Self-Discipline is Overrated

Woman doing push-up at a beach: Discipline

(Image: Mike Baird)

What is self-discipline? It is the ability to control yourself and work when you would much rather be doing something else. For example, studying for exams over playing games. Finishing a report over meeting your friends for drinks. Exercising at the gym over lazing at home.

Many self-help gurus talk about self-discipline as the key to success. Self-discipline is seen as good because “it gives us control of our lives” and “it makes us rational beings who are not ruled by their emotions.” Stephen Covey stated discipline as one of the four traits that makes great leaders, saying, “The undisciplined are slaves to moods, appetites and passions.” 

Among my friends, they see discipline as the key to their problems. They believe that if they are more disciplined, they would achieve their goals. It seems that people who don’t have self-discipline are lazy, unambitious underachievers who will fail in life.

Self-Discipline is Overrated

Personally, I find self-discipline overrated. While a helpful skill to have, the importance of self-discipline is definitely not to the extent claimed by people. For me, I have very little self-discipline. I dislike being subjected to control or restrictions. For the same reason, I dislike the authoritarian nature of my culture and educational system while growing up.

Yet, my lack of discipline did not stop me from getting things done or achieving my goals. Even though self-discipline has its merits, I have found that self-discipline is not the best way to approach your goals, for two reasons:

  1. Firstly, while self-discipline gets the job done, it does not help you achieve your best results. That’s because you need to push yourself to overcome the initial inertia of not wanting to do a task. For tasks you hate, you’re essentially forcing yourself to do them the whole time.
  2. Secondly, using self-discipline is like treating yourself like a robot or animal. Repeatedly pushing yourself to do things you dislike is not an appealing way to lead life. Imagine forcing yourself to push through each day and get things done. Living becomes a numbing activity. You are not a circus animal; your life is not about whipping yourself to complete tasks. Why would you want to lead such a draining and empty life?

But if self-discipline is not the best solution, then what is? Surely we need some form of control when we lack discipline?

Lack of Self-Discipline Is Not The Real Problem

The real deal is that the lack of self-discipline is not the problem. The real problem is the lack of desire. This is why many people still struggle with discipline issues despite all the self-help materials you see on cultivating discipline.

Self-discipline is synonymous with self-control, because you are essentially controlling yourself to do something you don’t want. To be self-disciplined is to be a “disciple” of yourself. You got to ask yourself: do you enjoy being a disciple of yourself? Do you enjoy being scrutinized and tightly locked to do something you don’t want? Or should you treat yourself with love and respect, giving yourself the free reign and choice to do what you want?

When you don’t feel like doing something, the answer isn’t to whip yourself with discipline. The question here is, “Why don’t you feel like doing this?” Because if you can understand why you have a lack of desire for this task, you can blow this issue wide open. You no longer need to rely on discipline to push yourself forward, but rather tap into your unlimited pool of desire.

Addressing the Lack of Desire

How can you address a lack of desire for a certain task or goal? Is it even possible?

Yes it is. Here are my 4 steps to do this.

Step 1: Be clear on why you want to do the task

Say you want to lose weight. You plan to exercise three times a week: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. However, when it’s 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 sleep. At this point, stop for a second.

Firstly, think back to the time when you created the plan to exercise. Get clear on your motivation behind this 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? Get clear of the reason.

Step 2: Identify your situational triggers

Next, identify the times when you are most motivated to do this. What happened then? Where were you? What were you doing? What triggered your thoughts and desire to do this?

For example, it might be when you were looking at the mirror and you saw a bigger belly than when you last recall. It might be when you tried to wear this pair of pants and it stopped fitting. It might be when you saw this health report on the increased risk of diabetes among overweight people. Think deep and identify the moments when you were triggered to do this task. These are the times when you felt most strongly and motivated to do it. The clearer you are on your triggers for this task, the better your results for the next step.

Step 3: Reconnect with your desires

After identifying the triggers, replicate them as best as you can. For example, if your desire to lose 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, refer to the report again. If the report is not available, google the effects of obesity on one’s health. You can also replicate it through visualization — by closing your eyes and visualizing the negative effects if you do not improve your health.

The intent is to recreate the same stimuli that got you started on this goal, and in the process reconnect with your emotions and motivations for the goal.

Step 4: Tap into your inner desires

Depending on how well you replicated the triggers, your original motivation for the task should resurface. Connect with this emotion. You will feel like going exercise immediately and forget why you felt lazy to begin with.

The reality is the 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 tap 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 that I was constantly channeling my desires in a subconscious way.

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 wanted to do well and be successful in life, and getting good results was an intermediary step to that goal. I also have a very strong passion for winning and being the best in what I do. Being aware of these motivations made me perform the tasks automatically. When I was studying, it wasn’t because I was strapping myself to the chair and making myself read. It was because I wanted to. By studying, I knew that 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 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 tap into them more freely. The more I aligned myself with my true desires, the better the results I got. In contrast, the people around me who constantly subjected themselves to self-discipline did not seem to do well.

It became clear 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 perform the tasks. I was getting better results, with less effort. It was a route that was much more enjoyable; a route that presented no inertia to me and made me want to do the tasks. It was a route that was aligned with both my rational thoughts and my inner desires.

After I came to that realization, I started to align myself fully with my inner passions and desires. The results further affirmed my realization. For example, writing articles for my blog. I found that if I try to discipline myself to write when I don’t feel like writing, the results would be crappy. Not only do I have to put in more effort to think of what to write, but the writing is flat. Instead, when I try the other approach of tapping into my inner desires, there is a stark contrast. I become inspired and enter a continuous writing mode. My words flow and my thoughts connect with my emotions.

A very good stimuli which inspires me to write would be writing things that are relevant to my life currently. For example, this self-discipline article is inspired from one of my coaching sessions, where my client 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 an opportunity for growth. I would tap into that for inspiration and write an article on the that, as a way to troubleshoot that in my life.

Self-Discipline as a Supplementary Tool

For sure, there will be situations where self-discipline comes in handy. For example, when you are facing blockages with your inner desire. Or when you are required to do certain tasks which are extremely undesirable.

But all in all, self-discipline should be used as a supplementary tool in our life. It should not take center-stage in what we do. It is a good band-aid. At the end of the day, discipline is a short-term fix. To create your highest results, you need to connect with 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 are faced with something you do not feel like doing, do not immediately force yourself to do it with discipline. Instead, identify your reason for doing the task. What is it? Be aware of the contexts or stimuli in the past which led to that decision. Stimulate those contexts or stimuli as much as possible to re-induce your desires. And lastly, latch onto those inner desires and tap into them.

When you start doing that, you will find that you no longer experience inner resistances. You will find yourself focused on giving your best shot in whatever you do, because you want to. You will find channeling into your desires a much better way to live life than the route of self-discipline.

Read: How to Finish What You Start: 10 Important Tips