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?

One thing I'm not sure about -- and I welcome commentary on this in the comments below -- is whether extrinsic motivators to be disciplined are a good or a bad thing. In interviewing JC Alvarado and Olivier Busquet for All In Or Knocked Out Part 2 (entitled "Seek Discipline And Find Your Liberty", both men independently expressed to me the idea that they both wanted to go through a fight camp, but they needed the extrinsic motivation of a six-figure bet in order to drop everything and do it. They both acknowledged that without the bet, they would not train hard and dial in their diet, nutrition, and exercise. (Olivier also expresses this idea in his well-written blog post on the topic.)

Both men also said that the six months training for the fight were tremendously beneficial in that the fight enforced discipline on them. They had both felt that their discipline was lacking given the lifestyle that they lived, and the value they gained from their respective six-month fight camps was an appreciation for discipline which they both hoped would carry over into their post-fight lives. 

Time will tell whether Olivier and JC improve their self-discipline to a level that they are happy with (it's only been three weeks since their fight camp ended), but extrinsic motivators are everywhere. is a very popular website where you are required to pay a penalty if you don't achieve a certain goal. I recently came across this tweet in my timeline from another poker pro; note it's popularity in terms of likes/retweets:

Discipline for its own sake

I'll argue that discipline is one of the most important life skills that we have in a modern society where basically unlimited hedonism is available to us in various forms, be they food, drugs/alcohol, staying up late, watching TV, surfing the web, porn, shopping, or anything that brings us farther from the person we want to be. But what should be the source of discipline? Should discipline be sought for its own sake, as a sort of monastic value? Or is it desirable -- perhaps even necessary -- for people to establish extrinsic motivators to enforce self-discipline? Again, I welcome comments below.

1 comment:

  1. I think it depends on the person. Gavin and I are a good study on this as I require essentially no extrinsic motivation to achieve goals. For me, setting my goals is almost always sufficient motivation. However, over the years I've realized that it in most things Gavin operates differently than me.

    Self awareness is the most important aspect. If it takes a very public offer of 100 dollars to achieve your goal of not smoking, then setting up those are necessary.