Discipline is a Garbage Strategy

This title almost certainly feels like nails on a chalkboard for you and your Protestant work ethic. But it’s not fake controversy or clickbait; it’s fact. Discipline is totally and completely valuable tool. But probably not the way you’re using it.

“I’ve done it before. I just need to get motivated again.”

“I know what to do. I just need more discipline.”

I’ve heard these two sentences — or ones like them — a thousand times. The odds are pretty good that you’ve uttered them at some point.

If there’s something you want to achieve but you’re not already on your way, it’s tempting to pray to the gods of discipline (which is probably also the name of a Swedish speed metal band). But your prayers will remain unanswered. And nobody will autograph your T-shirt either.

I blame Rocky Balboa and his montages. Other movies had definitely used this trope before. But perhaps never so well. It seems reasonable when it’s on-screen. It’s appealing to want to just hit the streets or the gym and go hard. We want that kind of focus.

But all that is a red herring. That level of focus would have been unobtainable without Rocky first building systems for himself.

Systems overcome the burden of decision-making. Systems eliminate the need for willpower in the first place.

Why was Rocky training in the Russian hinterland with no phone, no TV, and no fancy new fax machine? He didn’t want distractions. So he removed the burden of decision-making for himself. That allowed him to channel all of that discipline into training.

If he hadn’t set himself up for success, he would have struggled daily. “Should I go out for dinner?” “Can I relax at home for just one night?” “Can I just take it easy today and have a Swedish massage and a beer?”

Those questions didn’t even have room to exist — let alone require an answer.

The elephant, the rider, and the path
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt described the tug-of-war between emotion and analysis with a wonderful metaphor. Imagine an elephant (instant gratification) with a rider (long-term decision-making) perched on top. The rider can eke out occasional victories. But the elephant is going to win most of the time.

Authors Dan and Chip Heath built upon this metaphor it in their book, Switch, by adding discussion of the path. The path represents your systems.

The rider just isn’t strong enough to be constantly wrestling with the strong, volatile emotional system. It can get exhausting after a while. But when a path is shaped, the elephant will simply follow. That’s a system. For Rocky, a spartan training setup was the path and his elephant only ever had one place to go.

But isn’t training your willpower a good thing?
Researchers used to think that willpower was a fixed resource. Now we know that it can be trained and increased. But finding places to train it isn’t the hard part. Not needing it is.

Discipline is making a smoothie instead of eating the ice cream in your freezer.

A system is having the ingredients for a smoothie but no ice cream in your freezer.

Discipline is turning down an invitation to the pub so that you can exercise.

A system is where everyone knows you’re unavailable Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Discipline is trying to determine whether to take on a new project or client.

A system is where you automatically reject any work that will mess with your weekends.

You can see how each example of discipline requires decision-making. But each example of a system removes it.

Working consistently comes before working hard
As appealing as it is to just get out there and start pushing, you will do better if you work consistently. The same time. The same days of the week. The same process. Every week. Every month. Every year. The counter-intuitive part here is that sometimes you have to make things easier to make them consistent.

Discipline stands on the shoulders of your systems
Grinding that final rep out. Performing one more set. Even taking the time to plan. You’ll find moments where the path shifts downhill, the elephant starts running, and the rider gives it a kick and goes for broke. That beautifully-coordinated moment is where discipline will help you break through to a new level.

Discipline is great. You should have lots of it
Build your systems. Shape the path. Build consistency. And then — when the moment is right — take all that discipline and direct it right into the one thing that will push you through to the next level.