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ORIGINALLY AIRED 05.15.2015
Note: Designing Yourself is produced as an audio podcast. We encourage you to keep in mind that emotion and emphasis may be lost in the written word. Transcripts may contain errors.
Paul McAleer: Hi. This is Designing Yourself. I’m Paul McAleer.
Whitney Hess: And this is Whitney Hess.
Paul: And one of the things that we wanted to explore this week was the idea of self-discipline, and it came up - it came up funnily enough after one of us - probably me - had to be a little late to our - our time this week together for our conversation. So, I’m hoping that’s not taken as a - as a sign that I do not have self-discipline, Whitney.
Whitney: Oh, I didn’t even think of that, Paul.
Paul: Nice. Because it was only a little late. But the - but the idea of - of that is something that I was thinking of in terms of scheduling. I’m a big-time scheduler. I almost always have been. And I - I trust we’ve talked about, like, planning and that type of thing -
Paul: - before. Like, I - for a long time, I really lived by my calendar, and I used to have, in high school, one of those little, like, Mead Cambridge calendar books, like one of those physical calendars that you could carry around and put your stuff in. I thought that was the coolest thing ever. And I loved it; right? I really loved it.
And I started to fall into having a really tight and hard schedule; right? Where it was in the morning I would do these things at school; you know, I’d have these classes, of course, and I devote this time to my homework. And my day was very, very planned out. And it was, at the time, a way that I felt I could really be disciplined about my expectations and what was ahead, and what I really needed to do. And, so, just kind of as an opening, I’m wondering if you are also kind of a schedule driven person or how much of a factor that plays into your day-to-day and your life?
Whitney: So, what’s funny is that I am obsessive about my calendar, and I used to be an obsessive to-do list maker, and I feel very unsettled when I don’t know what I’m going to be doing the next day, when I don’t have everything planned out on the calendar blocked off way ahead of time, and yet, I am not good about following it at all, and I never have been.
So, it’s this strange kind of dichotomy that exists within me where I am in - I have such a need to be scheduled to the hilt, but I also have a tremendous need to ignore that schedule at every turn because it feels way too restrictive for me to follow what the past me wanted the future me to be doing when I’m in the moment.
When I’m in the moment, I tend to just give in to my own whims and my own inspirations. If I’m feeling inspired to do something, I listen to that, and I do it. I follow it. I see it through because I don’t know when that inspiration is going to come again. And so, I often find myself having to reschedule things and rearrange things, but I’m much better about sticking to the plan when another person is involved. So, I find that I can be much more disciplined if it’s going to impact another person.
So, with you and I, for instance, I don't know that you’ve experienced this with me at all because, to be perfectly honest, I reschedule on us all the time and, you know, that’s just the reality. I do it. And I think in part I do it because I feel like I can trust you, I feel like you understand what we’re up to here, you understand what I’m up to in life. And, so, if I ask for a different time, I guess - though I should be asking you, Paul - is it okay that I reschedule when I do?
Paul: It’s never okay. Ever, ever, ever, ever.
Whitney: I knew it.
Paul: So, yeah, I went right to humor -
Paul: - to - to avoid a touchy subject. So, no, it - and honestly, it is fine because I - I acknowledge and I understand that your schedule is very different than mine and things happen; like, life and other things happen, and - and I almost said they get in the way, but they really don’t. They just simply take priority.
You know, what we’re doing here, you know, I - I mean, we both enjoy the hell out of this, and we get a lot out of it, and hope others do, too, but we also know, like, there are times when there is client work or coaching or something else or family anything or even just personal time needed, and we can both feel free to prioritize that without - honestly, without that, you know, feeling of guilt, I hope, that that - that could go along with that pretty frequently, and -
Whitney: Yeah, absolutely.
Paul: You know? I mean, at least for this - for this context that that’s absolutely true. Now, I think you touched on something really interesting where when we are involving other people, that’s where I feel it changes things for me because my schedule, over the past month and for the next month as we prep for our move, is going to be terrible. And it is terrible. Like, I essentially can’t do anything during the evenings anymore because I have to get stuff ready, like, and - and that simply makes sense. I’m not saying that to be, you know, boo-hoo, but that limits the number of things I can do before I leave for Denver.
