September 27, 2016

Self-Discipline Doesn’t Do the Work

Which should you do first: the things you know you have to do, or the one thing you feel like doing right now?

Before you answer, consider this: you’ll feel more disciplined if you address the things you know you have to do, but you’ll be more productive if you work on the thing that has captured your imagination at the moment.

The state of your life at the end of the day depends mainly on how much you got done — so is it better to be as productive as you can be when you work, or to do work in the right order?

Our global culture tells us self-discipline is better than self-indulgence, but researchers studying the question haven’t been able to say which approach comes out better in practice. There is no question that when you take a more disciplined approach you work harder, and it seems as if the greater effort should result in completing more work, but careful observation doesn’t bear that out. Oliver Burkeman writing at The Guardian has a quick summary of the latest thinking on the subject:

The to-do list is the perfect example. To work with a to-do list, first you have to write the list. It’s extra work. It delays the real work. You start the race half an hour late and carry a list with you. Are you working harder? Absolutely! Can you catch up? Maybe, but I wouldn’t count on it. Will the to-do list lighten the load in some way? Trying sitting and watching a to-do list for an hour and see how much work the list does for you.

To-do lists don’t do the work, and the same may be said of self-discipline in general. It might make you sweat, but then you still have to do the work. There is an obvious shortcut to take. When you realize you need to do more, don’t reach for a disciplined approach. Just go directly to where the work is.

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