Transforming Discipline

The beauty of passion is that it’s intrinsic by default. It can never be forced onto you by a third party. In fact, you couldn’t impose it on yourself even if you wanted to. When experienced, there is no question whether it’s passion—there are no false positives.

The difficulty with discipline is that it’s enforced by default. It’s the state we grow up in: parents telling us not to spoil our dinner, teachers telling us to sit down and pay attention, bosses telling us to show up on time. This gives discipline a bad rap. Most discipline is someone else constraining us for their own gain (or, their perception of our own gain).

I propose a third path on the discipline-passion spectrum: intrinsic discipline. It’s the hardest to get a handle on, but perhaps the most functional, achievable, and useful.

Discipline is always the denial of something: investing in the long term by forgoing the short term. The question then becomes: who is seeing the returns on that investment? And are those returns desirable in the first place?

The only way to evaluate the rewards of self-control is by having concrete endpoints to measure them against i.e. goals. As I wrote in last year’s review, avoiding such goals feels like an optimization, but is often self-sabotage. When you have nothing you’re concretely working towards, it is rational to avoid self-discipline. If there is no benefit you’re building towards that’s years down the line, then the self-control of discipline is actually pointless. Some deep part of your brain knows this, which is why self-discipline can feel so impossible to maintain.

I propose that difficulty in maintenance is due to three causes:

  1. Your brain doesn’t have anything it wants besides immediate pleasure, so there is no reason to deny immediate pleasure
  2. Your brain doesn’t actually believe it’s going to live long enough to see returns on self-discipline in the future
  3. What you want long term is undefined or has shifted, and you haven’t accepted and realigned your actions with those desires

I think the first two causes are most connected to aging. A year when you’re 15 years old feels like a lifetime, so of course most of your decision making is based around a 12 hour feedback cycle. When you’re 30 years old a year feels like something you can hold in your hand. Growing older is a forced lengthening of your feedback loops, and decisions begin to take that longer timeline into consideration. Shifting your timescale is what determines your discipline. To a certain extent, self-control happens to you with aging.

This leaves the third cause of self-discipline failure, and the most actionable: lack of alignment or re-alignment. This is a version of having meetings with yourself.

Figuring out when realignment is necessary is an attempt to determine whether an act of discipline is intrinsic or not. This debugging can be difficult because the dread of doing something meaningful is often very similar to the dread of doing something totally pointless.

Are you fearful of a task because it may actually change your life in a meaningful way? Or are you fearful of a task because it pushes you in a direction you don’t actually want to go (or keeps you completely stationary).

The most reliable metric I’ve found is how you feel after the fact. As the classic Kubrick line says, “the hardest part about directing is getting out of the car.” If you feel miserable after doing something, discipline will turn extrinsic whether you like it or not after a while. If you feel great after doing something, there’s a chance of building that feedback into intrinsic motivation.

To be clear, the level of intrinsic vs. extrinsic is a spectrum, and projects will shift around on that scale in their lifetime. But consider reframing discipline on this gradient. Don’t be afraid to buckle down to get something done that you really want. Keep orienting, maintaining momentum, and the discipline will become meaningful.


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