Why Success Doesn’t Require Discipline (And What it Does Entail)

by Alexander Heyne · 13 comments

There is a problem with most of us in the west.

Whenever we want to reach a certain goal, achieve or start something, we’re always told to invest effort and be disciplined.

I really need to go on a diet! – Work hard at it and discipline yourself!

I want to build a successful business. – Work hard at it and discipline yourself!

I want to be a better husband. – Work hard at it and discipline yourself!

I want to run a marathon. – Work hard at it and discipline yourself!

In the west we are obssessed with this idea of struggling towards success.

We’re obsessed with using “work more, work harder” as a panacae.

We’re obsessed with effort and struggle.

We’re obsessed with things like “finding your second wind” and “giving it your all” and “putting in extraordinary work for extraordinary success.”

But I want to briefly ask you one thing: is this assumption of what works even true?

Ask anyone who forced themselves to go to the gym every day. A year later are they still going? I’d be willing to be my life savings they aren’t.

And that’s because discipline and willpower are short-lived. They take so much mental energy to maintain. The more forced mental energy things take, the less likely we’re to stick with them long-term.

That’s why I’m here to say that success isn’t about struggle or discipline, but about creating habits.

The tale of the struggling dieter and businessman

I am totally against the idea that life has to be a struggle. I realize we must all struggle at times, and in certain areas of our lives, but in my experience I have realized that a person can truly be successful in a world-class way while investing much less effort than most people.

Take John the average joe dieter (AJD). John hits 40 or 50 and starts needing Cialis because he is too unhealthy to have a normal sex drive. (You can tell this is gonna be juicy, right?)

January rolls around and John decides that his new year resolution should be to get fit again. “I’m strong as an ox, I could kick a 20 something’s ass!” he tells himself.

So John decides he wants to get back in the gym again, even though he hates working out. Lifting weights is boring to him, he gets ADD, and he spends most of his time criticizing the other meatheads in the room or checking out cougars.

John keeps telling himself ” Ok, work out = I can look good, and get my sex drive back. Smaller belly, bigger productivity at work. Healthier = more money made.”

He doesn’t want to wake up early before work because that would entail some 5 am days, so he kind of just gives himself that “alright, time to go to the gym” pep talk after work, and when it works, he goes to the gym right away.

It works at the start – he’s pumped, he’s motivated, he starts seeing a little bit of results.

A bigger bicep, a slimmer belly, better sleep, more alertness at work. It’s working. So he sticks with it.

Now, where is John, this AJD (Average joe dieter) 6 months from now?

99.999999% of these AJDs end up skipping out on the gym once, because one day at 5 pm they end up getting drinks at happy hour with their buddies instead of sticking to the routine. The next week they only works out once. And the following week they stop going. Six months in they no longer work out at all.

———————–

People ask me how I don’t have a sweet tooth. 

Diet (or in your business, those small daily tasks that add up to success/failure) is often the hard part for people looking to get healthy.

Any dieter knows that working out is the easy part. It’s only a couple hours a week.

But diet? Does anyone crave less tasty food? Not really.  But how many times do you eat or drink a day, which require conscious choices? Dozens.

Diet is the part that often takes “effort” in the mind of the average dieter.

I want you to briefly compare the struggle of the AJD (Average joe dieter) to my “struggle” to eat healthy.

I walk into the grocery store and I go into the “real food” section. You know, the plants and shit.

I then walk into the meat section. You know, animals and shit.

I don’t even go into the aisles with boxes.

Then I go home and cook that up. No sweets in site. No crap in a box in site. No artificial garbage in site.

Guess what? A few years after starting the above habit, it doesn’t take me any effort to not eat sweets. In fact, I often describe myself as not possessing a sweet tooth now.

Put oreos and milanos and candy corns and stuff in front of me. It takes no effort not to eat them. I don’t feel anything toward them.

And this is because I’ve cultivated a life habit. It does not take effort for me to avoid sweets or not watch tv. I do both automatically. I’m programmed to not use those things in my daily life.

This is all effortless for me. But when people talk about me or describe me they think I have a ton of self control or say I’m “lucky” that I don’t have a sweet tooth.

It requires zero effort on my part.

Why success does not necessarilly require massive effort, struggle or discipline.

Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

- Steven Pressfield

You know that thing called “showing up every day?” In the really successful, it comes by way of habits and not by discipline or this massive struggle.

I’m not saying everything in life will become effortless or no work, but I’m saying things will become massively easier.

Let me give another example.

I was the classic high school scrawny “100 lbs wet” kid. Graduating college I was around 6′ 2″ and weighed around 135. Yeah. That’s like anorexically skinny, except I was actually eating food.

Despite the fact that I was lifting weights 4+ times a week, I had plateaued somewhere around 140, 145 1-2 years out of college. I thought I was eating a lot; I thought I was doing everything right.

I was still horrendously, unattractively skinny.

Around the time that I moved to China, I decided this was a perfect opportunity to get bigger since food was cheap and I could afford to eat out every single meal of every day.

So here’s what I did: instead of force feeding myself, I got into the habit of waking up extra early for class, and then programming reminders on my iPod to eat at certain hour intervals. This went off 5+ times a day, 7 days a week, for a year.

I just followed the checklist of instructions. I ingrained the habit every single time, every day. 5+ small habits. 7:30 am, 10:30 am, 1:30 pm, 4:30 pm, etc.

At the end of that year I weighed closed to 170 lbs — and gained very little fat (remember that part about eating plants and meat and shit?).

Gaining 20-30 pounds of relatively healthy weight is an absurd accomplishment, especially if anyone reading this is a skinny kid who has tried gaining weight. That’s a legendary achievement. And it was all pretty pain-free due to ingraining certain habits.

It was an effortlessly epic achievement.

Lots of baby steps taken daily result in massive changes over time.

Stop thinking of how to invest more effort. Think of how to invest less effort.

There’s a massive shift that takes place in your life when you decide to view everything from the perspective of “how can I do this smarter/differently/ more frictionless” rather than “how can I invest more and work harder.”

We always say more effort, more struggle, more work.

Extraordinary success requires extraordinary work.

Uhhh, how about extraordinarily different or smart thinking? How about extraordinary success through extraordinary laziness?

Whether it’s for a diet, or for a relationship, or for your business, what’s with this EFFORT thing? Why would I want to compete on an even playing field with others where my only option is “more work” ?

The big problem is that if you buy into this “effort” thing that we love hearing about in the west (Uber hard work = success!) you automatically assume that’s the best way to get what you want. So dieting takes EFFORT. Success takes EFFORT. Marriage takes EFFORT. Raising kids takes EFFORT.

You don’t even realize there is another way.

But what if people told you that losing weight or getting fit was effortless, done right? What if people told you success was about making 5 or 10 little habits and routines you go through daily? What if people told you marriage is much easier when you have a few key little routines or things you do routinely for and with your spouse?

You and only you make your life much harder than it has to be. Hard work and effort becomes the hammer you look for nails with.

This “hard work struggle” is a very myopic view of life and I feel like it should be your “worst case scenario” . Worst comes to worst, you can invest 2 or 3 x the hours into something and you’ll get better than everyone else.

But why would you want to settle for a worst-case scenario?

No one cares how hard you worked (there’s nothing glorious about martyrs) 

“I loved working hard to get where I am, and to get the things that I want. It makes me stronger, it makes me feel like I earned the things I have.”

Cool. You know what else is cool? No one cares how much you struggled. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but your boss only cares about the results you give him – whether that takes 1 hour or 10.

Some people just love being martyrs, they LOVE saying they suffered for where they got. It gives them some sort of identity or something.

I don’t mean to be an asshole (No, wait, I do), but people genuinely don’t care. They may empathize, they may “feel for you” but now that you’re where you are, they truthfully don’t care how you got there.

Results, not time invested, is one of those key qualities separating entrepreneurs and the successful from everyone else. 

Stop thinking about how you can make things better by working harder and working more. 

Once you get into the habit of viewing life as requiring massive effort, struggle, and work, it will become that way!

But if you view life, work and success as things that should become more effortless as you understand them better, they’ll become that way too.

This more effortless way is called habits.

Any of you who have been in love know that it feels infinitely more effortless and natural than a relationship that doesn’t work. It just makes sense. You put in massive effort and it feels like fun.

