Know Thyself: Self-Discipline

This is the second follow-up to my previous entry on self-knowledge and motivation.

In the last article I talked about habit, and how I was able to establish some useful habits that let me overcome my urge to sleep all the time. Near the end, I noted that I wasn’t able to establish a habit of working on Project X, which is the one that I wanted most.

The site where I’d found the article on how to get up early looked interesting. Since it’s devoted to personal development, I thought it might have some other insights that I could use, so I started exploring it. Bingo — there are a lot of interesting things there, but the ones that sounded most immediately useful were an entire series of articles on self-discipline. I started reading eagerly.

There are five pillars of self-discipline, according to this fellow. He’s devoted an article to each one:

  • Acceptance, or the accurate perception of reality and the conscious acknowledgement of it. No problem there, I’ve been working on that since my early twenties, and I think I’m pretty good at it already. Next!

  • Willpower. When I read that title, I thought I’d found the winner. Willpower, the ability to force myself to do things. The crux of self-discipline, or so I thought. I judged my willpower to be near zero, since I could rarely force myself to do painful, unpleasant, or distasteful things for more than a few weeks at most, regardless of how much I knew I needed to do them.

    Except that, according to him, no one has that kind of willpower. It’s just not the way willpower works. You can only force yourself to do something for a short period of time. And looking back over my life, I can see that it’s true: whenever I watched anyone try to do something by willpower alone, any success they had was always short-lived. Thanks to my stubborn nature, my willpower was actually better than average already. It was quite an eye-opener. Okay, a lack of willpower isn’t my problem… what’s next?

  • Hard Work. Not as in working hard (that’s covered in the next point), but as in doing work that’s difficult, because there’s “a lot less competition and a lot more opportunity” there. I already knew that — Project Badger was the most commercially successful thing I’ve done to date, precisely because it was so difficult and time-consuming, and most people couldn’t devote the time and effort into teaching themselves what they needed to in order to write something like it. And Project X is even more difficult. Okay, next?

  • Industry. The ability to put in the time that it takes to get something done; the opposite of laziness. This is the “working hard” part of the equation. Again, Project Badger shows that I’m no stranger to this — for months on end, I worked twelve- to sixteen-hour days on it, seven days a week. And I’ve been working on Project X for years already.

All through this, I’ve been getting more puzzled. Now I’m 80% of the way through the list and I still haven’t found anything that I’m missing. Nothing I’ve read so far would help me develop my self-discipline. Maybe I misjudged this guy; maybe his article on getting up early was a fluke and he really didn’t know any more than I did? But I continued on, to…

  • Persistence. I didn’t realize what he meant by that word; to me, it seemed synonymous with industry. But as he explained it at the beginning of the article:

    Persistence is the ability to maintain action regardless of your feelings. You press on even when you feel like quitting.

Well, that’s pretty close to what I’d been lacking. When the going got tough, I had to have something to drive me on. Most of my programming work had been driven by a combination of curiosity, boredom, and the need for control over some part of my life. The most difficult parts of Project Badger were driven by strong emotion. But despite the progress I’d made over the last six years, Project X hadn’t gotten appreciably easier yet, and even my legendary stubbornness wasn’t sufficient to drive me forward for that long.

So how did he suggest improving persistence?

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 consistent in your actions. And that consistency of action will produce consistency of results.

I can see what he means. In a lot of the things where I lack persistence, it would help to work toward a vision of what I wanted. But that didn’t help with Project X, because I had a vision for it, and a compelling one, and it still wasn’t sufficient to keep me motivated.

Maybe a lack of self-discipline wasn’t the root cause of my problem? But if that’s not it, what else could it be?

I’ll continue documenting my search in the next article.