Falling Into the Self-Discipline Trap

The Story of Don

I can still recall all those mornings when Don would glide into the office at around 11am. With the slight rustling of the gym bag zipper tabs hitting each other as he entered, foreshadowing the change that was about to take place. I didn’t even have to look up. No one did. We would all awaken to the slight awareness of feelings of both jealously and admiration. That was him. His presence would gently hush everything else around him. He made us all look bad, the guy was a superstar. Once Don was back from the gym, the office would get a little bit quieter. Not because he would ever say anything, only because we all unconsciously felt guilty for not rocking it like he did. No one else in the company, even those in charge, had that effect.

Don would come in at some absurdly early hour, when the winds were beyond frigid by our Californian standards. At lunch I’d see him mostly to himself, usually with programming magazines. Sometimes he’d be talking to the other senior programmers. He would be eating some eccentric concoction of spinach, lean protein, and something else that I couldn’t really tell what it was. I’m sure that it had a complicated exotic name though, and that it was really good for you.

He’d be the first one to leave work, before traffic. You could tell there was no guilt in him as he left first, he was solid and he knew he was putting in the effort. He was beyond all the rules because he delivered more than the rules were put in place to encourage. He was the most productive person there. I heard that he would go to the gym after work as well. I remember thinking in amazement of how disciplined this guy was.

Slowly I began to get to know him. I was surprised by how friendly and down to earth he was. He didn’t think of himself as being exceptional, he was just surprised that others haven’t made the same realizations that he had. When I asked him how he became so self-disciplined, he told me that it began with the awareness of this feeling he got when he felt he was making a contribution. When he felt that what he was doing had meaning. He then asked himself “where can I give the most value so that I can have more of this feeling?” He realized that he gave the most value in computer programming.

Once he made that realization, he said that the self-discipline began with little things. Reading in the evenings for half an hour before watching television. Writing out a plan of what he wanted to get accomplished in the day before working. Telling himself “5 more minutes” when he felt like stopping and taking a break. As he kept pushing himself, he kept cultivating that feeling he was after, that sense of personal fulfillment.

Many years later he tried going to the gym, which at first he didn’t like. He committed to giving it a fair trial and as he stuck with it he found that it let him do some of his best thinking. It ended up becoming the time of the day he looked forward to most. If he went to the gym he would have a really solid productive day. After he went to the gym, everything fell into place for the rest of the day he felt like he was coasting. His thoughts would reach new levels of clarity. It enabled him to do a better job at his job, which in turn made him feel like he had a bigger impact in his work, which made him feel more fulfilled. He even decided to go after work as well as in the mornings.

Don’s Self Discipline

When I looked at it through his eyes, I couldn’t find where the self-discipline came in. It appears that way from the outside but how hard is it to go do something that you look forward to? If you are clear on what the most important thing to do at that time is, action follows naturally, after all, what else is there to do? Now Don was very conscious and articulate of his reasons. Normally people forget how they learned to become self-disciplined. They didn’t think they would be tested on it.

I remember when I was learning how to drive stick shift the instructions I would get. “Put it first and then let the clutch out.” As I stall they think over what they said and come up with improved instructions: “Let the clutch out smoothly this time.” However the movement of letting the clutch out isn’t all that smooth, it has two movements. Really you have to let the clutch out until you begin to feel it catch, up until that point there doesn’t need to be anything smooth about it. Then when you feel this catching, or when you feel the motor begin to turn the wheels, you hold it there slightly until it gets some slight momentum and then you can release it completely. What they actually mean by “let the clutch out smoothly” is “do the movement so that the car moves smoothly.” But they have forgotten exactly how to do it. They are thinking in higher level concepts. They only describe it as “smooth” because they have hidden all that complexity into an unconscious movement labeled “let the clutch out.” Your mind does this to limit possibilities so that you don’t have to focus on the details.

Think about it, how much concentration do you need to drive to work?

Could this concept of “just do it” be the learning of a list of reasons for doing something and then the rationalization of “I don’t care what reasons there are for me not doing this, like not feeling like it. I am completely convinced that the benefits outweigh any disadvantages and so I’m going to focus on only on the reasons why I want this, so that I stay focused.” As you do this, the habit becomes stronger until you reach the point where you can’t even describe how or why you do these things. Then when someone asks you how you do these things, you shrug and say “I just do it.”

