03/20/2013 12:44 am ET Updated May 19, 2013

Generating Self-Discipline Without Willpower


Can't get yourself to exercise regularly? Or not eat that greasy food that is so bad it's good? Procrastinating on seeing the doctor about something that's been bothering you? Need to have a difficult conversation with a family member, but keep putting it off?

Many of my clients, even those who are highly accomplished and productive, complain that they lack discipline in key areas of their life. Contrary to conventional wisdom, willpower is largely a useless strategy to overcoming internal resistance. Fortunately, there is an easier way to get unstuck from any project, goal or to-do you have been blocked from taking action on.

When I first encountered Learning as Leadership over 20 years ago, I believed that I lacked discipline and willpower. I saw these as qualities other people had that I didn't. Today, people often remark how disciplined I am. For example, I've stayed, without slipping, on a nutritional plan for the past two years where I can only eat certain foods. And while I would agree that I'm quite disciplined, I still would not describe myself as a person of great willpower. If I don't want to do something, I can't really get myself to do it.

The difference is that my discipline is rooted in clarity about what I want. Not an intellectual clarity, but an emotional one. Here's the distinction:

Intellectual clarity exists in the world of "should":
  • I should only eat healthy foods.
  • I should conduct performance reviews by year-end.
  • I should sit down now and work on this project.
  • I should not get angry at my children.

Intellectually believing something is the right way to behave or a good thing to do does not translate into my taking action on it.

Emotional clarity comes when how we feel on the inside about what we are compelled to do is in alignment with what we intellectually believe we should do. Discipline then, rather than being a characteristic or a quality to develop, is really a consequence of this alignment.

I've learned that if there is something that I think I would like to do -- whether it's working out or writing an article -- and I don't seem to be able to bring myself to do it, then I'm emotionally confused about the item.

In these moments, I now know that I need to search for the emotional clarity that's going to make me feel compelled to do the thing -- or drop it -- as opposed to being in a world of forcing myself to do it. Just saying, "I have to be strong willed and just do this," rarely works. For example, I've been working on a book for the last four years. In the beginning, I would have moments of inspiration and productivity, but then run out of steam. In an effort to become consistent, I decided to write every morning at 6:00 a.m. (a crazy idea for someone who isn't a morning person). But when 6:00 came, I often felt no desire to get up and write. Instead I would just lie there, tired and anxious, castigating myself for my lack of discipline. True to form, when I tried to "just force myself," I invariably failed.

Ultimately, none of these strategies worked because they lacked emotional clarity. Instead, I've learned to first ask myself a crucial question:

What are my fears about this?
  • I won't be good enough.
  • I'm not capable enough.
  • It won't be interesting.
  • What I have to say is not worthwhile.
  • I'm off-base.
  • I'm shallow.
  • I never follow through on things.
  • This is hopeless; why bother?

With all of these self-limiting beliefs at play, is it any wonder I could not motivate myself to get out of bed to work on my writing? Trying to be consistent, much less creative, amidst all these emotional layers of resistance was impossible.

Underlying Fears

So the first step in developing discipline as a consequence of emotional clarity is finding the fears that underlie the project, goal or to-do you're not taking action on. And the fears that block us most often tend to be self-worth fears.

Think about something personal or professional that is important to you that you have been putting off. What are the self-worth fears and limiting beliefs that underlie your resistance to doing this thing?

In the case of working on my book project, it became emotionally clear that I didn't want to feel failure or inadequacy. But if I want to get up in the morning and write, I need to have an even stronger center of gravity. If all I do is see the fears, I'm stuck with them. What might be a different emotional pull that instead of squashing me into bed, propels me to leap out of it? The power of contribution goals.

Contribution Goals

For example, I know there are millions of youths out there who feel the isolation and despair today that I did as a young man. And while my book will not be perfect, if I can share something meaningful that opens a door of hope to even just a few of them, that really matters to me.

If I step back and take a look at the broader perspective of my life when I'm 80 and I ask myself, "Well, what really mattered to me?" is it going to be that I made a difference to those kids or that I protected myself from feeling inadequate? The obvious intellectual answer is the former. The problem is that we don't know how to cultivate that emotional clarity at 6:00 in the morning when the alarm goes off.

That is why developing emotional clarity is a skill, a muscle to exercise. Search for that sense of purpose, learn to bring it back into the present moment and use it to feed your ability to take action. Here's how:

  1. Think about something personal or professional that is important to you that you have been putting off. This could be the same item you used in the fears exercise from the previous post.
  2. What's the contribution you're excited you could make, if you made that thing happen?
  3. Don't settle for your first response! Keep searching until your sense of purpose overwhelms your fears. Therein you will find the power to act.

What has you so inspired that it outweighs your fears?

For more by Shayne Hughes, click here.

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