THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Self-discipline: It's like muscle, so work it

I am fascinated by the research about happiness. Some of my favorite research is from Sonja Lyumbomirsky, psychology professor at University of California Riverside (who's great at listing really small things you can do to increase happiness) and from Dan Gilbert's Hedonic Psychology Lab at Harvard (whose PhD students I follow like some people follow quarterbacks).

But something I've noticed in the last year is that most of our happiness is actually dependent on our self-discipline.

For example, we are happier if we exercise, but the barriers to getting to the gym are so high that it takes a lot more than missives from the Hedonic Psychology Lab to get us there. Also, Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University, has studied self-esteem for decades, and finds that when it comes to success, self-discipline is much more important than self-esteem.

Here's what I've learned:

Self-discipline is about small things paving the way for very big things.

Self-discipline snowballs. That is, if you can work hard to have self-discipline in one, small area, you create self-discipline almost effortlessly in other areas. The most famous study about this phenomena is from Baumeister, who found that students who walked with a book on their head to fix their posture ended up eating better, studying harder, and sleeping more– all without even noticing they were making those changes.

The key to self-discipline is finding an easy re-entry point.

I used to tell myself that if I would just get back on my daily workout schedule, the rest of my self-disciplined life would fall back into place. This is true. But it's too hard. When everything has fallen apart for me in the self-discipline arena it usually looks like this: I am eating poorly, behind in answering emails, and I'm biting my nails. Then I start hiding from people because I feel too discombobulated to connect.

Fixing any one of those problems is big for me. So I go to something easier: push-ups in the morning, noon, and night. I do it on the floor– any floor– and it takes 30 seconds because I only do five so that I won't dread doing them. The act of doing the push-ups is like wearing a book on my head. It restarts my self-discipline after just a few days.

You need to give up perfectionism in order to get anywhere.

Perfection is the enemy of self-discipline. If you are aiming for perfection, you are never going to get yourself to do what you need to do. No one is perfect, and if you tell yourself you need to be perfect, then everything is too hard to start.

Here's a self-discipline issue I have: I want to keep up with my reading pile and not let it get so high on the kitchen counter that it falls over. This goal requires me to read things immediately, as they pass in front of me. I'm great at doing this online, but not offline. I realized, though, that the trick is to read fast; and if I can't, I throw it out.

Self-discipline is mental, but only because it's about believing in yourself.

Consider the person who stops going to the gym for a month. A person who thinks of himself as someone who goes to the gym is more likely to start going again than someone who thinks of himself as a non-gym type. And this is true in a more broad sense: If you think of yourself as someone with high self-discipline, then when you are not having self-discipline, you expect to start having it again, and you do.

Also, self-discipline is like a muscle, so you need to practice to get stronger with it, and part of practicing is talking with yourself about who you are: a person who has self-control.


Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more.