Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.
The Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills is an oasis of pampering I have enjoyed numerous times. The Club Bar is a wood panel sliver of luxury demanding a drink or two during your stay. Years ago, I made a pit stop at the bar after a long, hard day pitching my ideas to a tone-deaf audience. Polished and dressed for success, I sat on the edge of my seat, taking a deep breath, as a drop-dead gorgeous blonde sat next to me. She quickly turned heads as a well-dressed lady in her early 30s with a whiff of sophistication. She smiled, her eyes settling on me with a glint of approval before she looked back to the bartender placing her drink order.
Listening is one of my superpowers, so a lengthy conversation ensued. We blended together, laughing and sharing bits and pieces of our history. Finding common ground, we flirted with each other. The energy of our back and forth suggested a connection forming. The lady was single, available, and inclined to kiss on the first date. At that point, I paused.
In the weeks preceding this trip, I had become involved with a wonderful lady back in Houston. Two months of dating. No endearing words had been exchanged. We had not formalized our commitment or even agreed on exclusivity. I remained “technically” a free agent able to act on the prize sitting beside me if I liked. However, the collateral damage caused by partaking in more than a friendly conversation would likely have far-reaching consequences for my budding romance back home.
I decided to re-frame my conversation and nascent connection with my beautiful friend at the bar as an unnecessary distraction from my primary goal. She was a lovely temptation meant to be denied. Though not formalized, I had a “girlfriend,” expecting us to move forward as a couple. I owed it to myself and her to be disciplined and choose what I wanted most instead of indulging in a now moment. Also, to do more than talk felt like cheating. I politely excused myself from my entanglement at the bar reminding myself to stay consistent with my values and what I wanted most.
Being tempted makes us human. Giving into temptation makes me vulnerable to exiting the long path to what I want and value most. Good things take time. I live by five maxims. Maxim #5 applied here. “Never rush something you want to last forever.” Good things take time, energy, and consistency.
The power to resist temptation has been extolled by philosophers, psychologists, teachers, and coaches for your entire life. That sage advice litters each of our own memory lanes. The path to the good life, professional and personal satisfaction, mental health, success, and performance under pressure is achieved through discipline. No short-cuts. This assumes that the devil inside us, luring us to cheat, offend, err, and annoy, can be avoided. It should come as little surprise that some psychologists have called self-control or willpower the “greatest human strength” (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011).
Desire pervades our everyday life. The most conservative estimate from research (Hoffman et al. 2012) indicates that people feel some urge about half the time they are awake. Almost half of those desires (47%) are described as conflicting at least somewhat with our goals, values, or motivations. Therefore, inner conflict is a frequent feature of our daily life.
The other half or slight majority of desires constitutes unproblematic choices that are generally enacted. Even without resistance, people sometimes fail to do what they want. In research, the frequency of desire was remarkably consistent across persons. None of our personality or situational variables predicted higher or lower total desire frequency. Self-regulation can be understood as the inner mechanism for resolving goal conflicts (Kruglanski et al., 2002).
Self-regulation or willpower is needed often in a typical day because goal conflicts are frequent. A typical conflict is as follows: I enjoy food but am overweight. And I want to be healthy. Multiple goals are in conflict, especially when sitting down to a plate full of your favorite food. People committed to many conflicting goals have the greatest need for frequent self-regulation.
When temptation and immediate desires interfere with attaining long-term goals, the ability to resist them is a necessary skill. Often, temptation appears not just once but repeatedly. Resisting repeated temptation requires the repeated exercise of self-control. Saving money, as an example, for the future requires consistently controlling the impulse to consume immediately. Experience reveals turning to psychological hacks to assist in resisting temptation. One typical hack is intentionally excluding the tempting good from the choice set. Using savings as an example, have 10% of your wages deducted from your paycheck and placed in a retirement account. The money never hits your radar, so you are not tempted.
Also, consider temptation bundling pioneered by Professor Katy Milkman and graphically presented by James Clear below. Milkman is the author of the new book How to Change and is a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits.
But more than mind hacks, discipline is best achieved by getting your most important goals or aspirations deconflicted from other lesser purposes. For example, I will forfeit sleep to run between 4, and 5 am every day before my daily demands take priority.
Until next time. Travel safe.
Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. Penguin Press.
Hofmann, W., Baumeister, R. F., Förster, G., & Vohs, K. D. (2012). Everyday temptations: An experience sampling study of desire, conflict, and self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(6), 1318–1335.