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When you step into the shower each morning, you have two choices: warm or cold.
Warm is the easy option. Your body enjoys it. Cold, on the other hand, is hard. It makes you uncomfortable.
If you spent a year turning the handle to cold, icy water still wouldn’t feel great, and that would probably never change. But what would change is your ability to handle the feeling of being uncomfortable.
That’s discipline, according to productivity expert Thomas Frank. As a YouTube star with 1.5 million subscribers and founder of the student productivity site College Info Geek, Thomas specializes in making people more capable, whether that’s through productivity, academic success, personal finance, or career optimization.
1. Choose the uncomfortable option.
Thomas says the best way to practice discipline is not to start something new, but to identify something you’re already doing that you can change in a small way. “Find a binary choice you make on a daily basis. Something where there are no excuses that can throw you off track,” he said.
"Find a binary choice you make on a daily basis. Something where there are no excuses that can throw you off track."
Then, practice discipline by finding the less comfortable way to do that activity. “The cold shower is a great example of this. You shower every day. Nine out of 10 times, there’s no reason you can’t stick to it and make it a little colder.”
2. You can multitask. You can’t "multifocus."
We all multitask at some stage throughout the day. Thomas emphasized that this isn’t a bad thing, so long as it’s not with tasks that require deep focus. “Multitasking is the process of doing two things at once. We’re perfectly capable of doing this if we’ve made one of the behaviors subconscious. For instance, I can sip this cup of water while talking to you,” he explained. “I can breathe and write a paper at the same time.”
“What we’re not made to do, however, is 'multifocus,'” Thomas said. This is when you’re trying to do two or more activities that require you to think deeply. When you do this, your brain is jumping back and forth between activities. It’s called cognitive switching or context switching, forcing your brain to move from reading an article to your phone to something else — and our brains aren’t built for that.
3. Trick yourself into getting started.
The Pomodoro Technique is hardly a novel tactic for helping people focus at work, but Thomas argues Pomodoro isn’t useful because of the 5-minute breaks. It’s all about tricking your brain into getting started.
“I have to make my brain believe that it only has to do 25 minutes of work,” he said. The first 15 to 25 minutes of doing work often doesn’t feel good. But you have to go through it to enter a flow state. “Usually, I don’t even need the first break when I’m using Pomodoro,” Thomas pointed out. “By then I’ve already gotten past the painful part and into the pleasurable flow state of working.”
"Visualize yourself doing one more rep. See yourself writing one more sentence. Visuals help you keep pushing forward."
4. Give yourself visuals.
We’ve heard time and again how elite athletes are the epitome of focus and discipline. Repeated practice and relentless dedication to their sport brings their play to the next level. Following CrossFit champion and entrepreneur Jason Khalipa’s AMRAP Mentality, Thomas takes “as many reps as possible” into school and work.
“It works for physical challenges, and it works for mental challenges too,” Thomas said. “Sometimes mantras aren’t enough. I’m a fan of strong visual metaphors, and this gives me one. Visualize yourself doing one more rep. See yourself writing one more sentence. Visuals help you keep pushing forward.”
5. Choose productivity tools wisely — and keep them clean.
Thomas says taking advantage of external tools is critical for staying focused on what you need to get done. “We need external systems. You use them instead of your brain, to offload some information so you don't have to hold onto it all,” he explained.
“The trick is that you have to keep them organized. Then you’ll know it’s a source of truth, and you can trust that you’ll be able to find information there again. That way you can free up your brain space.” Thomas loves using Front to manage and collaborate on email with his team. He also recommends a habit tracking app called Habitify.
“Choose the one thing that’s bugging you most, and find a way to change it incrementally every day.”
6. Pick one thing.
Trying to change too much at once is a great way to sabotage your efforts to build discipline. “Start small,” Thomas warned. “You don’t need to do everything. Do one thing to start, and that’s it,” he said. Find a way to track your progress every day, and when you feel like you’ve mastered it, then add another exercise. “Choose the one thing that’s bugging you most, and find a way to change it incrementally every day,” he said.