Discipline Won’t Take you That Far

It’s a new year. With that comes resolutions and new intentions. And with that comes the tendency to think of ourselves as fundamentally different than we are and to over-leverage the idea of discipline to get us to where we need to go.

Look, you are a disciplined person. You’re reading a blog on leadership when you could be looking at kitten videos. (Don’t do it, stay here a moment longer. The kitten videos will be there when you get done.)

The thing is, discipline is in extremely limited supply for all of us. There is a lot of cognitive psychology and neurobiology behind this, and it’s an interesting study. But the short version is every decision you make and every time you stay an impulse of yours, it taxes you. You are depleting a limited reserve of decision-making ability. It will be a little harder to make that next decision well. It will be a little harder to resist that next impulse. And that stacks up through the day with only food and sleep recharging your capacity.

If on December 10th, you had the capacity to make 100 quality decisions per day, then on January 1 you don’t have the capacity to double that. Much less the 10x required to meet the list of things you set up for yourself for the perfect year.

Rely on discipline and you ensure your failure, building a habit of failure around your intentions.
So what do you do? You know you want to make improvements in your life, but discipline won’t get you there. There are alternatives.

Passion – People do all sorts of hard things because they are passionate about them. Most of us know someone who is a long distance runner. We think of them as really disciplined people. But if you are really close to them, you know it’s not just that. They are addicts. They’ll run when it’s cold and when they are hurt, facing additional injury. Discipline doesn’t get you there. Passion does. Finding your passions is one of the hardest and most vulnerable pursuits you can undertake, but the rewards are unparalleled.

Habit – Do you remember your drive into work today? The way you put on your makeup? How you made the coffee? All these items don’t typically require you to use your decision-making ability because they fall below the cognitive threshold. You just do them. New habits are hard to form, and the difficulty is compounded when trying to learn many new habits at once. But the good news is we’ve got this one down to a science, more or less. A good place to start is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Use a little discipline to turn something into a habit and you can keep it up without all the downsides.

Design – Do you keep your phone on your nightstand beside your bed? Is it one of the first things you look at in the morning? There isn’t a right or wrong answer to that question in my opinion, but the two go together. If your phone is close to you when you wake up, you’re going to take a look at it, and that’s how your day starts. How would your life change if you put your phone in your top dresser drawer or left it in the kitchen when you went to bed?

People – When you are trying to change your behaviors, other people are dangerous and unpredictable influences, but they can be very effective allies. If you are a part of that “book” club that mainly drinks wine and no one reads the book, that’s fine. But be prepared to have a glass of wine…or four. Sign up for a volleyball team and now you’ve got 5 other people who are going to be upset with you if you bail and make them forfeit. The people you surround yourself with have a significant impact on your accomplishments. Choose who you spend time with.

These are four ideas to get you started. If you try all four, you’ll fail. Choose one. Start there. Set yourself a reminder to come back to this article in 90 days. Review how things worked for you, and pick another.

I’d wish you good luck with your 2019 goals, but you don’t need it. You need good design, good habits, people that help you improve, and passion.

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