My maternity leave started in October 2019, back when the world was more or less normal and pre-COVID-19. People were working in the office, and our canteen was bustling with life, laughter, and conversation. We randomly ran into people at the coffee machine (or the tea kettle, as the case may be for me). I had just edited my new paper, making it ready for publication and leaving with the warm feeling of a closed chapter. I left for maternity leave excited to meet my baby and calmly leaving the work world behind me.
Fast forward 10 months, and in September 2020 I returned to work. Wow, had the workplace changed! People had been working from home for about 6 months now, so I felt like I had fallen behind. As though everyone else was in on a secret I didn’t know anything about. What were the secret rules of working from home? Apparently, everybody referred to it as WFH, so I started doing that too, trying to be cool.
I asked colleagues and friends for their tips. “What have I missed? What do I need to know about WFH?”
We are often told that discipline is the answer to our problems. With a little more discipline, we can achieve our goals and avoid temptations. Just try a little bit harder, have a little bit more willpower, have a little more self control. But that’s not how it works.
We grossly overestimate the contribution of willpower. Willpower is not a constant; it may be strong at one moment and then wane when we’re tired or stressed. If we leave our actions up to willpower, we will at some point disappoint ourselves.
I often hear the assumption that disciplined people have more willpower and somehow have the superhuman ability to stick to their values or priorities. I don’t think that’s true and, if anything, it only contributes a tiny bit to what discipline actually is.
In reality, disciplined people know themselves and know when their willpower fails. If they are tired, they will spend a long time on social media, unable to look away. If they go to a fast food restaurant, they will end up ordering fast food. They are aware of their tendencies and don’t leave it up to willpower to make the choice they consider “better” or “right.”
Disciplined people often avoid putting themselves in tempting situations. They know that the only way to resist is to avoid the setting altogether, so they avoid the tempting situation. If they want to spend less time on social media, they use a website blocker. If they want to eat less fast food, they go to restaurants that don’t serve fast food. It’s so much easier to avoid an unwanted action if the immediate environment prevents it.
I’m not saying that you should always avoid tempting situations. It all comes back to the mindful choice: if you consciously and purposefully choose to do something, by all means, go ahead. Just don’t let the situation decide for you.
When you want to avoid an action and you know your willpower may fail, it is so much easier to avoid the tempting situation altogether. This is the secret that disciplined people know.
Not all tempting actions lend themselves to simple solutions. But if you identify such a solution, then make sure you implement it. It will save you lots of frustration over inevitable lapses in willpower.
What kinds of tempting activities do you avoid? What actions would you like to prevent? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.