How to Succeed: Self Discipline/Control, not Motivation.
This article and video discusses one human personality and behavioral trait that studies show are the most important traits to have to lead a successful and fulfilling life.
This trait is one of the primary earmarks of success.
It’s a human trait that is absolutely necessary to success and fulfillment.
Unfortunately, it’s also a trait that our organic brains are neurologically engineered to avoid at almost all costs.
See the dilemma: Here’s a trait we absolutely MUST POSSESS in order to achieve the lives we desire. Yet our brains are organically engineered NOT to possess this trait.
I’ve written about this before, but it’s so important that it bears covering repeatedly. After all, we know that repetition is one of the key factors in adult learning, change and success.
I’ll also share personal observations from my own careers in diverse professions that provide anecdotal evidence supporting the conclusions in these studies.
Personal Observation on How to Succeed from 4 Careers
My four careers have been in widely divergent industries and professions, including:
- Professional actor (stage & TV mostly), including a #1 TV show
- Fortune-20 Vice President in Corporate Finance, Banking & Business Development: Developing, negotiating, underwriting and managing large credit relationships with Fortune-500 CFO’s down to middle-market CEO’s with as little as $30-million in sales
- Entrepreneur (founding, later selling, a small financial services company) and
- Currently, a Professional Speaker & Trainer in Leadership and Peak Performance
As you might guess, success in those professions largely requires very different skills, interests and ambitions.
There are Common Traits to Peak Performance and Success
That said, there are also common traits that the most successful people in each of these professions do and must share. The very traits that institutional studies on success identify as key trait markers of highly successful people. True to form, the people I’ve known, many of whom were at or climbed to the pinnacle of those professions, all shared these traits.
But, keeping things simple and focused, this article focuses on one trait: Discipline.
But, doesn’t “discipline” conjure images and feelings of pain, avoidance and resistance? You bet.
So, let’s focus on making discipline easy.
The Common Traits of Disciplined People
First things first. What successful people share, which differentiates them others and which compels them to be disciplined:
- A clear, passionate and compelling sense of who they are, and what they must achieve with themselves and their life – often called a Life Purpose (though it need not be called this)
- A tenaciously dogged need to grow, be great and win at their “Purpose”
While these traits aren’t necessary required to employ the simple trick I’m going to suggest, I nevertheless mention these traits because, if you don’t believe and feel that the benefits of discipline are compelling and necessary for you, then your brain almost certainly won’t be willing employ the simple trick I’m going to suggest.
Discipline, Fulfillment and Success
You're probably familiar with the infamous "Marshmallow Study" at Stanford University. The initial study, done in the late 1960's, with follow-ups on the subjects in the subsequent decades, indicated that young children who had the discipline to delay gratification in the moment, so as to achieve the promise of a more desirable, future reward, went on to succeed in life at much higher levels than other people.
The disciplined kids went on to lives that were both subjectively and objectively more productive, successful, happy and fulfilled.
Importantly, the study also revealed that these kids, whether consciously or unconsciously, typically employed mind/focus/behavior techniques in the moment, as a tool to achieve discipline and delay gratification. For example, they would repeat a physical movement or sound as a way of distracting their minds from the highly-desired marshmallow in front of them.
There are at least two important points here: 1) Discipline to achieve higher, future gains matters. And 2) We aren’t at the mercy of the Discipline God’s or fate. In fact, we can consciously employ our minds and bodies to hack our brains and achieve discipline.
Make Discipline and Success Easy
I’ve written on this before, but as with all personal growth: repetition is the mother of all skill; so, this subject bears repeating… and repeating…
First of all: do what these kids did over fifty years ago; use your conscious mind and body to hack your unconscious and conscious brain and make discipline easy. Or, at least, easier.
And here’s another, simple brain-hack trick to make discipline and productivity simple.
Our brains are engineered, by evolution, to perceive everything from a subconscious perspective of “is this dangerous or safe?” And to the subconscious brain, anything with obstacles, difficulty or perceived pain is to be avoided at nearly all costs. It’s a subconscious, neurological phenomenon and imperative for our brains.
Our brains naturally seek and take the “path of least resistance.” We naturally, and again, unconsciously, perceive and experience “discipline” as difficult, painful and to be avoided.
