Some say, “expectation is disappointment waiting to happen.” There may be some truth in this, pessimistic as it sounds. Clinging to certain expectations is another way of saying that we hold unexamined beliefs about the world and ourselves. It’s not wrong to hold these beliefs and expectations, but it can be difficult when our expectations are not met and our beliefs not confirmed.
Imagine you’ve gotten the idea to take up violin—you’ve always loved violin! You’ve seen countless live performances as well as recordings of “talented” people making gorgeous music. You’ve even seen young children playing beautifully, and heard of people learning to play well within just a few years. You’re decided. You’re going to play, too.
Perhaps unconsciously, you’ve already got some expectations of what it will be like to play the violin. So far, you’ve only seen people at recitals and performances, but never actually heard anyone practice. You’ve never heard what a beginner actually sounds like, or even what a bad player sounds like. Your head is so full of the beautiful music and the polished performances that when you finally pick up a violin yourself and drag the bow across the strings, you’re horrified at how awful it sounds.
It seemed so much easier. Two weeks go by and your teacher can’t even get you to make a single pleasing note. You had no idea how much effort and skill it takes simply to get the violin to not sound like a cat being strangled! So, what happens? You get impatient. Your teacher tells you it’s normal and this is how everyone starts, even those virtuoso toddlers you’ve seen on YouTube.
But your expectations are badly off the mark. Focusing on the lovely end result, you’ve misunderstood what playing the violin is all about: hard work. A lot of it. Suddenly, the whole project isn’t fun anymore. You were drawn to the instrument because of the beautiful music, because of how impressive it would be to play in front of others. When you decided to play violin, it was this vision you committed to—you never really agreed to the boring, frustrating and even embarrassing parts that actually take up most of a beginner violinist’s journey.
Inappropriate expectations can lead us to be impatient, and to quit too early. We may expect ourselves to achieve more, and sooner, than is realistic. These expectations can also make us too hard on ourselves, so that we conclude we’re a hopeless case and give up. With this mindset, you’re not open to the process in front of you, which means you’re not receptive to learning. Because you’re so sure about how you think things should go, you’re unable to adapt and move with changes in the situation as it actually is.
The person who understands from the outset that any achievement requires some sacrifice, hard work and effort is more likely to behave with resilience and a commitment to creative problem solving. When you identify a new goal, are you committing to the fun end result, or all the work it takes to get there? Many people get married, start a family, begin a degree or start a new job filled with expectations of all the benefits. But what happens when they’re confronted with the bad sides? They’re unprepared.
Having realistic expectations helps you to be patient, moderates your disappointment, and most importantly, encourages you to put in the hard work required. Nothing worthwhile is accomplished easily, or quickly. Understand this and you are leagues ahead of people who embark on projects based on whims and fantasies, only to quit the moment the illusion crumbles.
The Right Way and the Easy Way are Seldom the Same Way
A good way to get around the human tendency for “laziness,” impatience and a low tolerance for discomfort is to grasp the way that time features in the process of achieving goals. It’s a matter of perspective. When you are focused only on the present moment, your perception is concerned only with pleasures and pains right in front of you. But when you expand your awareness to include more long-term thinking, you give yourself the chance to think beyond what is happening in this moment right now.
Better yet, you can connect what is happening in the present moment to the bigger picture. If you’ve never really thought beyond today, you’ll see any discomfort in the present as something to avoid and fix as soon as possible. But if you’re able to contextualize your experience as part of a process that unfolds into the future, you are better able to see discomfort differently.
Rather than seeing pain and hardship as an impediment to what you want, you actually start to see it as the means through which you achieve what you want. “The obstacle is the path,” as the old proverb goes. Unless you have a broad enough view, you can never look at difficulty and discomfort this way—it will always just seem like something unpleasant and unwanted. But if you know the purpose that discomfort serves, if you understand how this step fits into the plan at large, you uncover the strength to persist with it, rather than giving up.
Short-term thinking is short-sighted. You may decide to drop out of your university course prematurely because you're finding it too difficult. From a short-term perspective, this makes sense. By doing so you relieve tension and feel better, right now. But what is hidden from you in that moment is everything that you’ve lost in the future by choosing to quit.
