Habit Trumps Discipline

What are the habits in your personal life? Things like brushing your teeth twice a day, getting dressed, a glass of red wine with dinner, washing up the dirty dishes in the sink, putting on your seat-belt when you get in the car, going to the gym, eating everything on your plate, locking the door when you leave the house, …

Over the last two years, you might have added: washing or sanitising your hands regularly, giving people more personal space, checking in to places with a QR code, and doom-scrolling your social media news feeds.

What about your professional life? Perhaps they are things like the weekly status meeting with your team, checking e-mail every few minutes, adding appointments to your calendar immediately, interrupting colleagues when you walk by their desk, packing or buying the same lunch every day, taking the same route home, …

I’m not making any judgement about whether these are good or bad, effective or ineffective, productive or wasteful. I’m just saying these are habits, which means you do them without forcing yourself to do them.

When it comes to success, habit trumps discipline.

There’s a persistent myth that success requires hard work, discipline, and high levels of motivation. These factors all contribute to success, but the most successful people cultivate successful habits.

Create positive habits for your most important activities, and they will happen automatically and effortlessly.

You know this is true for the habits – good and bad – you already have in your life, such as those examples I listed earlier. These activities don’t take discipline; you just do them because they are habits.

You didn’t create most of these habits consciously, but imagine what you could achieve if you turned all your important activities into habits. You would do them automatically and effortlessly, and that in turn makes it easier for you to achieve your goals.

This is especially important now.

We’ve been living in a fast-changing world for a long time, but it’s especially obvious now, in a ‘living with COVID’ environment. As much as we would like to focus only on what we want, our external environment keeps changing. That’s why it’s more important than ever to take charge of your most important activities – because you know for sure there will be an avalanche of unexpected obstacles getting in their way.

Think of it this way: Each activity you do falls into one of four categories:

  1. Dangerous: You act without thinking – recklessly rather than intentionally. Obviously, you want to avoid these activities.
  2. Difficult: You act intentionally, but because it’s new, you don’t know exactly what to do or how to do it.
  3. Deliberate: You have done it a few times, so you know what to do and how, but it still takes effort and hard work.
  4. Default: You have converted it into a habit, so it becomes your default action, and it’s easier to do it than not to do it.

For most people, even when they know what’s important, it still takes deliberate effort – that is, discipline. But discipline takes willpower, and research tells us willpower is a limited resource. If you make this activity a habit instead, it happens automatically and frees up your willpower to apply to other things.

Add positive feedback.

One of the keys to creating a habit is to make the activity more rewarding (or less painful) than the alternative. For example, people who exercise regularly say exercise gives them energy (rather than draining energy), and they feel worse if they don’t exercise.

Apply the same principle to your projects at work. If you’re working on a big project, create many small milestones along the way to celebrate with your team.

The same applies to breaking bad habits. If you want to waste less time on social media, replace that time with something more compelling instead.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Some of your habits have taken a long time to develop (I bet you didn’t automatically brush your teeth every day just because your parents showed you how to do it once). So don’t try to do too much at once. When you want to create a new habit, it’s better to commit to that change, and then do it bit by bit.

In fact, Stanford behavioural scientist BJ Fogg recommends you start with ‘tiny habits’, in his book of the same name. For example, if you want to build a habit of flossing after every meal, he suggests you start by flossing one tooth!

Thinking Ahead

Consider these three questions as you create habits for success:

  1. What important activities do you need to do regularly, but struggle to do because they require discipline?
  2. How could you turn these into habits by making them more rewarding or less painful than the alternatives?
  3. What new habits would make the biggest difference to you in your personal life and professional life?


What Next?

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