Commitment and Discipline

At some point in all the commitments you make you will wonder if the commitment is just darn silly. You may Stop and ask, Do I Really Have to do This? This is especially likely if the commitment may lead to social discomfort, such as an unconventional diet. When everyone else- including your past self- is chugging down milk with Oreo cookies you may wonder why you’ve stopped doing the same.

You might even step over your own boundaries and give the forbidden commitment-breaking action a try. If you choose to make such actions a part of your life again, the commitment wasn’t really right for you.

This may be for several reasons: 1) you don’t have the discipline to continue with it and see that even though it may hurt now it will be worthwhile in the long run; 2) your old habits might as well be carved in you; 3) the commitment is too scary, and you are not ready to face this fear; and, 4) the commitment is just darned silly.

The general problem of (1) can be resolved steadily over the course of a lifetime. Start by tackling small challenges and gradually work your way up, as you would in weight training. Find a challenge you can go to work with everyday, so that it basically becomes a commitment.

If you can find one thing to commit to doing on a regular basis, that behavior may become the basis for heightened discipline across your whole life. This is about the same as the keystone habit described by Charles Duhigg in the Power of Habit. A keystone habit is one that appears related to improvements in all aspects of a person’s life. The example Duhigg often points to is regular exercise, which is related to improvements in diet and workday productivity.

For me the keystone commitment, if you will, has likewise been exercise—running, in particular. There’s no way I could have changed my whole diet or adapted to Polyphasic Sleep or committed to writing everyday for a month like I am right now if I didn’t have a consistent yet challenge-filled history of running. Instead, I would be the blob of laziness that lived on my parents' couch for the first 12 years of my life. Even though it’s a pretty deeply ingrained behavior in me at this point, upping the ante in running seems to continue to benefit me. Polyphasic sleep might have been too hard before I ever ran an ultramarathon.


Instead of intellectualizing, I would like to pose a challenge to you. If you don’t think you have one, I want you to choose a behavior you think would make a good keystone commitment and then give yourself a period of time- maybe three months- in which to make this behavior a regular part of your life. If you’ve never had much of a positive keystone commitment before (positive meaning not an addiction) it may be difficult to imagine at this point that you can make effective, long-term commitments—this new one, in particular. If that thought is burdensome you may want to start by committing to something within a fixed period of time, such as 30 days or even just 2 weeks if that feels too long. After this test you can determine whether this behavior is right for you and, if so, how often you should carry it out (e.g. everyday, once per week). Remember that you can trash the behavior after time’s up if you want, but for just this brief instant of your life you’re going to do things a bit differently.

You may be wondering whether a keystone commitment has to be physical. What’s good about a physical commitment, such as exercise or dietary changes, is that even if it doesn’t improve the other aspects of your life your body will become healthier. Surely a commitment to eating Whoppers would be a poor choice for increasing discipline: if you want to become more disciplined, you pretty much have to choose a healthy habit.

Commitments that aren’t physiologically based like practicing an instrument or writing comedy don’t seem as likely to lead to physical health improvements than physical health improvements leading to intellectual improvements. If this is truth, physically-based commitments are more accurately called keystone than any other. But this may not be true for everyone. For one person playing the guitar on a daily basis might somehow inspire them to exercise: you can’t be certain unless you are that person.

In addition, some intellectual commitments aren’t as convenient as exercise: you can run or do body-weight squats anywhere at any time, but there’s less likely to be a book to read everywhere you go. If you end up in the middle of the wilderness the game as to which behavior will persist is pretty much set.

I don’t want to discourage the development of discipline from intellectual commitments, however. I think it’d be cool if someone could genuinely derive most of their discipline from these and then have that discipline spill over into physical commitments.

If you aren’t sure of what to commit to, pick what you think will be the healthiest for you yet also fairly convenient. If you feel certain that an activity is improving your health on some level- whether it be physical, emotional, mental, or all three- you’ll feel more comfortable about doing it on a regular basis. However, asking yourself to hop in a float tank for an hour everyday is probably inconvenient unless you own one. Even then, good luck when you leave the house for a day.


Enough words have been said: pick something and get going. If you don’t thank yourself now or even a few months from now, in five years you may look back gratefully on one of the best decisions you’ve ever made in your life.