The Practicing Mind: Thomas Sterner on Developing Discipline in Your Life

There is an art to practicing. In order to achieve any type of success in any field, it is necessary to not only put in the hours practicing, but learn to practice the correct way.

Drawing inspiration from Eastern philosophy, Thomas Sterner’s book The Practicing Mind helps one practicing-mindunderstand how to move towards success or mastery in a chosen activity or skill, while enjoying the journey or process of getting there.

The Importance of Self-Discipline

We’ve all heard the wisdom that self-discipline is essential if we’re going to accomplish anything meaningful in life.

With self-discipline we’re in control of our energies, able to focus them on specific tasks for extended periods of time. Without it, we’re victims of our environment – our attention becomes vulnerable to the onslaught of distractions which surround us in the modern day.

“Of all the riches available to us in life, self-discipline is surely one of, if not the, most valuable. All things worth achieving can be accomplished with the power of self-discipline. With it we are masters of the energy we expend in life. Without it we are victims of our own unfocused and constantly changing efforts, desires and directions.” (The Practicing Mind, Thomas Sterner)

There are many theories and experiments which have tried to solve the age-old question as to why some people have more self-discipline than others, and what we can do in our life to increase it.

An interesting idea which had never crossed my mind before reading The Practicing Mind, is the idea that a lack of self-discipline is caused by a failure to understand and implement the core principles of the art of practicing.

So what is the art of practicing? And where do we go wrong when we try to put in the time to learn and master anything new?

The Art of Practicing

Have you ever zeroed in on a particular activity, becoming super motivated to dive head first into it with the end-goal of becoming highly skilled? After this initial enthusiasm, have you experienced your motivation dwindle as the weeks or months went by – until you gave up on the activity altogether?

This is something we’ve all experienced numerous times throughout our life. You commit to something, get really motivated and make a pact to practice X number of times per week, and then stop practicing altogether after a few weeks or months.

What is the root of this universal malady which afflicts us all, preventing us from achieving skillful mastery, and experiencing the joys of getting good at something?

As mentioned, an intriguing idea is that this lack of self-discipline manifests from a failure to understand and implement what Sterner calls the “proper mechanics of practicing.”

The practicing mind is the mind engaged in the proper mechanics of practicing. It is at peace with the moment and fully immersed in the activity at hand. It is not impatient, nor anxious, worrying about whether progress is being made.

The practicing mind is Zen-like. And paradoxically, it is when you’re not concerned whether you’re making progress that your ability to learn and hone your craft reaches its peak.

“It’s a paradox. When you focus on the process, the intended product takes care of itself with fluid ease. When you focus on the product of your effort, you immediately begin to fight yourself and experience boredom, restlessness, frustration and impatience.” (The Practicing Mind, Thomas Sterner)

So how do we reach such a Zen-like state?

Focus on the Process, Not the Product

Think of something you really enjoy doing. Perhaps it’s hanging out with friends, playing a sport, reading, writing short stories, or playing video games. Whatever it is, think about your mindset when you’re engaged in something you enjoy.

Do you spend each moment anxious about whether you’re improving your skills, or upset that you haven’t reached a certain skill level you want to attain?

Most likely not. When you’re doing something you really enjoy, each moment you’re enjoying the process, immersed in the moment. The process is the goal, not the end of becoming a master. And as Sterner points out, paradoxically when we make the process the goal, the end result seems to take care of itself.

Contrast this with the attitude we often take when we’re trying to learn a new activity we haven’t yet developed a deep love for. We make the end-result or the product the goal.

We imagine ourselves as experts in the future, and until we get to that point we aren’t satisfied. When we practice, every little mistake makes us tense, we become too hard on ourselves, and we spend precious time anxiously wondering if we’re ever going to reach our end-goal.

When we focus on the product, doubt, anxiety, and frustration follow.

“In every moment of your struggle, by looking at the goal and constantly referencing your position to it, you are affirming to yourself that you haven’t reached it. You only need to acknowledge the goal to yourself occasionally, using it as a rudder to keep you moving in the right direction.”(The Practicing Mind, Thomas Sterner)

Focusing on the Process Makes it Easier to Tackle Big Goals

Let’s say you want to start a business, but don’t have the required skills and know-how to be successful. If you place too much of your energy and focus on achieving a profitable business, it will be tough to muster the motivation each day to learn the skills required for success, when you see yourself moving towards your goal at a snail’s pace.

But if you focus on the process of learning the skills required to start a successful business, and make this process the goal, it will be much easier to put in the time and effort needed to start a profitable business. You’ll enjoy each day, even if it seems from the outside no forward progress was made.

You’ll be at peace with the process, and will have learned the art of practicing.

“When you let go of your attachment to the object you desire and make your desire the experience of staying focused on working toward your goal, you are fulfilling your desire in every minute and you are patient with the circumstance. There is no reason not to be. There is no effort or “trying to be patient” here. It is just a natural response to your perspective. This shift in perspective is very small and subtle on the one hand, but it has enormous freeing power. No task seems too large to undertake. Your confidence goes way up as does your patience with yourself. You are always achieving your goal and there are no mistakes or time limits to create stress.” (The Practicing Mind, Thomas Sterner)

Culture of Instant Gratification

We live in a culture of instant gratification. Whatever it is we want, we want it now – whether it’s the latest iPhone, the newest clothing, or to master a specific activity.

But as Sterner notes, instant gratification results in short term satisfaction. We need to recognize that anything that can be bought or achieved with ease, will not bring much in the way of fulfillment.

Long term satisfaction comes from working diligently at an activity, skill, or craft, finding joy in the process of practicing, and over time become masters in our chosen field.

“We want the product and we want it now. Skip the process altogether and get to the product.  We have become obsessed with having everything now. Credit card debt soars and ruins many people in this country because it feeds on this mindset of “get it now and pay for it later.” Credit cards work on the premise of product before process instead of process first. This mentality only leads to a general sense of non-fulfillment and emptiness…You can recall everything you have worked hard and patiently for in your life, but how many things that you have attained with little or no effort can you remember? When we focus our energy on the process of attaining something, whether it be an object or a skill, and through patience and discipline we achieve it, we experience a joy that is just not present when something comes too quickly or easily. In fact, when we reminisce about whatever it was we were trying to acquire, the process is what comes to mind, not the object itself. We remember the mastery of our undisciplined nature, the patience and perseverance that we developed, and the joy and satisfaction we experienced then.”(The Practicing Mind, Thomas Sterner)

Impatience: A Sign You’re Not Focused on the Process

 A good gauge as to whether you’re focusing on the process or the final product is to become aware of your level of impatience.

If you’re feeling patient and at peace with the moment, you’re focused on the process. If you’re feeling impatient and anxious, then in all likelihood you’re focusing on the final goal.

“Experiencing impatience is one of the first symptoms of not being in the present moment, not doing what you are doing, and not staying process-oriented.”(The Practicing Mind, Thomas Sterner)

Applying the Ideas

The Practicing Mind is a great read for anyone serious about honing their skill in a particular activity or craft. It communicates ideas which have real-world applicability, and which can be integrated into your own life to help you master the art of practicing.

“In summary, it comes down to a few simple rules. Keep yourself process-oriented. Stay in the present. Make the process the goal and use the overall goal as a rudder to steer you efforts. Be deliberate, have an intention about what you want to accomplish, and be aware of that intention. Doing these things will eliminate the judgments and emotions that come from a product-oriented or results-oriented mind.”(The Practicing Mind, Thomas Sterner)

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