You need to consider whether the temporary relief in the present moment of not having any study challenges is really bigger and better than the benefits gained from earning your degree. This is a tally that can be hard to make in real life. It’s a normal human bias to give more weight to things going on in the present—after all, it’s here where we literally feel and experience the situation. Compared to that, the future seems abstract and less important somehow. Less real.
Of course, you will have to face the consequences of every action you take today, in the future. Whether you acknowledge these consequences and take action to control them or not is entirely up to you, however. Many people meet life in the present only, living reactively, never truly claiming their power to determine how their future unfolds.
But that approach is the opposite of what we’re trying to cultivate in this book. Being consciously aware of your full scope for conscious action also includes flexing your own agency in the future, not just right now. Acting in the moment is easy and impulsive. Acting in the moment to achieve some specific aim in the future takes more work—we need to envision our goal, even though it doesn’t exist yet. We need to practice discipline to reach it, step by step, despite temptations and distractions in the moment.
Here’s a good way to get better at long-term, conscious and deliberate thinking: remind yourself that the easy path only seems like what you want. In the longer term, it’s usually the easy path that is least satisfying, impressive or lasting. We don’t often think of it in this way, but the tradeoff is always between the small win now and the big win later. Is a life of endless little moments of self-indulgence really worth more than one of achievement, growth and satisfaction?
In the moment, the small temptation always seems more attractive, and the long-term reward always seems flimsy, far-off and uninspiring. But the trick to delayed gratification is realizing that this is an illusion—the easy path is often the path we don’t really want, if only we look closely and are honest with ourselves.
There isn’t a single famous person in history, no great scientist, prolific artist, esteemed philanthropist or genius philosopher, who got that way by choosing the easy path over the hard one. In fact, how many admired historical figures achieve fame and respect because of their ability to endure hardship, to stick to their vision even during the tough times, and to perform the challenging and groundbreaking feats that their peers were incapable of?
What is difficult and challenging is so often precisely what is optimal. Sow today what you want to reap tomorrow. Be satisfied with small, humble steps today because you know that in time, they add up to something truly wonderful.
Let’s wrap up our chapter by returning to our four-step process, with a brief example.
Uncover: You may discover that you have this mental block of so-called “laziness” when you become aware of yourself procrastinating, engaging in distracting or addictive behaviors, or acting in ways that undermine the goals or values you claim to have for yourself. Maybe you notice that you start things frequently but seldom finish them, or that you flit around from plan to plan, never settling into the long haul with anything.
Perhaps you identify an unwillingness to tolerate discomfort in the fact that you cannot seem to quit smoking. You always seem to get mad cravings, and then cave in, deciding that you don’t have the patience and can’t be bothered. Behind this is a belief: I must always act to avoid discomfort.
Remove: By gently challenging this belief when it crops up, you can gradually start to replace it with a healthier one: I am willing to endure discomfort to achieve what’s important to me.
Whether it’s with nicotine cravings or any other temptation in life, you can start questioning the belief that change should be easy or simple. You can also regularly remind yourself that short-term indulgence is no longer going to be enough for you. You stop looking for magic tricks or quick cures. You adjust your expectations: to quit smoking, sooner or later you’re going to have to go through your discomfort.
Reduce: Being unwilling to tolerate discomfort is not always a bad thing. In fact, with more conscious attention, you may become aware of something interesting: that you have been ignoring discomfort all along—the discomfort of being out of breath and having a horrible smoker’s cough!
Tolerating what’s bad for us doesn’t make sense. Learning to put up with the discomfort of living a life we know is wrong for us is not a virtue. Ironically, learning to tolerate the discomfort we consciously choose can also leave us feeling more empowered to say no to discomfort that doesn’t serve us.
Transform: How on earth could you transform a smoking habit into something useful?! The great thing about any bad habit is that it’s still a habit—one that you can leverage for good. Every time you have the urge for a cigarette, use it as an invitation to practice a moment of mindfulness, take a few deep breaths, stretch, smile or read an affirmation. Piggyback good habits on bad ones while you work to get rid of them. At the very least, you are practicing your ability to remain conscious of just what you’re doing, moment by moment. Through this step, you can turn an unwillingness to tolerate discomfort into a willingness to only tolerate the right problems, failures, and so on. You’re still intolerant, but now it’s toward the more appropriate issue.
