The Origin of Leaders #4: Self-discipline. Cultivating the habit of completion

by Conor Neill on December 13, 2010

I feel a fraud writing on self-discipline. I started this post over 6 weeks ago. Yet, here I am—just days before deadline–finally coming back to push through the hard work of completing it and making it readable.

I am definitely not a guru or master of self-discipline. More times than not, I am a master of procrastination. I am brilliant at finding important interruptions to fill my time when I have a big project sitting there.

But, I’m forced to address these issues because of the fundamental truth: A small step completed is a million times better than a big plan thought about. Seth Godin says that “Professionals ship”. Ship means they finish what they start. There are many, many people who are like bullfrogs in a china shop – they make lots of noise, but no actual action (or breakage) happens.

So, I’m dedicating this Topic to exploring ways we can all ship more often?  A little over a year ago I wrote my most-read-ever post – 17 Habits for a fulfilling life – and Self-Discipline was habit #1.

What would my parents say?

My parents would laugh to see me, Conor, writing on self-discipline! Alter all, they observed my high-school years where they watched me avoid studying, avoid starting essays, leaving homework to the last possible minute (and often somewhat later).

Likewise, my housemates from my time at university would be falling off their chairs laughing if you were to point them to this post.

Why I’m taking a fresh look at self-discipline

I began writing seriously about 2 years ago. This has led me to have a deep interest in why I am highly productive in some periods and totally useless during other periods. Through these musings, my hope is that some day those useless periods will be smashed to smithereens and I will become a “proper writer”.

I am not going to write a post today that says that you must become totally disciplined in order to be successful. There are some tricks, there is some psychology, there is a lot of pushing through and keeping working when things don’t look so easy.

What would Nike say?

I have spent a lot of time during the past few months interviewing high performance athletes. My goal was to understand their motivations, how they train, how they prepare mentally, and how they face anxiety.

In many cases these successful athletes have an ability to focus on the one next step and, in the words of Nike, Just do it!

Josef Ajram, Spain’s top endurance athlete, tells himself “I will run another 15 minutes. Come on. Anyone can run another 15 minutes.”

In Josef Ajram’s words, he has completed the Marathon de Sables – 243km across the Sahara desert in 6 days – by only ever allowing himself to think about the next 15 minutes!

The Pomodor Technique

Today, when I write, I use an execution tool called The Pomodoro Technique.

This was created by Italian student Francesco Cirillo during the time that he was writing his university thesis. He was having a hard time getting started.

One day, he went to his mother’s kitchen where he found a cooking timer in the shape of a tomato – pomodoro in italian. He took the pomodoro timer back to his desk and thought “right, I am going to set this to 20 minutes and I will keep writing until the timer finishes”.

He began to use this execution tool on a daily basis and quickly got on top of the thesis he had to write. He has documented the full method and provides tools at the Pomodoro technique home page.

So, set a timer and focus on just taking one small step.

Why do we procrastinate?

Why do we sabotage ourselves even when we know what we should do to move towards our goal? I read a great post by Leo Baubata of Zen Habits a couple of months ago where he talked of 4 reasons why we procrastinate:

  1. It provides Instant Gratification – It feels better right now
  2. It avoids Fear – If I do it wrong what will they say? What will they think of me? If I don’t act then I avoid the risk of making a mistake.
  3. It has no immediate negative consequencesJim Rohn says “We all have the choice of one of two great pains in the world – the pain of regret or the pain of discipline”. The pain of discipline is here and now. The pain of regret comes later… but is by far the worse pain.
  4. I overestimate my future self – I have some inner belief that I will be smarter, better, faster in the future. This is a strong belief. The work that is hard today must somehow be easier for the better future me? But, what if’s not? I am deceiving myself.

Good and Bad Procrastination.

There is good and bad procrastination. Putting off going to the supermarket so that I can finish this article because I am on a roll would be good procrastination; checking my email because I am hitting a wall in my writing of this article would be bad procrastination.

Many highly productive people manage to succeed by procrastinating on important work when avoiding unimportant tasks. My desk here is quite a mess. I should tidy it, but writing this article is my way of procrastinating away from cleaning up.

