The Simplicity of Discipline: Thriving Without the Baggage of Expectations

By Leo Babauta

The clients I work with almost all put incredible expectations on themselves — they have higher standards than almost anybody I know. It’s why they work with me.

It can be hard to see, but the expectations they’ve set for themselves often stand in the way of what they want the most.

It’s hard to see, because they became successful because of those expectations. It’s what got them this far.

But after a certain point, the expectations become the anchor, not the engine.

The breakthrough to the next level for many of us who perform at high levels — and actually for people of all kinds — is to let go of all expectations.

Tony Robbins is famous for saying, “Turn your expectations … into appreciation.” It’s a beautiful saying, and helps us to start to see where expectations are getting in the way.

Let’s take a look.

Expectations Often Only Seem to Help

I know lots of people who improved their lives because they had an expectation that they should be better.

“I should be in better shape. I should have a better job. I should be more productive. I should be more discipined. I should be more mindful. I should eat healthier.”

I know these expectations well — that was me at the start of my journey. It’s how almost all of us start out.

We take these expectations and turn them into action. “OK, it’s finally time to get off my butt and do something about this problem!”

And that’s when change starts to happen — when we’ve motivated ourselves to start.

So expectations can seem like they’re doing a lot of work, because they’re the things that got us to start.

But then they start getting in the way:

  • I expected to be great at this habit after a few days, but a week into it and I still suck at it
  • I expected to be perfect at this habit but I’m still struggling
  • I expected to keep my streak going past 2 weeks but then I missed a day
  • I expected to really enjoy yoga or meditation but it’s way harder than I thought
  • This doesn’t meet my expectations, so it sucks (can’t appreciate it)
  • I’m so focused on how I want things to turn out (expectations) that I miss the beauty of what’s happening in this moment

And so on.

The expectations actually hold us back from the simplicity of discipline.

The Simplicity of Discipline

The things we want to be disciplined at are actually fairly simple in a lot of ways.

We want to be consistent with the journaling habit, or meditation, or exercise? Just start, as simply as possible. Do that again the next day. If you miss a day, no problem — just start again. Over and over.

All of the problems of habits start to go away when we drop expectations. We can start to appreciate doing the habit, in this moment, instead of being so concerned with how it will turn out in the future.

It’s very simple, when we drop the expectations.

A daily writing habit becomes as simple as picking up the writing tool and doing it, without any expectation that it be any good or that people love it.

A daily exercise habit becomes as simple as putting your shoes on, going outside, and going for a walk or a run or a hike or a bodyweight workout. You don’t need fancy equipment, the perfect program, or a membership to anything. You just start moving, as simply as possible.

Of course, we have all kinds of hangups when it comes to exercise, or writing, or eating. These come from years of beating ourselves up (or getting judged by others, and internalizing those judgments). We can stop beating ourselves up the moment we drop expectations. Then, without the layers of self-judgment, we can simply get moving.

Every time we “fail” at a habit, we get discouraged. Because of expectations. What if we dropped any expectation that we be perfect at it, and just return to doing the habit at the earliest opportunity? Over and over again.

It all becomes exceedingly simple, once we can drop expectations. And if we become fully present, it can even be joyful! The joy of being in the moment, doing something meaningful.

Dropping the Expectations

So simple right? Now we just have to figure out how to drop those pesky expectations.

Here’s the thing: it turns out the human mind is a powerful expectations generator. Like all the time, it’s creating expectations. Just willy nilly, without any real grounding in reality. Out of thin air.

So do we just turn off the expectations machine? Good luck. I’ve never seen anyone do that. In fact, the hope that we can just turn off the expectations is in itself an expectation.

The practice is to just notice the expectations. Bring a gentle awareness to them. Just say, “Aha! I see you, Expectation. I know you’re the reason I’m feeling discouraged, overwhelmed, behind, frustrated, inadequate.”

And it’s true, isn’t it? We feel inadequate because we have some expectation that we be more than this. We feel behind because of some made up expectations of what we should have done already. We feel discouraged because we haven’t met some expectation. We feel overwhelmed because we have an expectation that we should be able to handle all of this easily and at once. We feel frustrated because someone (us, or someone else) has failed to meet an expectation.