This is how life becomes for people who understand and utilize the power of ingraining many small, daily habits.

Challenge the assumption that success has to require massive struggle and effort, and you may be surprised to learn that it becomes a little more effortless.

Image: Cubagallery

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Shayna November 6, 2012 at 1:26 pm

I agree with you, although the forming of the habit does take some effort – not a herculean effort, but more like a long-term persistent effort to actually take that same baby step day after day.

By the way, I think your spam filter hates me :-p it ate my comment on your previous post!

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Alexander Heyne November 7, 2012 at 11:17 am

Haha yeah absolutely. Starting the gym routine, putting down the first cigarette, sitting down first thing in the morning to do work- those are the hard parts.

If you ask me, the effort needs to go into forming these habits, because long-term it will require a TON less effort. I’m just totally against this prevelant idea in the west that all success comes from massive effort and struggle and pushing yourself. I understand that a lot of the time we have to do that. But if you ask me the best become the best by more than just sheer effort.

Just found your post too ;) responded to that

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Shayna November 8, 2012 at 6:01 am

True, once you’ve built momentum, it’s easier to keep it going.

I think the “massive effort” mindset can also lead to damaging perfectionism – for example, I know that a common problem (particularly for people trying to lose weight) is the feeling that if you have a few “off” days in a row when you eat badly and don’t exercise, then you’ve ruined things and there’s no point in getting back to the good habits. Not true! It’s just that the inertia has gone the other way (back towards the bad habit).

But it’s better to do something 80% or even 50% then not to do it at all, simply because you can’t “give 110%” ALL the time, you know? Better some forward progress than none whatsoever!

Eva November 11, 2012 at 6:43 pm

Your writing resonates. When I read your posts I always think ‘exactly! Thank God someone is on the same page as me’ or alternatives such as ‘it’s not just me, other people think like ‘this’, too” because mostly people don’t think like this/common knowledge is basically for people who have no independent thought and to speak as you/I do is considered ‘interesting’ and I’ve often been labeled as ‘rebelling’. At 30 I’m apparently still rebelling. I’m not (and I’m sure neither are you) ‘rebelling’ for the sake of being seen to be ‘rebelling’ but rather because I cannot understand the bs that people actually believe/discuss with each other and basically buy into.

On this post however I think you’ve missed the point. I think people discuss ‘effort’ because the formation of habits requires so much effort. Your example regarding supermarket shopping choices requires conscious effort by most people to a)form said habit but moreover b) sustain it. When people discuss ‘effort’ it’s the notion of having to do X day in day out when they don’t want to – but know they should. This then requires ‘self-disciple’ and ‘effort’. The continuation of a habit to my mind is self-disciple. Most people don’t really ‘want’ to do what’s good for them though equally they don’t want the negative repercussions of not doing what’s good for them…we fight against ourselves in a state of cognitive dissonance.

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Alexander Heyne November 13, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Hey Eva !

Totally with you! When people meet me in person, they almost never describe me as “rebellious” because, like you, I’m not being rebellious for the sake of attention or just wanting a thrill.

I do it because I don’t buy the bullshit that people have fed to me. I constantly question everything I do, even very basic assumptions about life.

You make an interesting points – Shayna brought up the same thing. I agree that the formation of habits takes a ton of effort.

I disagree though that habits take effort to sustain. After you’ve done them for a while, they don’t. Unless you start skipping a habit for a few days, at which point you revert back to your old habits. The point of habits is that they are effortless — it’s effortless for a habitual smoker to CONTINUE smoking. It takes effort to quit.

Does brushing your teeth, not using your self phone in class/at work, waking up at 8 am 7 days a week take effort, if they’re already habits? No. You brush your teeth before bed as part of your wind-down ritual, you turn your phone off and throw it in your bag and forget about it at work, and after enough months of waking up at 8 am, you’ll wake up at 8 am even when you were out until 3 am.

I’ll agree that many things take effort. And if there’s cognitive dissonance (ughhh I don’t wanna go to the gym but I know I have to), it makes it 10x more difficult. But what if that person instead made a habit of doing 5 pushups each morning? That would take 30 seconds. And then they added a pushup a day?

