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Episode 235: Self Discipline


And hello to you, and welcome to the Richard Nicholls Podcast, the personal development podcast series that's here to help inspire, educate, and motivate you to be the best you can be! I'm psychotherapist Richard Nicholls, and this episode is titled Self Discipline. And if you're ready We'll start the show!

Alright everybody peeps, welcome to a new month. It's nearly Easter, so we've got a bank holiday weekend at the end of the month. Good to know about that in advance. Because I've got certain jobs in my diary on repeat. On Fridays and Mondays, that I need to make sure I've moved to other days throughout the month.

Otherwise I'll book in my therapy clients and suddenly find that there's no room for all my podcast work. So I need to stick to a plan, otherwise I'm going to run out of time at the end of the month and then get stressed. But sticking to a plan isn't always easy. We know what to do. But we often get distracted, don't we?

Well, I do. Or we prioritise the wrong thing and that's where self discipline and willpower has to come in. It's the same for choosing an apple over a Cadbury's cream egg, isn't it? You know what's the right thing to do, but the pull of what you want right now is usually greater than the desire to look after the future you.

Because future you doesn't exist, does it?

If you ask someone if they want £10 now, or £20 in a year's time, almost everyone takes the £10 now. Even if the 20 quid is absolutely 100 percent guaranteed. Future you, in a year's time, doesn't even exist yet. So it's hard to do the right thing. It takes proper discipline.

But it pays off, it really does. Having control over yourself, being disciplined in the right way for you, can create better relationships with other people, as well as a better relationship with yourself, better health, better finances, just a better you. If you know that practicing some mental relaxation exercises for 20 minutes each evening is going to make it easier to deal with your partner's annoying habits, then stick with it.

If you know that 10 minutes of Pilates for beginners every morning is going to make it easier to sit in front of a computer screen all day without getting tight muscles, then stick with it. If you know that the Skoda Fabia that you decided to buy, that's only going to cost you £250 a month, but isn't available for a couple of months, is going to be better for you in the long run than the 350, 400 a month Audi that's ready now, then stick to your decision.

But sticking to things means being disciplined, doesn't it? And that can drain us, it really, really can. Because it's a skill to be learned and practiced. If self discipline is easy to you, then that's because you've practiced it. And that's the same for the opposite. It's the same for recklessness, impulsivity.

If that's what you've practiced, then that becomes a skill. Something you can do without thinking, literally. Because everything you practice becomes unconscious to you. Walking. Talking. Everything. And that's the same for self discipline. But you have to practice. From a neurological perspective, it's to do with the prefrontal cortex.

The front of the brain. The frontal lobes above the eyes that we think with and make decisions with. It's the part of the brain that wasn't really understood until good old Phineas Gage. The guy who probably had the Most famous brain injury in history, he speared it with an iron rod in an accident building a railway.

If you don't know his story, I'll go into it briefly. In 1848, back in the days when scientists thought that the prefrontal cortex didn't do anything, in Vermont, USA, Phineas Gage was a 25 year old railroad foreman. Part of his job was to excavate rock to make way for the railway to be laid. And to do this, they would drill a hole a meter deep, fill it with explosive powder and a fuse, squash some sand and clay on top of the powder with a heavy iron rod, So that when it went off the energy would take out the rock and not just blow air out the hole.

So they really needed a heavy tamping iron, as it was called, to do this with. It was a metre long, inch and a quarter thick, and fortunately for Phineas, it was decorated with a spike on the top. I say fortunate, because when this rod made a spark as it was bashed into the ground against some rock. It ignited the blasting powder and shot the meter long six kilo spike up through the left side of poor Phineus' face, behind his eye and up through the top of his head.

And it flew off, landed about 80 feet away. With his left frontal lobe attached to it. If the blacksmith who'd made it hadn't put a point on the top, it would have probably taken his head off. But it didn't. It just gave him a partial lobotomy instead. And after a few brief convulsions of the arms and legs He was able to walk a bit.

He was helped onto a cart, taken back to his lodgings in the local town where a doctor was summoned. And the records of the time are hilarious. This was a massive deal for those days. People didn't survive accidents like that, let alone be awake enough that, despite literally having his brain on show for anyone to see, Poking out of the top of his head, he was able to say to the local doctor, probably one of the greatest understatements of medical history.

"Doctor," he said, "here is business enough for you." Yes it was, thought the doctor, and soon after called for help from a more senior doctor. Because he realised he was well out of his league, when, after explaining what had happened, Phineas stood up. He was sick, and the effort of which, I quote from these medical records.

Pressed about half a teacup full of the brain through the exit hole at the top of the skull, which fell upon the floor. And it was amazing that he survived. But he did. But leaving some of his brain behind at the railroad had a significant influence upon his personality. Now, a lot has been exaggerated over time.

Because people like stories like his. There are some reports that say he became a psychopath. Unable to control his impulses with a total lack of forethought or concern for the future. And other reports say that he was a violent man who would beat his wife and children. Now, I am going to question some of this.

Especially as Phineas Gage never married and he had no children. So we need to be careful. I don't want to fall into the same trap of telling exaggerated stories for effect that help keep a myth alive. That's how religions start. But exaggerated as they are, those stories come from somewhere. Because we now know that the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that's responsible for forethought and decision making.

