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The Cold Shower – My #1 Exercise for Building Self-Discipline

Every time I skip a workout, procrastinate on an assignment until the last minute, or succumb to the temptation of that pint of ice cream in the freezer, the same thought goes through my head:

“Man, I wish I had more self-discipline…”

You’ve probably been in the same boat before. As students, we always say that we lack self-discipline, and that we want more of it… but what, exactly, is self-discipline?

In its simplest terms, self-discipline is the willingness to accept discomfort – whether it’s physical discomfort or just the unpleasantness of denying yourself instant gratification. And self-discipline can be built up from repeated exposure to discomfort, as Aristotle once pointed out when he said,

“We are what we do repeatedly. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

You can read up more about how the ancients view self-discipline in this post about the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, but basically, Aristotle is saying that if you want to be a disciplined person, you have to work at it every day you just can’t wait for motivation or inspiration to strike.

Once you learn self-discipline, though, it’s a skill you’ll have for life and can deploy in a variety of different situations. It’s a rare and valuable skill that is incredibly worthwhile to have – and yet so few people take the time to cultivate it.

So how do you get better at self-discipline?

Here’s a suggestion: take a cold shower every day.

I know, I know – cold water just sucks. But hear me out – making cold showers a daily habit to build discipline is worth it, and here are a few of reasons why:

1. It’s Resistant to Excuses

Think about an essay you have to do for class.

It’s easy to rationalize to yourself why leaving it until the last minute is a good idea:

  • You do better under pressure
  • You’re not sure of all the requirements
  • You don’t have any topic ideas
  • Your dog/cat/pet lion just died (if this actually happened, though, know that I am deeply sorry for your loss)

The reason why a cold shower is so effective is that it doesn’t give you room to rationalize and over-think – you wake up, step into your shower and from there, it’s either you do it, or you don’t.

Basically, by eliminating your choices, you succeed. It might be paradoxical and counter-intuitive, but more importantly, it’s brain-dead simple.

2. It Doesn’t Take Extra Time Out of your Day

OK, as a smart CIG reader, you’ve probably already started putting together a list of things that can help you become more disciplined, without having to do a cold shower.

I get it.

The shivers, the shock of the cold, and just the anticipation of a wet slap in the face are not very nice.

But here’s the thing: you should be subjecting yourself to regular wet slaps in the face because these aren’t just good for resisting the cold. In fact, they also help you face discomfort and build consistency for other things in your life, like doing challenging homework, pursuing new side projects, and hitting the gym.

Even better, cold showers drill self-discipline into you without taking up more time out of your day.

And yes, I can attest to the fact that cold showers do work because I’ve been doing them for a year and a half now.

How I Became More Disciplined

OK, backtracking to how I got into cold showers in the first place…

I can say today that I’m very good around people… but this wasn’t always the case.

In fact, when I was in high school, I was pretty self-conscious and socially awkward.

Apart from the fact that my family had just immigrated to Canada from another country, I was self-conscious because I didn’t really feel confident that I could hold up a good conversation.

But then, I read a piece of advice that if I made small talk with just one person a day, that that would help me get over myself and get used to talking to people. (More advice on becoming confident and on having better social skills here, here and here!)

So I did.

I started with the Starbucks baristas and the waiters, then with the people I sat next to in my university classes.

I eventually began to feel more comfortable talking to strangers. By this time, I had some momentum going, having realized what a valuable skill it was to be able to connect with people, regardless of a difference in background.

More than this, though, I realized that life was made up of many awkward and uncomfortable situations and that it was important for me to become someone who was comfortable with change and discomfort.

To accomplish this, I knew I needed to train myself to step out of my comfort zone daily.

Enter the cold shower.

Now, I’d always known about the health and emotional benefits of cold showers, but I never actually had a good reason to start doing them until my realization.

To start, I began telling myself, “If I don’t do anything else uncomfortable today, the simple fact that I took a cold shower this morning means that I won; I can go to sleep with a smile on my face.”

I also promised myself that I would only require myself to do it during weekdays and that I could take a break during weekends.

I guess it worked because, since May 2016, I’ve done a cold shower at least 6 days a week, without fail. And here’s the kicker: I live in Toronto, so I’ve done my cold showers every single day all throughout winter, even when the water gushing out of my shower was closer to the freezing point than it was to a sane temperature.

TL;DR Cold showers have turned me into a gritty, mentally tough lunatic (or maybe I was crazy even before I started my experiment, but I digress).

The truth remains, though, that cold showers work because doing them help you become tougher, more disciplined and more comfortable with change.

And at this point, unless you live in Antarctica or Calgary (which are both colder than Toronto), you don’t have any excuses – if you really want to build self-discipline, jump into your shower, turn that tap to cold and think happy thoughts.

Being able to do all of the things you want to do draw from that same reserve of mental toughness, grit, and willpower that is built if you regularly face discomfort willingly.

It’s cliché, but I just have to throw this in here: just do it.