So, I have to be very aggressive and very picky with my schedule and make sure I’m being a little more defensive about it. But if I have to reschedule on a person, if we’re going to go get coffee or lunch or something like that, boy, I instantly feel very bad about it because I know that they’ve - they’ve taken the time to make a commitment to spend time with me, and I feel that, too. It’s, like, I’m making this commitment to you that we’ll hang out and chat and discuss things, but I also have to acknowledge that there are things that are going to be a higher priority, even though I really value those relationships and that - that type of contact.
Paul: So, that - that’s something that I’ve been really - you know, it’s funny because the idea of compassion is something we talked about just last week, and - or whatever week that was. Sorry. Recently. And that concept is something that I’m still absolutely trying to - trying to go for when it comes to this self-discipline because I - historically, I’ve beaten myself up over this stuff. Like, really badly. Like, really feeling bad about rescheduling or cancelling appointments, for heaven’s sakes; things of that nature. So, when I - historically, when I’ve deviated from my calendar, it’s made me feel very bad about it.
Whitney: Oh, well, that’s - that’s the interesting thing that I do often have to reschedule on people, but I’m way worse at fulfilling the commitments I make to myself, and that’s the thing I really feel bad about. Even though I do feel terrible when I have to reschedule on someone, when I know that they’ve rearranged their schedule for me for that meeting and then something comes up, whether it’s a client situation or whether it turns out I’m going to be traveling and I’m going to be on a plane at that time so I won’t be available, even if I feel like it’s a good reason, you know, yes, it sucks to break that commitment, but I find all the more so when I break the commitment to myself is when I’m really suffering.
And I have lots of commitments to myself on my calendar. I have a block every day from 7:00 to 8:00 a.m. that says journal and meditate. Do I always journal and meditate then? No. And every day that I don’t do it, I feel really badly about it because I have that reminder on my calendar that I wanted to make that commitment to myself. And yet, I just finished saying that there’s a part of me that rebels against my past self; like, yeah, you said you wanted to journal and meditate every day at 7:00 a.m., but do you really? Maybe the extra hour of sleep is better.
So, it’s very hard for me to remain disciplined when it comes to the commitments I make to myself, and I feel far more, you know, kind of disappointment and inadequacy around the areas where I’m breaking that own - my - my own commitment because, perhaps, it isn’t self-discipline that gets me to finish my projects on time and meet deadlines and, you know, show up to meetings with other people. Maybe that’s not self-discipline at all.
Maybe it’s a sense of connection or a sense of commitment or a sense of belonging, you know, wanting to act justly for the other person, not so much acting justly for myself. But I - I find that the things that really matter, like that aren’t just the things I should be doing, that I’m supposed to be doing, but that I feel an inherent need to do are the things where self-discipline and self-will, I suppose, come easy.
For instance, as I was mentioning to you just before we got started, I’m on day three of a juice fast. Fredrick and I do these juice fasts a couple times a year. We find them incredibly beneficial. It’s really nice to give your body some time off from having to digest and having to process all this food that you put in it all the time. And we eat incredibly healthily: We eat all organic, local, you know, grass-fed, sustainable, seasonal, all of that.
So, really, we’re not putting terrible things in our body, but still, your body is having to digest, process so much all the time, and a juice fast is a nice little time off. And I find it very easy to do, which is strange because I love to eat, and you would think that I would miss the eating when I’m just drinking juice three or four times a day. But it doesn’t feel like a self-discipline act; it just feels like what I’m really drawn to.
And, so, part of me wonders if I’m putting all this stuff on my calendar, I’m putting all this stuff on my to-do list, because I don’t really want to do it, but I feel like I need to. I’m supposed to. And if I had really wanted it, I wouldn’t need that reminder, I wouldn’t have to set aside the time. I would just be naturally drawn to it. So, is self-discipline the commitment to do things we don’t really want to do?
