As I celebrate one year of retirement, I’m finally able to relax. This month, I’ve spent more time than ever sitting on the porch, watching our neighborhood hummingbirds gorge themselves inside the fuchsia blossoms, and admiring the aerobatics of the biplane dragonflies who soar through the airspace above our backyard.
But wait! My fall schedule is taking shape. My volunteer English teaching job starts in September and my writing program starts in October. And I’ve committed to providing the local weekly newspaper a blog-style column twice a month. Will I be able to continue feeling relaxed? Since I am determined to be active, while also keeping calm, I did an internet search on what it might take to achieve this. The answer that kept coming up was self-discipline, something that is obvious to anyone observing me when someone is paying me to have it, but is not so easy to spot when I’m not.
What self-discipline looks like depends on whomever is writing about it. I was dismayed by one article that compared acquiring discipline to preparing for the Normandy landings. I felt somewhat better after reading a New Yorker article by Jonah Lehrer (linked to dailygood.com) that reported on a number of studies about “self-control.” These showed that four- and five-year-olds who were able to hold off, when given the opportunity to grab a marshmallow or other snack, were more successful in school as teenagers. “The child who could wait 15 minutes had a S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.” Students who couldn’t wait, “struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships.” The researchers referred to the actions of the children who waited as “delayed gratification.” I like this term better than “will power,” which sounds like a character flaw if you don’t have it.
Eventually I found Penelope Trunk Blog, which captures my thoughts about the self-discipline issue, namely, that if it were so easy to get, we’d all have it. This blog post led me to another of hers in which she decides she can become self-disciplined:
Self-discipline is about small things paving the way for very big things. My favorite piece of research from all the happiness research I’ve read is that self-discipline snowballs. That is, if you can work hard to have self-discipline in one, small area, you create self-discipline almost effortlessly in other areas.
This gives me hope for completing the goals I’ve set for the coming fall while keeping calm. I’ve chosen the one small area to start my work on self-discipline: not feeding my cat. He weighed 17 pounds in the vet’s office yesterday, two pounds more than this time last year. I realized that since our retirement, we have added — at his insistence — approximately four extra meals/snacks to his feeding schedule. Where he used to get breakfast, dinner and a bedtime snack, now that we’re home during the day he has been begging for a second breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch and a mid-afternoon snack. And we’ve been giving them to him so he will stop pestering us, providing us both with immediate gratification. Ignoring his yowling, pawing the cabinet where his food is stored, and blocking the entrance to the kitchen with his stretched-out body will truly be an exercise in delayed gratification, for him and for me.