The Problem with Self Discipline

Self-discipline is sometimes thought of as making yourself do something when you don’t feel like doing it. And yet, someone who has to force themselves to do the things that they want to do will never achieve the success of people who can’t wait to take action on what they want to do.

This is because when you look at self-discipline as making yourself do something when you don’t feel like doing it, you have 2 problems. The first is you still aren’t convinced that you have a good reason for doing this, so even if you pull yourself to do it, you will probably do it with the same enthusiasm that I cleaned my bedroom when told as a child. I would put it off until I couldn’t anymore and then finish at the last minute by shoving everything into the closet, even the curtains. The second problem is that if you can’t bring yourself to do it, you are reinforcing this idea that you don’t have the “self-discipline” to do what you want to do. In effect you are training yourself not to take action because you lack this “self-discipline.”

This is the trap, by becoming deluded into thinking that you are prevented from doing what you want because you lack “self-discipline.” You end up waiting around until the perfect combination of boredom, inspiration, and free time line up.

Why we are lazy

The habit of laziness is built into you. You are designed to be very frugal with your energy on activities that don’t have a good reason. If we didn’t have this habit stopping us, you would find Americans lost in the tea fields of Sri Lanka looking confused and when confronted would then explain: “well I was at the office and I had this urge for some black tea, and then I thought that black tea comes from Sri Lanka.” You wouldn’t be able to stop yourself from doing impractical things.

If you don’t feel like doing something, this is an indication that you aren’t all the way convinced. In this situation it is much easier just to become very clear about what the reasons are for doing it.

Building Natural Motivation

“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

My favorite way of doing this is by opening a file and writing: “Reasons why I want to do X” Do you see what I did here? The “X” part is where you write in your own goal. Then I begin writing answers, until I’m convinced. If you do this, you have a written list that you can look back if you forget your reasons. Eventually you will run into a problem, you’ll have more projects that you are very enthusiastic about and not enough time. This is a good problem to have. From here the most important projects to you will rise to the top of the list.

When you focus on the reasons why you want to do something, you will become better at finding them. These reasons will naturally move you towards action. This is better than coming up with reasons why not to do something. Either way, you will come up with valid reasons, but reasons for doing something motivate and reasons against doing something inhibit action.

You may be asking yourself “doesn’t it take self-discipline to come up with a list of reasons of why you want to do something?” Initially this list could come by accident from outside influences. However if you realize that constructing this list will motivate, then it could simply be the realization of “it would be great if I could influence myself to do the things that I consciously know I should be doing.”

Why bother with all this? We are drawn to the illusion that our life meaning and purpose will be given to us. And this does happen to a few fortunate people. We watch the movies where a normal guy is going about his business when he discovers something that gives his life a completely new meaning. It then takes him exactly one scene to come to terms with it and then he is now inspired with this new noble meaning. And now each struggle just makes the story better.

We all want this, a struggle that has meaning. Even suffering, when it has meaning, say to serve as an example, or to inspire someone, or simply to serve as an exercise for perseverance, no longer feels like suffering. It feels righteous.

You can view things this way with your own life. The adventure that it takes to get the promotion you want at work. The struggle and triumph to learn a new skill. The saga of being a great example to a child. The meaning is how you look at the situation. If you are going to choose to do something, put everything into it. It is more enjoyable that way and you are setting yourself up for success when you commit to pour your heart into it. You will wake up in the mornings feeling like lit dynamite, the clarity of why you do what you do flashing before you. You don’t stumble into new territory by arguing why you can’t get there.

Now, it would be simplistic to say that this is the only habit that you would need, there is more to it. For example you can be completely clear about what you want but not have the mental energy to do it, you would have to focus on increasing your energy first. Or perhaps you have unconscious beliefs that are in conflict with your conscious desires, such as fears that you won’t be able to do it.

However for some the only thing preventing them from acting is the misconception that self-discipline exists and that they lack it. When you can develop the habit of creating your own motivation, everything will feel like it takes much less effort.

Mark Petrik is a programmer who worked his way up as a high school drop out to working for Microsoft, to becoming self-employed. His goal is to create new ways of increasing the quality of experience. He is also the author of his own goal setting software.