Paul: That’s an excellent question. So, when you were talking about that, one of the things that I was thinking about in relation to choosing to do something a little more in the moment versus having everything scheduled out, because at first of all with the acknowledgement that, of course, the gray area is where everything is, and it’s not a binary decision, but I wonder if the idea of self-discipline, when I think about it being attached to time and schedule, I wonder if that’s simply because that’s something we all agree upon.
We all agree, for the most part, upon the same calendar; right? And we all pretty much agree upon the same 24-hour a day with little, you know, caveats here and there for daylight saving time and stuff like that. But we all see it as, like, this unit of measurement; right? And we use that as a framework to think about things like habits, like journaling every day, which I also do not do with - and meditating every day, which I also do not do. And I say that in hushed tones because I know I feel bad about it.
But - but that - against that judgment of time, it’s, like, how much time have you put into this? That is something we use as a measure of discipline there. It’s, like, you know, the old Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 Hours things; right? In order to become an expert at anything, you have to do it for 10,000 Hours; that theory that’s out there, whether it’s true or not. The whole concept around that, though, is still time. It’s to putting time into things, repeating things, making that something that you do,.
So, you know, leaving aside kind of the habit angle of it, just the logistical angle of it, I wonder if that’s - that’s something that I’ve taken and internalized as kind of this negative thing simply because other people can judge me by it. They can see, like, well, Paul’s late for this meeting or Paul’s early for this meeting, and they can form an impression of me based on that, when in reality, the approach that I prefer to take - and it sounds like you do, too - is kind of using the schedule, in some cases, mostly for yourself, more as a guideline of, like, here are the things that I feel will be of interest to me now or on this day or what have you.
And if you deviate from that, isn’t that really a form of self-discipline? Isn’t it really paying closer attention to yourself in that moment and saying what is really necessary for you versus, as you put it, this kind of expectation, this idea of, this is what other people are going to expect of me in this moment?
Whitney: Wow, I love that. This idea that deviating from the plan is a stronger form of self-discipline because it’s including a mindfulness for what you need right now, not just fulfilling upon a previously made commitment, which was what you needed in that right now, but not in this right now.
Yeah, I mean, it’s fascinating. I love that idea. Like, maybe the putting of the meeting on the calendar was what I needed in that moment and the - the blocking of a day to invest myself in one of my projects without distraction is what I needed in that moment that I was putting it on. It may not be what I needed the moment when the day arrives. So, I - I love that.
And what I hear a little bit in what you’ve said as well is that self-discipline has to have a heaping portion of self-forgiveness next to it; that it isn’t just about controlling ourselves, but about having the awareness and the acceptance to say, you know what? I don’t fulfill everything on my calendar, and I don’t check off everything on my to-do list, and I don’t meet every expectation that I have for myself.
And that’s perfectly fine because I do what is right for me in the moment, and that’s the biggest commitment that I can make; I mean, is that what you’re saying? Because that’s kind of what it sounds like; that there - there’s a forgiveness piece to this.
Paul: Oh, absolutely. And I agree with you. I like this idea of a heaping - a heaping helping of self-forgiveness and compassion with yourself during this because I love the idea of in a particular moment it might be - goodness - almost a form of self-care to schedule something because you are reassuring yourself that you will do it.
Whitney: Oh, yeah.
Paul: In a - in a sense; right? But - but still having that flexibility to let go of things, too, if you feel need to or you must. I would say the only thing that I see then as - as a contrast - and, again, going back to a little bit of binary thinking for a minute - is what if you line up all of these things that you want to do and don’t do any of them at all? Like, put your calendar full of, like, 150 things that you’re going to do over the next two weeks and you end up doing, you know, two of them?
I - parts of me really want to judge that and say that then that’s a failure, but then, really, if I - if I sit with that for even just a moment, it’s more of - okay, then much - much to your point, right - why am I putting these things on my calendar if they are not important to me? If they do not matter to me, if these are not things that ultimately will help me do something or be a way that I choose to be, why am I doing them?
And just asking that and - and not necessarily judging it, but just having a little curiosity around that, I think, help steer it back towards okay, well, you know, if I did two out of 150, then those two are clearly important to me, at least in that moment. The other 148, not so much. But is that something that I do see myself doing? And, as you say, have that flexibility and - and self-compassion and forgiveness to say, well, not in this moment, no, but I may do it in the future.
