The Secret to Exceptional Self-Discipline Isn’t What You Think

Experts agree that joy will take you way further than gritted teeth.

If you’re concerned that you don’t have the discipline to achieve your dreams, the internet will offer you plenty of advice. Get up at the crack of dawn, a ton of posts recommend. Always make your bed, scold others. Schedule more breaks, eat right, remove distractions, etc. etc. etc.

Much of this advice is sensible for some people some of the time, but the truth is absolutely none of these tips is the true secret to developing exceptional self-discipline.

What is?

According to two experts I stumbled across recently, the key is pretty much the exact opposite of what you imagine (but you’ll probably like it way more than advice to get up at 4:00 a.m. or take an ice-cold shower in the morning). Instead of forcing yourself to do things you find unpleasant, if you really want to achieve exceptional aims, only do the things you genuinely enjoy doing.

Misery is the enemy of achievement.

Wait, what? You might respond. That’s crazy. If I only did things I like doing, my diet would be one-third chocolate, one-third cheese, and one-third wine (or is that just me?). Or I’d spend most of my day playing video games or watching sudsy TV series.

Obviously, this isn’t what these experts mean (though science says you can stop feeling so bad about the cheese and chocolate). You still have to work hard. But you should only work hard at things you actually get some sort of kick out of doing.

“If there is a ‘big secret,'” to exceptional self-discipline,” writes author Todd Brison in a post on Medium, “it’s figuring out what your personal secret is. What do you care about most? What do you not care about at all? Do less of the latter as often as possible.”

If you’re not a morning person, sleep in. If you hate running, do yoga instead. No one ever succeeded for long by forcing themselves to do things they truly dislike.

On the other hand, doing things you enjoy will gradually beget both more momentum and more self-discipline as little wins add up. “Do one thing you are interested in for 30 days. No excuses. No days off. No misses,” Brison recommends. “When you commit to 30 days of action, regardless of the cost, here’s what will happen: You will feel great on day 3. You will hate everything on day 8. But by day 18, you will be unstoppable.”

Science: Enjoyment and achievement go together.

But wait, you might counter, who is Todd Brison? He’s just some guy with a laptop and an opinion. Are there any actual facts to back up his argument?

Actually, there are. Brison isn’t the only person insisting that people don’t accomplish great things through gritted teeth. Writing on the Greater Good Science Center blog recently, sociologist and positive psychology expert Christine Carter made much the same case, writing that the secret to accomplishing more is to stop doing everything you dislike doing.

Your to-do list, she contends, should only contain items you enjoy (at least a little, or at least don’t dread), and this is possible through a healthy combination of refusal, delegation, and creative reinterpretation. (Check out the complete post for more details).

That’s not just because life is way too short for days filled with drudgery. It’s also because a growing pile of studies testify that we’re far more likely to be successful when we’re happy than when we’re miserable.

In other words, it might seem entirely logical to imagine that self-discipline is all about forcing yourself to do worthy-but-unpleasant activities. But while all achievement certainly involves difficult patches, the truth is we only stick with activities and goals through tough times if we actually enjoy the process of accomplishing them. The basis of exceptional self-discipline isn’t self-denial and pain, it’s self-knowledge and enjoyment.

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