Self Discipline and Habits

This morning, I answered a question in the latest Reader Mailbag on self discipline and habits. I’ll reprint the question and answer here for your convenience.

Q1: Self-discipline or habits?
I’m an avid personal finance reader/thinker, and an avid runner, and lately I’ve been struggling with the question of whether my success has been due to self-discipline or motivation for goals. I know that several experts disagree on what prods us toward success. Some believe that self-discipline is key, while others believe it’s motivation/habit building and that self-discipline is a mysterious term that doesn’t really help us improve our lives. I’d like to know your thoughts on how you define both, and how they relate to personal finances and success.

- Michael

I think there’s some of both. Simply put, it takes discipline to establish a good habit, and it takes a good habit to change a person.

When you first started reading, it wasn’t easy. It took discipline to continually handle harder and harder material. When you first started running, it wasn’t easy, either. It took discipline to run farther and faster.

Eventually, though, running and reading became a habit. They became natural and normal parts of your life. That habit made you the runner/thinker you are today, but that habit was initially built by discipline.

My answer to Michael’s question was pretty straightforward, but after I finished the column and went on about my business, the parallel ideas of discipline and habits kept sticking in my mind.

Michael’s full question included some references to online articles that summed up the two ideas. How to Build Self-Discipline, fron Pick the Brain, makes a great argument for self-discipline as the tool that keeps us moving forward through sticky things:

Self-discipline involves acting according to what you think instead of how you feel in the moment. Often it involves sacrificing the pleasure and thrill of the moment for what matters most in life. Therefore it is self-discipline that drives you to:

Work on an idea or project after the initial rush of enthusiasm has faded away
Go to the gym when all you want to do is lie on the couch and watch TV
Wake early to work on yourself
Say “no” when tempted to break your diet
Only check your email a few of times per day at particular times

On the other hand, in The Myth of Discipline, over at zen habits, the argument is made that the way we get through such challenges is through established habits:

Every single specific action you can take to make yourself do something is motivation. Not discipline.

And that’s why discipline is a myth. It might sound good, but it’s not a useful concept. When it comes to taking specific actions to make yourself do something, the only things you can do are motivation. Not discipline. I’ve challenged people to come up with a discipline action that isn’t motivation for years now, and no one has done it.

Here’s the interesting part. Although these two articles deeply disagree, they’re both essentially saying the same thing. Simply put, we only do challenging things if we can convince ourselves that the reward for doing these things is greater than the cost of doing them. Is that discipline? Is that motivation?

Does it matter?

Of course, this does provide a great window into what brings about success in our goals. We have to shift the balance in our lives such that the reward for doing challenging things is greater than the benefits from not doing those challenging things.

I’ll use my own example. I didn’t get my financial life in order until I re-evaluated my life and realized that my infant child was a huge weight on the side of financial responsibility on the scale of my life. Before that, when I made evaluations, it always appeared (to me, at least) that the things I’d have to change in my life weren’t worth what I would gain from financial security.

It took a balance shift – or at least a perspective shift – for me to see otherwise.

The same thing is true with any good behavior you try to pick up in your life.

Let’s say, for example, that you’ve decided that giving up beverages other than water will be good for your health. You know on a deep level that drinking water is the healthy option and will bring you health in the long run, but when there’s a cold Coca-Cola in the fridge, it’s tempting and convenient, so you grab it instead of the water.

How do you shift that balance? You get rid of all of the beverages in your house. Then, you make a bunch of homemade water bottles and fill the fridge with them. Suddenly, you’ve shifted the balance and it’s now easier to just drink water.

Diet. Exercise. Money. Learning a new skill. Giving up an unhealthy substance. Any goal you might have.

It’s all about shifting the balance.

So, is discipline the answer? Yes, because shifting that path is often hard. Have you ever watched a smoker throw out his last pack of cigarettes? Have you ever watched an alcoholic dump out a bottle of liquor? It’s not easy shifting that path.

Are habits the answer? Yes, because once you’ve cleared that path for yourself, following that path takes you right to your goal. Almost every goal is achieved by the regular action of a good habit.

These ideas aren’t in opposition. They work together to take you to where you want to go.

