Self-Discipline is Overrated

Woman doing push-up at a beach: Discipline

What is self discipline? Self discipline is the ability to do a particular task, when you would much rather be doing something else. For example, studying exams over playing games or chatting. Finish up a particular report at work over meeting your friends for drinks. Exercising at the gym over lazing at home.

Self discipline is also synonymous with ‘self control’, because you are essentially controlling yourself to do something you do not want to do. To be self disciplined is to be a ‘disciple‘ of yourself.

Popular Views on Self Discipline

The most common theories of self discipline today extol on how important self discipline is, because “it gives us control of our lives”, “it leads us to our goals”, “it makes us rational beings who are not ruled over by our desires”. Stephen Covey listed discipline as one of the 4 traits that makes great leaders, saying, “The undisciplined are slaves to moods, appetites and passions”. Many self help gurus talk about self discipline, lauding it as the magical key to unlocking a life of success, wealth, dreams, visions, goals. Even among my friends, they often talk about lack of self discipline as a vice. They believe that if they have more discipline, it will allow them to achieve their goals. It seems that if we were to have a lack of self discipline, we will turn out to be lazy, unambitious underachievers destined for failure.

Self Discipline is Overrated

Personally, I find the claims on self discipline are way overstated. While it is a helpful skill to have, it is not to the level or extent people have claimed. To be honest, I have very little self discipline myself. It is a skill I have never bothered to cultivate because it is at odds with my personality – I’m a very free-spirited person and I dislike being subjected to ‘control’ or ‘restrictions’. Out of all the people I know, I’m probably one of those who has the least self discipline.

When I was a student, I would oversleep and end up skipping school or lectures. I remember there was a time when I was in college and refused to go to school because I did not feel like it; you should have been there when my relatives rallied at my house to counsel me! There were often times when I missed lectures simply because I was not in the mood. When it came to punctuality, I was almost always late for appointments. At work, I would enter the office later than others. Whenever there were 9am meetings, you could be almost certain that I would be late (even though I tried my best to be on time!).

Yet, the lack of self discipline did not seem to have hampered me from achieving my goals and dreams or from being productive. While I do not deny that using the self discipline approach in your life gives you results, I have come to realize from both my personal experiences and observing people around me that it is not the best way to doing things, for two main reasons:

Firstly, while it gets the job done, the results you receive are not going to be the best you can get. Not only do you have to put in effort to do the task, you also have to invest extra effort to overcome that inertia and resistance inside of you. Compared to a situation where if there was no inertia to begin with, you will get better results with the same energy put in.

Secondly, it is akin to treating yourself like an android or an animal. Repeatedly subjecting yourself to doing things you dislike is not exactly an appealing way to lead life. Imagine having to force or condition yourself to lead through every day; suddenly living becomes such a numbing and drone-like activity. You are not a circus animal; your life is not about getting whipped every day into performing certain behaviours. Why would you want to lead such an empty life?

But if self discipline is not the best solution to achieving results, what is? Surely we need to instill some form of control when we have a lack of self discipline. How else will we get things done then? How else will we achieve our goals and dreams?

Lack of Self Discipline Is Not The Real Problem

The real deal is lack of self discipline is not the problem. The real problem in this situation is the lack of desire. This is the reason why despite all the self help materials you see out there on cultivating discipline, many people still face a lack of discipline in their lives. By constantly trying to ‘fix’ something that is not even the problem, the real problem never ever gets addressed. The improvements on the situation are marginal at best since people are not addressing the root issue. What people need to start doing then, is to address the real problem – their lack of desire.

Addressing the Real Problem

How can you address a lack of desire to do things? Is it even possible?

To start off, instead of forcing yourself to do those tasks, think of how you can (re)induce the desire to do them instead. It is not about doing what you think you should be doing even though you may not feel like doing it. It is about doing what you think AND feel you should be doing. It is never an ‘either or’ situation – It is ‘and’.

Think about it. If there is a certain task that you think you need to do, there must be a good reason that led you to make the decision. And this reason is going to ladder to a certain emotion. What is the reason? What emotion does it ladder up to? By being able to identify your rationale and feelings behind the task, you can now start tapping into them to get your motivation.

For example, say you want to lose weight. You plan to go exercising three times a week: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. However, when it comes to the time to exercise, you suddenly feel a lack of motivation. A wave of laziness hits you and you decide you would much rather watch TV or go sleep. At this point, stop yourself for just a second.

1. Be clear on why you want to do the task

Firstly, think back to when you initially set yourself the task to exercise. Get clarity on the reason behind the task. Why do you want to exercise? It is to lose weight. Why do you want to lose weight? Is it to look more attractive? Is it to become healthier? Is it to improve your self image?

2. Identify the contexts or stimuli which led to your decision

Next, identify the contexts or stimuli which led you to your decision. What triggered those thoughts and desires for this decision? For example, it might be when you were looking at the mirror and you saw a bigger belly than you last recall. It might be when you tried to wear this pants and it stopped fitting. Or it might be when you were flipping a magazine and you saw pictures of slim people whom you aspire toward. Perhaps it was when you saw this health report on increased risk of diabetes among overweight people. These should be the times when you felt most strongly and motivated enough about the task to decide to do it. The clearer you are on the stimuli, the better your results will be in the next step.

