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Discipline is Underrated

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One thing humans do sometimes is attribute undesirable qualities to a person who’s doing something that seems overboard or unnecessary. It’s still common to hear that people who work out a lot are “obsessed with their bodies,” or that people who drive expensive cars are snooty or vain.

I’m sure I’ve thought and repeated these things myself, and a lot more. They’re flippant judgments to make, but they seemed true enough, from what I knew.

One inference I made a lot was that super-organized people who keep strict routines are “control freaks” or are otherwise anal-retentive. They must be afraid of to the tiniest amount of uncertainty or disorder. I always believed a more relaxed, free-form approach to work and household was healthier – not letting things fall completely to the floor, of course, but also not needing to have every little thing in its place all the time.

I didn’t see a connection at the time between my dismissive opinions on this subject, and the fact that I had always suffered immensely from my own inability to stay on top of my basic affairs of work and household.

Four years after an ADHD diagnosis, which helped me zero in on the nature of my problem, it is now exceedingly clear that my life works best when I am super-organized and keep strict routines. Things go well when I begin work at 8:30am and keep a rigid system of lists, hard rules, checklists, step-by-step plans, and procedures. When I work my system, I feel great and life unfolds happily. When I drift away from it, productivity drops to a fraction and so does my quality of life.

I wish I would have known this earlier, and I probably would have if I wasn’t so dismissive of the people who apparently did.

Two Paths Diverge in the Forest

When I first looked online for help, I found two diverging schools of thought about how to live with ADHD.

One advocated making systematic improvements to your habits and routines. You’re always in an uphill battle, so you need to identify the crucial behaviors that do the most to help (or undermine) your functionality. You need to exploit and expand the helpful ones, and manage or eliminate the unhelpful ones. This is a lot of work, which may be more difficult for you than it would be for others, but it is what will actually change the status quo.

Me, traveling from bed to desk

The other school of thought focused on making you feel okay for having this affliction, and finding relief from the pressures you feel around not measuring up or being “normal.” The messaging emphasizes the fact that it’s not your fault — society is organized around people who don’t have this problem and aren’t even aware of it; few people will try to understand what it’s like for you, and even fewer will accommodate you; it’s important to be forgiving and compassionate towards yourself.

All of this is true, and hearing it helped me feel better sometimes. It allowed me to hate myself less, and accept that external constraints are real and consequential — the problem isn’t just me being bad again and again.

These reassurances did not particularly help me make my life better, though. They helped me tolerate the bad place I was in, which is a mixed blessing. Self-sympathy and coping strategies make it easier to stay where you are, but that’s not where you want to be.

I found that many online ADHD communities, especially the ones populated by people younger than me, emphasized the “feel okay with myself right now” strategy to the near-complete exclusion of the “try to get better at doing things” strategy.

Does not particularly aid my functionality

A common type of thread in those forums was one in which the poster was exasperated that their employer had threatened to fire them for their chronic lateness. The poster couldn’t believe their boss wouldn’t make accommodations for their “time blindness.” Such posters interpreted the employer’s ultimatum as further evidence of their oppressed status in a society that didn’t recognize them as people.

That might sound like an extreme example, but it was really common. The replies were typically loaded with assurances that they were right. The minority of us who suggested that perhaps the boss has a point were voted down or lectured to about the unjust nature of society. I left these sorts of communities quickly, and I assume the other dissenters did too, which I guess explains how these forums became so self-affirming in the first place.

Invisible to my people, it is said

Recently I read an essay with a line in it I couldn’t stop thinking about. The author, Anuradha Pandey, in her effort to manage her mental health issues, had been caught up in the above philosophy herself for years, before discovering that it had been steering her away from what actually worked.

Reflecting on what’s been missing from her online support communities:

At some point, the concept of discipline entirely fell out of favor. […] A woman recently asked me how I got my mental health in order. When I shared with her that it was about discipline, I got a meandering response about how we all can do it however is best for us. I disagree. What is best for everyone is establishing some of the discipline that modern society has told us is somehow in contradiction to personal freedom. I spent a decade in therapy and psychiatry, and what solved depression, in the end, was establishing discipline and holding myself accountable more than others ever would.

I bristled at this initially. The repetition of the word “discipline” gave me images of pipe-smoking fathers sending their longhaired sons to military school, or mid-century schoolteachers brandishing “the strap” — a hard, less compassionate world in which misfits get trampled for our inability to conform to normal standards.

