Clarity, Not Willpower, Generates Self-Discipline

Procrastinate? Can’t get yourself to exercise regularly? Or not eat that greasy food that is so bad it’s good? You know that you need to have a difficult conversation about performance with your direct report, but keep putting it off?

Many of our clients, even those who are highly accomplished and productive, complain that they lack discipline in key areas of their life. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I find that ‘willpower’ (“I just need to do it”) is a largely useless strategy to overcoming internal resistance. Over the next four posts, I’ll explore the role that emotional clarity has in creating discipline and offer some practical ways you can 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 on how disciplined I am. For example: I’ve stayed, without slipping, on a nutritional plan for the past seven months 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. Here’s an example:

I’ve been working on a book for the last two and a half 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 am (a crazy idea for someone who isn’t a morning person). But when six o’clock 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. Utilizing the tools from Learning as Leadership, I’ve learned instead 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.

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? We would love to hear your comments and questions.

In next week’s post, we will continue with this topic by looking at how to move beyond the emotional clarity of the fears to the emotional clarity of learning and contribution, which leads to discipline.

  1. Robin says:

    I appreciate your personal example. I have a couple of goals that have been knawing my mind for some time. pretty sure there’s some fear involved, though i’ve not reflected too deeply. your post inspires me to delve deeper and take stock. i’ll keep you posted. and thank you.

  2. Maru says:

    wow…thank you, thank you THANK YOU!
    you can’t imagine how helpful these posts have been!

  3. Shayne says:

    Maru and Robin,

    Thank you both for your comments. I’m really hoping to be practically useful in my posts — otherwise, why bother? If you get stuck, don’t hesitate to comment with a question or difficulty. It’ll push me to offer something additional that could be helpful to others as well.

    Remember, we can’t break out of our ego prison on our own. This is a collective liberation thing!


  4. Happy says:

    1: I believe that cluture does in fact play a major role in how you perceive the world. For example, there is a video where a little Islamic girl named Basmallah was taught to recite teachings of Radical Islamic Fundamentalists. She was taught to believe that Jews are Allah’s enemies, therefore they are our enemies. She was taught to believe that Jews are pigs and that they will never see the light of Heaven. She was only 3 years old at the time this video was taken. This shows just how much our cluture can affect our views on the world and the people who inhabit it. You can be taught to see the good in people, or you can be taught to see the bad in people.2: I believe that a stoic or emotionless state of mind will best aid in seeing the world with the greatest clarity. Reasoning and logic, I believe, are probably the most reliable ways to view the world (although it is certainly limited by human flaws). Emotions can easily manipulate your rational thinking into something irrational (like kids who wear their sister’s pants and have that one huge bang of hair and wear black who scream at their parents just because they don’t understand , even if the parents DO understand but the kid is too preoccupied with his angsty bullcrap to see things clearly). Seeing the world in the least subjective state possible (because it is not possible to completely let go of our biases) is probably the best way to live our lives, because that perspective of life allows us to see MOST (not all) of our errors in thinking and perceiving.

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