Building Your Support Community

Which co-workers and friends want to see you succeed? Who are the people in your life who like to see you make progress on the things that are important to you? If you want to get big things done, you must spend time with others who are on this journey and support your journey.

Self-discipline grows with use

Self-discipline, like muscle, grows with use. Keep one promise, the next one will be is easier. Run tonight, tomorrow easier. Write now, tomorrow easier.

The other side of the coin, however, is that without use, discipline shrinks! No run today, harder tomorrow. No writing today, harder tomorrow.

How can you develop your self-discipline?

Here are some simple “first steps” you might want to try after reading this article:

  • Try the Pomodoro technique. Do 10 minutes on something important right now.
  • Take time each morning to reflect on what is important
  • Avoid “the watercooler gang” – the groups in our offices and schools who are happily unproductive and enjoy helping others take their place in the group. Make a list of 2-3 people who support you when you talk of your progress in something important in your life.
  • Never underestimate the role of practice and persistence and hard work in success. The “3 steps to untold riches programs” don’t work. The “flat tummy in 1 week while watching TV plan” doesn’t work. There are no shortcuts. Don’t waste time looking.
  • Inspiration tends to come when you have trudged through 40 minutes of painful effort and have not allowed yourself to check email, make a coffee, eat chocolate, check IM… You have to push through to get to inspiration.

Summary (or how to change the world…  one step at a time)

The only people who can change the world are those that want to. Many don’t want to. Some want to, but don’t accept the discipline of hard work. Anything you want will never be as hard as you imagine it will be! So, get started and push on through. Do it “just because.” Even if it is a failure as a product, it will teach you. You will come out stronger.

In my next post we will look at how to take Imagination, Ambition, Learning and Self-Discipline and make the journey easier with each day. A friend of mine, Verne Harnish says: “Routine sets you free.” I welcome your comments, retweets and general link-love!

Conor NeillConor Neill is the professor of Leadership Communication at IESE Business School in Barcelona and an entrepreneur who has founded four companies. Years ago, he was a manager in the Human Performance consulting practice of Accenture. He loves rugby, mountain climbing and will run a marathon next march. Conor frequently blogs at conorneill.com and tweets as cuchullainn
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  • Manuel Ancizu

    This is just me, not disciplined at all, delaying and letting things for the last minute. And always thinking, if I had done it earlier…

    Thanks for your post, “one step at a time”

  • http://twitter.com/rob_marchant Rob Marchant

    Great post Conor, the sum of some stuff we’ve talked about before and some we haven’t. What comes across also I think is that honest self-appraisal is the pre-requisite to anything like this, let’s admit that although sometimes we can excel at self-discipline in some circumstances, sometimes we can just as easily be rubbish at it.

  • Andreas

    Great note Conor! I will definitly start the cooking timer as much as I possible can. The fact of not getting started or getting stuck in doing non useful activities that impose real productivity is based on mental polution and yes a lack of focus to clearly see the benefits of getting things achieved. Verne is right, routines set your free but acomplishment makes life so much greater!

  • http://www.conorneill.com Conor

    Routine and discipline, simple but difficult ;-)

  • http://www.conorneill.com Conor

    Yep… in the words of the Oracle at Delphi “Know Thyself” (I think…)

  • http://www.conorneill.com Conor

    Good luck with one step at a time ;-) Thanks for the comment. Have a great Christmas. Conor

  • robert_tico

    Terrific. Great ideas must be followed by hard work, constant. Altough the text is easy to understand, there’s a clever work behind it. I wish you all a great Christmas with your relatives and friends.

  • http://www.conorneill.com Conor

    Thanks Robert. Have a wonderful Christmas.

  • Sarafpuneet

    Very inspiring & insightful. Many thanks for sharing! I wish you all the very best and hope that you’d continue sharing your thoughts.

  • farahmand

    thanks it was very usefull

  • http://www.cono.rs/ Conor

    Thank you

  • http://www.cono.rs/ Conor

    ;-)

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