But maybe that bristling reaction is just what she’s talking about. At some point I adopted a caricatured idea of the concept of discipline, that it’s harsh and patriarchal, and that to suggest it as a viable route out of a bad place, to myself or anyone else, betrays a lack of compassion.

My repressive system of alarms and to-do lists

That topic sentence kept coming back to me though: “At some point discipline entirely fell out of favor.” It does seem unfashionable to appeal to discipline, as though it could only be mean or insensitive to suggest that a human being might retain some agency, and make good use of it, even when unfair things have happened to them.

I’ve wandered on both sides of the argument now, and so far discipline has been the most empowering quality I’ve tried to cultivate — more than belonging, more than righteous anger, more than self-love. I’m by no means fully recovered from my “problem,” but there has been a major upswing in my trajectory, and it occurred precisely when I began to impose a higher standard of discipline on myself: routines, explicit standards, accountability systems, and a keen suspicion of the part of me that just wants to drop everything and seek comfort.

“Delilah I believe the boy belongeth in the colonel’s care”

Pandey goes on to connect discipline’s current unfashionableness to larger shifts in the political zeitgeist: a growing trend of identifying with victimhood, a suspicion of modernist ideas of progress and growth, and a taboo around ascribing agency to people who don’t belong to dominant classes.

Whatever the reasons for it, it’s hard to deny that discipline has indeed fallen out of favor. For some number of us, maybe millions of us, rediscovering it could be a godsend.

I’m sure there are many people who have had the inverse epiphany to mine: they always recognized the need for self-discipline, but thought self-forgiveness was inappropriate or unhelpful. May we all find the part of the puzzle we’re missing.


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Images by Jeff Sheldon, Liz Joseph, Ocean Ng, Filip Andrejevic, David Cain, Wikimedia Commons


Deliberately Omitted April 25, 2024 at 11:28 pm

I have a hunch that I’m probably one of those people who had the reverse epiphany. I quite distinctly remember getting properly into meditation not long after my second divorce. I promptly picked out a focus space for formal/sitting practice, and decided that for informal practice, I should just “feel in” (a la Shinzen) whenever I remembered that I had an informal practice that I was keeping up.

For the first several months, every time I remembered to practice informally, and noted my emotional state, the inner voice asking myself how I felt at the time had the tone of a piano teacher scolding me for not practicing enough. (I suppose it’s something of an illustration of the dominance of my self-discipline over self-compassion that in spite of the fact that every time I remembered to do it, I felt bad and could attribute that bad feeling to the practice, I nonetheless persisted.)

After these several months, I was taking some LSD with a friend and at some point in the trip, I remembered my informal practice and asked myself how I was feeling. Now in the context of an acid trip, being asked how I was feeling (even by myself) was very strongly associated with a trip-sitter checking in to make sure that I was ok — associated strongly enough that the question sounded too much like a compassionate trip-sitter to be able to sound at all like a dismayed piano teacher.

The change of tone in that question stuck after the drugs wore off, and although I still struggle some with self-compassion, now I see it as being at least as important a project to work on as any other. (To illustrate, I might consider crossing items off my bucket list to represent these other projects. If I focus entirely on the bucket list, let’s say that I’ll clear 60% of the list, and when I’m laying on my deathbed, I’ll regret the 40% that I didn’t get to. On the other hand, if I direct a bunch of that attention to cultivating self-compassion, I may only cross off 40% of the items, but I’ll be better able to appreciate the things that I did, instead of dwelling on the things that I didn’t.)

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David Cain April 26, 2024 at 9:14 am

I guess there’s a lot to be discussed about how self-discipline is applied, as in what’s happening internally. Encouraging myself to do the thing I said I’d do doesn’t usually come off like a nagging piano teacher, but more like a more benevolent and reasonable part of me that knows what works.

There have been times when I’ve given myself the same kind of meditation/practice instruction — I will practice “Hear out” whenever I’m not already doing something for example — and I get that nagging feeling. I think this is a clue that I’m trying to do something that isn’t reasonable and maybe not possible for me. If you tend toward that side (generally I don’t) then maybe self-compassion is the thing you need to add.

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Tim April 26, 2024 at 11:06 am

The ideal balance is the “warm demander.” Compassion and discipline together.

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Bryce Stewart May 4, 2024 at 9:40 am

Perhaps there is a transition, at some point, from “Discipline” to “Helpful Habit”. It’s true for me. I don’t find brushing my teeth to be a demanding discipline. It’s more muscle memory at this point. I don’t find resisting soda difficult – I habituated seltzer 15 years ago and have zero desire for soda or beer.

