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Self-discipline is overrated

May 26, 2020

People often say that motivation doesn't last. Well, neither does bathing - that's why we recommend it daily.
– Zig Ziglar

It’s 12.30 am on a Monday, and here I am, writing this newsletter to you. I’ve been doing it every Monday since early December: sometimes sending it before dinner, sometimes staying up late like today.

Is this a feat of discipline? Do I have an iron will or some secret superpower? No, not quite. I tend to scoff a bit on the cult of self-discipline as a way to push through life, in fact.

Don’t get me wrong, self-discipline is a useful skill, and it can definitely help you resist some temptations, like that internal friction that prevents you from getting started on what you want to do.

Maybe you want to wake up early, or start writing a weekly newsletter, or go to the gym. And for getting started, you might need to grab some of that self-discipline: getting started is the hardest part of anything worth accomplishing.

But discipline does not last. You need to think of it as the special fuel you can use for short sprints: powerful, but limited. You need to work into something more sustainable and powerful long-term: your identity.

Why is it easier for me to jump on writing this newsletter today than it was six months ago if it is not thanks to discipline? It is because now this is part of my identity. I’m not thinking to myself: “I have to stay up to write this newsletter,” but rather: “I send a newsletter every Monday.”

It’s not something I do because I have to, it’s something I do because it’s part of who I am (I write) and what I do (I send a newsletter every Monday). It does not matter the time, my energy levels, or my motivation. I sit down and write until I hit send.

Imagine you’re trying to lose weight. You’re hanging out with friends, and someone mentions you should go and get some pizza. You could say: “I can’t! I’m trying to lose weight” - this puts all the effort on self-discipline. You deny yourself from doing something. As soon as you have to face some more difficulties in a single day, you’ll launch yourself into that pizza like there’s no tomorrow.

What if instead, you said: “Nah, I don’t eat pizza”? Now you do not deny yourself: you are affirming your new identity. You feel powerful and reassured on your decision - it has almost no cost, and the more you say it, the easier it is for you to stand by that decision.

So, the process is:

  • Define the type of person you want to be.
  • Think about what that type of person does and break it down so that it’s something you can start with very little self-discipline.
  • Transform your “I have to”’s into “I am.”
  • Keep at it; it gets better every time.

Which things are you trying to get to do by self-discipline and struggling to keep going? Give this a try, and let me know how it goes.

Thank you for reading 🙏