Bet you thought they were the same thing, didn’t you? Fortunately, they’re not. One is way easier than the other and can actually feel good because it’s reinforced by practice, paving the way for new healthy habits.
The difference between discipline and willpower is that discipline is about following a set of rules, whereas willpower is about choosing one thing over the other. They are both about making a choice, but discipline gives you a structured approach that helps you make the choice you want to make, whereas willpower relies on your gut will to try to force that choice through.
Rules aren’t the same thing as willpower. Willpower pits the force of reinforcing stimuli against your determination to resist, a clash of titans that can become very uncomfortable.
- Dr. David Kessler, The End of Overeating
I don’t know about you, but when I am hungry, that peanut butter cookie has far more force than any willpower I could try to scratch up. And when I’m tired or just feeling lazy, sitting on the floor playing with my dog has far more power than my will to go to the gym. No amount of willpower is going to help me with that choice when my puppy looks at me with her big brown “please play with me” eyes and a ball in her mouth. Why? Because the short-term reward of playing with her is larger and more meaningful than the long-term reward of eventually feeling my muscles get stronger and my waistline get smaller.
So the real key to discipline is finding a reward that is larger and more meaningful than the pain of earning it. The best dog training methods are based on reward, not punishment, and so are the best people training methods. Unfortunately, we all like our rewards in the short term, which feeds our desire for immediate gratification. But that can be overcome, if we have a reward we are working toward that is significant enough to keep us motivated.
Also, discipline is a mental act while willpower tends to be emotional. For me, it is much easier to control my mind than my emotions. So in the areas where I really want to stay committed to what I am trying to do, I need to engage my mind and keep my emotions out of it. If I never had another civil war rage over whether or not to eat that damn piece of pie, I’d be incredibly happy. I would much rather focus that energy and time into a productive direction that in turn empowers me to make a choice I can be proud of. Discipline is my friend and willpower is pretty much useless. Here are some of the ways you can practice discipline through a structured approach that may work far better than willpower:
Have a goal and set a date. Set a goal that is significant and long-term, but with short-term measures. For example, in last week’s blog I interviewed a man who, at the age of 47 and morbidly obese, set a goal for himself to run the Boston Marathon. A seemingly impossible task, given his weight and the fact that he hadn’t run anywhere since he was a kid. But because he set a goal for himself that was larger than the pain of exercising and eating differently, he went on to lose 113 lbs. and ran the entire marathon nonstop (one of the world’s toughest marathons, by the way), all within 10 months of setting the goal.
His goal was long-term, but his measures of progress were short-term: every run he would add another telephone pole to his distance. The distance between telephone poles is quite short, but many of them eventually add up to marathon distance. Small measures are so important to inspiring and motivating you to that next pole.
Find support. Did you know that people who are overweight tend to have overweight friends and family? It’s true. Study after study has proven that generally speaking, you are who you hang with. Birds of a feather. It’s not that we look for people who are overweight or out of shape to hang out with, it’s that we look for people who do the same things as we do: going out to eat, going to the movies, watching TV, etc. And the reverse is true as well: lean people tend to hang out with other lean people because their interests are similar—they run or bike or meet up at the gym. So if you want to lose weight or get more in shape, find and start spending time with the people who are doing the same.
Also, let people know what you’re trying to accomplish so they don’t hinder your progress inadvertently by inviting you out to Chili’s or bringing you cookies for your birthday. We live in a culture where we love food rewards and gifts, and the easiest way to be social happens to be going out to eat. Let your friends and family support you by letting them in on your goals.
Stay focused and never never never give up. Keeping your eye on the reward of your goal is absolutely critical if you are to reach it. The man who ran the marathon just needed one more pole in order to get out and do it again the next day. If you stay focused on your goal and its reward, you will be focused on the purpose of it. As long as it has purpose, you’ll have a reason to do it and be motivated to continue. Remember: the reward needs to be larger and more meaningful than the pain of accomplishing it. Keep the meaning of it in the forefront of your brain and you will eventually hold it in your hand, guaranteed.
Finally, remember the 80/20 rule? If you practice discipline 80% of the time, you will make great progress. Don’t beat on yourself if you aren’t perfect. Cut yourself 20% slack for being human and you will accomplish anything you set your mind to. I dare you to prove me wrong.
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