There are people who experience a “runner’s high” (not me!) and therefore find themselves running as a way of pursuing pleasure, not as an onerous discipline.

The point is this: it may be possible to meta-manage our inner-caveman-self until he/it becomes habituated to what our rational self knows is best. If successful, the level of intentional effort/discipline disappears. In fact, the people we view as “type A” or hyper successful may not be the Hercules we think. They may be a Sisyphus who’s boulder found a plateau, while we (viewing from below) believe them to be stronger/faster/better/more disciplined.

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Peter May 26, 2024 at 10:28 am

This is a fascinating point, and I’m sure it has to do with how we were disciplined as children. If discipline was explained to you as a rewarding means to a positive end – behave, and you’ll be happier;focus, and you’ll do better – then your self-discipline probably takes a similar positive form.

But if the discipline you received as a child was a negative experience, your attempts at self-discipline are probably taking the same form. For example, I have ADHD, only diagnosed last month at the age of 40, and I did all of the usual acting out, not focusing, causing havoc and underachieving at school. and my father used to regularly roar abuse at me and hit me when he became frustrated by my behaviour which as a man born in the 1930s he had no real frame of reference to understand. And any time I’ve tried to apply discipline to myself, mentally I’ve been shouting at myself in my dad’s force, and metaphorically beating myself around the head – and it’s made whatever I’ve been trying to do in a disciplined fashion harder, and a negative experience, and has eventually driven me away from trying to do it even though I really want to (even simple things like ‘read a book for more than 5 minutes’).

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Calen April 26, 2024 at 2:35 am

I’ve struggled with this. I am a very driven person and I have tried to impose discipline on my life repeatedly, without any long-term success at changing the things that I want to change.

Part of the problem is that discipline seems ephemeral–I can start *a* discipline, and keep it going for a while, but it is rarely permanent enough to make a long-term change; invariably it shifts with my priorities, which seem to be far more responsive to my circumstances than my values.

There’s a lot of advice out there which boils down to “well then you should learn to change your priorities, etc… etc…” and the big problem with those pieces of advice is that I’ve been highly motivated to do just that exactly for years.

The thing that seems to have helped me the most was a piece of advice from my brother. One day I asked him what was wrong with myself and he told me, bluntly, “You’re too hard on yourself. That’s getting in the way of everything.”

I decided to try believing him and found quickly that it was a more useful language for addressing my struggles. It made things easier. It made getting back on the horse easier. It hasn’t solved everything, but it cracked a few of the major things.

I’m not sure if there is some magical space in the middle where we can consistently and effectively maintain self-discipline rooted in a place of love and honor towards our selves. If there were, though, that seems like it would be the ideal, and it seems like each person would have their own set of lessons that they need to learn in order to go to that place.


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Jeremy April 26, 2024 at 7:23 am

I so love that. Discipline rooted in love and honor towards ourselves. I talked about this a bit more in my comment too, about self kindness.

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David Cain April 26, 2024 at 9:17 am

All motivations are ephemeral, I suppose. In my experience a campaign to do something regularly can lead to a self-sustaining habit, which continually generates motivation, such as going to the gym has for me. I see it as being all about exploring possible ways to live, and exercising discipline has given me access to ways of living that I don’t think I could have got to otherwise.

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Max June 3, 2024 at 8:30 pm

This has been so true for me! Most times I tried to “seriously commit” to something, I worked way too hard for the first few times/weeks, quickly felt like I couldn’t keep up and fell of the wagon. Then I’d feel like a failure again, or like my “systems” weren’t in place. Everything got easier when I took the pressure off, made it a point to just show up, again and again, and celebrated myself. I learned this through running, and have applied it throughout my life. Your brother got it exactly right.

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Kim April 26, 2024 at 3:55 am

Much agreed, discipline/routines is what works well for me. My struggle is with keeping them up longterm. Other people (e.g.Cal Newport) talk about routines as if you can just build one on top of the other and it snowballing. I find myself relapsing all the time – be it after 2 weeks, 2 months, or even 2 years. While I truly hope you _won’t_ share this problem, I’d be happy about any advice.

(I _have_ got better at taking routines up again quicker than in the past, but we’re still talking weeks, at least.)

