Why Self-Discipline Isn’t Enough to Reach Your Goals

My wife often points out my iron will. Once I decide to do something, I do it…particularly when it comes to fitness or physical challenges. I don’t quit. While I would love to say that discipline is the secret sauce and that all you need is some raw determination to reach your goals, I don’t believe that’s true. Discipline and determination are necessary, but not sufficient.

Whether it was finishing my PhD, benching 350, losing 50 lbs, advancing my career, running Spartan races, completing a 30-day burpee challenge, or (forthcoming) climbing Kilimanjaro, self-discipline was only part of the equation. So, what else does it take? At least three additional factors come into play:

  1. Your personal support system– self-discipline is a heck of a lot easier when you have a strong support system. My wife has always been a great support system. She pushed me through my PhD, put up with a lot of late night gym sessions when I was trying to bench 350, and helped to control the pantry when I was in the process of losing 50 lbs. Having people around who will push you, help you, and do the little things that allow you to be more focused works with (even amplifies) your own personal self-discipline and contributes to the successful achievement of your goals.
  2. Your current situation– In addition to your personal support system, your actual situation influences whether you can successfully reach a given goal at a given time. When my back pain was at its most severe (I had three damaged discs in my low back), there was a limit to how much will power I could muster to do much more than the daily tasks of life. In my last couple of years as an academic dean, work was so tumultuous that it wasn’t really feasible for me to engage in some of the other professional activities I would have loved to explore. Kim still had my back and a number of other friends, family, and colleagues lent their support…but my energies had to be focused on getting through some tough, painful situations. As well-disciplined as I am, my will power has its limits.
  3. Your willingness to sacrifice– While it is easy to think of the fruits of discipline as additive…as only bringing something new and good into life, I’ve seldom found that to be the case. Discipline is about prioritization…giving up one thing in order to make room for another. Discipline almost always involves sacrifice. Your willingness to sacrifice is, in some sense, the negative side of discipline.

I liked the following quote from Rob McElhenny in which he pokes fun at how he lost the 50 lbs he put on for season 12 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and then came back ripped up for the 13th season:

Look, it’s not that hard. All you need to do is lift weights six days a week, stop drinking alcohol, don’t eat anything after 7 p.m., don’t eat any carbs or sugar at all, in fact just don’t eat anything you like, get the personal trainer from Magic Mike, sleep nine hours a night, run three miles a day, and have a studio pay for the whole thing over a six to seven month span. I don’t know why everyone’s not doing this. It’s a super realistic lifestyle and an appropriate body image to compare oneself to. #hollywood.”

What Rob points out is that it isn’t all about individual discipline. To achieve his results, he had to have self-discipline, but he also had a lot of support and was in a unique situation that made his achievements possible and the sacrifices worth it.

There are certainly some who appear to be able to accomplish some great things on their own…maybe they have. My guess… they are not being honest about how much help they really got along the way.

So as you think about what you would like to achieve, don’t just rely on your own self-discipline. Engage those close to you and secure their support, make sure that you have the space to actually achieve your goals, and take some time to consider what you will need to give up to get you to where you want to be.

Self-discipline alone doesn’t ensure success…so don’t fool yourself into thinking it does. Be thankful for those in your life who support you, content and realistic about your situation, and ready to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve your goals.