Elite Self-Discipline (Part III): Mental Discipline

mental discipline everydayspy

Greetings Everyday Spy,

I’ve been lucky to work with some of the best operators in the world: US Special Operations, British MI6, Australian SIS, German BND and more.

Sometimes we crossed paths for just a few days. Sometimes we lived in small camps for months. Other times we spent years relying on each other’s commitment and talent.

We spent countless hours practicing everything from tactical movements to infiltrating networks. We rehearsed operational acts over and over again; we tested our equipment in every environment imaginable; and even after we were certain of our timing, execution, and gear, we built and practiced back-up plans.

The best trained men and women in the world all have one thing in common…

We were once just everyday people.

Ordinary citizens who received extraordinary training.

And while we all served with pride and dedication, every one of us looked forward to the day we could return to a normal life.

When you are surrounded by the world’s best warriors, you make friends with the world’s best people.

Special operators appreciate life in a way few people understand.

We raise families, care for aging parents, and plan summer vacations like anyone else. We host outdoor BBQs, split the lunch bill after church, and chaperone school dances.

But we’ve made careers out of ending some lives to save others. So we count each day of our own lives as special.

As something we never want to give up.

I was asked to be part of a joint effort combining US and EU specialists against a shared threat in the late 2000’s.

Much of my time was spent working with a European counterpart who spent his career in places nobody knows Europeans fight and die.

Except for a slight accent and the hilarious habit of lifting his pinky finger when he drank espresso, you’d never know the guy was born and raised in Europe. We bonded over our forgettable brown skin and ambiguous ethnic heritage.

Our work together was non-stop. We spent a lot of time meeting inside and outside the typical office environment.

     We mission-planned while we trained together in the gym

     We cross-referenced contingency options over meals at outdoor food stands

     We built covert exfil plans while scouting back-country river bends and forests

It was a mentally exhausting period of time for both of us. 

Our efforts were constantly undone. Sometimes by bad guys, sometimes by good guys making bad decisions.

Our country leaders would be friends one day and in conflict the next. 

Intelligence priorities changed often; last-minute travel was common; funding came in fits and bursts.

We had become accidental friends, forged in stress, with the common goal of saving lives. 

But we felt like we were losing the battle, no matter how hard we tried. Politics, priorities, and proliferators kept blocking our progress.

Our mental discipline was breaking down. We wanted to give up. But we knew that if our mental discipline failed, the mission would fail. 

And that was not acceptable to us.

88% of people admit to giving up when things get too difficult.

Sometimes they give up on a diet. Sometimes they give up on a marriage.

Giving up is a feeling many people have experienced.

  • 92% of people give up on New Year’s resolutions every year.
  • 80% of people pay for online education/training and never finish it.
  • 42% of first marriages end in divorce; 60% of second marriages end the same way.
  • 30% of new college students quit school in their first year.
  • 25% of highschool freshman never make it to graduation.

100% of the time, people are giving up on something they want.

When things get hard, people give up. 

Not because they want to, but because they do not understand what you are learning right now.

Their willpower runs out. They lose hope. Their self-discipline fails. And they quit.

In our last letter, we discussed how physical discipline can strengthen your willpower and help you resist temptation.

Like the temptation to quit…to give up.

But physical discipline serves an important second purpose… 

It enables your body to support your mind.

To build mental discipline, you must have physical discipline first. 

It’s easy to think that the two are separate and unrelated. Even now, your mind is probably racing with examples of people you know who are dedicated athletes but terrible at mental focus. Or people who are impressive intellectuals but heavy around the midsection.

Many of you may agree with the relationship between the two, but disagree with the order. You think that mental discipline comes first and physical discipline comes second. You have dozens of examples to support your case, from high-school coaches to inspirational leaders.

In both cases, you are experiencing something called the ‘availability heuristic.’ It is a cognitive bias that leads you to inaccurate, subjective conclusions based on the thoughts that first jump-to-mind. This bias undermines critical thinking and cognitive reasoning…

And it destroys mental discipline.

The availability heuristic fools you into thinking that the first thoughts you have are objective, logical, and valid.

They are not.

The first thoughts that come to your mind are pulled from the subconscious, based on subjective feelings and personal biases. They are the furthest thing possible from logical reasoning. And these thoughts are ripe with emotions… negative emotions.

