Self-discipline is overrated, so go easy on yourself

Too little self-control makes you impulsive and prone to taking dangerous risks, but too much isn’t great, either

Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed by work or other responsibilities, my first instinct is to make a plan. This usually involves drawing up a schedule of rigid severity. I’ll get up an hour earlier! I won’t check Twitter! Even though years of experience suggest it’s impossible to write for more than five hours a day, this time, with a will of iron, I’ll power through and write for eight! It’s sort of adorable how sincerely I believe this will work, given that it never has. My supposedly bottomless well of self-discipline is revealed to be about a foot deep, and my efforts to transform my situation through sheer force of will end in a firestorm of recriminations, with me on both sides of it.

We’ve heard much in recent years about the importance of inculcating “grit” in children – and quite a bit about the limitations of that approach. The psychological evidence for the life‑changing benefits of grit turns out to be iffy. Besides, it’s pretty obnoxious to imply that all you need to succeed, even if you are born into poverty, is to knuckle down and tough it out. Yet we rarely question the underlying assumption that self-discipline is a good trait to have; even the most liberal parents, who only want their kids to follow their dreams, would rather they did it in a self-disciplined way. Few people heed the warning of the US psychologist Jack Block, who undertook a landmark study of more than 100 toddlers, following them for three decades. True, too little self-control makes you impulsive, easily distracted and prone to dangerous risks. But too much self-control, Block found, can be a cause of misery, too.

As the progressive educator Alfie Kohn points out in his essay Why Self-Discipline Is Overrated, the child who always completes her homework the moment it’s assigned looks like a paragon of virtue. But the truth may be that she “wants – or, more accurately, needs – to get the assignment out of the way in order to stave off anxiety”. She may hate leaving anything unfinished, or feel that her worth depends on her performance. This is sometimes a good way to get your work done (except when it backfires, as in my case), but it’s no recipe for an enjoyable life. We praise those who demonstrate “intrinsic motivation”, but sometimes all that means is that they have successfully internalised society’s drill-sergeant. We call them “driven”, which should be a clue: they are being yelled at, only by themselves.

When my attempts at unbending discipline fail, I turn to a post the Buddhist teacher Susan Piver wrote in 2010, entitled Getting Stuff Done By Not Being Mean To Yourself. It relates her own frustrating attempts at rigid scheduling, and the approach she chose instead: asking what she felt like doing. This sounds self-indulgent (or, to the hyper-disciplined, terrifying). But guess what? “I did all the things I yell at myself to do. My day looked pretty much exactly like my days do when I succeed in being ‘disciplined’. Only, this time, it seemed effortless.” Maybe you’re not a recalcitrant loser who can’t be trusted to spend your time wisely? Just a thought.

oliver.burkeman@theguardian.com

Contributor

Oliver Burkeman

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Is your new phone really your friend? | Oliver Burkeman
Our hardwired tendency toward laziness means once we’ve been persuaded to adopt certain pseudo-conveniences, we won’t want to give them up

Oliver Burkeman

29, Sep, 2017 @2:00 PM

Article image
Don’t knock Donald Trump for playing so much golf. Here’s why | Oliver Burkeman
It really is good that he is out in nature

Oliver Burkeman

09, Feb, 2018 @3:00 PM

Article image
When is an exception not an exception? | Oliver Burkeman
If ‘just this once’ happens every month, there’s a name for it: a monthly expense

Oliver Burkeman

08, Jun, 2018 @2:00 PM

Article image
Putting off the important things? It's not for the reasons you think
Never put off till tomorrow what you can do now, especially if you’re holding back in the hope of doing it properly

Oliver Burkeman

19, May, 2017 @1:59 PM

Article image
Do bigots just lack imagination? | Oliver Burkeman
Empathy requires mental gymnastics at the best of times. Empathy for whole categories of people requires Olympic-level skills

Oliver Burkeman

28, Apr, 2017 @2:00 PM

Article image
Is writer’s block a real thing, or just a figment of the imagination?
Diagnosing yourself as having writer’s block, rather than just not currently writing, will make matters worse

Oliver Burkeman

17, Mar, 2017 @2:59 PM

Article image
Can moaning ever make you happy? | Oliver Burkeman
Railing against minor irritations is like falling out with your partner, then picking fights, over and over, for the sake of it. And when has that ever helped?

Oliver Burkeman

04, Nov, 2016 @3:00 PM

Article image
Are your friends really your friends? | Oliver Burkeman
I knew lopsided friendships existed; I’ve got several, and I’m sure you have, too. But I’m not supposed to be the desperate one

Oliver Burkeman

27, May, 2016 @2:00 PM

Article image
Are our dreams trying to tell us something – or should we sleep on it? | Oliver Burkeman
Night after night, elaborately crazy stories plant themselves in your mind through no choice of your own. Don’t tell me something intriguing isn’t going on

Oliver Burkeman

17, Nov, 2017 @3:00 PM

Article image
Spooky! Messages from the beyond or just coincidence? | Oliver Burkeman
We’ve all heard eyebrow-raising tales – so what’s really going on?

Oliver Burkeman

17, Jun, 2016 @2:00 PM