On Discipline or, Bribing my Inner Child

I have never been good at discipline. I’m not sure if the code for that gene was missed in my make-up, or if I just didn’t get enough structure as a kid, but I have always resisted, ignored, avoided, and otherwise dragged my heels at any kind of task that had to be done in small increments on a daily basis.  I remember cramming in four hours of violin practice on Sunday night before a Monday lesson, memorizing poetry in the car on the way to acting classes, doing homework for the next class in the class before. The biggest problem with all of this, really, was not that my performance suffered, but that I got away with it. So I learned at a young age that doing things every day like you were supposed to, was really for other people. Not me. And I felt cool. Kind of like a last-minute super-hero. I loved seeing people’s jaws drop when I told them I pulled off an 80% on the essay I wrote at 2am. It was how I rolled.

Since then, I have discovered that a) doing everything at the last minute does affect the quality of the work and b) there are certain things like flossing that just have to be done every day. If you want to be really good at anything, the only thing that pays off is consistent effort. You can’t write a symphony the night before the orchestra plays it (not that I’ve ever tried that one). You can’t floss for five hours before you go to the dentist and fool them into thinking you’ve been doing it all along. And so, since my mid twenties, I have been working (albeit inconsistently) on gradually introducing more discipline into my life.

I now floss daily. Although I still have a lot to learn about managing study time (because I’m still going to school), I no longer complete homework the morning it’s due. There are still some things I’m working on, though – like focus; just picking one or two things and being really good at them (probably more on that later), and exercise. Regular exercise, as in three times a week over a period of months, or years. I would like exercise to be as consistent as sleep, but for some reason, other things always seem to be much more important. Things like: studying, or time with loved ones, or the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Also, I would like to meditate daily. This is because I have found that the days I meditate for even five minutes are better days. It’s not that things don’t go wrong on those days, or that I don’t get upset, but I never have what I (and this lady) call “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days” when I meditate. Everything is just tuned down. Things that would annoy me a lot on a non-meditating day just don’t seem so bad. Plus, psychologists have discovered all kinds of wonderful benefits to meditating, so it’s a good thing to do.

But, for the past few years, I’ve been going along, thinking to myself, like most of us do, “I really should exercise more, I really should meditate more”. New Year’s resolutions would come and go, and there I would be, making  promises I didn’t keep.

A few weeks ago, I went to what I will call a “flaky, hippie conference“, although there weren’t really many hippies there, and I’ve ceased to consider a lot of things “flaky”. But the speakers were what some might call “New Age Thinkers”, talking about things like affirmations, spirituality, etc. And many of them stressed the importance of exercise and meditation. The conference was full of good vibes, and inspiring, and so, on the last day of the conference, I swore that I would exercise regularly and mediate every day.

But how? I have sworn these things before, and more, and failed to follow through. Because you see, there’s a part of me, a small inner child that just does not want to go for that walk, sit still for five minutes or eat her vegetables. In the past, when I have succeeded, I have found that offering bribes to this inner child helps. For example, when I had a gym membership and didn’t want to go, I would tell myself that I could watch trashy TV shows while on the elliptical machine, and it worked for a time. Then I remembered that once, I got myself to exercise about six days a week for some months. And what helped in that case were stickers. Yes stickers. Childish, ridiculous stickers that I would put on my calendar. If I exercised one day, I got a little sticker, and if I met my goals for the week, I got a big sticker at the end of the week.

Remembering this at the conference, I thought that the formula of blissful inspiration added to my new maturity added to stickers might just be what was needed. I bought some new stickers, and woke up on Monday determined to give it a go. I put the stickers on my calendar at work where I can see them; hearts for meditating, ladybugs for exercise.

We are now in the beginning of the third week, and the stickers are working a kind of magic. They are shamelessly shiny, and I love them. I love getting to put a new one on the calendar. There have been times when the promise of stickers keep me going. I love the sense of accomplishment I get from seeing all the stickers I’ve amassed. Because really, they are not just stickers, they are little tiny symbols of my commitment to myself, to my own health, and it feels good to see that demonstrated in a very concrete way.

