The dance between discipline and desire

Something I hear a lot (from myself and others) is constant chatter of “I feel overwhelmed”, “I have so much on”, “I’m too busy”, “I could never”… Which the more I think about it, the more I realise are all just excuses. Reasons we’ve come up with to explain and justify why we’re not where we thought we’d be right now.

Whether that’s in our careers, relationship, or life itself.

We’re disappointed.

We’re stuck.

Yet we also aren’t that clear what we’re really disappointed about. Because let’s face it, we’ve never actually been clear about what our expectations of ourselves are.

What if instead of excuses and blame, we were to take 100% responsibility?

This is something I’ve been trying on recently and I’m not going to lie – it hurts. It’s challenging and confronting on all fronts. What I have been noticing is there are two distinctive forces at play: discipline and desire.

Let me explain.

Points of transition in our lives always seem to come to a major crossroads where we are peering down very unfamiliar paths. We’re stuck cause we’ve been making the same choices and same decisions up until this point (so that means we just keep getting the same results right?). So what is it that gets us moving forward, taking the first step, then the next step, then the next?

For me, I’ve always been a bit of a romantic soul. I love to believe in fairytale endings and if I had to only watch rom coms for the rest of my life I’d be pretty content. Thinking about what I want to be when I grow big, who I want to become, or what I’d want to do on a daily basis, is (and has been) very linked to desire.

Let me give you an example: my dream of moving to London. I would hear stories of friends, friends of friends or even random strangers moving overseas, going on adventures, exploring seemingly exotic places and my heart would light up. Then almost immediately it would start burning. My belly would tighten and I’d get frustrated. I would start to visualise, I wonder what it would be like when I… When I moved.. If I travelled… If I did what ‘they’ were doing.

However nothing happened. I didn’t move. Instead I spent 8 years thinking about it. Stuck somewhere between the fantasy and the heartache. I had definite doubts about the elements of possibility. The ‘reality’ was winning out over the ‘fairytale’. These doubts were mostly related to my financial capacity. Although I’m sure I could list plenty more. I was so focused on the pain of what it would take that I got stuck in excuses. In fact I was also a lot stuck in what Rhonda Britten (in Fearless Living) refers to as the ‘wishing, waiting, and hoping’ trio of expectations. This is a lovely combo of magical thinking that it would ‘just happen’; sitting back and assuming my desire would be fulfilled one day (even by doing absolutely nothing); and the desperate inner aching and pleading that kicks in as you start to admit time is slipping away.

And yet the evidence I kept seeing was that others were ‘doing it’ regardless of the ‘reality’ they were faced with. And it dawned on me (not overnight exactly, but it did happen!)—if they could do it, why couldn’t I? What were they doing differently to me?

Moving from fairytale to reality, though, didn’t just happen. (Spoiler alert: this story ends well, I’ve been living in London for three years). Something in particular kicked in for me and it wasn’t all princess gowns and knights in shining armour. Simply put, it was discipline.

It’s a big word isn’t it? Just saying it out loud packs a punch.

My favourite words when I looked up discipline in the thesaurus were along the lines of self-mastery, preparation, development, education and will-power.

The fact is, without actually applying ourselves to a set focus, knowing what the end point is, and committing ourselves to action we’re never really going to move from that crossroad. We’re never going to change our results. In hindsight I’d been in some sort of limbo about my ‘dream’ and to make it a reality I really had to put my whole soul into disciplined action.

So what does this all mean? Should we all just be disciplined and then our dreams come true? To be honest, in my experience, it’s a little more complex than that.

The Big Dance

What I know (now) is that as humans we’re built to do more to avoid pain than we are to experience pleasure. It’s how our brain is wired – the ‘pain’ associated with our fears causes us to ‘run’ from them. Which also means we tend to fall into a mega trap when it comes to listening to our desires.

We can desire to get out of bed early in the morning. Without an element of discipline though our instinct is going to kick in and hit that snooze button multiple times, avoiding the pain of getting out of bed. We could be shifting our focus entirely to the pleasure we receive once out of bed (exercise, feeling energised, getting more out of our day, making it in time to the airport to catch that plane!). But we don’t. It’s a vicious cycle. We dance between the two. What we want and what willpower it would take to get it.

Of course before we can master any big dance, we need to be prepared to warm up and rehearse.

Warming up: The Discipline Trap

I like to think of the pain versus pleasure dynamic as a discipline trap. It’s not enough to just commit to something. And it’s certainly not enough to just have the desire for something. Both need to be at play for you to get out of the trap and get what you want. The desire has to be big enough to kick you out of bed. This is your big reason why, your purpose, your motivating factor – the pleasure factor. If we want to change a behaviour—remember that stuckness? Same choices + same decisions = same results? We need to associate the pain of not doing it. What would happen if you didn’t live your dream?

For me the not taking action in the move to London became far more potent than jumping all in and not listening to the excuses (no money, no time, what if). As Anthony Robbins says, what if you could use pain and pleasure instead of it using you?

The Rehearsal

I like to think of striking a balance between discipline and desire as a consistent rehearsal. It’s about always striving for the dance to be better, more improved, having more impact. Here are a few things I’ve been doing in my rehearsal that are working really well for me:

  • Spending lots of time focusing on my big why. My dream. Visualising it, allowing it to become clearer, and giving myself permission to let the desire build. Writing it out. Talking it out.
  • Setting myself daily intentions. A simple yet powerful way to focus my mind. Some of my favourites (and most recurring) are to ‘be my whole self’, ‘to be present’, and ‘to be kind to myself’.
  • Focusing on three things only per day. Writing these three things out each day as a choice. ‘Today I choose to focus on 1. 2. 3.’. That way I can be disciplined to take those actions first. Anything else is a bonus.

There are also a few things that haven’t worked so well:

  • Beating myself up every time I didn’t get up when the alarm went off (literally, not metaphorically this time).
  • Thinking everyone just didn’t understand (duh, it’s my job to help them understand it’s not a given) and therefore getting frustrated every time I have to explain my decisions.
  • Actually listening to those people who tend to fall into the ‘naysayers’ camp. The ones that say ‘ooohh that’s a big dream, you couldn’t possibly do that, how would you manage to XYZ’.

When looking up definitions for desire I found craving, ambition, love, hunger, passion, want and longing. “A strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen”.

While I believe in magic (yes I’m always going to be a romantic at heart), I do also believe that ‘wishing’ won’t move you forward. Action moves you forward. Momentum.

One. Step. At. A. Time.

And to take those steps, the real magic lies in the tango between the two.