Today’s article is a response to a reader’s question about how to acquire powerful self-discipline. If you stick around until the end, you will learn how to eliminate all the inner frictions and distractions and problems in your life that are sabotaging your willpower.
Recently I interviewed Julia, a lovely, talented OCAD student about the value of art school. At the end of the interview, I asked her to tell me about the biggest creative challenge she was dealing with right now.
I think what has come up in my research and in my struggle with procrastination and creativity is self-control. It’s a skill like any other but how do you go about developing it and staying on track? No amount of time-management and organization is going to stick if you can’t control yourself and keep going.
Lacking self-discipline is common for people in any field of creative work. There’s plenty of creative minds with terrific ideas, but no self-will to carry them out.
Self-discipline should be treated as the centerpiece to your success as an artist. Think about what would happen if you don’t develop it. You have all these impressive ideas, but you’re afraid to act on them, you ignore them, and slowly they whither away. You occasionally work, but only when you’re in a good mood or when you’re inspired. After years and years of puttering around, you’re forced to get a regular job and say goodbye to your passion.
I know, sounds depressing.
That harsh reality is not only possible, it’s probable if you don’t discipline yourself to work consistently, without fail.
As a writer, I can relate to how taxing the creative process can be. But I can’t even imagine what races through your mind when you face the canvas—you have personal expectations to live up to, classmates to impress, high grades to achieve, criticism to avoid, self-worth to maintain.
It doesn’t help that you go to a prestigious art school where tuition fees and expectations are high.
Being in your early twenties, I’m sure there are a million other things going through your head every day, which makes it even harder to concentrate and discipline yourself. All these worries and expectations will make you restless and weigh you down when you try to create.
And here’s why: When you worry about problems and other things, you’re activating your logical left brain. You’re in analyze mode. The problem is that, at the same time, you’re also trying to activate your creative right brain when you step up to the canvas to create art.
Trying to analyze some problem and make art at the same time is like trying to chase somebody whilst running away from them. Your energy is moving in opposite directions, making it hard for you to control that energy and direct it towards one purpose. That could be the reason you’re lacking some self-control—you might be worrying too much about other stuff. (Of course I’m only guessing; only you would know.)
A solution that might work for you is to quiet your inner noise.
I haven’t looked into Zen practices or anything, but it makes sense that the quieter your mind is, the more fully you can tap into creative right brain thinking. You’ll have greater willpower and mind-muscle to confront your resistance.
Think about it—when you have fewer nagging thoughts, fewer critics on your mind, fewer expectations to live up to, fewer boyfriend or girlfriend problems to dwell on, you’re free to dive into your work without resistance.
Have you ever heard of Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?
His theory suggests that all humans have important needs to fulfill in life—where some needs are more basic than others.
Maslow groups these needs into five categories:
1. Physical needs: Getting enough food, water, air, sex, sleep, and so on.
2. Security needs: Having sufficient resources, money, employment, property.
3. Social needs: Having good friendships and partnerships.
4. Ego/esteem needs: Having self-confidence and self-respect, achieving things, and being esteemed by others.
5. Quality of life (self-actualizing) needs: Pursuing higher-level needs, such as self-actualization, morality, integrity, creativity.
You can only move up the ranks once you’ve fulfilled your needs at the preceding level. That is, if you want to find a partner (social), you’re going to need your security needs taken care of first.
What does this have to do with you?
Well, you might be stuck in the self-actualizing stage. More specifically, you have trouble staying on track and working consistently. You might have some kind of inner friction, which could mean you’re neglecting one of your more basic needs—your esteem needs, social needs, security needs, or physical needs.
If any of these fundamental needs are not cared for, it throws you off balance. It creates a negative inner dialogue, which makes it hard to concentrate on more spiritual and intellectual pursuits, e.g. making art for school projects.
Imagine having to paint a portrait when you haven’t eaten in days (physical), or when you can’t pay the rent (security), or when your best friend just betrayed you (social), or when you’re feeling depressed (esteem).
Your original question was: how do I develop self-control?
Well, here’s the smart way to do it: you develop self-discipline in every area of your life first, and that will strengthen over time and naturally carry over to your creative work.
So, to do that, let’s look at changes you might have to make in each area of your life to develop powerful, long-lasting self-discipline.
Why it’s important: Creative people often neglect their physical well being.
Your physical needs are the essentials. You’ve been told it before:
-Eat your veggies
-Avoid junk food
-Drink lots of water (and stop drinking soda)
-Have good personal hygiene
-Get lots of sunlight
-Dress comfortably (not merely for style)
But are you actually doing these things? Do you realize how important they are? Are you making them a priority?
Humans, like every organism, need their physical requirements taken care of.
Ever try to be artistic when you’ve just gobbled a stack of cookies or a piece of cake? If you have, you’ve probably experienced the mental fog that follows. So you convince yourself to take a nap, re-energize, and do the work later. And so the vicious cycle of work-avoidance begins…
Exercise is another important physical need.
Have you read Steve Pressfield’s article My Head in the Morning?