So, for the time being, my inner child is successfully placated. And the adult me is amused that I can be so easily bought off. The ladybug stickers that I get for exercise do seem to be a little more scarce in week two than three, but still, they are there, and the promise of new stickers motivate me to do better this week. I’m not sure how it’ll all turn out, but stay tuned dear friends, and hope for me that the stickers continue to weave their glittery spell.

Can anyone relate to this, or is my inner child the only one that needs this kind of reinforcement? Do you have rituals that keep you motivated? Seriously, I need to know just in case the sticker magic wears off.

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32 thoughts on “On Discipline or, Bribing my Inner Child

  1. I’m right there with you–I could write a whole book on self-discipline or, rather, a lack of it. I always did things at the last minute in high school and university, and I aced everything all the way through. Now, as an adult, that bad habit has come back to bite me in the ass, and I’ve had to teach myself the painful steps of forethought, consistency and practice. I started playing piano three years ago, at the age of 27, and it has proven to be a fantastic teacher of discipline. I can’t rush or fake my way through it, or I simply won’t be able to play well during my lesson. That’s not to say that I don’t ever rush or fake my way through, but it’s really obvious when I do, and I feel horrible about it afterwards. I’ve actually been looking for gold stars for a couple of months now, to put on my piano when I practice. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who resorts to childish measures, and even happier to hear that it works! Great piece!

    • A kindred spirit! I’m so glad I’m not the only one who struggles with these things.

      I admire you for sticking with the piano practice. It takes a lot to be a beginner at something and to keep working on it. And I highly recommend gold stars – or any sticker that takes your fancy. I can imagine how great your piano will look when it’s covered with them!

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

    • I hear you! Motivation is such a personal thing, and such a combination of factors, it seems. The stickers work for me – but only combined with recognition that I feel better if I do these things, that they are rewards in themselves. Still – it’s not easy! I’m still a fantastic procrastinator too. 🙂

  2. I wish stickers would work for me. I even hated them when I was a kid. I refuse to use them in my teaching. They always seemed to visually represent how much I was not accomplishing. It feels like a threat to me. I can almost hear my mom saying ‘If you don’t do it, you won’t get a sticker.’

    I always get more done when I feel like I don’t have to do something. Seriously, I won’t even read a novel or see a movie if people tell me I should. It’s just a huge turnoff. I really have this need to go it on my own. I lost 50 lbs a few years ago. One of the things that helped me was to keep reminding myself that I could eat. It was my choice. It wasn’t about self-denial or discipline but about making choices. The same goes for exercise. I am always more committed if I can convince myself that I don’t have to do it but I want to.

    • Hmmm…not sure why that came up as anonymous. It was from me. By the way, I love this post. Oh and I saw the first buffalo beans on Nose Hill. They made me think of you.

      • Thanks lady! And for the buffalobean sighting. 🙂 I do love the buffalobean.

        I love that you hated stickers. I’d never thought of them that way, but they can be a manipulation too, can’t they? And I can see how it would be suspect to a kid. If something is good for you, why would they need to attach a bribe to it?

        And your point about making choices – I hadn’t seen it this way before, but diets, exercise, maybe we think of them as something that society is dictating rather than something we choose on our own. And I can see how satisfying and empowering it could feel to move away from that “society says it’s good for me” paradigm into your own power.

