I Stopped Using Discipline For a Month — This Is What Happened
For a long time, I was the most disciplined person I knew. I did everything they tell you to do in YouTube videos and self-help Medium articles: I woke up around 6 AM. I read one book a week (or 52 per year). I journaled. I worked out. I worked. I listened to podcasts. I went to bed early.
“Discipline equals freedom!” I told people. I was literally the young version of Jocko Willink.
But somewhere earlier this year, about the time when the COVID hit, I became lazy. I was still working at a startup and making a combined income from writing and freelance projects that allowed me to have enough, travel, and even save a little.
I bought a new MacBook. Then a new iPhone. And then I began to think that I don’t need the discipline that much.
After all, my income was growing; my Medium following was booming; things were going great. I could do what I wanted — as all those rich gurus say online.
“Do what you love. Everything will be alright if you just let go and follow your passion,” they say.
So — I quit my job and started following my passion. I thought I was about to make it.
And things were great.
Until they weren’t.
I remember that day. We were on a train, going from Liverpool to York. It was a spontaneous trip (the way I like it) around the UK, post-COVID, somewhere in June. You could travel but had to wear a mask.
But as I was watching the trees and villages speed by — I couldn’t think.
Not even one thought.
“What’s happening to you?” Angelina — my girlfriend — asked, witnessing the same image of me for the past several days.
“I don’t know. But something is terribly wrong,” I replied, sinking deeper into my seat.
I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to do anything. Sometimes, I thought I didn’t want to live.
It turned out, I was depressed. Some days, I would be OK, and I would even manage to get the work done. But other days, I would get so depressed, I couldn’t even move a muscle. I would lie for the whole day on the sofa, reading books. Or not reading books and just staring at the wall.
The only thing that didn’t irritate me was writing — but even that I had to push myself hard to do.
Those who don’t know what depression feels like usually confuse it with “sadness.” They tell you to “just take it easy” or “bring yourself together,” but that never works. When your leg is broken, it’s possible to detach yourself from the pain. But when it’s your brain that’s broken, it’s almost impossible to fix yourself by the force of will. It’s the same as biting your own teeth.
As soon as I came back to my home city, I visited the shrink. I read about depression online. I tried talking with different people who suffered from depression. But nothing helped.
Until I realized that I was the cause of the problem…
You see, just as any society needs laws, rules, and regulations to function properly — so does individual need governance to stay afloat. It would help if you had certain limitations to keep yourself sane. If you could actually do anything you wanted, you would go completely bonkers.
Which is to say, it’s OK to push yourself sometimes. It’s OK to use discipline. It’s OK to tell yourself what to do. That’s what your mind needs.
Even when you do something you love, it’s normal for there to be friction. I love writing — it’s my vocation, my compass, my “home,” my way of processing this world — but I am not always in the mood to write. Some days, I need to push myself, and I need discipline.
This is why “following your passion” is so dangerous. Most people assume that if you follow your passion, the laws of physics change. Gravity no longer works. And work only brings pleasant emotions.
But the only thing “your passion” guarantees is that you won’t kill yourself doing something you hate. You feel satisfied with the work done, whereas when you fill out forms all day — unless you prefer to do that for a living — you don’t feel that satisfaction, you feel empty.
The symptom of doing something you love is having more energy after completing the task than when you’ve started doing it.
There are way too many good things I wrote on the bad days when I pushed myself. In fact, I wrote my biggest hit that alone made me $4,000 on the day when I pushed myself. And if I lived on a whim, I would have written nothing.
Which is what happened when I stopped using discipline.
It’s why I got depressed in the first place.
Let me say something only a few people will admit to. You can become addicted to depression. I am serious. But first, let’s define two types of depression.
There is the “clinical” type of depression — which you’re born with. There are also all sorts of disorders, such as bipolar disorder, which can be very serious. I am not saying that if you — god forbid — have a serious mental illness; you’re to blame. No.
All I am saying is that just as you can make your physical health worse by putting junk into your body and not taking care of it properly, so you can make your mental health deteriorate.
You can cause depression if you’re not careful enough.
And you can get addicted to it.
In Turning Pro, Steven Pressfield compares the “amateur” to the “professional” by outlining the characteristics of both.
The amateur is someone who seeks addiction instead of acting on their calling. She drinks, gambles, has sex, gets into jail, scrolls social media, or spends money uncontrollably — whatever it is — for the ultimate pay-off: incapacity.
Chemicals aside, that’s why addiction is addictive in the first place — it causes incapacity. It puts you off the hook. When you’re drunk, you don’t have to work or take care of your life. You are free. When you’re in jail or bankrupt or fucked up, there’s nothing you can do.
It’s the same when you’re depressed. You get a “jail free” card.
The professional — the “pro” — is someone who controls his addiction — which we all have in one form or another by doing the scariest bit.
Waking up, sitting down, and doing the actual work.
In a way, that crazy navy seal dude who wakes up 4 AM is right. Discipline does equal freedom. It allows you to do what you’re terrified of most: the Actual Thing. Your work. It makes you busy, productive and makes sure you don’t fall into the trap of incapacity.
Discipline gives you the freedom to stay immune to most mental trouble. Whereas doing nothing — or having no structure — makes you vulnerable to unpleasant thoughts, depressive states, and what have you.
For a long time, I blamed my father for being too hard on me. I thought he was the cause of my problems. I was a neurotic Type-A, arrogant, smart, ambitious, and I worked myself to the bone.
Then I quit working so hard. And then I quit working at all. I thought that if I live by “doing what I want” on a whim, I will become happier.
But all I became was depressed.
But discipline is not a curse. It’s a tool. While there may be people who claim they work when they want to, I believe that discipline is something every human being should have.
As a species, we’re not wired to be happy or hedonistic or lying on the beach. We are wired to work. We are wired to have a purpose. We are hard-wired to pursue our callings and passions, which we manifest through being our best selves, not being in the state of eternal bliss.
This is why depression and suicide rates have gone up recently. We live in abundance society — and as any crazy-rich person knows, abundance has problems of its own.
Many people of my generation — and I am no exception — are too arrogant, soft, and self-centered. We want the freedom, the luxury, but, if we’re honest, we don’t want to do the work. We believe we’re owed something by this world simply because we were born with the Internet. We are a generation spoiled by Amazon Prime and glamorous pics on Instagram.
But when the tide shifts and the rubbish is washed away, the truth will prevail. And the truth is that to do anything worthwhile, to become anybody, you have to put in the work.
You have to be disciplined. You have to show up.
And you have to take yourself less seriously. Which is another thing I learned, but that’s for another time.