Daily Experiments in Mental Discipline

How learning a new language helped cultivate discipline in other areas of my life…

Teaching myself to learn Portuguese has been a great lesson in mental discipline, and the levels of intensity with which we can try to learn something new.

Self admittedly, I’ve been pretty lazy about it. Or better yet, I should say I oscillate between being very serious, and not serious enough.

Some days I make a rule that I will only speak in Portuguese and nothing else. Some days I’m speaking in English to everyone that I see.

Noticing my habit to waver between the two, lately I’ve been setting up rules for myself. Rules that will help to guide my practice and learn at my own pace with an effort that feels sustainable.

For example I’ll set a rule that I will only speak to people in their native language. So if I’m speaking to someone from the US and UK, I’ll give myself a break and speak in English. OR if I meet someone from Argentina or Chile, I’ll try to speak to them in Spanish.

By setting up these rules, I allow myself to learn at a pace that feels comfortable. While some people like to immerse themselves and only speak in that new language 24-7, and while this technique may help me to learn faster, I genuinely feel that I learn more quickly in small doses throughout the day.

More importantly, it’s also taught me a lot about my own mental discipline, and my tendency to break or maintain my own rules. It’s taught me a lot about mental willpower.

If you set rules for yourself but constantly break them, you have weak willpower. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but these small rules are great reminders that willpower is something you need to work on. 

I’ve enjoyed playing around with these rules, and this concept has inspired me to create frameworks of improving myself in other areas of my life as well.

For example, I’m a pretty crappy listener and I speak entirely too much. I also struggle to maintain awareness of my tone, and sometimes I’m too intense. I’ve been trying to learn how to become more gentle and moderate my tone throughout the day.

To combat this, lately I’ve been implementing rules for myself to overcome these bad habits. Here are some examples of rules I’ve set for myself recently:

“Today I can only speak when spoken to”

“Today I will only tell someone about my day if they ask me to”

“Today I will only ask people questions about themselves”

“Today I will maintain awareness of my tone when speaking with someone”

“Today I will try to make people smile in all of my conversations”

These rules have helped me to overcome some of my bad tendencies. They prevent me from falling into my normal traps when speaking to people.

Am I perfect at maintaining these rules? Hell no! Some of these are very tough to overcome. They are my worst habits.

Things like “Today I will only tell someone about my day if they ask me to” are very tough for me. I often see people and immediately want to jump into telling them about my day. Waiting for them to ask me about it makes me feel anxious. If they don’t ask me about it, I feel a sense of anxiety and tension because I have something I want to share, but didn’t.

These moments of resisting my natural tendency to speak have helped me to cultivate mental discipline and willpower. It creates awareness of my bad habits.

When I notice that I broke a rule of mine, I feel a small dose of remorse for not being disciplined enough mentally. I make more of an effort to maintain this throughout the day.

It also helps me to notice bad habits in other people. If I ask someone a ton of questions about their day, and then they don’t ask me anything about mine, I genuinely feel bad. I feel misunderstood in a sense. It’s not a good feeling.

This flipped sense has cultivated an enhanced sense of empathy. It helps me to realize that this is what other people feel like when I am only talking to them but not asking reciprocal questions. It gives me added desire to continue to cultivate this habit, because now I have experienced the emotional empathy associated with it.  

At the end of each day I try to reflect on how these rules or experiments improved my conversations with people. For example, by being a better listener, I’ve noticed that people reciprocate questions more often. I’ve noticed that people are more receptive to my conversations. Less intimidated when I moderate my tone.

These experiments have helped me to take inventory of bad habits and work to change them. To notice when my mind is being lazy and overcome it. It’s had a wonderful impact on my days, and I encourage you to do the same and share your experiences as well! 

Thoughts? Similar experiences? Let me know in the comments below!

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Also published on Medium.

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