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Mel April 26, 2024 at 4:14 am

I think relapsing is completely normal (happens to me all the time) and you shouldn’t beat yourself about it. The key is simply to get back to the routine eventually. Like in meditation, your thoughts will always wander off and you just get back to your focus on the breath until they naturally wander off again and so on.

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Melissa April 26, 2024 at 7:56 am

Never miss twice -that’s the most helpful tip I’ve heard about discipline

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David Cain April 26, 2024 at 9:19 am

I have experienced both — routines that lead to new, lasting norms, and routines that work for a while and slip away. A lot of my experiments are like that. Things really change, but only for a while. Each of them still leaves me with insights, though, about what I want, what it costs, and whether it’s worth it.

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Mel April 26, 2024 at 4:07 am

I share Anuradha’s fate and couldn’t agree more to this sentence: “I spent a decade in therapy and psychiatry, and what solved depression, in the end, was establishing discipline and holding myself accountable more than others ever would.”
Recently I have been talking to someone who has the complete opposite laissez-faire approach to life and who made me feel like a complete weirdo because I am so strict about what food I consume and how I structure my time. So thank you for sharing this, David, because it reassured me in the disciplined path I’ve chosen for having on OK life.

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David Cain April 26, 2024 at 9:24 am

There’s definitely a discussion to be had about the paradigm of modern psychology and the way it frames psychiatric conditions like depression. The “chemical imbalance” concept from the 90s trained us to think of depression and other disorders as a thing that happens to you and not even partly a function of behavior or thinking. I’m not so sure that has been so helpful for everyone.

Each of us needs to figure out where we need rules and procedures and where we can go laissez-faire. If I could be laissez-faire about food I would be, but my habits and tendencies are such that it would be a disaster. We’re all in such different places with everything.

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Cath April 26, 2024 at 5:58 am

David once again another infallible post (to my way of being/thinking).
I live with lists, charts, timetables and spread sheets and it works for me. I love the concept of discipline and agree nowadays people think of a Victorian Era of the past. Discipline seems to have been lost/forgotten/removed from the time we live in now and it is an almighty shame. Unfortunately, it has been erased from schools, education, upbringing, families and everywhere onward from there.
I also find people who know me ‘joking’ about my constant lists etc, but they also rely on me to know what/when/where on many occasions!
Revive discipline I say!

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David Cain April 26, 2024 at 9:31 am

Education policy is an interesting battleground between different views on discipline. In some places there’s been a near-total repeal of educational and behavioral standards on the grounds that it is unfair to the students who don’t reach the bars they set. But then nobody is meeting any standard because there isn’t one. Reddit’s r/teachers sub is filled with horror stories.

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Patty April 28, 2024 at 7:32 pm

Cath – I so so so get you! I am the same way, and I credit inheriting those skills (yes, SKILLS!) from my mother, who was the Queen of all list making and things discipline. She grew up in the Depression era and raised 6 kids on my dad’s salary, which wasn’t much at the time. I’m not nearly as disciplined as she was, but I’m thankful for what I inherited. I love my lists, spreadsheets, and overall structure I have given most areas of my life. Lots of room for improvement, but I hate to think the disaster I’d be otherwise.

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Jeremy April 26, 2024 at 7:17 am

Discipline is good, but like you point out, the way that so many people go about it is unnecessarily painful and unkind. When I think of the accountability systems I experienced growing up, they have always been built on punishment (sometimes severe), harsh disappointment, intense shame, and complete inflexibility and denial that sometimes other things really do come up. I might have gotten the brunt of that more than some others, but accountability through negativity is baked into our culture.

Whenever people struggle with life changes, I see the same language come up to describe it. “How do I make myself exercise?” “I just can’t force myself to get out of bed.” People will set the loudest alarms to get up, say the nastiest things to themselves, or give themselves the worst punishments if they mess up. Discipline has a bad rep because, like you allude to, it’s usually cultivated out of unkindness.

I’ve come to a similar conclusion as you about discipline recently – when I do good things consistently, life gets better. It’s fine if I don’t do it, really it is, and things are still not going to get better even though I have a reasonable excuse. I don’t need an artificial and, usually, mean-spirited motivator to make me realize how important the thing I want to do is – the natural consequence is all that I need. Neither forcing the issue nor avoiding it is the kindest thing I can do for my psyche.

I am not going to be unkind to myself like the culture I grew up with trained me to be. And I hope everyone else does the same during their pursuit of discipline. That kind of discipline never worked for me, specifically because it creates more resistance in the mind than the task itself already did. That kind of discipline ignores real human limits and needs, and inevitably leads to burnout and relapse.

