Discipline doesn't work (or why ice cream always wins) - Next Action Associates

At some point in nearly every seminar, someone will say some version of the following: “Okay, this all makes sense. I can see that GTD is the way that I should be working, but I’ll need a lot of discipline to keep it up”. Implicit in this message is that they have some prior experience (from dieting to exercise to learning a new language) that has them thinking that they don’t have that discipline, and so–no matter how much sense the GTD methodology makes to them–they probably won’t succeed in using it. I think that the key to their success–or not–lies in the way that they are thinking about the challenge of implementing a new behaviour. Over the years I’ve noticed that when people talk about “discipline” what they generally mean is that they’ll struggle to get themselves to do something that they really don’t want to do. If that is the case, then I’m pretty sure they are right, they won’t manage to do that thing. I know from my own experience that once I tell myself that I need discipline to do something I’ve basically set myself up in opposition to myself. That is to say that there is a part of me that is saying “yes, you should do this, it will be good for you”, and there is another saying”yes, and broccoli is good for you too, but ice cream is waaaaaaaay more fun”. In my experience, over time, the second voice always wins. I can manage to get myself to do something that requires “discipline” for a day, a week, sometimes even a month, but eventually, I’ll be found with my feet sticking out the top of a tub of Haagen Daz. Every time.

So, I don’t think discipline works all that well. Not for me, not when it involves trying to get myself to do things that I know will be good for me, but that I don’t really want to do. What does work, and has always worked, is getting very clear on the benefits of why I’m doing that thing. Not clear as in, “broccoli is good for me, and–apparently–great for my intestines”, but clear as in “I love the experience of living in a body that is able to run, jump and play because I eat more broccoli than brownies”. With GTD, I think I got lucky; this happened the first time I skimmed the book on a plane to New York. The idea of working with a “mind like water”–more productively, with less stress–was so attractive to me that I can honestly say I’ve never had to discipline myself to do what is suggested to get there. That is not to say that I haven’t worked at it, or that sometimes I haven’t worked quite hard at it. It just has never felt like trying to get myself to do something that I didn’t want to do. The goal was so clear, and so attractive, it was what I wanted to do to get there. There is a world of difference between thinking, “I have to process my inbox because it will be good for me”, and thinking “I can’t wait to clear out my inbox so I can get back to that sense of relaxed control that works so much better than everything else I’ve experienced”.

After 7 years of working with the methodology, that thought is what has driven every single enhancement to how I work. From the first hesitant–and somewhat backwards–implementation of the book, through my first, second and third seminars and on to getting coached and learning to teach the methodology everything has been about getting more of the relaxed productivity that is offered. I’ll still be more likely found consorting with a tub of Haagen Daz than a salad on any given day, but–in that domain–there is still more to learn.

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