I’m going to let you in on a secret about me: I hate discipline! Not only do I hate it myself, I can’t even fathom why and how someone could like it at all. I mean, I understand that there is a lot of good stuff produced by exercising maturity and having the discipline to do what you don’t want to do in the present so that you get to have what you want to have in the future. I have personally experienced the joy of having accomplished a few things in my life that would not have been possible if I just did what I felt like at the time, but that doesn’t mean I like discipline. It just means that I like what discipline produces.
The trouble is that most worthwhile goals require some sacrifices and, by definition, that means one must be willing to delay short-term pleasure and gratification to achieve them. Therefore, we start to think that the only key to achieving extraordinary outcomes is discipline, and if we have come to know ourselves as a lacking in discipline, we feel that we are already behind the eight ball before we even get started. The good news is that you can achieve great things even if you have no discipline, and I’m going to tell you how.
A while ago, I wrote a blog post about how self-discipline was overrated and what really mattered was commitment. Have you ever noticed, when you are excited about a positive outcome and you see more pleasure attached to a certain action than pain, either immediately or in the future, you tend to do it spontaneously, without any discipline? How much discipline do you need to cut a rather large slice of your favorite cake and eat it?! In my experience, no discipline is required to do that! You may have to exercise discipline to stop eating after the second slice, but eating the cake, which is something most people enjoy, happens effortlessly if we let it. This is because we always only ever do what we see value in doing, and it just so happens that it is easier to see value in short-term pleasure than long-term benefit.
You might be thinking, “But what if I am also lacking commitment? What am I supposed to do?” Well, I have to admit, your case is a bit more challenging, but the good news is that there is hope! (Technically, it is impossible to exist without commitment, but that’s for another post). In today’s blog post, I want to share with you a small hack that I learned that can help you to achieve extraordinary results even if you lack discipline and you happen to have lukewarm commitment to the outcome you say you want.
Let’s say you want to lose 10 pounds and you do your research and find out that the secret to doing so is to eat less or eat healthier foods, and exercise more. You sit down and devise a plan to restrict your calories and you put an exercise schedule together and you are ready to make it happen. Let’s say you get off to a good start and you go a whole two days without falling off the wagon, until all of a sudden your favorite cake somehow shows up at the very dinner table you are sitting at and you have already consumed all the calories that you were allowed for the day. You look at the cake for a few minutes and watch as others devour it, asking why you aren’t digging in too. You are trying to be disciplined, but it’s hard! I mean here is your favorite cake, right there in front of you. You can smell it. You can almost taste it! How in the world could anyone resist the temptation?
You blow through the discipline gate and as you reach for the cake to get a slice, you remember that the key to staying the course is commitment. You are trying to remember just why you committed to your goal. You are doing your best to envision the future you are committed. You see yourself in great shape and having lost the weight and it feels great…for a minute. All of a sudden the future, fit version of you has a change of heart and says, “Go ahead! Get you a slice. It’s worth it, and I can wait!” That seals the deal. After all, it is not like you are going to drop dead or gain another 10 pounds if you have one little—or not so little—slice of cake? “I can get back on track after this slice,” you think to yourself as you indulge in the heavenly taste of the first (of several) slices you will consume that night…before you beat yourself up that evening and go to bed thinking, “I can’t believe I did that. Maybe I’m just not the dieting kind!”
Doesn’t some version of this happen in our personal and professional lives all the time? Is it usually not knowing what to do or not doing what you know that gets you in trouble? Whether you are implementing a procedure at work that requires people to change their normal routine and take different actions, or you are striving to achieve a personal goal that requires you to make short term sacrifices, what is often in the way is that the momentary pleasure of not doing what we know we should is more salient than the momentary pain of actually doing it. This brings me to the hack that I learned, from my son, no less.
In addition to being my coach and partner in creating content for our practice, Naveed is well-versed in physical health and wellness and, as such, the rest of us have come to rely on him for counsel. One of the tools that he turned us on to was a daily checklist of things we should do or consume to stay on track with our health. This method works well for reasons that I have outlined in my podcast titled “Are Your Goals Sabotaging Your Transformation?”