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12 thoughts on “Self Discipline and Habits

  1. lurker carl says:

    Why is there a conflict as to which is superior when goals are impossible without both? For me, discipline is what needs to be done and motivation is why it needs doing. Throughout a “task,” both will ebb and flow until the goal is reached and sustained. If you lose either, failure is imminent.

  2. Steven says:

    I read Leo’s article to say that there’s no such thing as self-discipline…that when you really look at it, there’s only motivation driving your choices.

    You do something because you’re motivated to do it, for whatever reason. For you, that motivation was your first child. And, chances are, that continued to be your motivation. Even when you encountered moments of challenge (and felt that self-discipline was in order), it was actually the motivation of your child that kept you motivated, and not the “self-discipline.”

    Getting of the couch to run has nothing to do with being disciplined. People get off the couch and exercise because they want to be healthy, or look good. That’s motivation, not discipline. You got your financial house in order because of your child. Again, motivation, not discipline.

    I think that’s why the article was titled The “Myth” of Discipline…he’s saying there really is not such thing. What we consider discipline is actually motivation…

    Does it matter? Is it just semantics? In the context of this article, yes. In the context of Leo’s article, the thesis of the entire article was that discipline is a false belief…something we try to convince ourselves that we need, or others have. Rather, what we need is motivation, and for that motivation to develop into habits.

  3. Tracy says:

    Trent, have you ever thought of writing out a post like this and then sitting on it for a day or two before posting to make sure it still makes sense to you? That your examples support and illustrate what you’re trying to describe and your conclusion actually answers the question you originally pose? That you’re using your own terminology consistently throughout the post?

    For example, does ‘shift the balance’ mean:

    1) make the reward of success greater than the effort it takes
    2) change your perspective
    3) put obstacles in the way of failure

    Because if it means all three, it’s kind of meaningless and if it only means one, it’s not being used consistently throughout. And none of them truly make sense as an answer to ‘are self discipline or habits more important?’ and you’d have more coherence if you just got rid of every section that had that phrase.

    I do agree with the middle bit of your post where you say that it doesn’t really matter and also that they’re kind of saying the same things but using their own phrases zenhabits ‘habits’ is really pickthebrain’s ‘discipline’ And does pickthebrain ever actually say motivation isn’t important? No, he just calls it his ‘inner sense of purpose’ but again, it’s all the same thing. They’re not really having an argument, they’re just playing with pet terminology.

    BUT I was particularly annoyed by zenhabits saying “How is it different than motivation (which is a set of actions we can actually do)?” because, argh, NO, that is NOT what it is. Motivation can not be described as a ‘set of actions,’ only as the reason we DO a set of actions. Later on he backpeddles to change it to ‘habits’ for the actions, which at least makes sense, but is really just redefining terms … even though I agree with him overall that motivation is more important than discipline, because you won’t develop discipline without a strong motivation (internal or external)

    Of course, both self-discipline and habits as answers simplify the full story, because success or failure are impacted by circumstances as well as effort.

  4. Johanna says:

    I just think Michael’s original question is really funny. “I’m struggling with the question of whether my success is due to A or B.” Is that really a question to struggle with? If you’re already successful, then you must be doing something right, so just keep doing that.

    Maybe he just phrased himself poorly, and what he’s really struggling with is why he’s *not* successful at certain things. But it sure sounds like he’s saying “I’m feeling deeply conflicted over exactly why I’m so awesome.” No wonder Trent likes this question so much. :)

  5. Becky says:

    The zenhabits article really got me thinking, because I’ve had a distressing lack of self-discipline lately, even though at other times in my life I have been diligent and disciplined.

    When I look at what has changed, I see that during the times in my life when I have been “disciplined” (such as, get up early to be on time and work hard at job I hated), there was something powerfully motivating me. Sometimes those motivations were negative, such as fear of losing my job in a recession. Fear seems to be my most powerful motivator to do something I hate doing.

    Other times my motivation was postive, such as volunteering at a non-profit because I was hugely inspired by its mission. Positive motivation seems to work best for me when it’s about overcoming inertia – “I’m tired and really want to sit at home and watch T.V., but my people need me, so I’ll go to the meeting and anyway it will probably be fun.”

    At other times my motivation was hope – during a dull, lame and stifling final semester of high school, every morning I would motivate myself to get out of bed by pretending that today was the day I was departing for the intercultural exchange program that I had been accepted to for the next year. Just imagining that day would rocket me out of bed and into the shower with a song in my heart.