The first thing Steve does after he rolls out of bed is hit the gym. He does his barbell squats and his rounds on the treadmill. He does it to ‘beat resistance’, which might be his way of saying that he does it to get out of his head, to get moving, and to feel good.
The gym isn’t about exercise for me. It’s about beating Resistance. The purpose of working out, for me, is to give me a “little victory” (my friend Randy Wallace’s phrase). Momentum. Something I can build on.
From the moment my soles touch the floor in the morning, I am seeking to manage my emotions for that day.
If you’re uninterested in satisfying your physical needs for health reasons, then do it for your inner artist.
Your mind needs to be sharp and your body energized if you want to face the canvas without running away. If you don’t exercise, you’re more likely to be irritable, lazy and gloomy—all negative states of mind (or states of resistance) that make it hard to engage with creative work.
By exercising, you get out of your head and in touch with your physical body. Not to sound too much like a motivational speaker, but you put yourself in an active, positive state that carries over to your work.
Here’s another important one—stay well rested and sleep on a regular schedule
Creative people tend to need more sleep than the average person. Don’t feel guilty about this. I need 9-10 hours—and I have no qualms about it.
Productivity gurus say that if you want to get more things done, sleep less. That doesn’t work for me—and that’s something I’ve learned through experience. If I get 6 or 7 hours, the quality in my writing declines big-time.
Know your body. Know how much sleep you need to feel your best, and then make sure you get it every night (without oversleeping). Working creatively and focusing intensely is hard to do with a fatigued mind and tired body.
Why it’s important: It’s common for struggling artists to go through a period in their lives of intense insecurity.
Once your physiological needs are met, your mind bugs you to look for security.
Unlike physical needs, which you take care of in the present, security needs relate to the relationship you form with the future.
Do you have a courageous or fearful outlook on life? Are you anxious all the time, or are you happy and relaxed? Do you embrace change or do you fear it?
Make your relationship with life safe and comfortable. Do you live in a tolerable home? Do you have money coming in? Can you afford groceries? Can you pay next month’s rent?
Be upbeat and positive and resilient. Are you emotionally strong or weak? Do you let your emotions control you, i.e. do you only work when you’re in a good mood?
When you’re distressed and fearful and anxious, it’s nearly impossible to perform higher-level activities, like writing or painting or composing.
So, make sure you do these things:
-Invest in building emotional strength
-Be more trusting of life
-Accept that life is naturally messy and disordered
-Be decisive and follow through with your decisions
–Meditate a few times a week to quiet your mind
–Write in a journal every morning to empty your thoughts
-Take care of your finances so that you aren’t living in chronic worry
Why it’s important: Introverted artists can make the mistake of isolating themselves.
When your security needs are met and your emotions no longer control what you do and when you do it, you’re more inclined to interact with people, thus satisfying your social needs.
When you’re positive and optimistic about life, you’ll be drawn to other people, and other people will be drawn to you.
We’ve heard it too many times, “you’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with”.
But it’s true.
Here’s are some ways to satisfy your need to be social:
-Surround yourself with uplifting friends that support your work
-Get outside yourself by joining groups/ teams/ organizations
-Get regular feedback on your work
-Be open to finding love
-Focus on helping and serving others
-Let people into your life
Remember: Being in the presence of good, supportive lovers and friends fills up your creative well big time, whereas withdrawing from the world drains that well.
Why it’s important: Creative people often struggle with feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness.
Your ego is your self-image. It’s how awesome or lame you perceive yourself to be.
Your self-esteem is mainly shaped from your memories, so go get positive experiences. When you let good things into your life, a good self-image grows in proportion.
When you increase your self-esteem, you’ll have more self-confidence and stronger willpower to face the canvas. In other words, without a healthy ego, it’s tremendously hard to do creative drudgework.
Why it’s important: To experience a higher quality of life.
If you can find a way to satisfy those four basic levels of needs, you’ll have a healthy body, emotional strength, proper relationships, and a well-regarded sense of self. All of these things should help to scrape away your inner friction and give you enough self-control to pursue your art without as much resistance (there will always be a little resistance).
In his book Self Empowerment, Lawrence Poole says it perfectly:
The most creative people are those who have no resistance to doing all the work, taking care of all the details and settling any situation that needs it. Winners get to be that way by doing the thing losers won’t do. It is only once you’ve managed to solve all your problems and reconcile your thoughts and actions that you’ll actually hear the roar of silence as your inner dialogue stops and you are free to access power.
We’re all on a journey to access that power. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
The first step is asking yourself, what areas of your life are you ignoring? What needs are being left unsatisfied? Are you neglecting any one particular area? Are you convinced that self-discipline takes many forms, and developing a well-rounded discipline is crucial to your overall productivity?
Determine what’s preventing you from creating the beautiful works of art you were born to create, and attend to whatever that may be. Take full responsibility for your life. Become a doer. Commit yourself to reaching your full potential. All of this has to come from you.
Good luck 🙂 and let me know if any of this stuff helps!