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Clarity, Not Willpower, Generates Self-Discipline

Procrastinate? Can’t get yourself to exercise regularly? Or not eat that greasy food that is so bad it’s good? You know that you need to have a difficult conversation about performance with your direct report, but keep putting it off?

Many of our clients, even those who are highly accomplished and productive, complain that they lack discipline in key areas of their life. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I find that ‘willpower’ (“I just need to do it”) is a largely useless strategy to overcoming internal resistance. Over the next four posts, I’ll explore the role that emotional clarity has in creating discipline and offer some practical ways you can get unstuck from any project, goal or to-do you have been blocked from taking action on.

When I first encountered Learning as Leadership over 20 years ago, I believed that I lacked discipline and willpower. I saw these as qualities other people had that I didn’t.

Today, people often remark on how disciplined I am. For example: I’ve stayed, without slipping, on a nutritional plan for the past seven months where I can only eat certain foods. And while I would agree that I’m quite disciplined, I still would not describe myself as a person of great willpower. If I don’t want to do something, I can’t really get myself to do it.

The difference is that my discipline is rooted in clarity about what I want. Not an intellectual clarity, but an emotional one. Here’s the distinction:

Intellectual clarity exists in the world of ‘should’

  • I should only eat healthy foods.
  • I should conduct performance reviews by year-end.
  • I should sit down now and work on this project.
  • I should not get angry at my children.

Intellectually believing something is the right way to behave or a good thing to do, does not translate into my taking action on it.

Emotional clarity comes when how we feel on the inside about what we are compelled to do is in alignment with what we intellectually believe we should do. Discipline then, rather than being a characteristic or a quality to develop, is really a consequence of this alignment.

I’ve learned that if there is something that I think I would like to do — whether it’s working out or writing an article — and I don’t seem to be able to bring myself to do it, then I’m emotionally confused about the item.

In these moments, I now know that I need to search for the emotional clarity that’s going to make me feel compelled to do the thing — or drop it — as opposed to being in a world of forcing myself to do it. Just saying, “I have to be strong willed and just do this,” rarely works. Here’s an example:

I’ve been working on a book for the last two and a half years. In the beginning, I would have moments of inspiration and productivity, but then run out of steam.

In an effort to become consistent, I decided to write every morning at 6 am (a crazy idea for someone who isn’t a morning person). But when six o’clock came, I often felt no desire to get up and write. Instead I would just lie there, tired and anxious, castigating myself for my lack of discipline. True to form, when I tried to “just force myself,” I invariably failed.

Ultimately, none of these strategies worked because they lacked emotional clarity. Utilizing the tools from Learning as Leadership, I’ve learned instead to first ask myself a crucial question:

What are my fears about this?

  • I won’t be good enough.
  • I’m not capable enough.
  • It won’t be interesting.
  • What I have to say is not worthwhile.
  • I’m off base.
  • I’m shallow.
  • I never follow through on things.
  • This is hopeless; why bother?

With all of these self-limiting beliefs at play, is it any wonder I could not motivate myself to get out of bed to work on my writing? Trying to be consistent, much less creative, amidst all these emotional layers of resistance was impossible.

So the first step in developing discipline as a consequence of emotional clarity is finding the fears that underlie the project, goal or to-do you’re not taking action on. And the fears that block us most often tend to be self-worth fears.

Think about something personal or professional that is important to you that you have been putting off. What are the self-worth fears and limiting beliefs that underlie your resistance to doing this thing? We would love to hear your comments and questions.

In next week’s post, we will continue with this topic by looking at how to move beyond the emotional clarity of the fears to the emotional clarity of learning and contribution, which leads to discipline.

9 thoughts on “Clarity, Not Willpower, Generates Self-Discipline

  1. Mike from Maine

    Sounds familiar. For me, the result of the forced self discipline, “I just need to do it”, then fail to do it cycle, is apathy. Anxious to hear how best to practice recognizing the fears, but also staying in touch with the goals that allow us to move beyond the fear into action.

  2. Tom,

    Long time no talk. It’s great to see your name again. Let me know how the rest of the series resonates for you!

    Any update, Mike? I’ve been thinking about your desire to play guitar. The emotional clarity of our goals is especially important when we have negative beliefs about our capacity to do something.

