Why Discipline Matters

This past Monday I wrote a piece on two landmark experiments that fundamentally shaped how we think about the concepts of willpower and self-discipline (check it out here). 

 

The infamous Marshmallow Experiment proved that our ability to delay immediate gratification in favor of a future good is a massive predictor of success. When we sacrifice present indulgence for future gains, we become happier, more productive people in the long-run.

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The second study was based on Roy Baumeister’s chocolate and radish experiment which permanently altered the idea of how we use willpower to make disciplined decisions. Before Roy’s 1996 experiment, willpower was thought of as a skill.  

 

Instead, Baumeister found that our willpower is more analogous to a muscle. When you lift weights your muscles become tired and fatigued; willpower works the same way. Our willpower can become fatigued when we have to make a series of difficult decisions. Willpower depletion makes it difficult to maintain a high level of discipline.

 

Armed with this new understanding of the inner workings of willpower and self-discipline, let’s turn to the difficult task of applying this understanding in the context of our teams. 

 

To get a better idea of exactly how leaders can use this information to transform their teams, I’ve outlined the basic challenge that nearly every leader faces.

 

Basic Leadership Challenge (as it relates to discipline)

  • Teams are groups of individuals

 

  • Individuals often struggle with self-discipline

 

  • A lack of self-discipline is the root of many team problems

 

  • The most effective teams are a cohesive group of disciplined individuals

 

  • A disciplined culture is essential for success

 

Solution: Improve personal self-discipline that spills over to the larger team and creates a culture of discipline within the team.

 

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The game of basketball is all about decision making. Every coach I’ve ever played has preached the virtue of discipline. The disciplined teams are able to remain steady through the choppy waters of competition.

 

We are going to explore the specific strategies that you can use to positively influence your team’s ability to make self-disciplined decisions in critical situations. 

 

Here’s exactly what we’ll explore today:

 

  • The Positive Effects of Discipline
  • Specific Strategies to Combat Willpower Depletion
  • Growth Exercise: Learning from Starbucks

 

The Powerful Effects of Discipline

Truth be told, the power of discipline simply can not be overstated. Discipline is the structural integrity of every great organization. The skyscrapers of success are always supported by the nuts and bolts of discipline and without discipline those building simply cannot stand.

 

Here’s what legendary leadership author Jim Collins had to say in a recent interview about the importance of discipline:

 

“A great company is marked by a culture of discipline. A self-disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action. And when you begin to lose a culture of discipline, that is when you really start to fall.”

 

Discipline sustains, propels, and drives great teams to both take disciplined action and engage in disciplined thought. Creating a culture of discipline is more than a philosophical idea. Discipline has real, tangible, long-term benefits that are invaluable in creating a culture of sustained excellence.

 

Here are 5 specific ways that discipline can tangibly change your team:

1 – Productivity

  • A disciplined team is a highly productive team. Think about how discipline could affect each one of your basketball practices. The more your team stays disciplined in their execution, the less time the coach needs to stop practice to correct mistakes. The less time you have to stop practice, the more time you have to work on other parts of the game.

 

2 – Genuine Relationships

  • Teams build trust when they know their teammate is going to be disciplined in performing their role. Discipline breeds responsibility, responsibility builds trust, and trust is the foundation for great relationships.   

 

3 – Mission Focused

  • Disciplined people don’t sweat the small stuff so they can focus on the important issues. They keep first things first.

 

Here’s a golden nuggets of truth from one of my favorite authors C.S. Lewis:

“Put first things first and second things are thrown in. Put second things first and you lose both first and second things.”

 

4 – Culture Creators 

  • Disciplined individuals create a culture of discipline because they become the example for others to follow. Discipline is like the common cold, it spreads quickly and is difficult to stop.

 

5 – Future Growth 

  • In the long run, disciplined people are infinitely more valuable because of who they are going to become in the future. Disciplined people stay committed to their personal growth, and increase their future contributions to the team because of who they are going to become in the future.

 

Discipline has the power to transform your team, but creating a culture of discipline is difficult. We are going to look at some specific strategies that every leader can use to preemptively combat a lack of discipline. 

