source of our pain, we foster a mental image of ourselves as someone who is fundamentally incapable. We identify with this person, who is a weaker, diminished version of ourselves, and welcoming this false identity into our hearts undercuts self-esteem and confidence. Identifying with your problem means accepting that you are broken. This creates more pain, and thus feeds the nasty thing that we’re hiding from, making it bigger. So, in our weakness, we turn back towards the vices we have conditioned ourselves to accept. The cycle repeats itself.
If you want to break the cycle and to say “no” to that thing that pulls you in like a magnet, you can’t berate yourself at all. That will get you nowhere! The most important thing you can do is: relax. Take a few deep breaths, and understand that whatever you’re doing, you’re coming at it from a place of weakness. Yes, you have ostensibly “wasted your time,” but there is no reason why you must continue to do so. Drop whatever you were doing, look around, and try to feel a little bit better. Observe your internal monologue. Try to go do something productive, but if you feel overwhelmed, then take some time to meditate on the source of your unrest. Once you learn how to say “no” to things which would distract you from your goal, or outright harm you, you have not only freed up more time, but you have also made yourself a stronger individual.
This leads me into the next skill: mindfulness. In short, mindfulness is the ability to detach yourself from any source of identity, enter into the present moment, and experience peace. If willpower and self-control are either arm of the seesaw, then mindfulness is the fulcrum it sits upon. It’s the WD-40 that keeps it moving smoothly, and perhaps even the laws of physics which allow us to understand its behavior. Mindfulness is nothing less than the key to self-understanding.
If there’s any single thing I can credit for the change I’ve seen in my life, it would be mindfulness. To build it up, you have to meditate. But don’t worry about climbing to the top of a mountain and sitting in lotus position to watch the sunrise—you can pursue meditation more discreetly. At its core, meditation is about watching the thoughts that arise in your mind. Once one crops up, acknowledge it, accept it, and let it float away. With practice, you’ll get better at quieting your thoughts, which makes it easier to be happy. Sometimes, you will have to struggle through very painful thoughts. Don’t be discouraged; this isn’t a negative side-effect of meditation, and is not reason to discontinue the practice. Those feelings were inside you to begin with, and they are merely coming to the surface. If you are able to love yourself through the torrent of these stormy feelings, disassociate yourself from your thoughts and practice non-attachment (or non-identity), then you will unearth great insights of self-understanding. The knot of painful emotion will dissolve, and you will be better for it.
Mindfulness is key to being honest with yourself. Whatever you are feeling at the moment, accept it and love it, because this is really equivalent to loving yourself. You are like a ship, pointed towards some far-off destination, with a delicate and finely-tuned instrument plotting your course. Meditation will help you calibrate this instrument, ensuring that you’re pointed where you really want to go. Sometimes, uncovering your true path entails turning a complete 180 degrees; that’s fine. Just follow your love, and everything will turn out OK.
As far as achieving your goals goes, remember that it is literally impossible to do anything if you do not do it right now. The only time when you can exercise your willpower and make a choice is when you have become conscious. The only time you can be conscious is during the present moment—that is, right now. (Note that this is a different moment, a different “now,” than the bolded one earlier one in this paragraph. For that matter, so is this moment, and this one, and this one….) When a choice arises in the future, it will happen exactly when it does: in another “now.”
There are many authors more qualified than I who have spoken about this subject. If you want a very practical, heartfelt guide to the topic, I’d suggest The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. I’ve also read book by Thich Nhat Hanh and Alan Watts: Peace Is Every Step, The Miracle of Mindfulness, and Nature, Man and Woman. I’m only a rank novice at this myself, so I apologize that this section must be brief! There will be more to come in the future.
1. Say yes to the right things
2. Say no to the right things
3. Do it as soon as possible
Practice willpower, self-control, and presence of mind. Your growth will be astonishing.
And most importantly of all, thanks for reading this! I really do try to live my life by these rules, so feel free to leave a comment, complaint, or constructive criticism. Your feedback is important to me, since I’m on a journey of my own, after all. If you liked what you read, then spread the word 🙂