Self-discipline is about seeking your highest good, regardless of how you feel in the moment. It gives you the power to live life according to your highest goals and values, and stay true to them regardless of what is happening outside of you, or inside of you. It is the art of living a good life, cultivating well-being and self-actualization.
For self-discipline to work, you need to develop three pillars: Aspiration, Awareness, and Action. These are the three A’s of self-discipline. In this article, we briefly cover one of the core concepts of the Action Pillar: the Never Zero commitment.
Not Motivation, But Commitment
Motivation is important. It is often the initial spark that has set you on a journey. It is that emotional connection with your goal, the feeling of being pulled towards it, and energized to take action.
The problem is this: motivation is flimsy. It is a feeling—and, like all other feelings, it fluctuates. You can’t rely on it, because it comes and goes.
Nobody feels motivated all the time. Self-discipline is, by definition, your ability to act despite motivation, despite what you are feeling or not feeling in the moment. Self-discipline is commitment.
Motivation may get you started on the path, but it’s only self-discipline that will help you see it through to the end. Motivation is the initial spark; self-discipline is continuously fanning the fire.
If you rely on an inconsistent feeling (motivation) to take action, your action will be inconsistent. It is like the sailor who only moves forward when the wind is on his back—he won’t go very far.
So don’t expect motivation to precede action. Don’t wait for you to be motivated so you get started. Don’t wait for it to “feel right”. Act, regardless of motivation.
Take a step forward in the direction of your goals every day, whether you feel like it or not. This is the difference between long-term success and regret.
When the young comedian Brad Isaac asked Jerry Seinfeld for career advice, Seinfeld told him that he needs to write jokes every day. Not “every day that you feel inspired”. Not “every day that you feel funny.” Every day.
Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.— Chuck Close (painter)
In your chosen path you will face many setbacks, failures, and disappointments. You will at times doubt yourself and doubt the process. These are the defining moments in any journey; it’s the time for you to prove what you are made of, and re-affirm your aspiration. Here, only commitment to your purpose can help you.
I have always felt that the mettle of a player is not how well he plays when he’s playing well, but how well he scores and plays when he’s playing poorly.— Jack Nicklaus (professional golfer)
Don’t depend on motivation; instead, make a strong commitment.
There are different types of commitment. Some commitments should be non-negotiable—I call them Never Zero commitments. Others need to be a bit more flexible, so that there is not too much pressure in your daily life (which would lead to unnecessary stress).
Just keep in mind that the more flexible your mindset is around your commitment, the more likely you are to find an excuse and skip it.
The Never Zero Commitment
A commitment is Never Zero when it is timely, small, and uncompromising. In other words, you decide on the minimum acceptable version of your habit, and commit to do it for a specific time period, no matter what.
This is the key concept I’ve used in my Limitless Life program, and it has helped thousands of people start a daily meditation practice. It just works.
You create Never Zero commitments around the key habit(s) you need to cultivate to advance your goals. Here are some examples:
- I will meditate for at least five minutes every day
- For the next 100 days, I will write from 6am to 6:30am
- I won’t go to sleep without showing appreciation to my partner
- I will study twenty minutes of Spanish every day until my trip
- I will not drink beer or eat sweets until the day after my marathon
Never Zero means taking full responsibility and control of your life. You decide what you will do, who you will become, and close the door to all possibility of excuses.
You won’t be able to make a Never Zero commitment around every habit. That would be unrealistic and too inflexible. Instead, just choose one or two key habits to practice Never Zero on, with a set start time and duration.
Once one of your habits is fully integrated, you can then add another one to the stack. For example, if you already have the habit of waking up at 6am and doing twenty minutes of meditation, then adding a third habit of doing twenty minutes of morning exercise is not difficult. It just becomes the thing that you do “right after meditation”.
With each habit added, self-discipline becomes easier. When you develop this skill in one area of your life, you can then apply it to other areas. Your brain now knows how to go through the process of resisting temptation, remaining focused, and prioritizing your long-term goals.
You may want to change many things in your life, but it is wiser start with a single habit, and focus on it until it’s solid. It’s better to move forward slowly, but steadily. Develop self-discipline by taking up one challenge at a time.
If you try to commit to everything, you commit to nothing.
A Timely Commitment
Making a Never Zero commitment is like turning a new page in the book of your life. It is a big deal, and so it needs a proper start date. This helps build up expectation and focus your energy.
Decide on when you will start your commitment—it could be next Monday, or on your birthday, or tomorrow. Mark that date on your calendar. And if it is a bit far into the future, have a Post-it note somewhere, helping you constantly remember that a new beginning is approaching. Look forward to it!
You also need a certain time commitment: the number of days, weeks or months that you will observe your commitment. Or it could be lifetime, if it’s a commitment about a habit that is essential to who you want to become, or if it’s a commitment to break an addiction, such as alcohol or smoking.
