How our level of discipline and focus relates to our nervous system

Discipline and focus are key skills to acquire in life to apply to our work, our goals, and our day to day tasks.


But one common misconception is that our level of focus is something we can force ourselves to have, when actually, it comes with regulation. And it is challenging to keep with when we are in a state of dysregulation.


For example, often times we hear parents frustrated with their teenagers say they need more discipline. And while yes, this may be true in some cases, what we don’t always consider is how much space their nervous system has to be able to take on the things in which are expected of them.


Imagine you wear a backpack every day that gets filled with all of life’s challenges, experiences, tasks, etc. If this backpack already has some old stuff hanging out on the bottom of it, there won’t be as much room to add a lot more all at once.


Similarly, our nervous system will have a different level of capacity at different times to deal with new challenges (big or small). And especially when we predisposed to being in a freeze state, focus and taking action can be really really difficult for us.


So rather than pushing our systems into a place that we may just not be ready for, consider what you might do if you only had a little bit of room left in the heavy backpack you are carrying.


Perhaps you’d only put one small thing in there at a time? In other words, maybe you’d ask your system to mobilize and take action in smaller doses. One step at a time.


By measuring and adjusting our tasks and exposure, we build space (and capacity) for more.


Not being "disciplined enough" is a common explanation for why we or others cannot finish tasks, projects or reach goals in a certain manner of time. It's easy for us to have high expectations for ourselves to stay focused in our work. However, it's not always as simple as being "more disciplined."


Our ability to stay connected to our work and actions while also seeing through our projects and goals is connected to our capacity. This goes back to the backpack example I gave earlier, everyone's capacity will be unique to them, and be different at different times.


So when we feel stuck and unable to find the motivation or focus that we are told we should work harder for, know that you may just have a backpack that is already too full for anything else.


Consider swapping the term "discipline" for "capacity" and recognise when things feel like a heavy load verses light and manageable.


We begin to expand our capacity by measuring and adjusting in new experiences in very small doses. Just like adding one small thing into our backpack rather than a very big thing. If we are still carrying months/years of stress, grief, rage, resentment, regret, shame, or fear, we may need to take it out of the backpack to tend to it and process it before we can add more.


The key here is low and slow. Low doses, in slow paces. Rather than the often forceful effort of being more "disciplined", we gently infuse our nervous system with new/unfamiliar/activating information and experiences.


This may look like segmenting out projects into small tolerable pieces to complete. One email at a time instead of 10. Taking it one page or paragraph at a time.


Slowly but surely, our nervous system becomes more flexible around mobilisation and the situations and tasks we struggle with.


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