The Two Sides of Improvement

We all have things we want to get better at; skills to learn and improve, projects to complete, or physical actions related to our health and appearance.  We often hang the success of these goals on the power of our self-discipline.  Conversely, failures to perform are blamed on a lack of discipline.

But discipline is only one half of the story.

Imagine waking up every morning, jumping out of bed into your running shoes, and heading straight out the door for a run.  Later, at the end of the day, you stuff your face with ice cream right before bed.  At the end of the month your weight hasn’t changed despite all the miles you’ve put in, and you bemoan your lack of self-discipline in achieving your goals.

Waking up to run each day takes discipline though, so it isn’t as if that is impossible to tap into.  The obvious culprit here is the nightly ice cream party.  And avoiding that doesn’t take discipline; it takes self-control.

The Two Sides

Simply put, discipline is what we do.  The actions we take.  It is the force that requires us to move, to put on those running shoes, or to sit at the desk and start writing.

Self-control is what we don’t do.  It’s what we bring in to play when we go to bed early to ensure a good night sleep, order salad instead of fries, or put down that ice cream scoop.

Discipline is what we do.  Self-control is what we don’t do.

This isn’t just semantics.  Recognizing that these are two distinct operating modes allows recognition of how they can be used in different situations.  Each requires different strategies to ensure success, and each can be strengthened through practice.  Recognizing which tool to use in different circumstances helps stack the deck for a positive outcome.


If discipline affects what we do and the actions we take, then how to best stack the deck in our favor to ensure success?

Discipline is the precursor to habit.  While it is difficult at first to wake up every day and go for a run, or floss every night, or write for 30 minutes, eventually the repeated action becomes a habit and is completed almost on autopilot.  The inflection point that triggers the habit routine becomes very small and is the lever where your discipline needs to be applied.

The key is to identify that lever then create optimal conditions for completing it.  Make it too easy to fail.

If you are trying to work out in the mornings, prepare your gear the night before so it is ready.  Put it on and then just focus on getting out of the door.  If you get outside you’ve won for the day, and at this point it is easier to just keep moving than it is to go back inside.

In The One Thing, author Jay Papusan figures that it takes around 66 days to build a new habit and encourages us to choose One Thing to focus on at a time.  At the end of each period the action has become a habit and the discipline required to execute it is minimal.  A new action is then chosen and will be “stacked” on top of the previous one.

Remove the obstacles to discipline and identify the lever where its application will have the greatest affect.


Often referred to as will power, this is described by the American Phsychlogical Association as “the ability to delay gratification, resisting short term temptations in order to meet long term goals”.

Self-control is what you don’t do.  It is avoiding the things that move your life in the direction opposite that you want it to go.  And it is the more difficult skill to master.

Our desires are formed from thousands of years of evolution and many of them rest deep in our lizard brain.  They can never be expunged and must be resisted time and time again.  Sometimes we win the battle and others we lose.  What can we do to improve the odds in our favor?

Environment design is the first place to start.  Just as we are often driven by our base desires, we are also inherently lazy and will gravitate towards the easiest option in many instances.  Trying to lose weight?  Get rid of all junk food in your house and keep a bowl of apples on the counter.  Want to spend less time on social media?  Delete the apps from your phone and only check it from your laptop.

Make it hard to do the things you want to avoid and easy to do something more positive.  Delay the gratification of these actions and use them as a reward, rather than a crutch.

I love reading, but there was a point where I would read when I should have been writing.  At the end of the day I hadn’t written a thing but had polished off another book.  Something had to give.  I made a deal with myself that I could start reading (reward) once I had written something (trigger).  A single paragraph was enough, but this had to happen each time before I picked up that book.  This helped establish a healthier balance and I was able to get things back under control.

A second technique that helps with self-control is to pre-determine your responses.  Use an “If this then that” statement as a guide.

“If we go to a restaurant then I’m going to order a salad.”

“If they bring drinks I’ll have one and then switch to water.”

“If I’m invited out then I’ll take a raincheck.”

Make your decision ahead of time so that you’ve already practiced the response.  This especially helps in situations where your default (easiest) decision is one that you are trying to stop or minimize.  Eventually these decisions will become the new default decision once they have been applied enough times.

Divide and Conquer

Changing out bad habits and developing new ones can be a big job, but is made easier by separating techniques for the things you do (discipline) and the things that you don’t do (self-control).  They are two sides of the same coin and, when used together, will help you achieve your goals more effectively.

