Habits and Self-Discipline2 min read

How long does it take to build a habit? Some studies say it takes as little as 18 or 21 days; others say it takes 254 days. In any case, it’s true that after a setup period, the new behavior tends to become automated and require very little self-control or willpower to be maintained. 

For this reason, many people embrace building habits as a sort of shortcut, putting very little emphasis on self-discipline. They hope to “hack” their way into good habits as quickly as possible, using the latest apps and tricks, to enjoy the fruits of an automatic good behavior for the rest of their lives, with no further effort.

This is rarely the case. Not all actions can be automated. Some of them will always take an effort of willpower (such as cold showers in the winter); others are too dynamic to be predictable (such as managing conflicts in a relationship). 

Besides, however long it takes to build a habit, that is only half of the journey; the other half is maintaining it. Even well-established habits can vanish from one month to the next without maintenance, especially if your environment or schedule changes with a new job, a relationship break-up, travel, moving homes, family dramas, health challenges, etc.

Self-discipline is not the type of thing that you practice once and then forget about. It is not a simple “setup cost” for building good habits. You can never truly retire from it; when you do, you start relapsing. For as long as you have goals, for as long as you desire growth in any area of life, you will need self-discipline.

If you let go of cleaning your body, it will get dirty. If you let go of nurturing a relationship, it will decay. If you let go of focusing your mind, it will get distracted. 

It is the nature of the body to get dirty and sick; the nature of relationships to need care; the nature of the mind to get distracted. Likewise, it is the nature of our brain to prefer comfort over effort, instant gratification over long-term goals, junk dopamine over healthy dopamine. If you stop disciplining yourself, your important goals and aspirations will automatically lose momentum, and your energy will get dissipated.

The quality of your life is a reflection of the quality of your habits. So having good habits is essential for living well and achieving your goals.

This article is a summary of key ideas taken from Chapter 6 of Mindful Self-Discipline. To dive deeper, get the book or audiobook.


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