All of these feelings are clear-cut signs that we have an expectation. And we can simply bring awareness to the expectation.

Then we’re in a place of choice. Do I want to hold myself and everything else to this made-up ideal? Or can I let go of that and simply see things as they are? Simply do the next step.

Seeing things as they are, without expectations, is seeing the bare experience, the actual physical reality of things, without all of the ideals and fantasies and frustrations we layer on top of reality.

This means that when we miss a day, we don’t have to get caught up in thoughts about how that sucks — we just look at the moment we’re in, and sit down on the meditation cushion. Break out the writing pad. Do the next thing, with clear eyes.

So in this place of choice, we can decide whether we want to stay in this fantasy world of expectations … or drop out of it into the world as it is. Which is wide open. Ready for us to go do the next thing.

That’s the choice we can make, every time, if we are aware of our expectations in the moment.

Two Simple Discipline Practices

Let’s talk briefly about two practices: the discipline of doing work, and the discipline of sticking consistently to a habit.

Discipline of Doing Work: So let’s say you have a task list, with 5 important tasks, and 10 smaller ones (including respond to Tanya’s email, buy a replacement faucet for the kitchen sink, etc.).

What would stand in the way of doing all of that? Not being clear on what to do first (or the expectation that you pick the “right” task), feeling resistance to doing it (expectation that work be comfortable), worried about how it will turn out (expectation that people think you’re awesome), stressed about all the things you have to do today (expectation that you have a calm, orderly, simple day), wanting to run to your favorite distractions (expectation that things be easy).

So noticing these difficulties caused by expectations … you can decide if you want to be in this place of expectations, or if you’d like to drop them and just be in the moment as it is.

Then you do the simple discipline of work:

  1. Pick one task. Whatever feels important right now. Let go of expectations that it be the right task.
  2. Put everything else aside — other tasks, distractions. Let go of the expectation that you do everything right now, and that what you do should be easy and comfortable.
  3. Do the task. Be in the moment with it. Let go of expectations of comfort, or expectations that you succeed at this and that others not judge you. Just do. Find the joy of doing.
  4. Stay with it as long as you can. If you get interrupted, simply come back.
  5. When you’re done, or it’s time to move on, pick something else. Let go of expectations that you have everything done right away, and just pick one thing to do next.

And repeat.

It’s important to make a distinction — between letting go of the expectation that you not be tired, and overworking yourself. We are not advocating overworking yourself to burnout. But that doesn’t mean we should never do anything when we’re not feeling it. We have to let go of the expectation that we not be tired when we work … and also the expectation that we never stop working. Rest when you need it, but don’t let yourself off the hook just because you don’t feel like it.

Discipline of Consistent Habits: Let’s say you want to get more consistent with habits. You pick one — journaling, for example.

What would get in the way of consistency with this habit? Not making space for it in your day (expecting things to come easy without fully committing to it), not enjoying the habit (expecting things to be comfortable and fun), not doing as well as you hoped and getting discouraged (expectations that you’ll be great at it), missing some days and getting discouraged (expectation that you be perfectly consistent), resisting doing it when you have other things to do (expectation that you don’t have to sacrifice something you want to do this habit).

So noticing these difficulties caused by expectations … you can decide if you want to be in this place of expectations, or if you’d like to drop them and just be in the moment as it is.

Then you do the simple discipline of this habit:

  1. Carve out space. Commit yourself to doing this habit in that space.
  2. Do the habit. Notice if you’re feeling resistance, and just do it.
  3. You might even appreciate the habit as you do it, if you let go of how you think it should be. You might find the joy of doing it as well.
  4. Do it the next day, and the next day.
  5. If you miss a day, simply start again, letting go of expectations about yourself.

If you’re struggling with feeling tired and not wanting to do something, this is because of an expectation that you not be tired, and not have to do things when you don’t feel like it. Letting go of that, you can simply do the task or habit.

You’ll notice that none of this says that doing the task or habit will be easy, comfortable, or without fear or tiredness or uncertainty. That would be an expectation. In fact, there’s a good chance that these will be present for you in the moment, as you do the task or habit. That’s OK — we’re not going to expect it to be any different than it is.

So then, letting go of that, we simply turn to what’s in the moment, and get on with it.