Aside from examining your habits and beliefs, let’s look externally for a moment.
Optimizing your environment for self-discipline really comes down to understanding how automatic most of your decision-making is.
To illustrate that point, consider the findings of a study conducted in eleven European countries on organ donors. The data showed that countries that automatically have citizens opted in to be organ donors—requiring action to opt out—had rates at or above 95 percent participation. When the default choice was not to be an organ donor, however, the highest rate found in any of the eleven countries was a mere 27 percent participation. Ultimately, people just went with the option that required the least effort. Their decision said nothing about their actual intention or desire to be an organ donor.
This same concept of defaulting to the more desirable choice can be applied to your own self-discipline. We’re predisposed toward the choice that requires less effort and will happily accept whatever is in front of our faces. Being aware of human nature, you can make it easy for yourself to choose whichever options most benefit you while also making it as difficult as possible to make harmful decisions.
A default option is one that the decision-maker chooses if he or she does nothing, or makes the minimal amount of effort. In other contexts, default options also include those that are normative or suggested. Countless experiments and observational studies have shown that making an option the default will increase the likelihood of it being chosen, which is known as the default effect. Making decisions requires energy, so we often choose the default option to conserve energy, especially when we aren’t familiar with what it is we are making a decision about.
Optimizing these default decisions is where the bulk of your efforts to create a more discipline-conducive environment can take place. You might believe that you control the majority of your choices, but in reality, that isn’t the case. Instead, a significant amount of your actions are just responses to your environment.
If you’re distracted by social media, for example, you might move the app icons to the back page of your phone so that you aren’t constantly seeing them whenever you open your phone to do something else. Better yet, you can log out of the apps after each use or delete them from your phone altogether so that you’ll only use them when you really want to, instead of letting them become distractions.
And if you’re in the habit of mindlessly picking up your phone while working, you can simply start placing it facedown and far enough away that you have to get up to reach it. If you want to practice violin more, put the instrument on your desk with your music notes open. If you want to floss your teeth more often, keep floss in your backpack, in your bathroom, on your nightstand, and on your sofa.
There are seemingly endless examples of how you can utilize the default effect to become more disciplined with very little use of willpower itself. Another one is that leaving potato chips and cookies out on the kitchen counter will make it your default choice to eat those items whenever you walk through the kitchen feeling even the slightest bit hungry. Hiding those treats (or not buying them at all) and setting fruit out instead will instantly increase the probability that you eat fruit and that you avoid the unhealthy snacks. Want to exercise more? Put a pull-up bar in your bathroom doorway.
If you keep sugary sodas and juices in your refrigerator, you’re making it your default choice to drink them whenever you are thirsty and open the fridge. But if you don’t have those options, you increase the likelihood that you’ll drink water, or make tea. Want to take more vitamins? Put them right next to your toothbrush for easier access.
If you sit in an office all day and have back problems, then you might benefit from standing up and walking frequently throughout the day. You can make this your default option by drinking water constantly so that you are forced to get up to go to the bathroom. Or perhaps you could schedule alarms on your phone and place it somewhere out of reach so that you have to stand up to turn off the alarm whenever it goes off.
The whole point of these examples is that you can save your willpower and your energy by making positive changes to your environment. The two biggest facets of environmental change are reducing clutter and distractions and optimizing choices based on the default effect.
If you reduce distractions from your environment, you’ll clear your mind, which in turn increases focus, efficiency, and productivity. Furthermore, you can use your dopamine reward system to your advantage by reinforcing your own good habits with positive rewards, while also cutting back on mindless pursuits of small pleasures. Finally, you can make it so the path with the least effort leads to the choices you desire and benefit from.
These tactics all help you avoid actually using—and depleting—discipline so you can save it for your bigger daily challenges. After all, why exercise willpower when you don’t need to if you can plan around it?