People think they want status, when really they want authenticity:
Status – high paying job, impressive body, instagram-able relationships
Authenticity – a job you love, high self-esteem, well-functioning relationships
Status optimises for society, authenticity optimises for you – James Clear
Now and again, we all feel the existential pressure, both from society and ourselves, to be, to have and to balance it all in this one short life – work, a business, new skills, more knowledge, exercise, meditation, endless zoom calls and meetings, emails, more opportunities… exhausting.
It’s also ok to fall off the horse sometimes, immobilised by the invisible forces of anxiety, overwhelm, paralysis by analysis, or feeling like none of the baby steps you can take will ever be enough. Discipline is a skill like any other, and one that is honed over the course of a lifetime. It is also worth remembering that even for the most disciplined amongst us, there are only so many hours in the day and an element of compromise will always be necessary.
It’s also about finding what works for you as a unique individual, and your lifestyle at any given point in time. You may need to give yourself time to experiment, tweak, change and get into the groove of things, especially when circumstances change. That being said, here are 10 strategies that anyone can adopt and trial, for improved motivation, discipline and focus:
1. Start With What You’ve Got
Take a long hard look at your list of goals, desires and tasks. If you have a subconscious persuasion to start by grasping at the things you don’t have yet, try reverting the focus to what is more immediately achievable and within your control.
For example, you may wish to improve on, or learn a new skill. Instead of finding yourself down endless tunnels of information, videos and courses, it could be more helpful to take action and just start with actively implementing what you may already know or can experiment with. Over time, the rest will fall into place – and you will naturally break the information up into more easily digestible and actionable chunks, as and when required. Patience is a virtue!
The mantra see one, do one, teach one is a great mode of levelling up – watch it being done, do it yourself, and then teach someone else and share the knowledge, tips and tricks. But sometimes we just need to get moving and try doing it ourselves first!
2. Remind Yourself Why
Sometimes, it’s not about whether we can or can’t, but how much we want to. This requires redefining what success means to you, in order to authentically motivate yourself to get going, or get back on the horse. Our motivations may change throughout our lifetimes, making it necessary to stop, reflect and question our deepest motives and desires, intermittently.
Knowing your true values is a great place to start, as these will be at the very root of what you want vs. what you think you should want. This is why spaces like x+why are values-driven, because all sustainable and fulfilling work starts with asking ourselves – why?
3. Enjoy The Process
Creating goals and targets is useful for tracking progress, as well as making a note of what may or may not be working. However it is important not to let these be the be-all and end-all, especially as the final result is not always as within our control as we would like to think.
Detaching from the outcome will allow you to enjoy the process much more. And when we enjoy the process, we are more likely to feel motivated and focused while doing the work. It’s one of life’s great paradoxes whereby in order to regain control over ourselves, sometimes we have to learn to let go!
4. Be Kinder To Yourself
Cultivating effective discipline in children requires 3 key components: 1) a supportive, positive and loving relationship between the parent and child 2) the use of positive reinforcement strategies to increase desired behaviours and 3) removing reinforcement to reduce undesired behaviours.
Part of maturation and self-actualisation is learning to parent ourselves. This means fostering a supportive, positive and loving relationship with yourself, reinforcing positive behaviours and strategies, and cultivating the self-awareness necessary to remove the reinforcement of negative ones.
5. Cultivate Self-Awareness
One of the ways in which meditation helps us to cultivate self-awareness, is by improving the ability to detach from the automatic narrative in our heads, and the autonomic reactions and feelings that manifest within our bodies. This makes us less reactive, and more reflective.
Meditating does not have to mean sitting down and doing nothing for set periods of the day, although this form of intense practice can help with focus. You can also meditate on the go, throughout the day, wherever you are, and whatever you are doing. It is simply about bringing yourself out of your head, to focus on the present, and observing how you may be reacting to it.
6. Improve Your Lifestyle Habits
In order to perform at our best, we need to feel our best. Which is where lifestyle habits come in – diet, exercise, sleep and down time. Studies have shown that diets high in sugars and processed foods are more likely to negatively affect our moods and output. Adopting the 80-20 rule (eating healthy about 80% of the time), we can balance what we need in terms of clean fuel for the fire, and tasty food for the soul.
Even just 7 minutes of exercise a day can boost our endorphins and focus, so when you feel as though you don’t have time, try a quick HIIT session, some skipping in the garden or a brief circuit with short breaks. This should also help you sleep better, along with getting into the habit of good sleep hygiene – putting any technology away at least an hour before bed time, and minimising bringing your work stress to bed.
When you are busy, down time may feel like a guilty waste of time, but consider it an investment in your future productivity, and sanity.
7. Adopt Healthy Coping Strategies
We all have different ways of coping with the stresses and strains of life, and some of these strategies are healthier than others. Whilst studies suggest that there are biological elements to innate resilience, it’s not always about what cards you’ve been dealt – but how you play them.
Anything can become a coping strategy, and these may centre around quick-fix approaches such as distraction and escapism: online shopping, alcohol, food, sex, drugs, social media… The difference between a healthy and an unhealthy coping mechanism, is that unhealthy strategies have the propensity to become addictive, or offer mostly negative trade-offs mentally, financially or emotionally in the long run.
Some examples of healthy coping strategies could be reading some fiction as a healthy form of escapism, going for a run to de-stress, socialising and hugging to boost oxytocin, or getting out into healing nature. We also need to adopt methods and techniques to better manage negative emotions like fear and sadness, which can be overwhelming.
One such technique is flooding, whereby you allow the emotion to flood your body instead of resisting and suppressing it. Becoming acutely aware of how it feels, where it manifests most strongly and how this affects your thoughts and narrative. Other popular techniques, which may or may not be an acquired taste depending on what works for you, include tapping, EMDR and breath-work meditation.
8. Try The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is a great little hack for improving focus. It consists of breaking up your work into 20, 30 or 60 minute stints / sprints and allowing for 10-20 minute breaks in-between. This prevents us from picking up our phones and endlessly scrolling through social media, procrastinating by doing household chores, or losing both interest and steam.
Signing up to work in this way using a physical or virtual group can also be a great way of making sure that the distinct work and pause windows are respected, allowing for socialising, discussion and feedback in-between.
9. Foster a Positive Self-Image
Having good motivation, self-discipline and focus starts with believing that you can do it, that you are enough and that you will get there. Redefining your narrative is a choice, and it’s ok to need to begin again with each new moment, of each new day.
10. Compete With Yourself
The advent of social media has made it easier and more subliminal than ever to constantly be comparing ourselves to the highlight reel of society at large. Progress is often non-linear, and resilience is determined by how quickly and effectively you are able to bounce back from inevitable setbacks. This is easiest when you compete with yourself, instead of constantly glancing sideways.
Life is not a race or a competition, we are all going at our own pace, in our own way, in order to develop our own selves, and slowly become better, wiser versions of the fallible humans we were yesterday.
COVID-19 has enforced a great pause on both the planet and society. But as with the way of The Tao, we must learn to balance action with non-action (so zen), and the most efficient way to do that, is to cultivate positive motivations, discipline and focus. In loving and forgiving baby steps.