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Habits Win Over Discipline

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

People don’t decide their futures; they decide their habits, and their habits decide their future.

F.M. Alexander


Ever thought to yourself you could have accomplished or changed something if only you had more discipline?


I sure did. And blamed myself for not being disciplined enough, resilient enough, determined enough…


In fact, I had been getting this all wrong. Discipline requires energy, acting purposefully, not being forgetful.


Discipline can feel like a burden, it is not your natural, default behavior. Imagine what could become possible if you made a habit instead of relying on discipline?


In this blog, you will learn:

  • When to rely on discipline

  • When to develop habits

  • Practical steps to form new habits with purpose

When is it safe to rely on discipline?


I’m not saying discipline is bad and best avoided at all costs. I’m just saying it is not the easiest way to reach a goal, adopt new behaviors, stay on weight loss diet, or improve your life in the long term. And nowadays, who wouldn’t want simplicity?


When you rely on discipline, you take for granted that you will have enough willpower to stay on course, that you will remain strong no matter what. This strategy can work for short periods, like when we discipline ourselves to truly listen to another person during a conversation instead of forming our response as they speak. You can harness sufficient willpower for the duration of one conversation. Same with breathing slowly when we feel anger mounting instead of being consumed by it.


Although this may sound paradoxical, discipline is for the short term. Short term instances of discipline can work.


Problems with discipline arise in the longer term when you have to sustain a behavior for days. As soon as fatigue kicks in, as distractions comes our way, we slip and miss once. We promise ourselves we’ll do better tomorrow; we’ll be back on track. But then something else comes up, and we keep procrastinating or we just give up.

Hope lies in habits.


When is developing habits paying off?


You’ve guessed it already, habits win in the long-term. When we wish to change a behavior for good.


Humans are creatures of habit, yet, we’re generally unconscious of our habits. Biting your nails is one example of a “bad” habit. Habits are our natural, default behaviors, things we do without thinking. See the difference with attention-demanding discipline?


If I asked you to list your habits, it would probably be a challenge because they are so engrained, you don’t even notice them. I have developed the habit of closing my garage door with the remote-control button when I get in my car. To the point where I sometimes wonder if I really did close the door this morning because I can’t remember. But I always did.


Most of our habits were forged unconsciously, as we repeated a behavior over and over until it became second-nature. Can you envision the possibilities if you were to forge habits on purpose?


How to purposefully form new habits


Step 1. Identify what new behavior, what change you want to make.


Be precise. I want to exercise instead of watching TV may not be enough. Clarify when TV watching should be replaced with exercise. Is it evening TV watching? Or are you Ok with any time of day, as long as you exchange one hour of TV watching for one hour of exercise? Is it per day or per week? You might also want to list what type of exercises you intend to do. Weightlifting? Jogging?


Step 2. Clarify why you do it.


In the long run, the more compelling the reason behind this new habit, the more your chance of success. You may want to exercise more to improve your energy levels, to feel healthier, to reduce your risk of a heart attack. Or you might actually want to reduce your evening TV time to sleep better, or to reduce eye fatigue. This reason will become your motivation when you feel like cheating.


Step 3. Make the new habit easy to form


This is key. Don’t rely on discipline to remember day after day that you want to form a new habit. You could decide to keep your dumbbells near the TV, or set an alarm for your jogging session. You may want to exercise with a friend, who will serve as an accountability partner. Or may want to sign up for a course at the gym or make an appointment with a personal trainer.


Step 4. Make the old habit harder to default back to


Remember, habits are default behaviors. You want to become conscious of your behavior to have control over it. For example, you might want to put the remote-control in a drawer, in another room so when you reach for it, you are conscious that you are going to turn the TV on. You don’t want to just grab it and turn the TV on (your old habit) and realize only later you forgot to exercise.


Step 5. Hang in there for 66 days


There have been many studies looking at how long it takes to form a new habit. Turns out, it depends on the habit itself, but to be covered, use the 66-day mark as your target. In other words, during the first 66 days, you are making it easier with steps 1 to 4 (and perhaps you’ll have to use a bit of discipline after all). After this period, it should have become your natural, default behavior, and you will no longer need steps 1 to 4 (nor discipline either).


Celebrate! You’ve made it! Celebrate even small milestones, like the first time it felt natural, the fact that it is getting easier.


And then, you may want to consider forming the habit of forming purposeful habits…


Three ways to learn more about purposeful, powerful habits:


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