The only discipline that has worked for me is built off of immaculate self-kindness, encouraging self-talk, and mindfulness. If I want to do something (say, go to bed on time), then why would I need to force myself? I already want to do it! With mindfulness, I feel both the part of myself that is resistant to that thought and the part that wants it. I focus especially on the feeling of that want, and the experience of the reward. I keep doing that, and I wait. Then, sometimes in 5 seconds, sometimes in 15 minutes, I just do it. No forcing or harsh discipline required, just mindfulness and patience. This is the healthiest mental state I have had in over a decade, and though I do things slower and less consistently than someone who practices mean or forceful discipline, I am happy and I’m still getting what I want. I am getting better with practice and I am focused on feelings of hope, not disappointment. I believe this is the kind of discipline more of the world needs to develop if we want to marry productivity with emotional agency, and achievement with freedom.

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David Cain April 26, 2024 at 9:40 am

“Discipline has a bad rep because, like you allude to, it’s usually cultivated out of unkindness.”

This is the impression I grew up with, but I don’t really think that’s what it was, in hindsight. I was constantly subjected to standards I didn’t know how to meet, in school, at work, socially, and it caused immense pain for me, but I don’t think it was a function of unkindness. I had some bad teachers and bosses but for the most part I think people just wanted me to be easy to deal with, meet standards, get my work done.

Shame is a painful emotion and I’ve had enough of it for a lifetime, but there’s a reason it exists. One of life’s harsh truths is that shame has helped human beings establish social standards that keep people safe and keep society functioning. It is very painful when we fall on the wrong side of it, but it also saves many people from straying too far into dysfunction. My life would have been an utter disaster if I didn’t feel badly about what I’ve done or failed to do.

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JODIE April 26, 2024 at 7:46 am

Maybe discipline is out but the concept of “grit” is definitely in (a la Angela Duckworth). I know things are harder for me than a lot of other people but I am tough and gritty and creative. At the end of the day you have to make your own standards to live by.

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David Cain April 26, 2024 at 9:42 am

“At the end of the day you have to make your own standards to live by.”

I mean this is really it. No matter how much anyone else cares about you want wants you to succeed, you will only succeed to your own standard.

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Carl April 26, 2024 at 7:56 am

Somebody told me once that “Discipline is just remembering what you want.” If you think you’re doing all these habits and routines because you MUST DO THEM they seem like drudgery. If you think you’re doing all these habits and routines because they help you lead the life you want, they can feel very welcome.

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David Cain April 26, 2024 at 9:52 am

Definitely… The difficulty/work is actually as a contiguous part of a causal network that includes the reward. A thing can happen where you see, and start to want, the whole thing, not just the part behind the reward. I think I wrote about this once but I can’t find it.

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Pam April 26, 2024 at 7:58 am

This was an interesting read!

My husband has ADHD and he is successful because of his spreadsheets, calendars, reminders and alarms. He thrives on routine and knowing what the day’s schedule is.

The forums you speak of: yeah, I’ve seen that attitude too. You get points for being a victim, so you try to rack up as many points as possible. I’m totally guessing here, but my guess is that young people trying to rack up victim points may have not lived long enough to see a payoff from hard work. Because the payoff of working on something for a long time and then seeing it finished is unmatched. It feels WAY better than internet strangers complaining with you about how unfair life is.

I remember taking an educational psychology class in college where we covered motivation. There’s a lot of theories out there and it’s tough. Carrots, sticks, intrinsic, extrinsic.

As you said: may we all find the piece we’re missing.

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David Cain April 26, 2024 at 9:58 am

The payoff of hard work is amazing and just about the best thing there is. But I honestly didn’t know how to access it for many years. I tried doing things the way others seemed to be doing them and I always either reached a point of total confusion, or I couldn’t bear some part of it, or it would otherwise fall apart. It was hard to experiences that for so long and not come to believe that these rewards were for other people and not me. That said, being in a community that repeatedly emphasized my “different” status would only have reinforced that and prevented me from finding the little cracks in the wall that allowed me access to hard work and its rewards. I feel really bad for these kids and I hope they come across other perspectives.