Whitney: Yeah. I like what you’re saying, and as I’m reflecting on that, I think that I might have a practice around that, but not something that I’ve formalized or really even considered until this moment, which is that after I’ve moved a meeting - probably three times - I’m going to say on the third time - where I have pushed back a to-do for the third time, like, rescheduled - made it for a later date - because I didn’t get to it, I do ask myself: Do I actually need to be doing this?
Because if it was not important enough to fulfill those three previous times, and it didn’t have an urgency to fulfill those three previous times, then it’s very possible it doesn’t really matter at all. And it’s hanging over my head, it’s blocking space for other things, and it’s giving me a little bit of agony every time that I come across it and realize, I have yet to do this, and I have to schedule it again. So, I - I think there’s maybe a little practice in here where on the third time - or maybe even the second time - when you are rescheduling something or pushing something back, asking yourself, do I actually need to be doing this now? And do I want to be doing this now? And if the answer is no, I take it off.
Like, I - I often, as you were just saying, put things on my calendar because I need the reassurance that I’m not going to forget about it, and it’s there, and now I can move on, but then when I realize that I’m putting it off, I’m procrastinating, I’m not making it a priority, I have to ask myself, is this actually a priority? And if it isn’t and it’s just a distraction, I remove it with the knowledge that if it becomes important at some point in the future, it will come back into my awareness. It’s not gone forever.
It’s not like I will never think about doing this again. And if it does, all the more reason why I never should have been doing it in the first place. But if I take it off the calendar, if I take it off my to-do list and there’s a right time and place for it in the future, it will come back to me. And just having that kind of faith and acceptance that the right things happen at the right time for you, and that really, not everything is under our control but oftentimes what the universe brings to us and - and allows, you know, then there’s a little bit of comfort in that for me.
And I’m wondering if you have those moments where something that you feel like you were really committed to that you wanted to create discipline around and, so, you scheduled it or you put it on your to-do list or you created a reminder somewhere, if at some point you realize it has not - it does not have the importance that you thought it did and, so, you just jettison it completely.
Paul: Absolutely. So, of course, I couldn’t help but think about getting things done during all of that because that system, for me, has - has helped me account for a lot of these someday maybe items; right? So, the system includes a bucket that is called someday maybe, and it’s just those wild things that you might get around to someday, and part of it also requires self-discipline in that you will be honest with yourself with this stuff.
And, so, there are things in my someday maybe list right now that are still someday maybe, but I’m not actively doing them now. The active list and - and the projects and things that I’m working on now, those are things I’m going to do, but I also have the ability to say, no, I’m not and delete it altogether or move it to the someday list because then maybe someday I’ll get around to it. I mean, just that simple construct.
And that’s the beauty of GTD, right; that simple construct around you have the power to control what is in your life. You have areas of responsibility; you know? You have work, and family, and yourself, and everybody to take care of; right? That’s hugely important there, too, but you prioritize stuff, you figure out when you can do stuff, you approach it in this manner of, I know myself well, and this is what I need today, and this is what I need to do. That’s something I’ve really, really, really come to appreciate overall.
So, definitely with the idea of, you know, things that I do each day because I - the - the app I use basically will show me what I had scheduled for that day because I schedule some things, and then I can pull in things individually and say, like, these are the things that I want to do today. So, it’s really kind of, you know, it’s overused term, but it is curation in the best sense of that word.
But I’ve gotten to a place now that if I have something at the end of my day that is still on my list and it’s, you know, 10:30 at night and it’s not going to happen, I move it off the list, and I’m now at a point where I don’t feel guilty about that; where I just feel that that’s being honest with myself. So, saying, you know, this is not - it’s not going to happen, there’s no time to do it today. I’m going to go to bed.
So, if I carry that around with me every day, then I would feel bad because that’s, you know, because I harbor bad feelings about it; about, you know, not accomplishing what I set out to do, but also it’s just not realistic. It’s just like it didn’t happen. Like, if I have something on my to-do list from Sunday - which I actually do right now - I got to take that off because it’s not happening right now.
