Discipline begets discipline

Life is all about choices, especially those small decisions you make daily. Or probably don't make, because you are a creature of habit. And it is not just about decisions, it is about actually carrying them out in a disciplined matter. Discipline earns people's admiration. Discipline helps you reach your goals and without discipline, you squander your potential. It's a badge of honor among successful people to be disciplined and already the early philosophers saw it as a virtue. So the question is: How can you live a disciplined life?

Is willpower expendable?

There are actually some well designed psychology studies about willpower, which run under the label of ego depletion. Ego depletion describes how your ability of self control diminishes as you are exerting it. Typical experiment setups is having people trying hard puzzles and measure how long it takes until they give up or performance on something like the Stroop test. Then you try different setups, i.e. place cookies in front of the subjects and tell them they are free to eat the cookies or are not allowed to eat them, but some celery. Or you use questionnaires to prime them on certain words. Anyway, there are some useful results:

  • people who believe willpower is unlimited perform better in the tests and telling people that willpower is unlimited increases their performance
  • willpower indeed seems to be expended, even by trivial stuff like not being allowed to eat some cookies standing in front of you
  • willpower can be trained
  • thinking about money seems to increase your willpower

With the exception of the last one, the results are not surprising. As the last one is a bit open to interpretation (subjects where primed with sentences like "I have money"), it could also be expected, as it might be a form of keeping your eyes on the price. There are several models floating around in research, and as usual, some are better than others, but none is perfect, but the process model seems to work best. Also, it is dead simple: We are always oscillating between exploration and exploitation, and when our concentration on a tasks wanes, it is because our mind thinks that this task does not provide much value anymore. This is also supported by anecdotal evidence; just look in some cubicle farm where people are wasting their time on the internet and ask whether their work is meaningful or not.

Becoming more disciplined

It all starts with having a purpose in live, providing value with your work and having motivating goals. Do not fall in the trap of simply trading your time for money unless you really have to, but make sure that your work is aligned with your goals, interests and skills. Having a positive outlook helps not being distracted, as you do not seek for alternative uses of your time. Discipline is easy when there are no alternatives.

Have some basic work place hygiene. If you are on a diet, do not have cookies lying around. Remove distractions as good as possible. Bonus if you can separate yourself physically from them.

But finally and most importantly: Build momentum. Although willpower can be expended, it does not mean that you should avoid any tasks involving it, unless they are top priority. Because it can also be trained. Also, if you made a lot of good decisions on a given day, you feel better and are less likely to break the chain. In fact, almost any high achiever seems to do some of the following:

  • wake up early like 4AM
  • take a run first thing in the morning
  • start working immediately in the morning
  • take cold showers
  • make their bed

Again I put the perhaps most surprising one in the end, as it is easier to refer to. It is not really a useful activity, however, it still gives a fake sense of achievement. It's easy as that. Just make your bed and you already feel like a winner. Just keep that momentum going and your day will be a success.

This also fits nicely in the process model. By being disciplined in all areas of life, you already get some value from things different to your work. This means for these activities you already did some exploitation and have less things to distract you from your primary work.

Furthermore, correlated activities profit also from being disciplined in each of them, since by doing one thing right, you increase the expected value from doing another activity. Take for example being on a calorie restricted diet. If you take your diet seriously, do not half ass your training. While is be physiologically sound to do lighter training while dieting, as you have less recovery capacity, in a diet you do not want to fuck around with it. Because if you do, you might lose more muscle in the process, something you do not want to happen. And if your diet is not restricted, but still on spot, you can expect more gains coming from training. Also, you do not want to get fat on a caloric surplus, so you better squat your ass off.

Let my close by rounding it up in a nice little process:

  • start your day with vigor and do something useful. It does not have to be making your bed and might be easy as whey in your coffee
  • make sure your workplace is free of tempting distractions. You want to reduce the amount of tempation you have to withstand, as it is hard to control all distractions
  • keep your goals in mind and be positive
  • approach life as a whole and not isolated; if you diet, also train disciplined. If you are disciplined at work, also be sure to be disciplined in your free time and spend it on those who matter