The Neuro-chemistry of Motivation and Action
What’s more, our old, unconscious brains determine whether or not we get the satisfying to euphoric experience of the chemicals our brains desire. Chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin.
Well, again, we can use our conscious mind and physiological body to hack our subconscious, neuro-physiological, chemical and electrical brain and fool it into perceptions, behaviors and activities that are in our highest, personal interest today – rather than our human brain’s default drive to seek our species’ outdated highest good from 100,000 years ago.
Make Discipline So Painless and Simple You Can’t Say No
For those important activities you avoid, don’t look at or feel the whole, long, painful process. Rather, focus only on adding one, simple step to an already established habit you have.
The first step in discipline is always the hardest. For example, if we know we must start an audit, report or project that will take hours, weeks or months and, especially, if we don’t love the process… wow, that feels like Mount Everest towering before us. Our subconscious, and conscious, brain will find all sorts of reasons NOT to begin.
But, if we make the first step in beginning that project so childishly simple and short that we can’t say no, then we’ve actually begun the most painful first step of a thousand. And once that first step is taken, our internal momentum is often to continue. Our brains are also designed to “complete loops.”
Our brain’s default is also to not left things undone. It seeks completion. And, in any event, once the initial hurdle is conquered, the barrier is broken. We have the pleasure and pride of action taken. What’s more, the process becomes less imposing.
Discipline, Peak Performance and You
So, for example, let’s say you do have a financial or process audit to do. And let’s say your unconscious brain has suddenly convinced you that, even though you’re afraid of heights, that 30-story bridge you’ve never jumped must suddenly and immediately be conquered. So, that audit will just have to wait. After all, you’ve put off this 30-story fall your entire life.
What’s more. The jump takes planning; so let’s not actually DO it. Instead, let’s do extensive online research on the physics of falling.
Of course, once online, quickly checking the latest scores, Facebook or email will only take a second…
Sure. And I have some prime swampland in Florida I’ll let you have for mid-town Manhattan prices.
What if you decide that, rather than taking on that bridge, you delay gratification (or in this case pain) and choose your long-term gain?
So, take a habit you already have, and add one, simple step to it. A step that leads your brain to the next step in working on your audit.
So, let’s say you always turn your PC on, first thing in the morning. So, add to that habit, that the next, non-negotiable step, is to find the icon for the audit software program.
The next, non-negotiable step? Click on and open the program.
Simple enough, right? Sit at desk. Turn on computer. Open audit program. That’s is. That order. That simple. That’s all.
Of course, once the audit program’s open, the next, non-negotiable, simple step you must do, is to create the title for the audit and click “save.”
This takes another few seconds and no more.
That First Step of a Thousand
You’ve now broken inertia. You’ve slapped fear, avoidance and procrastination in its smug face and you’ve begun momentum.
And you’ve also begun a process your brain will want to complete.
But again: do NOT think of the whole, hours-, weeks- or months-long process. Fool your brain. Make the process ONLY the next, simple, non-negotiable step. And your brain will want to complete it.
See Where We’re Going?
Want to optimize the process even more? Let’s circle back around to those highly-desirable neuro-chemicals we spoke about above.
With each step you take, use your mind, body and emotions to hack and fool your unconscious brain into secreting these chemicals.
Use your thoughts, emotions and body to exaggerate and heighten your sense of excitement, accomplishment and reward.
We don’t have to wait for external circumstances to experience the chemicals our brains thrive on. We can use our conscious, creative, new brain and mind, as well as our physiological bodies, to hack our old, unconscious brain and cause those neuro-chemicals we love to be secreted into our system.
Well, our unconscious, neuro-physiological brains are mostly running our show.
So, why not use that conscious, creative mind and brain you’re blessed with, and hack and fool your old brain? Heck, if you could take a magic wand and turn your 1999 Toyota Corolla into a this year’s premium Tesla, Mercedes or Lamborghini, wouldn’t you do it?
So why treat yourself with any less positivity, promise and respect?
So now: what’s the most important thing you could be doing to achieve your greatest life meaning? And what simple, initial action can you take to begin momentum?
Cheers and here’s to your success.
(Here's more information on the Marshmallow Study)