There’s a lot to be said for work ethic. Discipline. Being regimented and methodical. Being able to force yourself to to do the things that you don’t want to do because you know that they are good for you. As Jocko Willinck says, “discipline = freedom”.
I’m a big believer in this. I believe that in order to get things done in life, you have to learn how to do the shit that you don’t want to do. You have to learn how to overcome the mental battle. The more discipline you can implement, the more freedom you have to spend your time where you want and how you want.
It’s why I’ve written things like “Kill the Dragon.” I believe that every day you should immediately wake up and do something that you don’t want to do. Kill the dragon of the day and set the tone that you are in control.
HOWEVER, I also believe that this mindset can only get you so far. I believe that while you can force yourself in the beginning, in the long run the habits won’t stick if you don’t genuinely enjoy the activity. If you can’t learn to find something that you enjoy within the process, the brute force method will only get you so far.
It’s why I’ve written other articles on the flip side such as “if your work is a grind, you’re doing something wrong”, and “the minimum effective dose for self optimisation”. Brute force can help you to accomplish things, but it’s a lot more unpleasant along the way.
I call this brute force method “white knuckling”. Forcing yourself to do something even though you don’t want to do it. “Grinding” through the day”, “Pushing yourself”, “Mind over matter” type of shit.
In my opinion, while white knuckling works, it’s not the most effective or optimal way of doing things. For example, I can get myself to lose weight by starving myself, but that’s not necessarily the most effective way. I can get myself to accomplish great things if I work 12 hours a day, but that’s not necessarily the most effective way. I can learn to swim by throwing myself off the deep end, but that’s probably not the best way to learn how.
I genuinely believe that in order to create lasting habit change, you can’t be white knuckling. White knuckling will work to get you started, but if you don’t find joy in the activity, if you don’t ENJOY doing it, it’s never going to stick.
Take for example my mother. For years I’ve been encouraging her to get more exercise. At times she’s tried. She’s signed up for gyms and classes and a variety of other things in between, but none of it stuck. Now recently, all she does is take the dog on really long walks. 30 mins-1 hour at a time. She does it every day now. Many days 2x/day.
At first she had to force herself to do it. She had to overcome the mental battle. But now she does it every single day without a flinch. Why did this habit stick vs the gym that didn’t?
BECAUSE SHE ENJOYS IT!
She loves walking the dog. She knows it’s good for the dog and it’s good for her. It gives her joy. It clears her mind. The activity in and of itself makes her feel better so she doesn’t have to force herself to do it.
This is the most important piece of the equation when it comes to lasting sustainable habit change. Finding the activities and ways of doing things that you ENJOY so that you don’t have to force yourself to do it.
This is the definition of something that is “autotelic” – the activity in and of itself is what provides you with joy. If you want to create lasting sustainable habit change, you need to find the autotelic activities that are fun to do, that you WANT to do.
How do you know if something is autotelic?
Good shorthand version is, if it’s what you want to do when you don’t have anything to do, it’s autotelic. If it’s what you reach for when you’re bored, it’s autotelic. It’s the experience you look to escape to. It’s the activity you fall back on.
(Be careful though, because autotelic is also closely linked to addiction. I like to look at autotelic as the positive side of addiction. Being addicted to a positive habit vs addiction being a negative one).
I bring all of this up because the other day I was on the phone with someone doing an interview for one of our trainings with the Flow Research Collective. As I was talking to her, I said something about her need to have more discipline and structure, more methodology, to the way that she structures her day.
To this she replied, “ugh discipline!”
The very act of discipline in and of itself implies whiteknuckling. She wanted nothing to do with that. She is someone who is averse to white knuckling. And for good reason, she was 80 years old!
She’s not the only one either. One of the biggest objections I receive is, “if I’ve struggled to implement habits and be consistent up to this point, how can you guarantee that I will be able to sustain the habits I develop in this course?”
For most people, their experience with habit formation = white knuckling. The habit hasn’t stuck because they are stuck in the circle of forcing themselves to do shit that they don’t want to do. In forcing themselves, in white knuckling, they consistently fail to create sustainable habit change.
I believe that for the vast majority of people, the reason why habits don’t stick is because they don’t enjoy the activity. They have to force themselves to do it, they have a negative association with it in their mind, and that’s why they don’t look forward to it.
To me, white knuckling is the opposite of flow. If I want you to get into flow, I need to find your autotelic activities. I need to find the activities that you enjoy. The activities you look forward to. The activities you don’t want to end vs the activities you can’t wait to finish.
THIS is the key to sustainable habit change. Finding the autotelic activities.
Let’s say you’re trying to find an exercise routine. My goal isn’t to tell you to start exercising as a blanket statement, it’s finding a form of exercise that you enjoy doing and look forward to doing. So if you’ve been hitting the weights but you actually love to dance or play a sport like tennis, go dance or play tennis! You’ll get the best results with the habit you enjoy the most.
Take myself for example. Most of my life was a roller coaster of physical gains>injury>losses. I spent countless hours in the gym lifting weights trying to get muscular. Or running. No matter how many times people tell me I need to run, I fucking hate running.
Then I discovered the slackline, and over the course of 2 years I got into the best shape of my life and along the way transformed my professional career.
Why did it work? Because I can slackline every day. It’s a form of exercise that I don’t look at as exercise. I don’t see it as a chore, I see it as something I GET to do. For this reason, the habit sticks.
This is the definition of following the path of flow. In creating habits, finding the ones that stick because you enjoy them, rather than finding the habits that you have to force yourself to do. Finding the ones that are autotelic rather than whiteknuckling.
I meditate and do yoga every day before work because I know I will feel better and perform better at work. In between my calls I do pushups and breathing exercises because I feel better and perform better afterwards. I write before bed because it puts me in a good mood before I fall asleep and lets me rest with a calm mind. I prioritise my sleep because I feel better as a result of it.
I feel worse when I DONT do these activities, and for that reason I have to do it. Then, in knowing that these activities make me feel and perform at my best, I look forward to them.
Don’t get me wrong, those moments of white knuckling where I need to initially force myself to get started, don’t disappear completely by the wayside. They are always there. Theres always the initial moment of resistance in the beginning. There’s always a dragon to be killed.
But once I get started, once I dive in, there’s no stopping me. I’ve never stopped mid meditation. I’ve never stopped mid yoga. Mid writing. Mid slackline session. Once I threw myself off the deep end to get started, I realize how much I love the activity, and then I don’t want to stop. I don’t look forward to it being over, on the contrast, I don’t want it to end.
So if you’re someone that has struggled with sustainable habit change, try to take inventory of where you’re white knuckling. Ask yourself what you can do to make the activity more enjoyable and help to make it stick a bit more. Maybe it’s finding a different form of exercise. Maybe it means playing music during your meditation practice. Maybe it means laughing during your breathing exercises. Maybe it means scrapping these habits altogether and starting from scratch based on a foundation of asking yourself “do I enjoy this?!”
If you want to find lasting habit change, forcing yourself isn’t the best way to do it. Find the autotelic activities that provide you with joy and fulfilment, and watch the consistency fall into place along the way 😉