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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