    Let’s keep talking…


  3. Shayne,

    I remember your comment on this at LAL which was a real head turner for me…now how to teach this to my 7 year old who is terrified of starting group piano lessons next week, or really of trying anything new, because he’s afraid of failure? After reading your post, I am realizing that tonight through a process of his sharing his fears (while running around yelling that I couldn’t make him go) I was able to help him at least get clarity on what was making him uncomfortable (fear of failing in front of others) and have that validated—-which was enough to make him agree to try. So thanks for the reminder of the power of clarifying insight.

  4. Laurel — what an amazing comment. You’re expressing the greatest challenge I face as a parent — and the greatest gift I think I could possibly offer my children: helping them verbalize what they are feeling and fearing, as opposed to forcing them to my will or resigning to their resistance.

    When we force our children to do things, they feel two layers of pain: their own fear (which they can’t express and often feel shame about) and the fear of our judgment. When we are able to let go of our own ‘shoulds’ and empathize with them, we have access to what you just created for your child: self-awareness and a sense of safety with their parents when they feel imperfect.

    And then, miracle, often being able to verbalize and be heard in those inner fears allows our children to see beyond them. You just helped your son experience a shift from “At the Mercy” to “At the Source”. Who knows if he’ll continue, but I really applaud what you just experimented with him.

    It also inspires me with my own children, because it can be a challenge sometimes! 🙂

    Thank you.

  5. laurel o'sullivan


    Now I have to share an example of how I didn’t do it right, which is a complete reminder of how we need to exercise the tools everyday. I’ve been trying to teach this same son how to ride a bike–yes he’s 7 and still doesn’t ride a bike, which of course becomes all about me b/c I was a late bike rider. But as the process has dragged out he has become much more helpless about it, to the point he literally falls in slow motion off his bike AND then starts crying. (he is basically 95% of the way there, just needs to master the steering, not the balance) So our last exchange ended in me basically barking at him like an army drill seargant that “no son of mine is going to be a quitter, and I’m disappointed you’ve chosen to feel sorry for yourself.” It was ugly. So we agreed to put the bike away and I told him we’d resume when he was ready—and that was hard for me. But I think in the process I’ve done some damage, but it was much harder there for me to help him get clarity because from an outside perspective he basically had it nailed, yet appeared to be defeating himself! Its much easier to be supportive when children appear more vulnerable. Still processing the lessons on this one….thanks for the Forum. And love the blog.


  6. Thanks for the honesty in your follow up. We were talking today in Sustainable Mastery about our judgments of others and the challenge of being empathic when we think others ‘should’ be different in some way.

    I think you highlight beautifully the challenge of being coaches (for our children or our employees) when we are triggered. We’re no longer with a vision of how we can help someone overcome a limitation, we’re judging that they aren’t making it (which is often about our self-judgment). ‘It’s my son, I rode my bike late, etc.’

    I lose it with my children, too. When I fall back into my angry or critical behaviors, all I know to do in those moments is to go clean up. Let them know what went on for me, in all honesty. Your son only senses your judgment of him, just as my children only feel my anger. I bet he doesn’t suspect for an instant that what is really upsetting you is your own sense of powerlessness to support him.

    When I’ve been able to share the more vulnerable feelings that I have (ie, ‘I felt powerless in that moment’), it helps them at least realize that it’s not all about them. We are two fallible human beings doing our best, and sometimes we mess it all up. Talking through and reconnecting in those moments is perhaps more important than the ‘successful’ moments. It shows them that failure is something we don’t need to fear as much.

    Good luck and keep me posted!

  7. Laurel O'Sullivan

    More light bulbs going off! First, thanks for the reminder about the judgement and how i used that to create distance between him and I. I will circle back and make myself vulnerable to him by revealing my powerlessness. I think I’m afraid to do that, thinking it will somehow do more harm than good or make him feel insecure. So this exchange has also reminded me of the fear I have, prompted in large part the divorce process I’m going through, that I have to be all things to my kids, and in the process I’m forgetting what is theirs to own and what is mine. And finally you reminded me that I have been so busy trying to hyper-analyze “why” he can’t complete the learning of riding a bike, that I have blocked myself from a teachable moment.

    Thank you this blog…very powerful.


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