Is Discipline Overrated?

bigstock-dog-profile-by-bone-treat-25727306Over 30 years ago I watched a TV news documentary about the animals we eat–how we treat cows, pigs, chickens, fish. By the time the 15-minute broadcast was completed I knew I would never eat meat again. And indeed, to this day, I have not eaten any meat or fish–or foods flavored with them.

I often hear, “You are so disciplined.” My response is: “Not at all. Despite loving meat and fish, I have never waivered.” Don’t get me wrong–in the beginning I risked my health because I hadn’t learned how to compensate for a meatless diet. And there were times when the lack of vegetarian options frustrated me (and still do). But being a vegetarian has never come into question. Still, with so many people asking me how I made the dramatic transition, even I wondered, “Why has this been so easy?”

All these years later I think I have an answer, if not the answer. I truly believe this answer will help you and me to embrace any significant change or adapt an important new behavior.

The answer begins by not focusing on discipline! The nature of discipline is to make yourself do something you don’t want to do. The implication of discipline is that you feel imposed, forced, or obligated to do something and must dig deep to train or control yourself into action. The need for discipline puts you at a suboptimal starting point. I think there is a better way: The skill of Optimal Motivation.

Activating Optimal Motivation shifts your focus from what you don’t want to do, to what you want to do. Three elements of Optimal Motivation include:

  • Recalling your developed values and sense of (work or life) purpose
  • Recognizing how the change or new behavior satisfies your basic psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence
  • Reflecting on your sense of positive well-being that comes from changing or adapting a new behavior.

I didn’t realize it 30 years ago, but I had naively used the skill of Optimal Motivation by tapping into my values and purpose for being a catalyst for good, satisfying my psychological needs by making a choice that deepened my relationship with all living things, and instead of focusing on what I was giving up, experiencing how good it felt to do what I was doing. The only thing that could have derailed my successful change effort was my lack of competence. But learning about nutrition became a priority so I could continue with those positive feelings. No discipline required.

So my question to you is this: If you have Optimal Motivation, do you need discipline? Or is discipline a signal that you are embarking from the wrong starting point? Maybe discipline is simply what others say you have when you act based on your values, purpose, and basic psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

About the author:

Susan Fowler is one of the principal authors—together  with David Facer and Drea Zigarmi—of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ new Optimal Motivation process and workshop.  Their posts appear on the first and third Monday of each month.

12 thoughts on “Is Discipline Overrated?

  1. Wow- as a firm believer, and practitioner, of discipline, I found these ideas startling to say the least. But like all good posts, this one got me thinking. Not sure I’m ready to abandon my disciplined ways just yet!

  2. Susan, thank you for your post – I had not thought about it in terms of ‘optimal motivation’ but I long ago learned to focus on what you want to happen, not what you don’t. Your life will follow the path of your vision.
    Thank you for your thoughts and your work

  3. Susan, this article provide wonderful insights. Discipline and motivation goes hand in hand. A strong desire to do something will often take you far. Even without suffering.

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  5. Discipline is needed to do the things your head tells you that you need to do but that your heart isn’t in. Motivation is something completely different it is the view of an ends that you want.

    So for Susan the motivation was an emotive one, that her heart was in – so she didn’t need the discipline. Some people might have not felt so strongly and required a little, we’re all different.

    Interesting thought provoking article.

  6. I think we need to be very careful about the term “discipline”. I think in this case we are talking about “self-discipline” and “self-motivation”. The terms discipline & motivation take on fundamentally different dynamics and complexities when we consider these terms applied to people, teams, and organizations.

  7. I’m OK with self-discipline… But if GOD had not intended for me to eat animals they would not be made of meat. Where’s my steak sauce?

  8. Thank you all for your thought-provoking posts. After I write a blog and go back later to reread it, I wish I could have been more skillful at expressing my ideas–especially when it comes to the way we use terms that have strong connotations in our culture. Such is the case with “discipline.”

    When used as the root for those who are disciples of a certain way of thinking or doing, the word seems to be a good word. As long as you are an open-minded disciple who continues to learn, grow, and evolve. 🙂

    Thanks to your posts, I decided to do an experiment. I have avoided using the term discipline to see what happens. It has been a fascinating exercise. I had no idea how often this word popped out of my mouth.

    What I discovered is that most of the time it popped out, I was speaking from an Imposed Motivational Outlook. This is especially true when using “discipline” as an action. “I need to be disciplined not to put more butter on my popcorn.” “I am not disciplined enough to be mindful throughout the day.”

    By questioning my use of the term “discipline,” I am better able to get at the heart of why I am doing or not doing something I think I should be doing!

    This awareness gives me the opportunity to link the thing I “need to be disciplined to do” to a higher value or purpose. I am able to get in touch with the issue of putting more butter on my popcorn. Why am I feeling imposed? Why am I struggling? The first realizations are obvious: I love popcorn with butter. I work hard, I deserve a treat. Popcorn with butter reminds me of my father and I making popcorn on Sunday nights to eat during the Ed Sullivan Show.

    The second level of realization takes more honesty. Why do I think I should restrict my butter intake? I feel guilty because I am overweight. I know it isn’t good for me. I am tired of not being able to wear a swimming suit. Wow. All these responses reflect a suboptimal Motivational Outlook–either External or Imposed.

    The third level of realization takes more consideration. Why would I want to limit my butter that reflects higher-level values? I value my health. The extra 10 pounds I am carrying affects my knees, which affects my level of cardio, which affects how I feel in general, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Whoa. Just realizing that there are better reasons to limit my use of butter, I find myself using less butter. Not because I’m disciplined, but because I have shifted to an Aligned Motivational Outlook.

    You may think this is far-fetched, but oftentimes, I am able to link a mundane act such as butter on popcorn to a higher-level sense of purpose–to be a catalyst for good. If I limit my butter, I can help others with more important issues than butter! Now I am excited about eating popcorn with nutritional yeast instead of butter. It is actually more rewarding!

    My husband has just lost 20 pounds. Because of our discipline discussion, he reports that he is optimally motivated to lose the weight because he got in touch with the emotion of loving himself, me, his new grandbaby, his professional opportunities, and an active life more than loving the large portions he used to eat. He says it is not a matter of discipline, but a matter of love.

    I believe that discipline is what you need if you cannot link what you are doing–or not doing–to a higher-level value, greater sense of purpose, or love.

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