Several years ago, I had a colleague, Thomas, who decided that he wanted to run a marathon. Like many of us would do, he researched a training program, bought shoes, and set himself a date by which he would do it. But then he did something uncanny. He trained every day and did it. I was shocked.
Finding the interest and excitement to take on a new hobby or workout program is nothing new. I’ve invested hours in research to learn about one new endeavour or another, and at times have invested in new kit which I just know will make me a superstar at my chosen undertaking. And then, after a few attempts, I give it up.
Inevitably this cycle makes me feel feckless. The accumulation of these sorts of failures has made me question myself. No that’s not right, they’ve led me to judge myself. How can I be the kind of person who is unable to follow through with a simple workout plan? Why do I procrastinate in areas of my personal life that I know will benefit, e.g. health, fitness, happiness? Why is discipline so hard to do?
What confounds me about the topic is that I’ve demonstrated great discipline throughout my life. It’s not as though I am not familiar with it, some notable examples have been:
In the Military: Early morning formations, late night patrols or guard duty, months away from family and friends, being a soldier is a full body commitment founded in discipline.
At university: I worked hard, won scholarships, achieved honours and took on a variety of extracurricular obligations. Running a student newspaper, leading the campus honours society, captaining the rugby team and participating in the student government in parallel to my studies required discipline.
My professional career: with over two decades in professional services, engaged in selling and delivering transformative business projects, I’ve needed to display high degrees of discipline in order to succeed.
Yet the basic discipline to reorder my personal habits to form routines that I know will serve me well feels insurmountable.
Perhaps it’s not a question of discipline, perhaps it’s motivation. In all of the examples listed above, there has been a strong external motivator: punitive punishments in the Army; the knowledge that university would open up opportunities for a better life; the compounding responsibilities both professionally and to support my young family at work. At times it makes me wonder if I need a looming threat in order to find my discipline. That feels dark and does not seem to speak well of my personality.
Adam Grant calls it Character, which he sees differently to personality in this way:
“Character is often confused with personality, but they’re not the same. Personality is your predisposition — your basic instincts for how to think, feel, and act. Character is your capacity to prioritise your values over your instincts.”
That paragraph from his new book “Hidden Potential” has stuck with me since I read it a few days ago. I know that a reframing of a problem can be helpful, and this reframing does something very powerful — it makes me feel more in control.
For people like Thomas, the ones who decide that they want to do something and just do it, this may feel utterly absurd. But for folks like me, the ones who procrastinate, who struggle to carry out or stick to work out plans or diets, it’s a hopeful idea.
Reflecting on and aligning my values is a place that I can start.