Over 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.