  3. I love your sticker method! And I also very much appreciate your sentiment when you describe seeing all of those stickers amassed on your calendar as proof of your commitment to yourself. My new-found motivation is similar: satisfaction, self-love. I’ve spent quite a lot of time doing what I thought ‘should’ be done, and I’ve recently realized that the very word ‘should’ makes me quite sad. Rather, I want to do things that satisfy me, that make me feel good. I have found a way to exercise that I actually look forward to (my best friend founded it and it is called Oula– post most likely forthcoming). I try to find small moments in my workday that remind me of why I like my job. I take deep breaths. I’ve adopted the philosophy that ‘a perfectly kept house is the sign of a misspent life.’ I like the fact that, after a day of exercising and working and walking the dogs, I can snuggle into my couch and eat ice cream happily, without guilt. Often it is that reward at the end of the day that keeps me disciplined.

    I’ve also found that when I let myself slip into the vortex of undisciplined, open-ended days (I make my own work schedule, no one is holding a gun to my head telling me to work out, that ice cream is just as delicious at 10am as at 8pm, and so on), I become rather, ahem, depressed. So, for me, there’s that as motivation too.

    • I’m looking forward to the Oula post!

      And yes, I too get depressed by “should” and am finding (and reminding myself) that when I don’t exercise, meditate, etc, I get sad and cranky. And so the best motivation of all, really, is knowing that these things contribute to a better life.

      I like what you said about your work day too – finding small moments to remind yourself why you like your job. It’s so easy to turn into a giant ball of stress at work (at least for me), I can see that would help to keep things in perspective.

  4. I can relate to your blog post on many levels BH. I read somewhere that procrastination is connected to the fact that we are all basically at our core hardwired to conserve energy, and unless motivated by the fight or flight response will almost always prefer to do nothing rather than to do something. It has been my personal experience that this is true. Sigh. That, combined with the fact that we are all creatures of habit, gives us our life patterns. Those of us (me) who are lucky enough to never have to have worried about where our next meal will come from get into a pattern of complacence.
    Now that I think of it, my greatest motivators fall into the “threats and bribes” category, which were the categories that seemed to work best when motivating students as well  – so I think we are all pretty much wired this way. Maybe it’s o.k. if what makes you floss your teeth is the fact that you are afraid of being toothless when you are old. What other motivation could one possibly have to floss nightly (which I do)? I am greatly motivated by the fact that I am afraid of needles, and if I have a cavity I will have to have a needle at the dentist’s office. So, fear is a good thing here. But I am also motivated by the fact that now that I floss every night it has become a habit and I feel weird if I don’t.
    So, I think your wish to make exercise and meditation part of your daily life will work if you let yourself be motivated by both fear and bribes, rather than just bribes (I love your stickers!). I decided some years ago that I didn’t care what my size was, I just didn’t want to jiggle. So I am motivated to exercise just enough to not jiggle. Maybe if I let my fear increase I would be motivated to exercise even more and thus be healthier. Hmmm, it’s a tough one for me, because I only ever gain weight in my hips, and as Dr. Oz said on a show I watched a few years ago “No one ever died of big thighs”. Alas, I shall have to feed my fear in some other way …..

    • An interesting point about fear. I do agree that fear can be an effective motivator, but then I don’t want to walk around being fearful all the time. And with exercise – I have tried it. I have knee problems and thought about all the terrible things that could happen if I didn’t strengthen them: wheelchairs, knee replacements, etc. but it didn’t take. What I think is working better for me is feeling like I’m creating a life I want. Noticing how good I feel when I exercise, etc. At the end of the day, I’m still avoiding my knees getting worse, but I feel good about it.

      That said; there are times that deadlines, final exams really help get me moving – and fear of failure is taking over there. But who is to say that I couldn’t be motivated by wanting to get good marks, or do a good job?

  5. I love your stickers. Why not encourage yourself to do good things with more good things. Beauty for beauty? What a great deal!

    FP, I too am terribly demotivated by being told what to do. I honestly don’t know how those people in boot camp do it. I cannot imagine a more demotivating exercise experience. No, I do not feel motivated by being shouted at by a drill sergeant. This theme here about making a commitment to oneself and doing what makes one feel good, truly, is a real gem. Self-love is a learned behaviour and I think so many of us (myself included at the top of that list) are very effective at standing in our own way.