 

Specific Strategies to Combat Willpower Depletion

Willpower is the gas tank that fuels our self discipline. But we learned from Monday’s piece that certain activities can quickly deplete our willpower.

 

Based on scientific research (much of which is present in Duhigg’s book the Power of Habit), here are 3 specific strategies to fight willpower depletion and maintain self-discipline.

 

1. Pre-commitment

As the field of research dealing with willpower and discipline has expanded, researchers have looked at people from all walks of life to give them clues about what factors could influence our willpower. 

 

In one experiment, scientists from Scotland took a group of elderly people who were recovering from recent hip or knee replacements. They wanted test the notion of “pre-commitment” as it relates to maintaining discipline in a given task.

 

Some of the participants in the study were given journals while others were left to approach their rehab in whatever way they felt was best. The participants with the journals, were told to write down specific strategies for how they would deal with the inevitable difficulties associated with their rehab.

 

One of the biggest problems that affects elderly people recovering from a major surgery, is their ability to overcome the pain and inconvenience that comes with having a knee or hip replacement at an old age. Staying consistent with rehabilitation is often a difficult and strenuous task. 

 

After the journals had been passed out, researchers found that the participants who wrote down specific strategies for dealing with difficult problems had a much higher rate of recovery. 

 

For example, one participant knew that every time he stood up from the sofa he would inevitably experience a shooting pain down the front of his knee. This pain would cause him to be tempted to sit back down immediately – it was important that he moved around the house during the day instead of sitting down, movement was key in his recovery process. His strategy for dealing with his “couch scenario” was to immediately take a step forward away from the couch. 

 

Researchers learned that the participants who simply committed beforehand to a specific series of actions were more likely to follow through. Rather than relying on your willpower to help you make decisions in the heat of the moment, making the decision ahead of time greatly increases your chance for success. A pre-commitment to stay disciplined during a specific circumstance gives you a greater chance of keeping your willpower muscle strong because you have already done the hard work of making the decision.

 

2. Eliminate the Decision

Making difficult mental decisions taxes your willpower muscles. But if you can eliminate the conscious act of making the decision yourself, you have a better chance of staying disciplined. Here are two effective ways to take the decision-making load off your shoulders.

 

Turn Your Decision into a Habit

Our brains naturally create habits in an attempt to maximize mental efficiency by turning off the conscious decision-making parts of our brain and putting our mind on autopilot. The less decisions you have to make, the stronger your willpower will be.

 

Turn whatever behavior you are trying to change into a habit by creating a cue, routine, reward loop for that action (more on that here).

 

Group it

Teams of people can help avoid “willpower depletion” by spreading the decision-making responsibilities across a number of people. When others share the burden of making tough choices, you will be better equipped to tackle the difficult challenges of life. 

 

3. Frame the Decision

Our natural learning process is rooted in our ability to relate something that is unfamiliar to something that we understand. Often this is best done using pictures or analogies.

 

In Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit he talks about how Starbucks framed their customer service protocol using the simple acrostic, LATTE (Listen, Acknowledge, Take-Action, Thank, Explain). 

 

This was brilliant for two reasons.

 

First, they used the concept of pre-commitment by identifying the exact inflection points that every Starbucks employee deals with when they encounter a difficult customer. They gave their employees a detailed roadmap with specific checkpoints that could be easily followed whenever they were dealing with a customer service issue.

 

Second, they framed the acronym into a concept everyone was familiar with: a coffee drink. The coffee drink acronym wrapped a boring customer service mandate into a easily digestible morsel of information. This simple, yet powerful tool helped reinforce a culture of customer service in a way that is easy to conceptualize and remember. 

 

Growth Exercise 

Learning from Starbucks

You can use the same process Starbucks created to implement its customer service policy within your basketball team. There are hundreds of different scenarios that you could address – these literally could be anything, whether in practice, games, individual workouts, weight room sessions – so feel free to explore the possibilities of giving your team an easy to follow roadmap through these inevitable points of resistance. 

 

Part 1 – Pick a Situation

Ex. The opposing team goes on a scoring run during the game.

