Overcoming the Limits to Self Discipline

Somehow I think I may have always had an intuitive understanding that my willpower – my ability to self-discipline was limited. I used to think that might just be me. And when ADD rolled around, I attributed, perhaps wrongly, my lack of significant self-discipline to having hyper-focus ADD. That means that I can focus, as if with incredible discipline, on what draws me in, but I really struggle to force myself to maintain my attention on things that aren’t so alluring to me. Sound familiar?

image courtesy of cheezburger.com

Recently I am learning, from a variety of sources, that everyone has a limited amount of self-discipline at their disposal. It acts like a muscle – you can build strength in it, but you can’t lift something too far outside your normal ranges (except under incredible conditions that include huge doses of adrenaline). Well, don’t try trigging the adrenaline to get your tasks complete.

And you know what I mean – that rush of being close to deadline and feeling like your life is the line if you don’t get it done right this minute. I used to use that as an antidote to procrastination (which is an antidote to my perfectionism). Then a bunch of mindfulness and spiritual training later, I can’t trigger the panic and stress that induced deadline-driven adrenaline. Unless someone’s life or health is actually on the line, I don’t panic anymore. And that is a good thing.

So how do you work within the constraints of:

  • self-discipline has limited capacity and gets fatigued
  • the strength of self-discipline is a muscle that develops strength and memory over time
  • inner peace and deadline induced panic don’t go together. Choose inner peace.

Peter Bregman posted in HBR about How to Stay Focused on the Important Things. And there are some great takeways from that, such as:

  • Make a firm agreement with others
    • Why: Social contracts with others help trigger a different muscle than self-discipline. They trigger social integrity muscles instead. Thus leaving you more capacity in the self-discipline realm.
  • Constrict your list
    • Why: We have memory limits. Don’t overwhelm your memory with a long list of possible actions. This is a big part of what GTD and personal kanban try to help you with. Narrow down what you actually need to be remembering to do and working on at any given moment.
  • Remove what you don’t want
    • Why: Don’t work near the tv if you need self-discipline not to watch a movie. Don’t turn social media on if you get lost there. Use one increment of self-discipline to remove the temptation instead of a continuous increment of self discipline to keep resisting the temptation.

Additionally, let me add:

  • Dedicate time to filtering. Feel free to add any task to a giant pile of to dos in a parking lot of potentiality, dedicate time to filtering that list down to what is urgent, important, and valuable.
    • It may seem crazy to have to be so emphatic about this. And, after working with clients that think divergently, I have come to recognize just how powerful and important taking all the possibilities into consideration and filtering it down to what is realistic and tangible makes a world of difference. And decreases stress more than just about any other action.
  • Start small. If you want to build your self-discipline muscle, start with a very tiny step. Don’t think you wake up one morning and implement a full-scale reworking of your processes. That would be like trying to run a marathon without exercising for 5 years.
    • Tie the small new act of self-discipline to something you already have a habit of doing. Say you want to be sure you drink 6 glasses of water a day. You already eat 3 times a day. Before you eat one bite, drink a glass down to the bottom. And when you finish, drink a full glass. Mark each glass off on your calendar with a check mark. celebrate or reward yourself at 42 glasses. Or you want to start a meditation practice. Tie it to brushing your teeth. Sit for 5 minutes after brushing your teeth in the morning or evening or both. Once you have added a new habit that took self-discipline, your confidence about doing it again will go up and you can THEN add another. And bring more strength to  it too.
  • Use rewards and celebrations. If this is a muscle of the mind, then you wont notice it getting stronger if you don’t stop and reward, celebrate or at least acknowledge you are getting better at it. Don’t save celebration and rewards for big things. You need to know that you know that you are doing well.
    • I had a productivity junkie as a client who set bold goals and then faced almost continuous negative self talk about not achieving those goals all of the time. It was a wake-up to me that I was doing the same thing on a smaller but nearly as much. So I started acknowledging any shift toward the goal as success. More recently I set minimums, goal, and epic win as three levels of success. Give attention and build on your confidence toward achieving the goal by acknowledging the progress – any progress – you make along the way. And if you aren’t achieving your goal, maybe you need to tweak your expectations about how long it takes instead of generating negative self talk about your ability to do it. Go ahead and set bold goals for the long term, but for today, celebrate the little steps you take towards it.

What do you use to limit your use of self-discipline and build the muscle you do have for it?

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