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  • Writer's pictureNadine Bennett

A recipe for doing: structuring discipline

I posted recently about coming back from an injury (more on that here) and talked about how getting back to my good training habits and a disciplined routine hadn't been going well at all (why can't I just do it?) at the time. I believe you do need discipline in order to succeed in your goals, but I was genuinely struggling to get it back.

What did get me back on track was following a structured approach as well as actively trying to recognize and circumvent a number of triggers that were enabling my inability to just get it done. Structure and introspection can really help give you the positive space you need in order to start rebuilding discipline.

Introducing the Chimp and the Professor

I have a well-used copy of The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion by Simon Marshall kicking around. The book is centred around the idea that you don’t have one brain - you have three; your ancient Chimp brain that keeps you alive, your modern Professor brain that navigates the civilized world, and your Computer brain that accesses your memories and runs your habits (good and bad). The Chimp is that little voice in your head that latches on to worry, doubt, fear and tries to talk you into staying safe by not doing things. The Professor, on the other hand, is a planner, a doer. Things can go south real fast whenever the Chimp is fighting for control, and in my case, he was definitely winning.

Here's an overview of the exercises I used from this chapter of the book to get back on track with discipline. I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy if you want to dive deep and read further, there's some really good stuff in there.

A recipe for doing: trigger, ritual, reward (and repeat)

The Brave Athlete put forward a set of steps to perform, effectively providing you with a pattern that mimics the feeling and outcomes of discipline, for when you're struggling to get there on your own. The steps break it down the doing into manageable pieces, to be performed on autopilot, so that over time they turn into discipline, and eventually habit.

The steps include preparation (packing up my workout gear the night before), establishing a trigger to set things in motion (morning alarm), a ritual of performing the necessary actions (I get up and set things in motion), and a reward (a little flavour in my coffee) to celebrate and reinforce positive feelings about successfully having completed them.

The Trigger Prep

I wrote down my "trigger prep" steps in a note on my phone, a list of exactly what needs to be ready before my trigger (morning alarm) goes off so that I can execute my ritual (set things in motion). The night before a planned workout, I open the note on my phone and follow the steps; (a) put out my workout and swim gear on the kitchen table, (b) get a can of wet cat food, (c) get the coffee maker ready, and (d) set my morning alarm. Why the cat food? My cat is a jerk, he gets up when I do no matter what the time and his incessant meowing for breakfast will wake up my hubby, so I need to have food on hand to satisfy his royal highness quickly before things get out of hand.

The Trigger

This is the action that sets things in motion, in my case it's my phone alarm that goes off at 5:15am. To help reinforce the need to get out of bed, I uploaded a pic that appears when the alarm goes off - a photo from the book, the Professor and Chimp in my brain, which makes me laugh a little. You could also upload a motivating picture, like a great shot of a time you succeeded at something important, or of someone in your life who is always cheering you on. Anything to get you out of bed, and on to the ritual.

The Ritual

I execute the ritual, and quickly, so my Chimp can't start chattering in my head about going back to my warm bed to sleep a little more. No thinking, just execute on auto-pilot. It also helps that I have this written down below my trigger prep list, I just need to follow it:

  • Alarm goes off, get out of bed

  • Feed the cat before he wakes up hubby

  • Start coffee maker, get dressed while it brews

  • Drink coffee in the kitchen while stretching

  • In garage gym by 5:30am

  • Do my planned workout

The Reward

And a little something special afterwards, to reinforce how good it feels to perform the ritual. For any day the ritual gets successfully performed, I put a drop or two of flavouring in my post-workout coffee. I eventually stopped with the reward, I didn't need it anymore once my discipline started taking shape and the workout itself was what made me feel great. But it was valuable when first starting, it helped set the pattern of feeling good as part of the ritual.

Perform this often enough and pathways form, the wiring I needed in my brain for discipline to take root. There's very little thinking, no time for my brain to evaluate or negotiate, I'm simply executing pre-determined steps. Doing this repeatedly also makes room in your brain for dopamine and serotonin to enter into the picture, which both help with cementing habits, and I started to look forward to the ritual itself more and more.

Putting backup plans in place before shit hits the fan

Sometimes things will falter or need flexibility, and I needed to have a backup plan for when that happened. And trust me, that backup plan needs to be in place BEFOREHAND.

Why beforehand? Think about Chimp wants to talk me out of things, he wants me to be safe and cozy and protected in my warm bed, and he'll start negotiating with me. "Well if you sleep in now you can probably fit in your training after work, yeah you do that, you deserve to stay in bed and rest, you're precious and so tired, you sleep in girl."

But it's usually not in good faith. The Chimp knows I'll be too tired and maybe even feeling more scattered-brained after work, I won't be as focused and disciplined, he knows the likelihood I'll follow through on evening training is pretty much nil - I'm a morning girl, through and through. But it sounds great when he wants to talk me out of something, whispering bullshit in my ear.

Creating backup plans ahead of time is my logical Professor thinking through what I can really commit to if I need to change up my ritual. I want him to work it out beforehand so that the Chimp stays quiet. Remember...the ritual needs to be on autopilot, no thinking, no negotiating, even when a plan falls apart or needs to adapt in a given moment.

Things that really set me off...

In order to help the undoing of a bad habit, you need to become aware of what triggers it, how and when, so that you can side-step those circumstances when the time comes. The book asks you to answer 5 questions, and provides an example to make the point, shown in the pic here to the right.

Seems simple enough, but it can be pretty revealing. I discovered the things that trigger my bad habits are deeply negative feelings about being disorganized, feeling stressed, and thinking about the pain that still lingers as part of recovery from my injury. My Chimp would start talking me out of doing my workout as I was struggling to first get out of bed and again then later in the day when I would try to make up for the missed morning workout. I'd be tired at that point too, and would start negotiating with myself about doing better "some other day". And things would quickly unravel from there.

This exercise also revealed opportunity for change. Hubby is my cheerleader, I should have been talking to him about it, asking for help. But sometimes he'd accidentally open the door and usher the Chimp in by asking, innocently, "are you going to club swim tonight?" If I was already stressed about missing a morning workout, the Chimp would latch on and start howling about me needing to stay home where it's warm and safe. So we talked about it, and wow hubby's really great in keeping me focused. "Are you not going for evening club swim? Don't you usually feel better after? Seems like you should go. I think you should go. Did you do your morning workout? No? Are you doing your workout before bed then? I think you should go work out, I'll wait for you."

If you've kept reading to this point, you're either someone who gets it already or needs it to happen for you. You CAN get back to the doing, don't let anyone tell you that having to find different ways of re-wiring your brain to get your discipline back is weakness, I'm telling you that it's not.

Happy training...

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