For those of us who plan to celebrate the arrival of 2017 in a little over a week from now, this is a time of reflection and planning. Many of us will make New Year’s resolutions and around 86% of us will abandon them by the end of February. The main reason for this is that we normally rely on self-discipline to do what we have resolved to do, but we often do so without true commitment to the outcome we say we want. And that is a losing combination, because self-discipline in the absence of real commitment simply does not work.
In fact, I would go so far as to argue that self-discipline is the most overrated virtue out there. The reason I say that is because, if you’re truly committed to something, you won’t need self-discipline to achieve it, and if you’re not truly committed, no amount of self-discipline will make up for that.
Ask yourself: have you ever had to exercise self-discipline by forcing yourself to do something you really enjoy or care about, like spending a few hours shopping for a new kitchen or carefully crafting a fantasy sports league or binge watching an entire season of your favorite TV show? Of course not. If those are things that you enjoy, you do them effortlessly with no need for self-discipline. In fact, in some cases, you may need self-discipline to keep yourself from doing them! Not only does your commitment fulfill the role that self-discipline is traditionally meant to, it also transforms your experience such that you actually enjoy and anticipate the parts of the process that other people might see as drudgery, further obviating the need for self-discipline. On the other hand, if you are not committed to a cause, like working out or eating more healthfully, then relying primarily on self-discipline is doomed to fail sooner or later. This is because you will effortlessly find ways of making excuses to do what you are truly committed to—relaxing on the couch, eating food that “tastes good,” etc.—while it will be a constant struggle to keep up the charade of doing what you only say you are committed to. At this point, you are in a position similar to Sisyphus rolling that boulder up the hill; no matter how hard you work and how far up you get, the second you stop to rest, that rock is rolling all the way back down. The fact of the matter is that willpower is limited and discipline isn’t fun.
Of course, I do realize that sometimes when you just don’t feel like doing something, even things you are committed to, you must behave your way into a new way of thinking, and in those instances, self-discipline serves its proper purpose of filling in those small gaps that sometimes exist between our commitments and our feelings. Just because self-discipline can be useful at times, however, doesn’t mean it can be relied upon all the time. In that sense, self-discipline operates in a way similar to compact spare tires or “donuts” found in your car, which, for those who don’t know, are smaller and thinner than regular tires. If you have a flat tire, the donut tire is there to ensure that you can make it the rest of the way instead of being stuck on the side of the road, and in that situation, a donut tire is a lifesaver. But you wouldn’t want to replace all your regular tires with donut tires, because they are less sturdy, more prone to wear, cannot handle high speeds or sharp turns, and make your chassis more susceptible to damage from bumpy roads, among other things. So, even though a donut tire may save you in a pinch, just as self-discipline may keep you on the right track from time to time, relying primarily on either of them to get you where you want to go only makes it certain that you will find your progress stymied more often than not, and sooner rather than later.
If my logic just doesn’t sit right with you, it might be because it appears to fly in the face of everything we have been taught—and what we teach our children—about the value of self-discipline and independence and grit, and so on. Consider that our belief in the power of self-discipline is reinforced as we observe the stories of high achievers persevering and accomplishing the unthinkable through what certainly appears to be sheer “willpower and self-discipline.” Of course, since we don’t know what is personally important to those high achievers and what they are truly committed to, and since we could never see ourselves doing what they have done because we simply don’t care enough to justify all that hard work, we go ahead and assume it must all come down to grit, determination, discipline, willpower, asceticism, etc. We then strive to emulate their “self-discipline,” which we take to mean forcing ourselves to do things we don’t really want to do, and we fall short and wonder why. Surely, it must be because something is wrong with us, because everyone “knows” that the greatest key to success is self-discipline, right? Or could it be that something entirely different drives the gold medalists or social activists or other movers and shakers to accomplish more than the rest of us? Could it be that it has nothing to do with their self-discipline and everything to do with just how badly they want the outcome that they are committed to? Imagine if you wanted that gold medal as badly as you wanted that one particular furniture set or car or new phone. If you put that same amount of time and effort and thought into transforming your body into the peak of human athletic potential, you would reach a point where getting up and working out came as naturally and effortlessly as following your favorite sports team does now.
Once you have established yourself in a commitment to something you truly care about, it is something that you do without hesitation or any painful rumination over the option of not doing so. But again, if you are not committed to the outcome or the experience that your self-discipline is going to make available to you, you will be hard-pressed to sustain the effort and achieve your goal.
To give you an example, I have people constantly ask me how I could I have possibly given up eating meat over 17 years ago. They say things like, “I could never do that!” Well, I can tell you how I did it. Very easily, and overnight! We discovered that my daughter was allergic to antibiotics and hormones that were in animal products and we decided to change our diet to make her life—and ours—more pleasant and healthier, and that was that. I have not craved a steak once since then. My commitment to my daughter’s health and my family’s health made whatever obstacles might have existed shrink to nothing in comparison; there was no option of her continuing to be sick, and so every obstacle on the way was transformed into a learning opportunity through the power of my commitment. Now, when it comes to sweets, on the other hand, I experience constant struggles and fall off the wagon frequently, simply because my commitment has been missing and I only have my self-discipline to rely on to keep me doing what I know I “should” be doing.
So why is this significant? Because the misconception that self-discipline will keep you going sends us chasing after the wrong thing, when in fact what we ought to work on is examining our commitments. Rather than trying to toughen ourselves up with self-discipline, we would be better served being straight about and interrogating those things to which we are not truly committed even though we say we are, and instead focusing on strengthening our commitment to those few things that are truly important to us. This is why the focus of my coaching sessions and workshops is on creating authentic commitment to an outcome or an experience, rather than just settling for people being motivated or energized to get going. I know that once you’re hooked on an outcome you’re truly committed to, the rest will either fall into place or you will put it into place without hesitation.
My suggestion, as you think about your New Year’s resolutions, is to dwell on the outcome you are committed to before you take the shortcut and “resolve” to exercise more or eat less or quit smoking. Get clear as to why those things are important and what they lead to. Think about what that makes available to you and your family and your community. Then decide on what you are going to do—or stop doing—in service of fulfilling your commitment. For more on the topic of effective resolutions, please see my blog post titled 9 Ways to Fail-Proof your New Year's Resolutions, as well as a related podcast episode on the topic of effective visioning.
I would also like to direct you to this article from Vox, titled The Myth of Self-Control, that debunks some of the most pervasive myths of self-discipline and willpower. Using science and psychology to go even deeper than I was able to do so here, they drive home the point that self-discipline alone will never lead one to success and fulfillment. I highly recommend it.
I wish you and yours the most wonderful holiday season, whichever holiday you celebrate this time of year. I appreciate your readership and support and I would love to have the honor of serving you and your community through my public and private workshops and other coaching and consulting services in the coming year.
Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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