Now, it’s hard for me when it is something that’s a very - that seems like it should be of importance to me, like writing a journal entry, but clearly, there were other things that were more important. So, I just need to be realistic with myself and take that off of there.
Now, the other thing I wanted to ask you about, briefly, was habits. So, one of the things that’s important in building a habit is this idea of self-discipline; like, you do it over and over and over again until it becomes a habit, and then it may become something that we do without even noticing it. So, how - how do you build habits?
Whitney: Oh, my gosh. That’s a big question. I mean, it is, quite honestly, at the core of the coaching that I do. So, what I have found is that often it’s people’s current habits, whether or not they’re conscious of them, that create a sort of automated behavior that is no longer supporting them and no longer helping them get where they’re trying to go. It’s often an impediment to the progress or change that they’re looking to make in their lives, but they are habits, so they’re engrained. And it’s just this reaction; you know? That’s kind of what a habit is; it’s a sort of automated reaction to a certain stimulus.
Whitney: And sometimes that stimulus is external, and sometimes it’s internal. And we hear all of these things because we’re captain to this stuff that, oh, you know, 21 days of repeated behavior creates a habit and - and all this. But I think that what gets lost in that conversation is knowing, first of all, what habits you want to create, and that can only be reverse engineered from what behaviors you wish to exhibit, and how those behaviors are different than the ones that you’re exhibiting now.
And I think that there’s a lot of experimentation that needs to be done with a - I said a big dose or a heaping dose of self-forgiveness before, but it’s a heaping dose of self-compassion with which we experiment on new habits in our lives because, oftentimes, we are picking up the habits of others, and they are resulting in behaviors that are not aligned with how we truly want to live and how we want - truly want to act in the world for ourselves and for others. And I think it’s because we are missing the critical element of, well, what behavior does that habit create?
And, so, when we, you know, hear about other people’s habits, things that they have made routine in their lives, and we think, oh, look at - they - they seem so happy with that routine, I want to integrate some of those things into my routine, and then we try it and it doesn’t take hold, it doesn’t become part of our routine, and we get disappointed, we get angry, confused, frustrated. That’s often a sign that we were not experimental with it.
Like, let’s give it a try and see what happens. Let’s treat this like a science project. We have a hypothesis. The hypothesis is that if I do this thing over and over and over with self-discipline, and with commitment, and with self-compassion, then I will, in time, create a behavior that allows me to X, Y, and Z: create the shift or this change in my life, make progress in an area where I felt stuck, what have you.
And it is when we allow it to be a hypothesis, now let’s go out and test it, let’s see what happens. And if it works, great; we can keep at it. We have the evidence that shows it works for us, not just what everyone else says or what someone who we admire says works for them. And if it doesn’t, we’ll try something else. We’ll make - we’ll create another experiment with the intention of creating the same behavior, but maybe it takes a different habit to get there.
And in my case, I put journal and meditate at 7:00 a.m. every day on my calendar because I became convinced along the way that if I were journaling, and if I were meditating, if those were my morning habits, that that would positively impact my day, and I’d be showing up in the world the way that I want to be. But as I’m learning over time, it doesn’t have to be journaling, and it doesn’t have to be meditation as a formal sitting, at least not in the morning.
It can be other things, like just making a cup of hot water with lemon, and sitting there, and staring at the hot water, and just not looking at my phone first thing in the morning. Or it could be Zen Tangle, which I’m really getting into - if you follow me on Instagram. I am kind of obsessed with this mind form, this meditation in the form of drawing. And I have never been a drawer by any means. I - I’m totally that person, that designer, who says they can’t draw. That’s me.
But I am getting really enwrapped in this idea of just one line at a time, one stroke at a time, and eventually you create a work of art, and it doesn’t have to have an intention ahead of time, and it doesn’t have to have a purpose, and it doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. I’m saying all this to say that that’s a new habit that I’m forming - drawing one Zen Tangle every day - but it wasn’t because someone told me, this is the habit you’re supposed to have.