 

Part 2 – Identify the Inflection Points

Think of this as identifying the checkpoints in the emotional journey going on inside your players heads – just as Starbucks could predict what types of problems their employees would face, you need to identify these same inflection points for your players.

  • They start scoring
  • The game feels like its getting away
  • You can feel frustration or disappointment
  • Panic can set in

 

Part 3 – Use a word picture as a Pre-Commitment

This can be an acrostic, an analogy, a metaphor, a word picture, really anything that is easy to remember and conveys your central message. 

Ex. Whenever the other team goes on a run, remember to simply BALL

 

B – back to basics (return to the fundamentals)

A – attack on D (raise the energy level on defense to shift the momentum of the game)

L – link together (don’t try to change the game by yourself, stay together)

L – light a fire (inspire your teammates through great energy and focus)

 

 

 

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How Marshmallows can Change Your Life

The Power of Self-Discipline 

Part 1

 

Great leaders are great problem solvers. 

 

It its purest form, every leadership role requires solving an age old dilemma: 

 

how can I get my team to put aside personal agendas for the greater good? 

 

Teams start as groups of individuals. Individuals with various backgrounds, agendas, experiences, and personalities. The critical challenge of leadership is to guide the transformation from separate to cohesive, from me to we; a group whose identity becomes centered around a unifying mission. 

 

But this process of “buy-in” never comes easy. Each team will have its own unique set of challenges and barriers as they strive to perform at a high level.

 

Yet…

 

As leaders try various combinations to unlock the cryptex of high functioning, productive teams, they will discover there is one element of this elusive combination that is essential.

 

If leaders across industries and contexts could get individuals on their team to embrace this specific characteristic, they would take a giant step towards success.

 

Put simply:

 

When a team members display a high level of self-discipline the team is transformed. 

 

In fact, the ability to delay personal gratification – or when put in positive terms, “exercise self-discipline” – is a huge predictor of future success. 

 

Today we’ll take a deep dive into the underlying factors that affect our personal self-discipline:

 

1. The Marshmallow Paradigm – understanding this concept unlocks one of the biggest predictors of future success 

 

2. Our Changing Conception of Willpower – we take a closer look at how the Chocolate and Radish experiment fundamentally changed our understanding of willpower

 

3. The Willpower Muscle – how willpower acts as a muscle and what we can do to remain disciplined

 

4. Growth Exercise: Finding Your Marshmallows

 

Then in Part 2 (coming this Thursday), we’ll see how our understanding of willpower and discipline can influence how we lead our teams.

 

The Marshmallow Paradigm

In the 1960’s researchers at Stanford University conducted a series of psychological experiments that famously became know as, The Marshmallow Experiment.

 

From these series of tests, a powerful principle of behavioral psychology was created: 

 

Delayed Gratification is a Huge Predictor of Future Success.

 

Here’s what the researcher’s found.

 

Experimenters put groups of young children (4-5 years old) in a room and gave them a single marshmallow. 

 

They gave the kids a choice: ‘you can either eat your marshmallow right away, OR you can earn a second marshmallow if you can wait until we come back into the room’.

Credit - PBS.org
Credit – PBS.org

As you would expect the majority of the kids had a tough time resisting the temptation to eat the marshmallow right away. However, there was a small group of kids that were able to delay the instant gratification of the sweet treat in order to receive a bigger payday when the researchers returned.

 

The experiments continued to track the development of the kids as they grew older and matured. What they found was that the kids who had the self-discipline to wait for the second marshmallow did remarkably better in nearly every area of life as they got older. They had higher SAT scores, positive social relationships, less problems with drugs, a lower chance of obesity, etc.

 

The bottom line is this:

Our ability to delay instant gratification leads to greater success because what we do today is an investment in our future selves.

 

From a personal perspective, this idea makes sense.

 

  • The more reps I do today, the stronger I will be tomorrow.

 

  • The less junk food I eat today, the healthier I will be tomorrow.

 

  • The more I read today, the smarter I will be tomorrow.

 

ok, so we know that our ability to delay the gratification of instant payoff is a key predictor in future success. But the elephant in the room remains: why is it so difficult to practice delayed gratification in our own lives?