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SB Castaneda April 26, 2024 at 8:17 am

For me, it happens in waves. some times i need to step away from the disciplined life. other times i need to have more discipline. too much of either can be damaging in my experience. i just got out of a phase where i was highly protective of myself and wasn’t interested in discipline. now I’m starting to live a more disciplined life. but on my own terms after a couple of years of reflection in a cacoon of radical self-acceptance (which now walks alongside the disciplined practices I am building up that are serving me and were my choices)

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David Cain April 26, 2024 at 10:01 am

I think radical self-acceptance and radical self-sacrifice are two poles we should play around between. But just like Earth’s poles we probabaly don’t want to live at either :)

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Amanda April 26, 2024 at 9:27 am

I had a similar realization this past year.
Everyone always attributes their success to hard work. For me, the word work was very problematic. Having many unfulfilling jobs in my past, the word work was always associated with doing something I don’t want to do. Once I realized this connection I replaced it with the word effort.
I find that effort holds all the possibility that work does, but isn’t weighed down by all the negative associations I’ve connected with work.
Great post David!

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David Cain April 26, 2024 at 10:04 am

I think concept-association is a huge factor. Many words unleash a flood of associations in our minds, including some really painful ones, and that can shape what entire areas of our lives are like. We’re all different in that respect. Sometimes just redefining or reframing something can really open things up. The word “effort” is a positive one for me too, but at one time I associated it with really unpleasant experiences on exercise bikes and treadmills. It’s something we have to be aware of, anyway.

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Tim April 26, 2024 at 10:14 am

I come from an education background, because of that background I do not see these two schools of thought as opposed to each other, though I do often see them set up in opposition. In education the “discipline” school of thought comes by a lot of names: grit, rigor, high standards, etc. In education the “feel ok” school of thought also comes by a lot of names: social emotional learning, relationship building, and in relation to the way society is set up, diversity equity and inclusion.

Each of these schools of thought has truth–standards are necessary for education, without standards a classroom can easily devolve into unfocused busywork, pointless vaguely crafty projects, and random conversations. Relationship building is absolutely necessary–it is hard to learn from someone you do not feel connected to, or worse, someone you do not feel safe around. Social Emotional Skills are essential skills necessary in life. Diversity and Equity issues are vitally important to acknowledge the massive inequalities in modern society, their roots, and their current forms (in my city currently, a majority white High School is a gleaming, modern, light filled, beautiful building while a majority black school is 100+ years old with a roof leaking to the point that classrooms may have 1 inch of water and still be expected to go on with the day).

Discipline and care should not be opposed to each other. In grad school I had a professor who led a discussion about the difference between a problem to be solved and a polarity to be balanced. A problem to be solved would be an engineer creating air circulation systems for a spacecraft to ensure astronauts have oxygen to breath. Breathing itself though, is a polarity. Mistaking breathing for a problem to be solved would be like asking the individual astronauts to choose between breathing in or breathing out.

“It’s ok,” in isolation, can absolutely create an indulgent situation in which no one ever gets anything done, and exuses are available for everything. Discipline, in isolation, can absolutely create a joyless, anal retentive, control freak. At their extreme, either camp could rise to the level of genuine abuse when directed toward someone else or genuine mental disorder when directed toward the self.

They need each other. It is necessary to learn to be ok with having ADHD (Hey! Me too!). If you were the victim of something, abuse, rape, growing up in poverty, discriminitation, etc., it is necessary to recognize and acknowlege that fact. This learning to be OK then gives a foundation from which to build structure, discipline, goals etc.

I teach writing in an alternative school–virtually all of my students have ADHD, depression, anxiety, autisim, substance abuse, trauma or some combination of the above. I have to figure out where they are at and meet them there, but I can’t leave them there. This becomes dead obvious with the writing process. Embrace the shitty first draft (credit due to Anne Lammott for that phrase). But also embrace the revision processes to make it better.

It’s ok, lets get to work.

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David Cain April 27, 2024 at 2:47 pm

Both are necessary, for sure. Online support groups have a particular issue of self-selecting towards one polarity. When proponents of one quality become intolerant to the other, its proponents leave, and then you get an echo chamber. As our lives and worldviews become more and more informed by online content, we become more susceptible to this problem, and I suspect ADHDers are especially prone to falling into those holes, especially the younger ones.

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brettys April 26, 2024 at 10:45 am

My dad was with one of my older sisters when they saw a child acting out in public. My dad asked my sis, “Why didn’t you all (4 daughters) act like that when you were little? My sis said, “We wouldn’t have dared.”
My dad also taught me to save money. I never had a large income, but I bought my own house at 30 and had it paid off by 41. You can go without a lot of things. And it is much easier to charge things (even though I pif every month) than it is to pay by cash or check. I used to look at my daily checking balance and know I couldn’t buy anything else until payday, but now it’s Zap! I have this new thing-which I didn’t really need.

