Why Self-Discipline Is Overrated (And Why You Haven’t Lost More Weight And Saved More Money)

Why Self-Descipline Is OverratedWhat do losing weight and saving money have in common? The answer: a lot.

First of all, both can be filed under the I’d-rather-eat-a-litter-box-than-do-this category. Also, the success rate of accomplishing either among the general population is equal to the probability that you’re Princess Leia’s twelfth cousin.

And the most striking similarity between the two is the way we go about them—most people think that both require tons of self-discipline to pull off. The canonical weight-loss approach goes like this: Diet, exercise, diet, exercise…can I have a cheesecake?…diet, exercise, diet exercise…how long do I have to do this?…diet, exercise, diet, exercise…what’s the meaning of life???…diet, exercise, weep, diet, exercise, weep…screw you! I’m ordering the entire Cheesecake Factory…uh oh…

Repeat.

And if you’re someone whose frequent hangouts include the amazon.com and all commercial real estates within 50 miles from you, your money-saving ambition may go through the similar boom/bust cycle that involves periods of stoic frugality followed by binge shopping trips. No matter how you tweak this strategy, inevitably you end up blaming yourself.

The problem with achieving any goal by the hard and narrow road of self-discipline is this: more often than not, you are at war with yourself.

Whenever you invoke self-discipline, the rational and socialized side of you will be battling for control against the childlike and spontaneous side of you. The former wants you to be “better”—whatever that means—while the latter wants the freedom to be who you are.  And the so-called self-discipline is essentially an arsenal of hostile judgments to bully the latter into submission in order to promote the former.

If only it were that easy.

This will always be an exhausting battle because your childlike and impulsive side is a primal and powerful force that cannot be and should not be easily subdued. You may be able to force its hand for a little while—and a little while can range from fifteen minutes to fifteen years—but if you keep tyrannizing it into the straitjacket that it doesn’t fit in, then be prepared for an eventual riot that would destroy all your nice holiday plans. (The Roman Empire had a similar problem. You know how it turned out in the end.)

And more importantly, this inner child of yours is a precious part of your humanity, and a source of your creativity, joy, intuition, and Jedi warrior power. It’s true that it may storm into the china shop of your orderly life and knock over a few tea cups from time to time. But this child needs to be respected and loved…i.e. if you want the Force to be with you.

And in case you haven’t noticed, people who demonstrate supernatural self-discipline and never wander off from accomplishing “whatever they set their mind to” are usually as pleasant to be around as the Death Star. (I’m saying this from the vintage point of someone who used to be as pleasant to be around as the Death Star. But that’s a story for another time.)

If you have not been able to reach the goals you had in mind or been stuck in an exhausting cycle of improvement/relapse, maybe it is time to give the weapon of self-discipline a rest. Does that mean you will have to give up your goals? Not necessarily. But it does mean that you need to look at these goals in the bigger context of your life and dig deeper at your own motivations.

1. Ask your inner child what it needs from you.

And listen. Are you too abrasive a parent to this innocent part of you? Does it feel ignored and unloved because you’ve been so single-mindedly pursuing what you think you wanted? Does it feel that your ambitious crusade to “improve” yourself is completely misdirected? No matter what you do, you will achieve the best outcome possible in the most effortless way when all parts of you are on board. If some are not, there’s always a reason and perhaps it’s time to have a conversation with yourself and ask why. For example, do you want to lose weight because it’s a healthy choice? Or do you want it because you think you’d be more lovable once you’re skinnier? If it’s the latter, your inner child will probably sabotage you because it wants to be loved now, by you, for who he/she is, instead of having to jump through hoops to win your affection.

2. Respect your own desire for freedom.

All sentient beings have a natural instinct to seek more expansion and freedom (that’s what my orchid told me, who has relentlessly demanded to be repotted to a larger and larger dig every year). You are no exception. People thrive when they feel they have the freedom to be who they are. Sometimes we forget this essential truth when we’re so focused on our immediate goal. But your inner child never forgets this, because freedom is its very nature. And no matter how good your pet project looks on paper, if it’s originated from a place of less freedom rather than more, then don’t be surprised when your inner child rebels. For example, it may sound like a good plan to skip your regular morning cappuccino from Starbucks so as to save a bit more. But if your intention is one of fear for your financial future instead of just prudent planning, then don’t expect your inner child to go along nicely. Because no matter what you do, when it is coming from a place of fear, it inevitably shrinks your sense of freedom and makes you a smaller version of yourself.

3. Look for areas of your life that make you feel less free.

Sometimes your inner child may appear outrageously “undisciplined”, because your life already feels like a cage and now—God forbid—you’re taking away the only expression(s) of freedom that it has. If you’re stuck in an unfulfilling job/relationship that you’re afraid to lose, have no productive means to express your creativity, and are surrounded by haters who’d never appreciate who you are, your inner child may feel that the only way to take a break from all this depressing stuff is to eat whatever you want and watch as much internet porn as you want. And now you want to take even those little bits of freedom away? How dare you??!! (This is just for illustration of course. It’s my sincere wish that you never ever encounter such a situation.) But the point is just the same. If it feels difficult to get disciplined in certain department of your life, maybe it’s a sign that you need to take a look at whether your life needs more oxygen in general.

In closing, self-discipline is overrated. And if you find yourself not having much of it, don’t be so quick to blame yourself. It may just be a blessing in disguise. The seeming lack of willpower is an opportunity to listen to yourself and become more in tune with what you really need. And no matter how much or how little discipline you have, trust that you’re already more-than-fully equipped to deal with whatever life throws your way, in your own way.

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