When these thoughts come to mind, your brain concludes that the predominant experience you have had is negative. And to avoid more negative experiences, you are tempted to quit. 

Let me give you an everyday example of how the availability heuristic breaks down your mental discipline.

Today is Monday; the first day of a new week.

The weekend was fun, but now its time to get back into the weekly routine. And that means you have a workout today.

For some of you, that workout happens in the morning. For others, after work. For a third group, the workout is still theoretical but you’ll get to it soon!

Whatever time it is, as soon as you know the workout is coming your mind starts to reflect on the weekend…

  • On the sleep you didn’t get…
  • On the fatty, greasy food you ate that’s still working its way through your system…
  • On that last drink that you didn’t really want but couldn’t resist… 

As the availability heuristic fills your mind fills with these negative thoughts, you subjectively convince yourself that the workout would be a waste of time today.

  • You wouldn’t be able to push yourself hard enough to make any progress…
  • You have to catch up on some personal stuff for school, business, or work… 
  • You could use the extra time for errands, or finally call mom back after ignoring her call last week… 

This is the availability heuristic doing its magic and killing your mental discipline!

We have all had these thoughts and know they are valid. 

  • You didn’t get enough sleep this weekend – objective fact
  • Your body is sluggish from some unhealthy meals/treats – objective fact
  • You were having fun and opted to stay out for one last round with friends – objective fact

These are facts. But just because they come to mind first does not make them the most important facts.

There are other facts that get skipped by the availability heuristic because they are not tied to a strong emotion:

  • Monday’s are always a difficult day for the gym – for you and everyone else – fact
  • You have already built workout time into your regular schedule – fact
  • You know that reaching your fitness goal will take time and self-discipline – fact

When you give your mind space for genuine reasoning, it becomes clear that you do not need – or want – to skip the gym today. 

The availability heuristic tries to hijack your mind and mask subjective reactions as logical thinking.

That’s how missed workouts become skipped workouts; skipped workouts become ‘off days’; and ‘off days’ become every day. 

And in the end, you convince yourself that you will never get fit because you don’t have enough self-discipline to stick to your workout.

Physical discipline gives your mind the foundation it needs to fight the availability heuristic.

It creates a consistent biological environment for your brain to resist subjective reactions.

Your body maintains consistent hydration and healthy glucose levels. As a result, your brain benefits from increased oxygen levels and reduced stress hormones. It gains the resources needed to combat the availability heuristic. 

Mental discipline gives you space to think rationally and differentiate between subjective and objective thoughts. 

When you face difficulty, your mind is flooded with subjective thoughts. The availability heuristic will always bring the most emotional, least logical thoughts to mind first. 

Mental discipline is not about forcing yourself to do something. It’s about recognizing subjective reasoning and actively applying objective facts before you make a decision.

Everyone feels tempted to quit. But those with the willpower to think through the temptation will not quit. Because they have self-discipline.

Now that you recognize it, you no longer have to give in to the availability heuristic.

You may not be able to change a cognitive bias, but you can always plan for it.

Here is how you combine your physical discipline and mental discipline to get one step closer to elite self-discipline:

  1. Set the goal to read (or re-read) one EverydaySpy.com article each day for the next 4 days.
  2. Continue the fruit and water exercise from our last training letter for the next 4 days. This will ensure that you have the willpower to complete task #1 each day.
  3. See first-hand how your physical discipline leads to mental discipline.
  4. Write me at info@EverydaySpy.com and tell me how the availability heuristic tried to convince you to quit.

Elite self-discipline is the act of making the same decision consistently, without caving to temptation, exhaustion, or emotion.

     In our first letter we overcame temptation.

     In our second letter we prevented exhaustion.

     In this letter we got consistent.

If you’ve made it this far, you know how to achieve self-discipline. 

In our next training session we will learn how to transform self-discipline into elite self-discipline!

Godspeed, #EverydaySpy

Author: Andrew Bustamante, Founder of www.EverydaySpy.com. Andrew is a former covert CIA Intelligence officer, decorated US Air Force Combat Veteran, and respected Fortune 500 senior advisor. Learn more from Andrew on his Podcast (The Everyday Espionage Podcast) and by following @EverydaySpy on your favorite social media platform.

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