I think effort and struggle are overemphasized in our society — but that’s just my 2 cents ;)

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Ryan November 14, 2012 at 10:37 pm

Hey Alexander,

My thoughts exactly! Studies show that we have a fixed amount of willpower. But now more than ever, there are temptations! So if you just cut out the temptations, it makes it easier for you. In your dieting example, you essentially cut out the temptation by bypassing all of the aisles that are not meats and vegetables.

That’s why I got rid of my personal account on facebook. I was distracted, and I realized the world still goes on without facebook, so I shut it down, and I feel a little liberated. It’s been at least 3 months since I had facebook, and I don’t plan on going back anytime soon….

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Alexander Heyne November 16, 2012 at 10:24 am

Hey Ryan —

Haha yeah I think I might have seen that article too. I think they basically concluded that using willpower is exhausting after a while, right?

I think you’re right about cutting out temptations but it’s not that simple. Re: your facebook example, I have lots of friends that cut out Facebook, intending to go the entire exam week (for example), but after a day or two they opening their account again. The subconscious habit of constantly using facebook throughout the day or when bored overrode their “putting aside the temptation.” So if you ask me, I think it’s a matter of both in my opinion.

And I’ve long been thinking about getting rid of my personal facebook.. in fact, the only reason I don’t is because it’s the only way I stay in contact with certain people, and without it I become a pretty shitty friend haha.

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Mike November 18, 2012 at 3:43 pm

I love it! I call this “the power of the new normal” and wrote about it myself. I’m living new normals every month now and it just really isn’t all that hard once you get into the groove.

Great post! Like always!

http://livetheneweconomy.com/blog/2012/10/29/the-power-of-the-new-normal.html

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Elaine November 28, 2012 at 5:26 pm

This article really resonates with me. Just this morning, I was thinking of writing about the difference between discipline and routine/habits. You are so right. Much more freedom when you choose better habits.

I work with women who want to make their health a priority. And developing new routines, or taking small steps is top of the list of how I coach on change. Some people fight having a routine or new habits because they don’t want to feel confined or limited. They want variety. The truth is that they have a routine going, it just may not be a healthy one. So, if they want to do something different or better, the routine has to change.

I figured this out on my own health journey. I got out of the mindset that I had to eat something different each night. What I made a habit of is eating something healthy and delicious every night. And, that could be the same thing a few nights! Taste trumped variety.

What happens with a habit is that the brain literally makes new connections to form the new habit. It happens at a physiological level. It becomes ingrained in your psyche. It’s beyond emotion at that point.

I could go on and on…love this topic! Thanks for sharing!

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Alexander Heyne November 30, 2012 at 11:08 am

Yeah exactly Elaine!

In my opinion it seems like people don’t even realize how effortless habits are. How effortlessly they keep you in bad routines doing things detrimental to your health. I just don’t understand why people view everything as taking discipline or effort. It’s like I”m fighting an entire society trying to help people understand the power of their habits.

Thanks for stopping by !

Alexander

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Alexandra U. July 11, 2014 at 2:07 pm

Hei…At the moment I`m really trying to think outside the box and get new perspectives (I`m considering which university to go to, moving to another city and stuff like that). I`m afraid of failure and going wrong with the choices I make…but at the same time I don`t want to blow this opportunity. I know there is a lot to do until I reach the goals I have in mind…and I`m happy that I got to read this because it`s something fresh and different from the classic books and articles about success and self-improvement. What would be your best advice for someone like me? I hope you can take the time to answer this…Best wishes. ^_~

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Alexander Heyne July 17, 2014 at 1:04 pm

Alexandra – I would do whatever you would plan to do if you weren’t afraid. That’s the right move. Remove fear, then ask the same question.

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Alexander Heyne November 8, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Yeah absolutely!

The perfectionism thing is hard to get out of for sure. Like you said, the inertia has gone back towards the bad habit which means you have to fight that and put more effort into making the new habit outweigh the bad one.

And yeah it’s absolutely better to do 50% or 80% if you can’t manage the 110%. Let’s face it – look at any person who “only” works out 50% of the time or who “only” eats healthy 50% of the time. Their body will be markedly different than someone who works out or eats healthy 0% of the time. Totally with you on that.

I think the same is true for “success” in whatever domain.

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