Is Discipline Over-rated?


Is Discipline Over-rated?

December 9, 2014

by Dan Richards

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Last week, my free webinar outlined five steps to create positive personal habits for productivity in your business. This set the stage for a conversation I had with a 30-year industry veteran about how good habits can help you do the right things, even in the absence of huge discipline.  This advisor runs a successful multi-family office that caters to clients with assets of over $10 million. He talked about the tyranny of the expectation of instant response to email and how disruptive it is to be constantly reacting to client questions and requests.

In response, I pointed to my recent article, Why the Way You Work Destroys Productivity,  which summarized psychologist Daniel Levitin’s research. Levitin says every time you switch from what you’re doing to check email, you release stress hormones and burn glucose. That’s why three hours at your desk during a normal work day – shifting from one short meeting to the next, responding to emails and switching between tasks – will leave you exhausted and less productive than that same three hours of focused activity on a Sunday afternoon.

To be more productive, Levitin strongly recommends assigning 60- to 90-minute blocks of time for important tasks and refusing to allow interruptions. He suggests that you turn off the sound on your computer; the ding of an incoming email provokes a Pavlovian response to drop what you’re doing, ruining your concentration and focus in the process. Instead he advises scheduling specified times throughout the day to respond to emails.

This advisor’s response: “Great idea, now all I need is the discipline to do this.”

Why habits power performance

What this advisor needs is not more discipline, but some new habits around email. There’s growing research surrounding how discipline works. Two examples:

  • A recent Wall Street Journal article on how self-control is depleted pointed to the limitations of relying on discipline alone.
  • Harvard Business Review article on Nine Things Successful People Do Differently outlined how discipline operates like a muscle. Based on work by Heidi Grant Halvorson of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University, the article suggested that in the mid-term regularly exercising discipline will make it stronger and increase self-control – but in the short term, using our discipline muscle leads to exhaustion. That’s why people can spend days sticking to a strict diet and then for no apparent reason fall off the wagon and go on a binge.

To effect change in your practice, you need discipline and habits to work together. Discipline will help you establish new habits and routines. Once in place, they will run on autopilot, just like the muscle memory that lets expert golfers and skiers excel with little conscious thought or effort. Getting there isn’t easy, but once you’ve put those automatic routines in place they allow you to do things without the need for conscious thought or self-control. Think of existing habits like brushing your teeth in the morning; it takes no thought and thus requires no discipline.

Good habits are like cruise control for your business;  once you put them in place, they can keep your business on track with no thought or effort on your part.

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