Summary: As I promised to Greg last week, I read through six old articles on self-discipline by Steve Pavlina. Here's detailed comments on these, and how I think his ideas relate to my earlier post on methodical work as a habit.
Note that I am not familiar with scientific research on the topic (though perhaps it would help me a lot if I read a few papers), except that I've seen some books mentioning evidence suggesting that willpower is in limited supply in humans.
Let me discuss each of the six articles by Pavlina in the context of my previous post on methodical work as a habit.
- Part 1 (on self-discipline in general) -
I like his definition: "Self-discipline is the ability to get yourself to take action regardless of your emotional state"
He claims that self-discipline can be trained like a muscle. I sure hope it can. But he shows examples like, say, getting up early in the morning. Well that sounds like building an individual habit of getting up early rather than working on "self-discipline", doesn't it?
Obviously when you train a repeatable behavior, over time you will get better at that specific behavior. But does it later "overflow" into other areas of life?
By training those individual habits or behaviors, are we improving our capacity to self-discipline in any area?
I think more likely than not we are simply training individual habits. Whether or not we increase our capacity to act regardless of emotional states remains unknown.
- Part 2 (acceptance) - he merely restates that after a long time of practicing various habits (working out, diet, ...) he had made great progress in these areas of life.
Here's the key sentence: "It’s still hard work, but I’ve become a lot stronger such that things that would have been insurmountable for me at age 20 are easy today"
It sounds a lot like he basically trained well in these specific areas he named, so they are easy to him now, but that doesn't mean a bit that doing something new is easier! Also we don't know what "would have been"...
Since these areas of his life are now governed by long-trained habits (10 years or more), obviously he can focus on other things, which appears to him like he was much more disciplined in general. But in general means simply in these areas of life.
Also, perhaps his own general ability to push himself and work hard methodically is far above average (and possibly rather constant over adult lifetime), which is what allowed him to build those habits in the first place...
Basically he now doesn't use up a lot of "discipline" on those "basic" areas of life, and can use this "energy" on something else. That doesn't mean he improved his self-discipline. It seems to me that over time he setup good, optimized routines for all that he does effectively; one result is that he is physically and mentally stronger now (exercise, diet etc. all are known to improve mental and emotional capacity a lot!) and he was able to organize his habits and life so that he can focus on higher level, bigger objectives where he just can't waste time on washing up etc.
He then calls this improved situation in his life "improved self-discipline", but it is simply a set of new habits and better mind-body condition which allows him to operate on a different level (be more successful etc.).
So this second part only strengthened the following model in my mind:
- some things should be done on a regular basis (I call them "maintenance projects", ones where regular work brings good results)- turning these things into habits is a great way of having them done (maximize efficiency);
- once they are habits - which may take months or years to build - we can focus on more important, bigger goals and achieve them with more ease since the baseline is working on autopilot for us.
I don't see self-discipline as a muscle anywhere in the picture so far. Let's go on to the next part.
- Part 3 (Willpower) - this article seems to refer to scientificly researched area. Yes, willpower is in limited supply, and some people seem to be able to distract themselves from dangerous thoughts and tendencies which on the outside may have the appearance of strong will (famous marshmallow experiment comes to mind).
Pavlina states that knowing this, one should use that limited supply of willpower to organize his environment so that sustaining "good" habits is easier. I like this idea, and won't argue with that :) It's actually known technique in the self-help industry.
I am a fan of "environment control" when building habits (examples: changing diet, doing workout etc.). In other words - by setting up specific environment, make it hard to fall into bad habits and easy to maintain good habits, and you'll succeed. No revolution here, and if it says anything about willpower or self-discipline it's that we should never rely on them too much! :)
He sums it up nicely: "By the end of the day, you’ve used your willpower not to diet directly but to establish the conditions that will make your diet easier to follow." But is it willpower we use to setup environemnt? Is it that "hard" emotionally to get rid of sugar or remodel house?
I think that's the way to go with new habits. It might be one of the least controversial ideas in the whole self-help industry :)
- Part 4 (Hard work) - this article shows that he is a hard worker, and I guess most of us would agree that hard work is good and brings great results over time :)
If someone is naturally a hard worker, someone focused on improving oneself and his surroundings, that's great. But what if someone isn't? How is self-discipline related to choosing "hard" work (that which challenges you, per Pavlina's definition)
So again, I agree with the value of hard work and even with his specific definition of hard work, but how can one do more of hard work if he wishes to? What's the method? He never discussed it, and that's what I was looking for.
- Part 5 (Industry) - this article states that our lifestyle implies certain tasks that require a lot of time investment from someone - could be us, could be someone we hire or ask for help.
Not a word about self-discipline here. He simply suggests to be wise and only do the stuff that really needs to be done, and even delegate if possible. I have nothing to add.
- Part 6 (Persistence) - His definition of persistence in article 6 is the same as his definition of self-discipline in article 1 ("Persistence is the ability to maintain action regardless of your feelings." vs "Self-discipline is the ability to get yourself to take action regardless of your emotional state.")
This article is mostly about when to change direction (goals), but it does have a hint at what keeps Pavlina persistent: a clear vision of the future he really desires. "Persistence of action comes from persistence of vision. When you’re super-clear about what you want in such a way that your vision doesn’t change much, you’ll be more consistent — and persistent — in your actions. And that consistency of action will produce consistency of results."
Again, this is hardly surprising or controversial. Some sources on facilitating change (like "Switch") are adamant on providing crystal-clear direction when we want any kind of change to happen.
So in the end, the general mechanisms or values stated by Steve Pavlina in these articles are very close to what I believe, e.g.
- hard work brings great results,
- it helps to be clear about what we want,
- if you control your environment, changing habits gets much easier
- it's good to be realistic about what you can achieve (my restatement of his article on "acceptance")
I am not sure that by building arbitrary new habits we improve our self-discipline, but it could be so. Human behavior seems to me much too broad a topic to nail it down with such a simple concept as "self-discipline", here's some reasons why I think so:
- what's emotional regulation role in what appears as "self-discipline" or willpower? (I mean the struggle between executive center of the brain and the amygdala or other areas; not an expert, but I mean the part that is supposed to be made stronger by meditation)
- since we know some traits of emotional intelligence can be improved in adults with relatively simple practice, isn't it more useful to see self-discipline just as one aspect of emotional self-regulation, which is just one aspect of emotional intelligence? If so, what does research on EI tell us about ways to improve self-discipline?
You see, I now like to think in terms of behaviors and things (as opposed to opinions and ideas):
- what actions do I perform specifically (what do I say and when, where do I go, what do I look at, what question do I ask myself at what time) to achieve change/objective I am after?
- what things (e.g. tools) do I bring into my life to make a new habit? to "appear" more disciplined? to do more hard work? to get more done? I.e. how do I redesign my work/home environment?
Actions. Things. These are controlled and real. If specific actions and things bring results I want, that's great.
In the absence of these specific instructions, I am of course willing to look at other concepts - emotions (if I feel them); metaphors (if I can understand them).
So what I'm looking for is perhaps a detailed, step-by-step instructions that will lead a randomly selected person to becoming a disciplined hard worker :) Any suggestions outside of what's already discussed above?