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David Cain April 27, 2024 at 2:53 pm

Consequences really do drive behavior, although of course we have to be careful that they don’t cause other problems. A big part of getting myself to do things has been setting up more immediate consequences for not doing them.

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Carol in Denver April 26, 2024 at 12:16 pm

I was raised with no responsibilities for work at all and struggled to keep things together when raising my kids. Now, I consciously develop useful habits (wiping down the shower door every time, making the bed first thing) and remind myself if I do this for 30 days, it will be something I will do without struggling to make myself do it. It is also useful to me to have a timer tell me what to do: sit at the computer for 30 minutes, then scurry around for 3 minutes performing various tasks — shaking out a rug, tidying up the kitchen, putting things away, washing a window. (I read this is a way to lower blood pressure, too.) So, in a nutshell, for me, developing discipline means: develop good habits and use a timer.

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David Cain April 27, 2024 at 2:54 pm

I use timers a lot. It’s amazing what a little urgency can do.

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Victoria April 26, 2024 at 1:42 pm

Thank you for the post, I’ve only started suspecting I have adhd close to my 40’s. I’ve come to the same conclusion as you did about self discipline, but I have trouble organising my life. Could you you share some of the things that worked for you and what kind of lists and spreadsheets do you keep? My mind blanks out in horror when I try to come with something, I’ve only at 39 managed to come up with a3 monthly calendar printout, which really helped to see how much free time I’ll have on a specific day. But more than that I’m lost

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David Cain April 27, 2024 at 2:52 pm

To keep all my stuff organized, I use David Allan’s “Getting Things Done” system, and I have built in daily and weekly checklists to make sure I’m not forgetting anything.

Organizing your tasks doesn’t help you actually do them though. To actually do the things, I developed a self-contained system of working sprints called “Block Method”: https://www.raptitude.com/2021/11/how-to-do-things/

I also use accountability partners a lot. Often, when I keep putting a thing off, I give my friend like $300 in cash and tell her not to give it back to me unless I can prove by [date] that I’ve done the thing. I wrote about that here: https://www.raptitude.com/2023/08/atomic-accountability/

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Patty April 28, 2024 at 7:41 pm

I keep lists for meal ideas, meals I plan to make, groceries to shop for, places we want to travel to, things I want to do in the next few weeks…. I even have a to do list for my husband, which he actually appreciates and keeps him focused. We’re both retired and lists keep us moving. Otherwise, it’d be too easy for us to just waste the day away. I have spreadsheets for money coming in and going out, for exercising (I’m working towards a long hike in August and need to get in shape). I don’t feel bad if I don’t get everything on the list done for a particular day because most of my lists are a bit over ambitious anyway. As long as I see some stuff coming off the list, I feel a sense of accomplishment and it’s good. I realize most people can’t relate to this, but it keeps me focused and the feeling of accomplishment is satisfying.

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Sophia April 28, 2024 at 5:20 am

I’ve been coming back to this. My first impulse is to dismiss it. But I think it needs more subtlety than that. There’s something very valuable for me on the side of trusting my spontaneous impulses and the things that arise when I give myself freedom. But I do think I need something to balance that side. Maybe not so much take away from it as add to it.

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Kevin April 28, 2024 at 7:55 am

I’m with you, David. I do a LOT better when I have some structure built in to my day. Even something as simple as a to-do list on my phone can make a huge difference.

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Salisbury April 28, 2024 at 8:43 am

I’d be interested to know where ADHD medication fits into this philosophy, if you are willing to share on that. (am i remembering correctly, you saying that your capacity for discipline increased after diagnosis and medication? please ignore if this is too personal to go into.)

Self discipline is certainly a wonderful tool to have available to you, and efforts to increase it will reward you. But where i have sympathy with the people you critique here is that one needs to question the achieve-achieve-win-win mindset, and be very clear that what you are trying to “achieve” comes from a place genuine to you.

Techniques (meditation, self-hypnosis, shadow-work) that involve getting in touch with the “blocking” inner part of you can be really life-changing – often that part of you can be angry and frustrated that your “good persona” never lets you play, have fun, be loose and unrestricted, and it just works unconsciously to foil your “good persona” plans.

