Why discipline is over-rated

I was talking to a friend a couple of weeks back about his plans for 2014 and one of the things he said was that he wanted to become more disciplined. I told him I thought that was a mistake.

In The One Thing, a fabulous book, Gary Keller talks about willpower rather than discipline. They are very different things.

Discipline is a characteristic, defined as the ability to control your behaviour. Often it is something we beat ourselves up about … like my friend was … I should be more disciplined (or the negative side of it – I’m weak etc).

Willpower on the other hand is a finite resource that we have each a certain amount of each day. My favourite experiment on this (described in The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal) came out of Stanford University. Baba Shiv (have you ever heard of a scientist with a cooler name?) gave one group a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. They had to then walk to a second room and recall the number.

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On the way they were offered a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. Because more willpower was being used remembering the more difficult number, there wasn’t much left over for resisting chocolate cake.

The brilliant point that Gary Keller makes in The One Thing is that all we need is enough willpower to create a habit. I love it.

So stop running an internal dialogue about how disciplined you are (which inevitably is “not enough”), and how you can get more disciplined. I think its much more productive to think strategically about how you are going to use your limited amount of willpower each day.

For me staying fit is important, but I don’t want to use up too much of my willpower on exercise, so I pay someone to train me. It takes much less willpower just to show up and do what I’m told than it does to do it all myself. And then I’ve still got my reserve of willpower intact to do the hard, important work I want to get done in my business.

Love to hear your thoughts – how can you shift from the futile exercise of trying to get more disciplined to managing your limited supply of willpower more strategically? You can leave them below.