But the hack I referred to earlier was that Naveed went beyond just having a checklist and he assigned incentives and punishments for compliance and lack thereof to the items on his list. The point of this was to make it more painful to be undisciplined than to be disciplined. So, if he skipped his workout or didn’t drink enough water, there was an immediate consequence. Whether in the form of having to give some money to a certain cause (e.g. a political party you oppose, a religion you disagree with, a charity you consider wasteful and pointless, Save the Mosquito Foundation, etc.) or not being able to have dessert that day, this was a means of making sure that the pleasure of not doing the right thing was offset by an immediate negative consequence, rather than relying on the vague perception of a potential negative outcome to steer behavior. If you assign big enough punishments, and especially if you have someone else police it for you, you very quickly start doing the right things and begin to behave your way into a higher level of commitment, even if you have no discipline.
Another related tip for achieving success in spite of discipline or even commitment is to make the pleasurable result of being undisciplined more difficult to achieve or delayed relative to the actual act of dropping the ball. The first part of this tactic should be familiar to everyone; it is basically summed up in the idiom, “out of sight, out of mind.” The idea is to make it more difficult to do the wrong thing than to do the right thing, therefore exhausting a short-term negative urge and allowing the slower acting commitment to a larger cause to overtake it. This is why sweets and pastries have traditionally been stored on top of the fridge or a high cabinet, because it makes it harder for them to get. This can work just as well with other things we need discipline to achieve, such as sticking to a diet. If you know you your weakness is dessert, for instance, rather than ordering some at a restaurant or buying it pre-made, decide that the only way you will eat dessert is if you go to the store, gather the ingredients, come home, and make it yourself. This capitalizes on the fact that when it comes to temptation, our short-term urge really only involves instant gratification, not the work that it actually involves. Because our urges are generally too lazy to follow through with the hard work by definition, we are able to come to our senses, weigh our choices verses their consequences, and let commitment to long-term benefit win out. The second tactic is called stimulus and response distancing, which basically involves giving in to temptation, but delaying the gratification of doing so. So, if you are trying to cut out sweets and suddenly get a strong desire to have cupcakes, you let yourself have the donuts…tomorrow. The next time you get the same urge, you wait two days to satisfy it, and the next time three days, and so on. And over time, you stretch out the distance between the temptation and the until there is basically no interaction between them, and you are able to effectively ignore the temptation because you know cooler heads will prevail in the meantime.
The last suggestion I would make, if you consider yourself lacking discipline, is to establish boundaries ahead of time that would get you out of the position where you are relying on discipline to do something or not do something. I address this in my post, titled “Behold the Power of Always and Never.” This is one of the biggest secrets of those who have strong willpower or impeccable discipline: they fastidiously avoid situations in which they have to exercise their willpower and discipline. They literally remove discipline from the equation. They understand, as this excellent article explains, that willpower is limited and best used as a short-term stopgap measure until one can set up conditions in which one no longer needs to rely on it for success.
For example, let’s say we have two recovering alcoholics who are doing their best to avoid relapsing. One believes they have strong willpower and an exceptional ability to resist temptation, and as a result, they go to parties with friends drinking, hang out and bars, visit clubs; for them, being around alcohol is in their “Sometimes” category. The other, knowing themselves to be a person of weak willpower and vulnerability to temptation, decides that visiting bars and being around alcohol is in their “Never” category. Now, who do you think will be more successful in their recovery? The person with the willpower and discipline to surround themselves with temptation while gritting their teeth and using their limited energy to resist the urge to do what they know is wrong? Or the person who knows that they don’t have the willpower to resist temptation and wisely avoids situations where they have to expend energy to do so? Obviously, the latter, right? Because the company you keep and what you surround yourself with influences who you are and how you behave more than your finite stores of willpower and discipline ever could. The real kicker is that, outside observers would probably consider the latter person more “disciplined” than the former, even though they are using less willpower to achieve superior results and they only discipline they are exhibiting is the discipline to avoid situations in which they need to be disciplined.
So next time you start to take yourself out of the game because you have no discipline, I want you to know that’s just a big cop out. Plenty of undisciplined people have achieved extraordinary things because of their commitment. They have done so sometimes not in spite of their lack of discipline, but precisely as a result of it. And if you are shaky the commitment front, well there is even a cure for that as long as you are willing to take some baby steps, such as the ones I have suggested in this post and the other posts I have referred to.
Now get out there and boldly declare, courageously pursue, and abundantly achieve the extraordinary!
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About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.
As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!
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