 

If delayed gratification is the engine that drives us towards future success, then willpower is the fuel. Willpower fuels our ability to make difficult decisions in a binary world.

 

In the last 20 years our understanding of self-discipline (and the willpower that helps us to make disciplined choices) has changed dramatically. 

 

It wasn’t until Roy Baumeister’s landmark “chocolate and radish” experiment in 1996 that our conception of willpower was changed forever. 

 

In the following sections, I want to take a deep dive into the world of willpower and self-discipline. Our exploration will unearth transformative leadership principles that any leader can leverage in their own lives and in the life of their team.

 

The Changing Conception of Willpower

In the last 20 years our understanding of self-discipline and the willpower has changed dramatically. 

 

Roy Baumeister’s landmark “chocolate and radish” experiment became the launchpad for a torrent of research that has fundamentally shifted our understanding of willpower.

 

According to Baumeister, before 1996 there were three dominant psychological theories about self-control:

 

“One was that it was a kind of information processing: the mind knows what’s up, figures out what to do, and does it. A second was that it was a kind of energy or strength, akin to the folk notion of willpower. And the third was that it was a skill. This last one was favored by child psychologists, who think of children growing up and acquiring skills little by little, with self-control being one of them.”

 

To simplify, before 1996 we thought that willpower was either:

  • Information Processing 
  • Energy or Strength
  • A Learned Skill

 

Baumeister shot holes in all three theories when he designed his radish and chocolate experiment in 1996. His experiment was designed to test the limits of our willpower by placing people in contrasting circumstances that would force them to exercise self-control.

 

Baumeister first brought his participants into a room that was filled with the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. The cookies were on display for everyone to see with other chocolate treats placed on tables around the room. In the experiment, Baumeister allowed some of the participants to eat chocolate chip cookies, while the others were forced to eat radishes (yuck!).

 

Immediately after the consumption of the radishes and cookies, the entire group was given a “persistence-testing puzzle” which would again test the willpower of the participants.

 

Guess what happened?

 

The difference between the two groups was dramatic. The cookie group spent a much greater amount of time trying to solve the puzzle (i.e. displaying strong willpower), while the ‘radish group’ gave up trying to solve the puzzle relatively quickly (i.e. displaying weak willpower).

 

So why is this important? 

 

The results of the experiment suggested that willpower is not dependent on acquiring information, an innate ability, or a learned skill as previously thought. Instead, we should think of willpower as a muscle.

 

This was the genius of the experiment. 

 

Baumeister had forced the radish group to exercise a huge amount of willpower in abstaining from the cookies. The radish group was bombarded with an attack on their senses as soon as they walked into the room (immediately forcing them to start using their willpower). They could smell and see the cookies, but were not permitted to satisfy their cravings. What made it worse for the radish group, was that there was no legitimate reason why they were forced to eat a foul-tasting vegetable while their counterparts enjoyed freshly-baked cookies.

 

The radish group’s collective willpower took a brutal beating. Their willpower muscles were weakened to the point of fatigue, and that is why they displayed a small amount of willpower on the persistence puzzle.

 

The Willpower Muscle

Muscles can be strengthened and fatigued, but ultimately there is a limit to their capacity. When you walk into a weight room, you can only do so many bicep curls before the energy stores in your muscles have been depleted. 

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Twenty minuets in to a bicep workout you are unable to lift the same amount of weight or perform the same amount of reps that you could do twenty minutes before. 

 

This is how willpower works.

 

When we use our willpower to make difficult choices, there is a greater likelihood of losing self-discipline at a later point because our willpower tank has been depleted.

 

Here are a few more key findings about the specific environments and situations that negatively effect the relationship between willpower and self-discipline:

 

1. Mind over Body

Willpower studies have taken groups of people who are physically fatigued (i.e. staying up all night) and tested them against other groups that were mentally fatigued (i.e. after a public speaking engagement) and found that physical fatigue did not play a significant role in willpower depletion. 

 

Instead, events such as: visiting inlaws, public speaking, maintaining relationships, dealing with criticism, and intense social interactions were all more likely to negatively effect a person’s willpower than simply, ‘being tired’.