One or the other will usually come more naturally to most people.  The trick is to realize where you are flagging, then take steps that are tailored towards specific action to stack the deck in your favor.

The Why of Things

I’ve heard it said that when you know the Why of your goals the who, what, when, and where will follow.  But how to find that Why?

Perhaps some people go in to each task with a crystal clear vision but that has never been the case with me.  Rather than reflect too much on things I  default towards Action, then be guided by the results.

Take this website for example.  I had some ideas of the Why when I chose to commit to publishing a new article every week this year but by no means was there a crystal clear vision of a guiding Why that I would be led by.  Instead, there was a loosely grouped bunch of reasons, or more accurately a general gut feeling of what I wanted to accomplish.  These were, in no particular order:

  • Improve my writing
  • Adhere to a publishing schedule
  • Clarify how I feel on various subjects
  • Build a platform from which to launch a book
  • Improve my human interactions by studying communication

Looking back I can see that only some of these truly apply, while others are not as important to me after all.  Improving my writing, completing a long-term obligation, and digging deeper into ideas that I care about have been the driving force.  Platform building has definitely not.  While there are many online entrepreneurs that I admire I now realize that I do not aspire to be one.  Had that truly been my Why I would spend far more time on that aspect, but I just can’t bring myself to apply much effort there.

The point is that I started with the What; publish an article every week.  The exercise is one in consistency and I have reaped great personal benefits from it.  The Why of it all has developed and become clear over time, and will probably continue to evolve.

Having a strong Why is important, but not as important as action.  Without action there won’t be failures, and without failures you won’t learn and grow.  The more you do, the faster you come to your limits, and the more opportunities you’ll have to learn and adapt.  We don’t learn much about ourselves while maintaining the status quo.  We learn the lessons when we are challenged.

If you have a Why, great.  But don’t let that stop you from getting started.


Two Lists

Mike Flint was an airline pilot; one of the best in the business.  He got his start flying for the US Navy, and later served as an American volunteer in the Israeli air force during the First War of Independence.  Eventually he flew for US presidents.  On this day he was flying his latest employer – Mr. Warren Buffet.

Buffet, known as “the Oracle of Omaha” is now one of the wealthiest men in the world and he wasn’t doing too bad back then either.  As the story goes, Flint was talking to Buffet about priorities in his career, when Buffets eyes lit up.

He asked Mike to work through a simple three stage process with him right there, that would help him identify his priorities.  This is what they did.

Step 1

Write down your top 25 goals.

This can be focused on just your career, or can cover all aspects of your life.  You can think of it in terms of the next year, or your entire life.  You have goals floating in your head right now, just start writing and get it all down onto the page.

Step 2

Circle your top five.

Take some time now to go through your list and highlight those goals that are most important to you.  This can be hard but it is important to isololate the goals that mean the most.  These might jump right off the page at you or it may require careful deliberation.

Transfer them to a new, clean page when you have them.

Step 3

The Two Lists

Now there are two lists.  List number one holds your top five goals.  List number two contains the remaining twenty.

When Mike Flint finished this exercise and looked at his two lists he was excited to get started working on his top five priorities.  Then Buffet asked him what he planned to do about list number two.

Flint paused a moment and replied, Well, the top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”

Buffet smiled and replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”


The lesson here is that we can’t do it all, much as we’d like to.  In order to become great at something we must prioritize ruthlessly.  The alternative is to achieve mediocrity at a larger number of things.

Greatness comes to those that pursue their goals with a single-minded focus.  No matter what tasks you choose, there will come a point where it feels tedious.  But recognizing this is the first step to pushing through the dip and achieving mastery at that skill.

You can also work towards achieving these goals by completing smaller projects that advance your aspirations.  This helps keep the journey fresh and interesting.

Bonus – Systems Thinking

Confronting a page full of goals can be daunting; even if whittled down to five.  The size and scope of the goal can feel too large, so that you won’t know where to begin.

The final step, once identifying your big goals, is to go small.

Don’t think about the magnitude of the task.  Think about the smallest action you can take to advance yourself in the right direction.  Focus on repeating the small steps until the habit forms, then continue completing these small step.  Putting a daily system into place that consists of tiny actions will take you further than any one single Herculean task.  It just takes time and consistency.