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zen habits: Discipline is an illusion; Motivate yourself instead

Monday, March 5, 2007

Discipline is an illusion; Motivate yourself instead

Reader Kamal posted a great question in response to my call for topic suggestions:

"I think discipline would be a good topic, as much of what you talk about requires a certain amount of it.

The Army was good for teaching me discipline, but I realized that in the end, it comes from within.

But still, like most things, it is a habit that one can work on over time.

Would love to hear your thoughts and experience on the subject."
Let me start with the conclusion first: if you think you don't have discipline, you don't need it. What you need is to commit to your goal or habit and fully motivate yourself. Read on for more.

I think that most of us believe that discipline is something you either have or don't have -- some believe you are born with it, and some, like Kamal, believe it is something you can develop as a habit. But what exactly is it we're talking about when we say the word "discipline"?

If I wake up early every morning to run, do I have discipline? Most people would say that I do. But, as someone who regularly wakes up early, and who runs frequently (not every day), I can testify that I for one do not have discipline. I am anything but disciplined, and never have been.

So how do I explain my ability to wake up early, and to run on a regular basis? Simple: I have adequate and varied motivation. I get up every morning, not out of discipline, but because I really want to -- and have tricked myself into doing it. I get out the door and go for a run not because I'm super disciplined, but because I really want to.

Let's take the example of someone in the military -- the typical example of someone with discipline. Let's say Sgt. Lamar is a tough Army man. He wakes up very early every day, goes through a strict morning routine, runs and does his pushups and situps, eats a moderate diet and keeps his clothes and living area spotless. He's the epitome of discipline.

But I say he has motivation instead. Review the Top 20 Motivation Hacks for some of the reasons why:
  • Sgt. Lamar has signed up for the Army and all that that entails. He is a full-time military man, and everyone he knows is aware of this. He has fully committed himself to living a life of discipline, meaning he's fully committed to all the habits of the Army: waking early, exercise, cleanliness, orderliness, etc. That's the No. 2 of the Top 20 Hacks.
  • He's in the middle of a mutually supportive competition. There is competition among his fellow officers about who has more discipline (wakes earlier, runs more, etc.) -- Hack No. 3.
  • Sgt. Lamar has powerful reasons (Hack No. 8) to keep those habits going -- to keep up his reputation in the Army, to promote his advancement in the organization, to set an example for those under him.
  • There are many more, but let me quickly point out others: there's a system of accountability, public pressure, others above him who he must report to, rewards for sticking to the habits, the pleasure of accomplishing his goals and habits, workout buddies, visualization of his goals (even if he doesn't realize it, Sgt. Lamar has a picture of what an Army man should be, and keeps that in his head each day). And then there's positive thinking (Hack No. 1) -- Sgt. Lamar doesn't allow himself to think negatively, or to tell himself he can't do it. He has no choice. If he does start thinking negative thoughts, he will soon be former Sgt. Lamar.
If you removed all of these motivations -- the public pressure, the rewards, the positive thinking, the powerful reasons, the accountability, the full commitment, the mutually supportive competition -- I believe that Sgt. Lamar would have no discipline.

Now, some people will think, "But Sgt. Lamar was disciplined even after he was in the Army. He's still the most disciplined person I know, as a former military man." That may be true (it's not true in every case), but I would argue that he has maintained his habits from many of the same motivations -- he is still committed, to everyone he knows, to being a disciplined former military man, and he has this public reputation to maintain. He probably also still finds pleasure in being an early riser, in exercising and staying fit, in looking clean and being orderly. I also argue that those who do not have those same motivations are those who are former military men who aren't disciplined -- and we all know just as many of this type as the former.

So how can you be "disciplined" about your habits? Get the right motivation (See the Top 20- Motivation Hacks for more). Here are a few tips:
  1. Pick one habit, and fully commit to it. Don't try to be "disciplined" for a whole lot of things at once. I've tried this (many times) and it always fails. I'm re-evaluating my goals for this year for that reason alone. Try one habit at a time, and really focus on it.
  2. Come up with a plan for that habit. See how many of the Top 20 Motivation Hacks you can apply to this habit. Write down your goal, and set a measurable and achievable goal, with a deadline. Write down mini-goals along the way, with rewards for each. Write down a plan for monitoring your urges to quit the habit, and for how you will overcome those urges (write it down beforehand!).
  3. Maintain your focus on that habit for as long as possible. Try not to get distracted from it by other things. Post up pictures, motivational quotes, your plan, a list of rewards, your list of reasons, etc. Send yourself email reminders. Get others to remind you of your focus. Blog about it. Whatever it takes.
  4. Set up your environment so that you maintain your motivation for your habit over time. Look at the example of Sgt. Lamar above. His life is set up so that he can't fail. Set you life up like that too, with motivation all around you, in many forms. Set it up so that that motivation continues for as long as possible, not just for a couple weeks or a month. Maintain that environment of motivation.
  5. Celebrate your success!!! Woo hoo!!!!
Shameless plea: For my readers who like this story ... please add this to your favorite social bookmarking site! It's doing especially well on Netscape (it could use a nudge) but any help you give it on any of the services would be appreciated.

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Beth Dargis said...

These are great ideas! I prefer using my environment and other things to motivate me instead of relying on willpower - which seems to come and go for me. I have a free 30 day ecourse on creating a new habit that incorporates many of these suggestions and includes some more tips in case any of your readers are interested.


Ben said...

Thats a fresh way to think about discipline.... I really like it. You've changed my perception of something that I think many people take for granted.

Leo said...

Thanks Benno! That's a grat compliment. It's not often that we change others' perceptions.

Anonymous said...

Your post made me think about when I was 20 and wanted to max out on the PT test for my Army Reserve unit. So, that summer, I worked out every day after work and then ran at night before going to bed.

And yes, when it came time for the PT test, I beat everyone in my unit.

All this time, I thought I'd used discipline but reading your post, realize that I committed and motivated myself with the competition and reward (how it would feel to be in the best shape in my unit).

Thinking about it, your approach of focusing on motivation / reward / competition is a more effective way to achieve my goals rather than telling myself that I need to be more disciplined.

Leo said...

Great comment, Kamal. And thanks for posting the original topic.

As for your comment on focusing more on motivation / reward / competition than discipline, you hit the nail on the head. I believe people feel they have a lack of discipline, and therefore cannot change their habits or accomplish their goals, but I think they can still do it nonetheless by setting up a good plan. Thanks for the excellent comment!