On the 21st of March of the year 2000 I made my Never Zero commitment towards meditation. I told myself, after attending a workshop, that I would meditate at least five days a week, for the rest of my life. That was my first attempt at Never Zero, and it worked for me. I soon increased it to seven days a week, and I’ve been meditating daily ever since.
However, if you are a “Never Zero newbie”, perhaps start with something smaller, such as “10 days sugar free” or “face my social anxiety every day for three weeks”. Choose whatever it makes sense for you, and then stick to it no matter what.
No excuses allowed.
During the chosen time, you have no option but to follow it. After that set time, you can then re-evaluate what to do about it. You may want to go for another Never Zero sprint, tweak the time commitment (for more or for less), or make it a permanent part of your life.
A Small Commitment
Since the Never Zero commitment is immutable (for the chosen time period), it is better that you start small. Don’t be too ambitious. You can later increase the difficulty once you have mastered the basics.
If you have never had the habit of regular physical exercise, don’t promise yourself that you will run two hours every day. This would simply create undue pressure, stress you out, and likely end in disappointment and frustration.
Start small. It doesn’t matter how small the commitment is, so long as it’s truly a Never Zero commitment. Staying with it no matter what is more important than progressing quickly or starting big.
So go as fast or as slow as you wish; play as hard or as gradual as you want. But when you make a decision, a commitment, a resolution—then follow it to the end as if it’s a life or death situation.
An exception to this rule is if your Never Zero is about a “not to do” commitment, such as to stop smoking or stop drinking alcohol. If that is your goal, and you are brave enough to accept a taste of hell for a couple of months, then you can go cold turkey. In these cases, going directly for complete abstention may be easier to follow than trying moderation and playing with fire.
An Uncompromising Commitment
During the time period you committed to, there are NO acceptable excuses to skip. The commitment is non-negotiable. You may change the amount of time you are committing to follow Never Zero, or the size and difficulty of your habit, but not its uncompromising nature. Otherwise there is no point.
Even in the presence of doubt, fear or pain, take action.
Even if you are confused or demotivated, take action.
This is the meaning of “no matter what”.
It doesn’t matter if you feel exhausted one day, or if you worked 23 hours that day. It doesn’t matter if there is a death in the family, an economic crises, a new pandemic, or the beginning of the third World War. And it most certainly doesn’t matter if you feel like doing it or not.
That is the full import of “never” in “never zero”.
It’s a simple method, but don’t expect it to be easy. There will be challenges and distractions along the way. It almost never is a straight path.
Going 100% all-in actually makes it easier for you, because it helps you avoid decision fatigue.
100% is easier than 99%. When the rule is flexible (99%), you need to always consider if today is the day you should make that exception. But when the rule is uncompromising (100%), there is nothing for you to think about. You have already made your decision! Your mind is freed from the burden of weighing your long-term goals with your short-term comfort every time. This saves you energy and gives you peace of mind.
Never Zero is almost a do or die type of determination.
This figure of speech may feel exaggerated, but this is how inner strength is forged. This strength of determination leads to self-respect, self-confidence, and self-love. And with it you can achieve anything.
It can feel scary to make a commitment like this, because it’s powerful and unapologetic. You can feel how serious it is—and if it doesn’t feel like that, it’s because your commitment is not uncompromising, or is too small.
Take this fear and this feeling of gravity to be a good sign. You are moving out of your comfort zone, and placing a big bet on yourself. Many good things will come out of it.
One of the meditation masters I most resonate with, Swami Vivekananda, used to say, “Believe in yourself and the world will be at your feet.”
You don’t need to have any ambition for world domination to feel the power of that statement. He is not talking about regular self-confidence; he is talking about having faith in yourself and absolute trust in yourself. This is the faith that moves mountains.
But how can you believe in yourself if you keep breaking your promises to yourself?
At the end of the day, self-discipline is much more than achieving your goals—that is just its training ground. Self-discipline, mindful self-discipline, is about developing this type of inner strength and power. Yes, with it you can achieve great things; but this, in itself, is already its own reward.
Don’t let your personal power leak out through excuses, exceptions, and mood fluctuations. Let it be that, at least in one area of your life, for a small period of time, your willpower is absolute, and knows no exceptions.
Choose the line that you will not cross. And then don’t cross it, no matter what.
This is integrity.
This is willpower.
This is mindful self-discipline.
What is your Never Zero commitment? When will you start? Please share it in the comments below, as a form of public accountability.
If you found this article useful or inspiring, then you will love my new book, Mindful Self-Discipline.
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My final message is this: there is tremendous power inside of you. Learn how to tap into it, and cultivate it. Meditation prepares the ground; self-discipline moves you forward, step-by-step.