It’s become your mantra.
“Wake up early, follow your to do list, don’t give into temptation.”
Every night, you repeat it to yourself, fully motivated to succeed tomorrow.
But every morning, you wake up with a feeling of dread. You have your list… but actually sticking to it? You’ve had your ups and downs.
It’s always the same story:
There’s you, the thing you need to do, and the Distraction. Maybe it’s your phone, or a newly released game, or your latest Netflix obsession. Whatever it is, you know it’s the gateway to hours of wasted time.
You know you need to resist. But most of the time, you just can’t help yourself.
You’ve tried everything: Productivity apps, systems, planners, bullet journals. But you know it’s not about the system you use. It’s about having the discipline to stick to the tasks you write down.
The only problem is, you haven’t been successful at building up that discipline. And you don’t know how to start.
You feel like you’ll always be followed by the guilt and anxiety of not working on something important.
What on earth can you begin doing to get yourself to work and do the things you need to?
Why you’re not getting better at ignoring distractions
It’s not your fault.
You’ve been working with the wrong advice:
- “Resist temptation.”
- “Keep trying, and over time you’ll get better.”
- “Power through. Build that discipline muscle.”
But it’s not getting easier, is it?
And how, exactly, are you supposed to resist? What, precisely, should you be thinking, or telling yourself, or changing about your environment?
It’s great to have a goal, but it’s also useful to know what steps to take to get there. And that’s where conventional wisdom leaves you hanging.
Motivation and effort only get you so far without a solid strategy, and this is true across domains:
- Elite athletes spend significant time not just on physical training, but also on analyzing and tweaking their technique.
- Artists don’t paint aimlessly for hours: they explore new methods to find the best way of capturing their subject.
- Successful CEOs don’t only put in the time on a daily basis; they spend years learning better strategies for project management, market analysis, leadership, etc.
Without a strategy, it’s no surprise you keep failing at building your discipline. And when you fail, it’s natural to feel discouraged.
The good news is you can improve.
You are persistent and motivated. But your approach has been failing you.
Why the “resist temptation” advice is harmful
By far the most common piece of advice you’ll hear for building self-discipline is also one of the most harmful, because it masquerades as something that will really help you. Resisting temptation might sound like a sensible thing to do, but it actually sets you up for failure from the get-go.
1. It only works if you’re already good at it
Trying to resist temptation through willpower alone is a practice that only benefits you if you succeed. Let’s look at how this scenario can play out:
- A distraction interrupts your work.
- You try to resist.
- You succeed. Fantastic! You get to keep being productive, feel good about yourself, and reinforce the behavior of getting back to work in response to a distraction.
But how often does this happen?
More likely, it goes something like this:
- A distraction interrupts your work.
- You try to resist.
- You give in. You feel like a failure, your work is interrupted, and your brain doesn’t get any practice in what it’s like to move from distraction back to work. Sadness all around.
If you’re not already good at ignoring distractions, the “resist temptation” strategy will not help you improve. In fact, if you continually fail, it will only hurt you. Your brain remembers the things it does over and over. And every time you fail at resisting temptation, you give you brain one more round of practice in stopping your work after getting distracted.
2. It makes it extra difficult to keep working at crucial moments
What were you doing the last time you got distracted?
Was it when your work was going well and you were making progress?
More likely, it was during a difficult patch. We tend to start getting distracted when we’re facing a challenge and feeling stuck — i.e. the time when it’s most crucial to keep pressing on.
And the more difficult the challenge, the more tempted you will be to take a break when presented with the opportunity, making it even more difficult to resist by just muscling through. This means you will fail most often at the most crucial stages of your work.
So not only are you again reinforcing the part where you stop your work after facing a distraction, you are also making it harder for your brain to learn to persevere when you’re at a make-or-break point in your work.
3. It hurts you even when you feel like you’ve earned the break
Has there ever been a time when you gave into distraction guilt-free?
It was probably after you’d put in a lot of good work and felt like you deserved a break. After all, you shouldn’t deny yourself necessary rest.
What you may not realize is that even when you give into distraction intentionally, you’re still reinforcing the pattern of stopping your work in response to being distracted.
There is nothing wrong with taking a break when you need it. But doing it in response to a distraction means this pattern will come back with every distraction you face, making it harder for you to keep working when you don’t intend on taking a rest.
So what can you do? Is there a smarter way to build that bridge from distraction back to work?
And what do you do when you genuinely need a break and have no strength left to resist temptation?
Turn distractions into mini discipline boot camps
When a temptation comes up, never tell yourself “no”. Instead, say “I will do this in 5 minutes.”
This “in 5 minutes” principle shrinks the ask for your discipline muscle. Instead of resisting your temptation altogether, you only have to put it off by 5 minutes. Sounds much more doable, doesn’t it?
The main advantage of this trick, and why it works so well, is that it gives you a path of much less resistance for getting back to work.
But it has other benefits, too:
- By going back to work first, you give yourself a chance to get re-immersed in your task and forget about the distraction, increasing the number of times you successfully continue your work.
- Every temptation becomes an opportunity to teach your brain to ignore it and keep working. Remember, your brain remembers what it repeats. Even if you ultimately end up following through on your distraction 5 minutes later, you’ve already gotten in an extra round of practice in self-discipline.
And what should you do if you genuinely need a break?
Decide that you will take it “in 5 minutes”. When 5 minutes is up, set your work aside and take your well-earned rest, guilt-free.
By turning all your rest period into planned breaks, you give your brain an alternative path to stop working, which avoids reinforcing the association between getting distracted and stopping your work. And by going back to work for 5 minutes first, you take yet another opportunity to practice returning to work after a distraction.
Make every failure a success
By following the “in 5 minutes” principle, you can use every distraction as an opportunity to train your discipline muscle, even if you eventually end up giving in to the temptation.
By increasing the number of times you successfully go back to work, you will feel more accomplished, and avoid feeling guilty when you do take a break.
In fact, you get to feel good about yourself the very next time you get distracted. No need to wait until you actually get better at resisting temptation: even if you give in, you’ll still have had a successful training session.
As you build your discipline muscle, ignoring distractions will become easier, going back to work will feel automatic, and finishing the tasks you set for yourself will become a daily habit. All with less effort than if you kept trying to “power through”.
Before you know it, you’ll become that person that you used to look at and wonder how they manage to accomplish all their goals.
Work smarter, not harder, on building self-discipline
Getting down to work and ignoring distractions is tough. And when you fail at it, it can overwhelm you with guilt, anxiety, and regret over having wasted your time.
Getting better at self-control is not straightforward, and if you haven’t succeeded yet, it could be because you’ve been sticking to inefficient strategies, like the muscle-through approach.
Fortunately, there is a smarter way to build self-discipline, which turns each potential distraction into an opportunity to practice, and helps you feel accomplished from day one.
The next time you’re facing temptation, use the steps above to redirect your brain back to work, and turn an disruptive distraction into a planned break.
The very first time you use the “in 5 minutes” principle, you’ll feel a jolt of satisfaction when you realize that you’ve just successfully ignored a distraction… and that it’s going to be the first in a string of many successes.
Imagine what you can accomplish when you are fueled by the motivation that comes from consistently succeeding at reaching your goals. Imagine never again feeling regret after an unproductive day.
So take the first step by working smarter on your discipline. And get ready to run, not walk