So Phineas Gage probably did struggle in those areas afterwards, as have many people since. But, as with Phineas Gage, not forever. The brain repairs, heals, rewrites itself so that the other areas of the brain can take over the responsibility. It's amazing. It's called neuroplasticity and is this incredible ability that the brain has got to adapt when you force it to change.

And that's the key. It doesn't do it by itself. You do it. You change it. Injured or not, you have the ability to change and strengthen areas of the brain responsible for anything and everything. Including the prefrontal cortex. Including the areas responsible for forethought and decision making. But you need to practice it.

You need to practice self discipline. One way of helping with that is something that psychologists advise for people with ADHD. If you've got a lot of what they call transitions in your day, use an alarm to remind you of the transition. By transition, they mean moving from one thing onto another, like first thing in the morning, there's a series of transitions.

Once you're up, there's breakfast, shower, brush your teeth, get dressed, get your stuff together, and these transitions can go on all day. Someone with ADHD can get stuck really easily in one of the transitions that we go through throughout our day. And they'll just stare out of the window and not realise that 10 minutes has gone by.

It feels like 30 seconds. And even without ADHD, that can happen. So it's a good idea to set a timer to go off every 3 or 4 minutes or whatever's appropriate, that gives you a jolt back into the real world. To get you to check if you needed to transition on to the next thing. I've suggested that to procrastinators to quite good effect a few times.

They've got an essay to write or whatever, but they'll just scroll through Instagram first and the alarm that goes off every five minutes is like an exclamation mark at the end of it. It helps them to go, oh, yeah, alright, off. And they transition then on to what they should be doing. Sometimes the internet rabbit hole is convenient, I did it when researching this episode, hence why I went on about Phineas Gage, because I found the doctor's medical reports on Google Books and spent 20 minutes longer than is probably necessary reading it.

I could have just read it all on Wikipedia. And if you fall into a YouTube rabbit hole of one video after another, then an alarm that goes bing every five minutes on your phone can be a real wake up call. It wasn't that long ago that if you were sitting on the sofa and a thought popped into your head like What's that actor been in?

I've seen him in something before. You'd think to yourself, next time I turn my computer on and log onto the internet, I'll have a look. And you probably wouldn't. You'd forget, and the world would still spin, and we'd all live happily ever after. Not so nowadays, is it? What starts off with, oh, he was in Buffy, leads you into a half an hour trawl of the internet that started with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then became a rabbit hole of things like the Goldblend advert.

And before you know it, you're reading about the most expensive coffee in the world, of beans that are passed through the digestive system of an Asian mongoose. And then an hour has gone by. But if you'd use the repeat alarm, or just a one off alarm that you snooze for five minutes each time, it gets you back on track.

Honestly, it does. Do it if you need to. But, when it comes to handling those immediate urges to Google a song lyric or an actor or whatever, as soon as you pick your phone up to do it the best thing to do is simply make a note of it instead, and come back to it when you've got the time. Because if you're genuinely interested, then denying yourself of the answer when you've got a question will keep it gnawing away at the back of your mind.

But if you 100 percent know That you will come back to it later, your brain lets you park it. Like I've said before about worrying, make time for it. If you're a worrier, then schedule worry time for a particular time of the day. And because you know that you can worry about it later. It makes it easier to not worry about it now.

It's important to understand yourself. I say it so often that there are no real rules to personal development. You have to do what's right for you. Play to your strengths and be aware of your weaknesses. If you're trying to start a new habit of eating healthy snacks in between meals, and you know that when something's out of sight, it's out of mind, then don't buy two kilos of chocolate covered peanuts and raisins from that lovely place in Ludlow that you like, and then put them in a see through mason jar, and put it on show next to the kettle.

Because guess what? They'll be gone in a fortnight! Although I've got to be honest, they were bloody lovely. Thank you, Ludlow Nut Company! But if I wanted them to last longer than two weeks, then they needed to be in the cupboard. And in a container that you can't see through, so as to not be constantly reminded that they're there.

They need to be out of sight and out of mind. I mean, it's done now, and hopefully I've learned my lesson. Maybe that's the last tip I'll say here about that, actually. Don't beat yourself up about making mistakes along the way. If you're learning anything, whether that's Welsh on Duolingo. Oh, happy St David's Day, by the way.

Sut dych chi wrandawyr?

Whether you're learning to ride a bike, whether you're learning self discipline, whatever you're learning. You will get it wrong as you practice. Be okay with that. It's 100 percent part of the process and something to embrace. If you never make a mistake, then you learn nothing. You have to be okay with that.

There is no place for guilt or shame in the learning process. That's not how we learn. Activating emotions like that would mean activating a different area of the brain than the prefrontal cortex, which stops it from being strengthened. But it doesn't stop learning. The basal ganglia area of the brain, which gets activated when we get emotional, does encourage learning.

But what you'd be learning isn't what works and what doesn't. You already probably know what works and what doesn't. What you'd be learning instead is how to feel ashamed of yourself, and that's really not going to help you strengthen your self discipline. Right, time's up folks. As always, there's a weekly episode just like this every Monday morning on my Patreon page.

Subscribe on there if you want access to those. There are hundreds of episodes. Hours and hours and hours of stuff to help you with your mental health and personal development. And for the absolute bargain price of just 6 a month, which is far cheaper than therapy. And although it might not replace therapy, it's a blooming good leg up, I've been told.

So, have a great month, and I will speak to you somewhere, either on here or on Patreon again, very, very soon. Take care, everyone. Bye for now.