It was through a lot of experimentation to get to the behavior that I want which is to not immediately start working as soon as I wake up. That was a new behavior I wanted to create: some openness and space that, you know, some mental space in the morning. And it was through experimenting with different things that I’m actually starting to create a habit, and I’m now finding it, you know, kind of automatic. Like, that’s just what I’m going to do when I wake up. And it’s been lovely.
And I guess maybe there’s a part - a place where it transcends self-discipline maybe when it becomes a habit because now it’s not like I have to be conscious about it. It - it enters this other realm of, well, this is just what I do in the morning, just like brushing my teeth. I do my Zen Tangle because it clears my mind. Do you -
Whitney: Do you have that sense of your own habits; that it just takes some experimentation to find which ones will actually stick and are right for you?
Paul: Yeah, it does. I - the thing that I think is really pure about what you shared was that, really, it’s about the intention, and not necessarily a direct goal, but at least the intention that’s behind what you were looking to do; right? So, even though, you know, for me, too, it’s - it - journaling is something that I try to do at least once a week, and I have that as a repeating task that I do in my app, and there are times when that does not happen.
But what it really means to me is not necessarily writing things down, but it’s at least considering my thoughts, considering the experience of my day and my week, and refocusing on what’s important for me in the coming week as well. And sometimes it just, you know, I’ll just feel the need to write so I will do it, and other times I will not, kind of, at all. But the idea of that kind of being this - this comfortable and safe platform for us to conduct these experiments on is a really powerful idea. I love that idea. I advocate for the idea as well.
I mean, that - that is a - that is a safer and more compassionate approach because it allows for that forgiveness. It says that this is an experiment. We’re going to try this out, and that’s it. Like, if I - you know, I don’t - so, I know that in the past I’ve shared, like, I - I’ve gotten into yoga and I enjoy that stuff. I don’t do yoga right now, and I haven’t done that for a while. And on the identity side of the question I’ve always had is, well, can I call myself, you know, a practitioner at all, and I - I don't know that I can.
But on the just the practicality side, I could analyze it and say, like, well, why - why am I not doing it right now? And there are a million, billion, jillion reasons. But one of them that is true is that right now it - where I am right now, that is not connecting with me in the way that it did six months, 12 months, 18 months ago where it really connected with me in a certain way. and I really needed that.
And it’s not to say that not doing it is bad. It’s not to say that, you know, having let go of that is also, you know, there’s no good or bad on it. It simply is. It simply does not connect with - with me right now, but it might again in the future. And that is - so, right now that doesn’t connect with me. It could become a habit in the future. But I’m also not setting up this expectation that it will, so I’m embracing that possibility of, oh, maybe this will be something that I really attach to a little bit in the future.
And that’s cool. I have that space. And that - that, I think, is ultimately that I think is where I got the most interesting insight in our chat here was just this idea of being compassionate with ourselves in the moment instead of being so rigid with - when it comes to calendars and - and things, ultimately; you know?
Whitney: And yet, at the same time, wanting to make the commitment to yourself to better yourself in whatever way you define you need; that what you just said about looking inward and realizing what you’re connecting with and what you need in the moment and what you don’t. And right now you don’t need yoga; you need something else in your life.
And, so, you’re giving yourself that, and you’re not, you know, kind of disingenuously getting on the yoga mat just because you think you’re supposed to or because you did it before so you have to keep doing it; checking in with yourself compassionately and mindfully, but at the same time, having that commitment to want to be better.
Whitney: And I think that’s really a great summary of what self-discipline is. It’s a desire to improve, but in the ways that we deem to be most critical and we connect with in the moment, not just a blanketed commitment that we then chastise ourselves for when we don’t fulfill or when we find ourselves not wanting to see through.
Paul: Exactly. I agree. Well, Whitney, this has been a fantastic chat. And I - I’m so glad that you shared more about your practice and - and what you do and - and how you - how you schedule things. In all - in all honesty, it’s - the scheduling has never been a problem.
Whitney: Thank you. That’s a relief. And anyone else who’s listening who I’ve had to reschedule on before, I’m very sorry.
Paul: Something has come up.
Whitney: Yeah, something has come up.
Paul: All right.
Whitney: All right my friend, until next time.
Paul: All right. We will chat again soon. Thank you.