 

2. Deadly Volition

Decision making (especially in a stressful environment) seems to be one of the strongest deterrents in our search for self-discipline. The process of analyzing a situation and making a subsequent rash of decisions seems to be the primary culprit in the mystery of willpower depletion. 

 

High pressure situations that are perceived as stressful to an individual are deadly when it comes to willpower depletion. 

 

3. Context is Key

In the bizarre and confusing battlefield of weight loss, researchers are constantly looking to give people an advantage in their fight against the “lbs”. This has led to the discovery that perception of an activity plays a huge role in the ability to exercise self-discipline. 

 

For example, if your perception of going to the gym is largely negative (i.e. “going to the gym is boring” or “I hate going to the gym”) you will be less likely to remain on a disciplined gym schedule. In contrast, someone who thinks about the gym going experience as a fun, rewarding activity will be more likely to exercise regularly. A person who puts going to the gym in a positive, fun context will ultimately have less trouble making the decision to go. 

 

But why is this?

 

Imagine that you are at work all day and you’ve made a few decisions that have tested your willpower (i.e. abstaining from cake in the break room, choosing a salad for lunch, avoiding social media to finish a work-related project). 

 

Then after work you have to make a decision on whether or not you are going to exercise. If going to the gym is a difficult decision (because you think of exercising as a negative activity) you will have a lower likelihood of remaining disciplined. But, if your context for working out is framed in a positive, fun mindset then this decision will become much easier. A decision to do something that you perceive as fun or beneficial means that you will have to exercise less willpower in making this decision (giving you a greater chance of making the right decision).

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Growth Exercise 

Finding Your Marshmallows

 

The “Marshmallow” experiment has given us a powerful anecdote for personal growth. When you are four or five years old life is more simple. The world is mostly organized into “good” and “bad” categories. 

 

However, as we grow older our worlds become more complex. Gray seeps into our rose-colored glasses as the lines between good and bad, essential and non-essential, become more indistinguishable.

 

It becomes increasingly difficult to identify the marshmallows in our lives. Not only because we can’t decide whether or not we still like the taste of marshmallows, but because the candy aisle is so overwhelming. Our choice is not a decision between chocolate and radishes, but between swiss chocolate and milk chocolate. 

 

Highly functioning adults learn to choose between good, better, and best. This is what it means to have discipline. 

 

The bottom line is that, candy can’t be enjoyed with a mouth full of cavities. In order to enjoy the sweet treats of the future we must learn to do the hard work of brushing our teeth today. 

 

Let’s find our marshmallows.

 

Here’s the exercise:

1. Finish these 3 Statements

 

  • In 1 year I can say that …
  • In 1 year I want to have…
  • In 1 year I want to become…

 

The answers to these statements are your marshmallows. You can change the time frame to reflect shorter/longer term goals.

 

Here are my answers to these three statements:

  • In 1 year I can say that… “I have written 52 blog posts on leadership”
  • In 1 year I want to have… “Read 30 books”
  • In 1 year I want to become… “A better steward of my finances”

 

2. Find the Corresponding Bad Habit

Take each statement (marshmallow) and find one habit that directly inhibits you from reaching your stated goal. Be specific.

 

Marshmallow 1 – Write 52 Posts

Bad Habit: Easily get distracted with social media

 

Marshmallow 2 – Read 30 Books

Bad Habit: Watch TV series instead of read

 

Marshmallow 3 – Become a better money manager

Bad Habit: Don’t know what I spend my money on.

 

Now write down one specific step that you will take that will delay your gratification today, so you can enjoy more marshmallows tomorrow.

 

3. Action Steps

Marshmallow 1 – Commit to writing 30 minutes 6 days a week. Disable social media/internet whenever it is time to write. Put cellphone in a separate place so you’re not tempted to check it during writing time.

 

Marshmallow 2 – Limit of one TV episode per day

 

Marshmallow 3 – Track budget every week. Write down every purchase and set weekly spending goals.

 

Sources:

To Keep Willpower from Flagging, Remember the F-Word: ‘Fun’

http://faculty.washington.edu/jdb/345/345%20Articles/Baumeister%20et%20al.%20(1998).pdf

https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower-limited-resource.pdf


 

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