Monday, May 9, 2016

Discipline and extrinsic motivators

It is often said discipline is like a muscle & fatigues with use. Muscles, of course, don't just fatigue -- they also strengthen with use. Exercise is an attempt to break down muscle tissue so that the body can respond by building back stronger tissue. 

People around me often praise me as a disciplined person. It's one of the few compliments that I really enjoy when I get it, because I pride myself on working hard on my discipline. But in truth, I don't actually think I have discipline that is substantially better than my peer group. Among the general population, sure, perhaps I am 80th percentile or better. But I know many successful and diligent people, and most of them are much more disciplined than I am.

There are some ways in which my discipline is very poor. I've been without a traditional job for the last two years, and without deadlines to meet, my procrastination is often ridiculous. This entire blog post is being written at a time when I have many other errands that I have been meaning to do for at least a couple of weeks.

But there are many aspects in which I am very disciplined. Nutrition is probably the one area where I am very good relative to the field. I eat very clean, even by the standards of a serious athlete, and often to the chagrin of my girlfriend (who has at times accused me of orthorexia). But even this "discipline" is just a hack. I am not disciplined in the sense that I am much better than average at avoiding an open bag of potato chips or a carton of ice cream in my living room. But I am very good at walking past the potato chips and ice cream in the grocery store. I am very good at keeping my fridge full packed with vegetables and meats. 

One skill which I have developed is a very high ability to delay gratification. I have managed to frame things in a situation where I am often able to convince myself that the thing that I want right now will be much better if I simply wait until the future. It doesn't really matter what the thing is; I have learned to become very good at delaying its consumption. Particularly in the areas of diet and saving money, this skill has been very useful.

Should we incentivize discipline, or punish a lack of it?