What is discipline, really? And what can we infer about whether someone is "disciplined" from their behavior?
This page is a stub, created on 2020-07-02 (last updated on 2022-09-11). Its contents are notes on the issues and angles I want to address about this topic.
I've been wondering for a while now whether I'm actually "disciplined". A lot of people seem to think that I am, given my near-maniacal adherence to various routines, especially around exercise and diet. But I know that if I didn't have specific plans and regimens and if I weren't so motivated by consistency (since I find the idea of "cheating" psychologically torturous), I would not have the results I have, and nobody would describe me as "disciplined". This is why, for instance, I have a bright-line rule about added cane sugar in foods. It's not that I think it's nutritionally different from other carbs in any substantial way; it's that it affords me an easy mechanism by which to limit my carb intake that is consistent with my fitness goals. So if I didn't have this rule, it would be "Sugar is okay!", and I would go hog wild (especially because of my satiety issues)...because maybe I'm not really disciplined. Or maybe my creation of mechanisms and being rule-oriented is being disciplined.
A conversation with my friend Morgan (in which she made some really fantastic points) sparked my thinking a bit more about these issues.
Let's use the example of a person's scrupulously and regularly going to the gym. Is this "discipline"?
- Does it matter whether the person derives intrinsic enjoyment from the activity or whether they're "forcing" themselves? In other words, is it "discipline" if you want to do the thing anyway?
- What does it mean to "force" yourself? Is that strongly not wanting to do a thing and then doing it anyway because of a recognition of the thing's goodness / long-term benefits?
- What is the role of creating mechanisms to make the activity enjoyable/desirable?
- Some people find the routine and rules and structure and consistency very motivating, making adherence intrinsically enjoyable.
- Some people like "getting into costume" (something I think I learned about from David Allen's Getting Things Done) to create motivation.
- Some people use tricks like just committing to getting to the gym, which is not particularly unpleasant in itself, but then the inertia and attitude of "Well, I'm here anyway, so I might as well make the most of it." motivates the workout.
- Some people "talk themselves into" enjoying the activity because they find things about it that they like and attend their focus to those things.
- What is "will power"? Isn't every choice to do something (that's followed up with action) really ultimately the creation of desire to do the thing? And if you want to do the thing, is that "discipline"?
- Does that define "discipline" out of existence? That might suggest that there's something wrong with this kind of analysis, since it seems that there is a real difference between someone we think of as "disciplined" and someone we think of as "undisciplined", even when it's regarding the same behaviors.
- Or does this suggest that discipline is really just the skill of creating mechanisms that manipulate desire?
- What is the relevance of the different "levels" of wanting or not wanting to do something? In the broadest context, when a person chooses to do something, it reflects an ultimate desire to do the thing, even if in narrower senses, they may not want to do the thing. Often, I would imagine, this reflects an understanding of the long-term benefits of an action/behavior, when the short-term experience is unpleasant in some way. What is the role of this tension in "discipline"?
Possible framings of what discipline is (replying to Andrew's comment on Mike Israetel's post):
- Discipline is the creation of mechanisms that create motivation.
- Discipline is cultivating an intrinsic motivation for process adherence as such.