The productivity industry is awash with tips, tricks, systems, and hacks to help you get more done in less time. Yet many who read books and blogs on this topic for the purpose of getting things done say they have trouble implementing these tools and becoming more productive.
No system for keeping your email under control will help you on its own. No tips and tricks for budgeting will ever help you on their own. The main problem for those who struggle with pure productivity is not being able to understand and learn systems, but a lack of self-discipline to begin with.
Self-discipline is often described as a muscle, something that becomes stronger the more you work with it. In essence, having self-discipline from a productivity point of view is having the ability and motivation to just do it.
For different fields, having self-discipline means different things; personal development fans consider it the ability to change habits and refrain from practising old, ingrained ones. Musicians consider it the ability to get up and practice each day, every day, so they never fall behind in their level of skill and muscle memory.
One angle I like to look at self-discipline from, while not entirely encompassing the concept and all that it entails, can certainly be helpful: self-discipline is the power to act on ideas. It is the ability to take things from thoughts and realize them through actions and tangible results.
Learning or creating a perfect system for processing, acting on and organizing email efficiently is not going to be worth a damn until you can force yourself to do it whenever you check your email.
Knowledge itself is only part of the path. Knowledge is not productivity. It’s not efficiency. It’s a necessary step, and the first step towards those things, but implementation is the step that makes it worth the time and effort spent learning.
Start Small, Work Up to Big
If you haven’t been able to implement ideas in real life on a small scale, then the chances that you can do something big this week, such as kick a ten-year smoking habit, are pretty small. It can and has been done, but good luck trying. There are exceptions to every rule.
This is where the comparison of self-discipline to the use of a muscle is important, because if you keep trying to tackle the big problems in your life from the get-go, you set yourself up to fail again and again. The more you fail on the big things, the more motivation you lose and the more it looks like the problems are too big to be beaten.
Start developing your self-discipline skills by conquering small problems; if you find yourself drinking excessively and want to handle it, then start your first drink after everyone else has finished their first couple of rounds. It’s a small change, but your success will set you up to succeed in the next stage, which may be cutting out one night of drinking per weekend altogether.
Gradually, the strength of your self-discipline increases, and the greater your success will be in tackling problems and implementing new changes.
If you want to create a habit rather than defeat it, it’s a very similar process. For instance, if you find yourself constantly unable to maintain a new email processing system, start by making an end-of-week appointment every week that you force yourself to keep. Process all your messages and clear out your inbox during that session, and continue this until it is second nature. You can then trial it on a more regular basis.
Don’t start out expecting unused muscles to be strong.
Accountability, the Remedial Therapy of Self-Discipline
When a person has, for some reason or another, allowed muscles to atrophy to the point where they literally can’t use them, they go through a long process of therapy, gradually rebuilding the strength in those muscles until they can use them without assistance.
It’s not impossible for this to happen with self-discipline; someone who once possessed plenty of it can allow it to atrophy by failing to use restraint and letting bad habits commandeer their life. I know this happened to me, and it wasn’t easy to fix.
There is a point where you let your self-discipline weaken so much that it’s impossible to get it back without outside assistance. That point is where accountability comes into play; having someone to push you and force you to do what you can’t force yourself to do. They keep you accountable for each action, and not only give you an irritated stare when you fail, but ensure you don’t fail in the first place.
The key is to find someone who’s going to be present in your day-to-day life enough to help you. If you’re working on a new habit for your work life, then they only need to present at work. More complicated are habits that encompass your entire life, in work and at home. For instance, if you want to quit smoking then you’ll probably need to organize someone to keep you accountable at home, such as your partner or family, and someone at work (probably a colleague, as nobody needs more whining from their boss!).
Nine times out of ten, those who’ve talked to me about their inability to get things done and implement systems they’ve memorized inside and out, only have a problem with this one aspect of life. It’s a simple one, but by no means any less difficult to deal with.
Self-discipline is certainly one thing missing from productivity today.