    BH, you asked if I had any tips or tricks. I don’t really because I’ve not been disciplined at all for probably the past five years! But when I was doing yoga regularly I really loved how the instructors used to give me permission to “meet myself” wherever I was at that day. Knowing that I don’t have to hurt and suffer, I just have to show up, is a big one for me. I find if I have permission to slow down, oddly, I rarely need to.

    • Yeah – what a good reminder to “meet myself” wherever I’m ar. I think I tend to have really high expectations of myself, and then give up before I even start because it seems too hard. So – letting myself go for a slow walk instead of a power walk, when that’s what’s needed is helpful. And it’s true – when I’ve given myself permission to do the slow walk or the gentle yoga class – I usually end up surprising myself and doing more than I thought I wanted to. Thanks!

  6. I find it is another case of perfect timing. As I was just about to make myself start exercising regularly (beed slack for 2 months) – I am mediating more now then ever before- but I think the sticker idea is perfect. I am going to buy some on Monday 🙂

    • That is perfect timing! Hope you got some good stickers yesterday. A friend and I were sure we’d find some good ones in a toy store on Sunday, but alas, they were all too big. I think dollar stores may be the way to go…

  7. Although I share FP’s penchant rebelling against being told what to do (I still haven’t seen Titanic, read Harry Potter, and the last time my kickboxing coach chided me by saying ‘you call that 100%, looks more like 20%’ I showed him exactly what 20% looked like), I confess I work well under discipline and rules and systems and hierarchy. I’m not really an all out rebel. I’m very good at ‘must do’ and lists and ‘shoulds’. And like you, in the early part of my life, I was lazy and lucky in that I could cram and still be quite successful (though I remember being rather envious of your 2am rabbit out of the hat papers…). Say what you want about the investment banking industry, but that teaches you long term self discipline and the power of tenacity. Of course, that comes at the expense of other things. So these last few years, i would need stickers for balance. To learn just how to be. I need stickers to help me write not for a deadline but for the art. I’m like La Z- I get very sad in an open vortex, but rather than forcing it into order I’m trying to work with it. I’ve been working on not going to the gym, not doing something because I said I would. I’m working on giving myself permission not to go to yoga if I don’t want to, because no one will think less of me and I’ll probably get more wellbeing out of not going than going. I’m working on finding another rhythm, which I don’t think I’ve ever had. And by removing all the structure (and I guess philiosopically all the stickers) in my life, i’m slowly getting there. I’ll be curious to see what happens after.

    • I love that your journey now is to be sticker-free. I can see, how stickers can get to be too much – to the point where we’re driving ourselves insane with them when we really just need to relax. I suppose in the end, it’s all about finding some elusive balance. Enjoy!

  8. BH, your post is just perfect: perfectly timed (not just for me it seems), written with earnestness and humor, vulnerability and strength. How are the stars working out for you one month on?

    I actually read this post a little while ago and you made me realize something about myself: I am an inherently lazy person, and the only thing that really gets me going, despite my best and most stubborn attempts at anything else, is competition. I’m a competitive miss, which is why the only thing I’ve ever managed to stick at is training FOR something. If there was a competition today for how many PBJs I can eat in an afternoon, for example, I’d win hands down; but at some point that will need to turn in to some other more healthy pursuit. We’ll see… right after I fix myself a sandwich…

    • Pavlova – how are you? The stickers are still going strong, remarkably. I’ve only missed one day of meditating. The exercise has not been quite so good but I’ve still exercised at least 3 times a week, so not bad…

      I kind of wish I were more competitive sometimes although I suppose there are inherent drawbacks, like burnout and needing someone to compete with. Does competing with yourself work?

    • Oh, I know how hard it is to keep up with things when we’re suddenly in new environments, on different schedules, when things are all upside-down.

      And our inner children are so wise – if only I’d listen to mine more :).

      Good luck with your practice, and settling into your new life!

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