The Discipline Illusion

My clients are some of the most accomplished, ambitious, driven people I’ve ever met – founders and CEOs of some of the most successful, fast-growing startups in the world. And yet, too often they fail to adopt routines and habits that they know would help them succeed. If some of the most driven people in the world fail to follow through on their commitments, how can the average person do so?

See if this sounds familiar:

You decide it’s time to improve yourself, so you resolve to exercise (or diet, meditate, plan your week, be more organized, keep in touch with friends). When you imagine yourself doing it, it doesn’t seem that hard. You’re feeling energized, excited even for this new change in your life. You figure out a time in your schedule that seems to work well. Surely, you think to yourself, I can do this.

Three weeks later, you find yourself frustrated and beating yourself up for failing to stick to your commitment. Why can’t I just stick to that diet?!?  Why can’t I get myself to the gym? What’s wrong with me?  Nothing!  Like everyone else, you were set up to fail by a false belief in your own discipline.

Most people are under the illusion that they have 10 times more discipline than they actually do!

Why is that?

In Daniel Kahneman’s recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he describes two Systems that comprise our brain: System 1 – the autonomous, unconscious part of our brain and System 2 – the conscious, cognitive part of our brain. The trick is that because “we” most identify with System 2, we have a false notion that it’s actually the main driver of our decisions and actions.  In fact, System 1 drives at least 90% of what we do everyday, including eating that extra piece of cake, deciding to stay on the couch instead of hit the gym and spending our time responding to emails instead of taking a bold step toward our goals.  System 1’s goal is simply to have us survive – making sure you ingest extra calories that could help you survive a famine, conserving energy you may need to run away from lions and stay safely at your desk instead of out getting rejected by clients/potential hires/new friends, etc.

In Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, he referred to these same two Systems metaphorically as the Elephant and the Rider. The rider can have influence (or at least perceive himself to have influence) over the elephant, but at the end of the day the elephant goes where the elephant wants to go. The problem is that most of us riders think that we’re the rider and the elephant, and so we make plans as if our rider selves have full control, and get frustrated at our rider selves when it turns out we don’t.

Why don’t we have that much discipline?

Consider that trying to achieve the kind of goals that require self-discipline, to thrive and be fulfilled, is largely a modern day phenomenon made possible by societal advancement. For most of human existence, mere survival was enough of a goal to preoccupy the lion’s share of our attention and focus. Our brains haven’t evolved all that much biologically over the least 500 years – so even as technological advances have enabled humans to conquer all known predators and threats, our brains are still predominately wired for survival in a way that can often be counter to our ability to thrive.

The part of our brain that is responsible for discipline, willpower and decision-making is the most evolved, referred to as the neocortex. As I mentioned in my post The Real Reason Dieting Is So Hard, and Why It Matters for CEOs, humans have a finite amount of mental energy for exercising self-control and making rational choices.  In experiments where participants were made to use some of that mental energy on tasks requiring self-control (such as resisting the temptation to eat ice cream, M&Ms or freshly baked cookies), they gave up significantly more quickly on subsequent tasks requiring self-discipline (such as geometry puzzles or squeezing a hand grip exerciser) . Willpower, they concluded, is similar to a muscle that fatigues with use.

It turns out the processing capacity of our cognitive, rider brain (System 2) is not just finite, but also pretty small.  In one of the most highly cited papers in psychology, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” cognitive psychologist George Miller at Princeton argues that the number of objects an average human can hold in working memory is 7 +/- 2. If you think about the fact that our unconscious, autonomic system regulates a set of extremely complex processes such as our heart rate, digestion, and breathing while our conscious mind can hold at most 9 objects at once, it starts to become clear which part of our brain really runs the show.

Try to solve the equation 17 * 24 in your head (no cheating!).  Notice (1) how much resistance you have to actually doing it, and (2) how draining it is. Once you’re done calculating (for the few of you who’ve actually persisted in solving it), you’ve pretty much exhausted your brain’s capacity for System 2 thinking for the moment. If we have that little cognitive capacity, how can we expect to remember and will ourselves to go to the gym, eat a balanced diet, or reach out to new people amidst the stress and flurry of our already demanding lives?

So, how do we achieve our goals and stick to our commitments?

They key to success is to not try to will ourselves to stick to our commitments, but rather to embrace the limitations of our self-discipline and cognitive capacity when we set, plan for, and work toward our goals. By recognizing our limitations, we can create realistic goals and commitments, and design a system that enables us to achieve them.

An Example: BJ Fogg’s Model for Behavior Change

One of the most elegant models for behavior change that recognizes the limitations of our conscious mind has been developed by BJ Fogg, who runs Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab.  His model says that behavior is a function of motivation, ability and triggers – occurring at the same moment.  In his words:

“For a person to perform a target behavior, he or she must (1) be sufficiently motivated, (2) have the ability to perform the behavior, and (3) be triggered to perform the behavior. These three factors must occur at the same moment, else the behavior will not happen.”

Recognizing the limitations of our cognitive minds, Fogg’s model encourages us to set goals that are relatively easy to achieve and to set ourselves up for success by relying on triggers rather than our memory or willpower.

In thinking about how to make a goal or commitment as easy for yourself as possible, consider Fogg’s six main elements of ability:

  • Time
  • Money
  • Physical effort
  • Brain cycles (how hard we have to think about it)
  • Social deviance (going against the norm)
  • Non-routine (deviation from our normal routine)

Fogg says that “ability is a function of a person’s scarcest resource at the moment a behavior is triggered.”   To set yourself up for success, it’s important to think through which of these will be most scarce in the moment that you want to take on the new behavior, and design a behavior that requires minimal amounts of that scarce resource.  Here are some examples:

Time: If your days are packed from morning until night, plan to spend 30 seconds taking 3 deep breaths instead of trying to meditate for 30 minutes.

Physical Effort: If you’re trying to start a running routine, plan to do a 1-mile slow jog instead of trying to run 3 – 5 miles.

Brain Cycles: If you want to learn to play guitar, find a program or path that breaks down the process into the smallest possible steps and do it at a time when your brain is fresh, like in the mornings or on weekends.

Next, come up with triggers that don’t rely in any way on your own memory or cognition.  Some examples include:

  • Calendar reminder
  • Alarm
  • Another habit that’s already part of your routine (I’ll take 3 deep breaths after I brush my teeth)
  • Post-it note somewhere you’ll see it at the right time (in your car, at your desk)
  • A screensaver
  • An object in your way (e.g., put your running gear in the bathroom doorway)
  • A picture somewhere you’ll see it at the right time
  • A rubber band on your wrist
  • Postcard to yourself

In order for the trigger to be effective, we must (1) notice the trigger and (2) associate the trigger with a target behavior, and (3) be both motivated and able to perform the behavior at the time of the trigger.

So, instead of embarking on the downward spiral of making unrealistically large commitments to yourself and relying on your memory and willpower to stick to them, embrace your human limitations and design goals and a system that will work for you in the context of your own, real life.

And for you dreamers out there who are reaching for the stars, remember the words of Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu: “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”


2 Comments on “The Discipline Illusion”

  1. Natasha Gajewski says:

    Great post… getting my health back under control happened because I set small, achievable goals rather than big, scary ones. At my weakest, my goal was to simply drive to the gym and then turn around and drive home. A year later, my goal is to swim a half mile. Breaking apart a task into manageable bits (and celebrating their achievement!) is a practice I now employ in my start up. It’s also a practice my kids are learning at school, thank goodness!

  2. This is really fascinating. We are trying to tackle the same problem within our apps, so your post was really thought provoking. Thank you!


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