    But lately, thanks to 18 years of fear-inspired mad savings and debt repayment, I’m not afraid of being destitute and homeless; so my work self-discipline just isn’t there the way it used to be.

    I no longer have hobbies or volunteer opportunities that inspire me like my volunteer work used to do.

    There’s nothing in my future that I look forward to.

    So maybe it’s not surprising that instead of going for a walk or working in the garden or digging into a challenging project at work, I have been skating; going to bed early because I don’t feel like reading or doing housework, sleeping in because I don’t have a reason to get up. What are the consequences if I don’t take the actions I “should” take? Hardly anything. My “meh” life will become … meh.

    Which means I agree with zenhabits – a person looks (and even feels!) self-disciplined because they have some kind of motivation. Whether that motivation is negative or positive, internal or external, fundamentally they have some compelling reason to get out of bed in the morning.

    A lot of people seem to equate “self-discipline” with some kind of internal hectoring voice that they obey. But I think that obeying that voice is simply motivation by fear — fear of failure, maybe, or shame.

  6. Tracy says:

    @Johanna

    It’s funny you say that, because every time I read the question, I keep picturing a sleazy guy going up to a girl at a bar and going ‘so tell me, what do you like most about me, my good looks or my charm? But enough about you, lets talk about me.’

  7. valleycat1 says:

    potayto, potahto

  8. Fr33d0m says:

    “When you first started reading, it wasn’t easy. It took discipline…”

    No, it took interest (motivation). If it took discipline alone, I’d have never read.

    As to going to the gym, some days I’m motivated, some days not. If I had discipline, I’d go on the days I’m not motivated. As to running, I’m neither disciplined or motivated. I don’t run.

    On the face of it this seems silly. Motivation and discipline are not opposed. They are instead teammates. When motivation is having a bad day, discipline can step in with an assist. Or perhaps they rely much more on one another–how can you be disciplined to run without first having had the motivation to take up running?

  9. WhiteCedar says:

    I think that Zenhabits creates a straw man argument when the writer claims that discipline is action without motivation. Discipline is being motivated by the value of a behavior and its long-term outcomes rather than immediate rewards.

    The immediate physical payoff of taking a nap on the couch might be far more gratifying to me than the cerebral reward from sitting in front of the computer to write for an hour. However, rationally, I might decide that my habit of writing will bring much more value to my life than my habit of napping.

    Where discipline comes into practice is by making this decision objectively and rationally ahead of time, motivated by the long term rewards that I can clearly see. Then, when I am less objective and more swayed by physical motivations (I’m hungry, I’m tired), I still continue to practice what I know to be more valuable behaviors.

    Zenhabits is engaging in a branding exercise: Others teach Discipline, with all its connotations of guilt and self deprivation and hardness. Zen rebrands that as Habits, with the connotation of easy familiarity. Which would you rather do: something that is hard, or something that is easy?

  10. kristine says:

    @Becky-

    I agree. Contentment and security can be the death of growth. If everything were perfect- we’d do nothing new. It is the dscomfort, the desires, that spur us forward. If there is no itch, we do not scratch.

    I know a former heroin addict that finally quit because he reached a place where he wanted nothing. He was happy, content, and high, but he had no desires- not for his girlfriend, not for food, not for love, not for family, not for anything. (He had access to adequate drugs all the time). It was then, in a moment of complete contentment, that he faced the abyss. Life without desires is meaningless. Hunger is what keeps us alive.

    Desire for love, approval, food, sex, whatever,is what drives us. Without reasons to go forward, we are meaningless.

    I feel this when I paint. When I am 3/4 done- I lose interest, as I know what it will look like finished at that point, and the motivation of revelation has ceased. My mind is done with it, and the completeion is then a slog- the only motivation then being not having an unfinished painting,. Pales in comparison to the motivation of discovery.

  11. Becky says:

    @kristine-

    Wow, now I have even more to think about. Thanks!

  12. Julia says:

    I’m not impressed with that Zen Habits article about the Myth of Discipline. It sounds like he’s saying discipline and motivation are the same thing. I think it depends on how you define the two – which he never offers a clear definition of either one. More confusing than enlightening.

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