Our culture promotes the belief that “accomplishment” requires hard work, discipline and willpower. Many of us adopt this belief. When we don’t accomplish what we set out to do, we blame ourselves for lacking the willpower or discipline.
What if we don’t need willpower or discipline at all?
Willpower vs Discipline
Before we go further, let’s distinguish between willpower and discipline, because they are not the same.
Willpower is the ability to refrain from being triggered by a stimulus. For example, you need willpower to avoid eating the tempting cookie in front of you.
Discipline is the ability to stick with your plan and do the thing you say you want to do. You need discipline to snack on carrots instead of a cookie.
If you want to write a book, it takes discipline to sit down to write every day. You might need willpower to refrain from falling into distractions like social media, web surfing, and mindless games.
Now that we have that sorted, you can assess for yourself in any situation whether you’re struggling with willpower or discipline.
The good news is: it doesn’t really matter.
I’ve learned that there is a more powerful force at play than either willpower or discipline.
Rhythm and Energy
When it comes to accomplishing our goals and getting things done, rhythm and energy are more powerful than willpower and discipline.
There is a natural rhythm to our energy levels and emotions, just like the seasonal rhythms in nature.
Most of us work too hard and ignore the signs to slow down. Then we conclude that we have no willpower left, instead of accepting that we might be tired or need a mental break.
We often overlook the role of energy and rhythm. Each of us has natural rhythms. There are times of day when you’re at your peak creativity and times of day better suited to making phone calls or doing mundane administrative tasks. (This strikes me as repetitive; are any administrative tasks not mundane?)
Working With and Against Our Natural Rhythms
When we add energy at the right time to work with our natural rhythms, we enhance our work, both in output quantity and quality and how we feel while doing it. We often describe this as feeling in flow. It’s like doors magically open for us; things happen with ease.
It is only when we work against our natural rhythms that we feel the work is hard and that we require — and lack — discipline or willpower. We make this situation worse when we lash out at ourselves for not having the requisite willpower or discipline to “get things done” or for failing to accomplish what we set out to do.
The self-beating and judgment consume a lot of energy and throw us further out of our rhythm. This is how we can get stuck in an unproductive cycle:
The more out of sync you get with your natural rhythm and energy levels, the harder it is to do the work you want to do. If you keep lashing out at yourself and blaming your lack of discipline or willpower, you’ll get further out of sync. Rinse and repeat.
One of the best ways to ignite your productivity might be simply to cut yourself some slack.
The Crucial Skill to Improve Your Productivity
The single best skill to improve your productivity, without relying on discipline or willpower, is to cultivate awareness.
Increasing my awareness of my natural rhythms has been the single greatest factor in helping me accomplish more and beat myself up less.
I became a student of my energy levels, noting how my rhythms are impacted by things like my immediate physical environment, the interactions I have with people, my emotional state, what I ate, how I slept, and a host of other factors.
For example, we have hundreds of mini interactions every day that shape our emotions and impact our energy. We are not conscious of most of them, nor are we aware of how they impact our energy and rhythms.
When you combine this awareness of your energy levels and rhythms with some other skills and tools, you start to work with those rhythms instead of against them.
You will be amazed at how much more you can accomplish, while feeling more joy in the process.
No discipline or willpower required.