3. Reinduce your desires by replicating the contexts

After identifying the contexts, replicate the contexts – either in real life or visualization in your mind. Simulate the scenario as close to the original context as possible. For example, if your decision for losing weight came when you were looking at the mirror, go back to the mirror and look at yourself again. If it was from reading a particular health report, look back at the report again. If the report is not available, look up on google on effects of obesity on one’s health. The intent is to put yourself in contact with the same stimuli so that you can retrigger the same surge of emotion which you felt originally.

4. Channel into your inner desires

Depending on how close you were able to replicate it, you will find that the original motivation that led you to the task will suddenly resurface. Connect with that motivation, latch on tightly to it and start channeling from your inner desires. You will feel like going exercise immediately and forget why you felt lazy to begin with.

The reality is that motivation you have for the task has always there all along. It just got buried over the course of your daily life as you were bombarded with many other thoughts and emotions about other things. What this exercise does is it helps those desires to resurface and allows you to rechannel into them. You will find that the more you do the exercise, the more in tuned you become with your inner self. As your connection with your inner desires become stronger and clearer, you won’t even need to resort to the exercise to get you going on your tasks.

My personal story with self discipline

When I look back in my life, I realize I was constantly channeling into my desires subconsciously. For example when I was in school, I would feel an inertia toward studying, but then I would start thinking about reasons why I should do it. I knew that I want to do well and be successful in life, and getting good results was an intermediary to that goal. I also have a very strong passion for winning and doing the best at what I do. Being aware of these motivations made me perform the tasks automatically. When I was studying, it wasn’t because I was mentally strapping myself to the chair and making myself read. It was because I wanted to. By studying, I knew it was leading me toward my goals, and I felt motivated about them. I found it effortless to get to my task when I used this method and I started to tap into my motivations more.

As I grew up, I found my connection with my inner desires became stronger and I was able to channel into them more freely. I found that the more I aligned myself with my true desires, the better the results I would get in life. In contrast, the people around me who constantly subjected themselves to self discipline did not seem to be doing especially well.

It became clearer and clearer to me that the results I was getting were not in spite of the lack of discipline. It was because of the lack of discipline. By refusing to choose a route of control and restriction, I found another, better route to performing the tasks. I was getting better results, with lesser effort. It was a route which was much more enjoyable; one that presented no inertia to me and one that makes me want to do the tasks. It was a route which allowed for the alignment of both my rational thoughts and my inner desires.

After I came to that realization, I started to orientate myself fully with my inner passions and desires. And whatever I did, the results would further affirm that finding. For example, writing articles for my blog. I found that if I try to discipline myself into writing when I don’t feel like writing, the results are pretty crappy. Not only do I have to put in more effort to think of what to write, the writing comes out stoic and flat. Instead, when I try the other approach of tapping into my inner desires, there is a stark contrast. I start becoming inspired and enter a continuous writing mode. My words flow and my thoughts connect with my emotions; my articles read as if there is a voice speaking from it.

I found that a very good stimuli which induces me to write would be writing things that are relevant to my life currently. For example, this self discipline article is actually inspired from one of my coaching sessions, where my mentee felt that lack of discipline is a big issue in his life (which I obviously felt otherwise). Another good stimuli is my desire toward personal growth. I am absolutely passionate about becoming the best person I can be. Whenever I face a certain problem in my life, it signals to me that there is an opportunity to grow. I would tap into that for inspiration and write an article on the topic in my process of troubleshooting it in my life.

Self Discipline as a Supplementary Tool

For sure, there will be certain situations where self discipline comes in handy. For example, when you are facing blockages with your inner desires. Or when you are required to do certain tasks which are extremely undesirable. I do see self discipline as a potentially useful skill which can further optimize my daily productivity. In fact, I am planning to learn to cultivate my discipline over the course of the next few weeks, and I will likely write an article to share my lessons and insights. Be sure to watch out for it sometime next month!

But all in all, self discipline should be used as a supplementary tool in our life. It should not take centerstage in what we do. It is a good bandaid; At the end of the day, it is only a temporal short-term fix. What will drive you forward to greater results is by channeling into your real desires. What will fill your life up with passion and joy is by connecting with your inner motivations.

Moving Forward

The next time you face a situation to do a task which you do not feel like doing, do not immediately pin it down with discipline. Instead, identify your reason for needing to do the task. What is it? Become aware of the contexts or stimuli in the past which led to that decision. Stimulate those contexts or stimuli as much as possible to reinduce your desires. And lastly, latch onto those inner desires and channel into them.

When you start doing that, you will find that there is no longer inner resistance from yourself. You will find yourself focused on giving your best shot in what you do, simply because you want to. You will find channeling into your desires is a much better way to lead life than the route of self discipline.

© mikebaird