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Pipsterate April 29, 2024 at 2:16 am

I find that, for me, the problem is less about staying committed to my goals than it is about deciding which goals are worth pursuing in the first place, and what the best way to pursue them is. I guess what I’m suffering from is some kind of ungodly hybrid of decision paralysis and nihilism.

However, it’s still true that you can’t dispense with discipline. If you want to achieve anything, sooner or later it’s going to involve doing something you don’t want to do, at a time when you’d rather be doing something else. Probably sooner. People forget this lesson at their own risk.

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Jeff April 29, 2024 at 12:40 pm

David, I read the article and then read it again, which in itself was an accomplishment for the ADHD person I am. To really get a concept, I have to DRILL it into my head because as I am drilling there are 10 other distractions pulling me away. I read with intensity, hoping to find a solution – Discipline! At one point in my “Aduren’s” (Adult Children) lives, I just had to say, “look at your hands, and tell them, you are where you are because of what you did, do, and will do with your hands and your mind” The same holds true for me. I used to use the excuse that my ADHD was just a part of who I am, “it’s in my genes” but you article makes it abundantly clear, my happiness and ending my life long depression can be done with discipline.

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Max April 29, 2024 at 9:38 pm

Thank you for this article and the update on your diagnosis. Your ADHD article was an eye opener for me and got me to ask some probing questions about my life; I’ve been wondering about how you’ve been doing, and whether you’d be sharing your journey – and then, you published this! I’m curious how the advice “follow systems/be more disciplined” feels pre- and post-diagnosis/meds (as much as you’re willing to share, of course – I realize this is a private and sensitive topic!) My guess is that you’re able to take steps now that would’ve seemed impossible before.

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Jamey MacIsaac April 30, 2024 at 10:26 am

I think, in either case, the place we leave the path of wisdom is where we start ascribing value judgements to what are essentially IF/THEN conditions. Discipline works for you, David, primarily because you operate in an environment where discipline gives you rewards and it’s lack does not. Not everyone operates under those parameters (or even has the same definition of ‘reward’).

If you’re bad at being on time, and you exist in an environment where being on time is expected, and the difference between the two is making you miserable, then you have a couple of choices: change yourself, change your environment, change your feelings, or stay miserable. But those are all equally valid choices, depending on their context. Every person is an expert in their own life and just because someone is living theirs in a way you find suboptimal (or even unethical or incomprehensible), doesn’t mean they’re not doing it right, especially if their choices don’t actually impact yours at all.

And, when confronted with someone complaining that their boss is being unfair, isn’t the **real** work, the work of moving toward greater understanding, greater insight, greater compassion, greater enlightenment, less about rolling your eyes and quitting the server (and then, in an act of cynical irony so profound it should be the punchline of a Zen koan, dismissing **them** as self-affirming), isn’t the real work in putting some space between your emotions and your judgement, sitting with your discomfort, assuming this person (like all people) is an expert in their own life and is making choices every bit as meaningful as yours, and consider whether or not their boss **is** actually being unfair? Does punctuality have any practical reason or purpose in that workplace? Or is it just arbitrary? Or based on a faulty understanding of what punctuality means? And if the rule is arbitrary, or unreasonable, or unnecessary, then isn’t the boss, indeed, being unfair? And if the rule is not arbitrary, and the boss reasonable, then isn’t the next step to empathize with someone forced to exist in that environment for reasons that are (most likely) entirely outside their control? Someone in a wheelchair can work in a building that’s not wheelchair accessible, but it would be so much harder for them than it would be for anyone else, for reasons that have nothing to do with their agency. Would you quit that server so quickly, dismissing disabled people’s frustrations with trying to thrive in a world actively hostile to them, as self-affirming?

Some people’s journeys are less about finding ways to life-hack their way to being high-achievers and more about accepting that their limitations mean they’ll never be high-achievers. Discipline can help **some** people achieve **some** goals that they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, but to intimate that discipline is **the** answer rather than just one of many possible approaches applicable to some kinds of problems is hubris. And possibly even harmful to people who trust your opinion but whose operating parameters aren’t the same as yours.


I’m leaving this to the end because I was worried you wouldn’t read the rest if this was first, but “…a taboo around ascribing agency to people who don’t belong to dominant classes” is a deeply, deeply troubling sentiment, and a very short walk from saying that marginalized and vulnerable people **deserve** to be marginalized or vulnerable. From someone who has been reading your work for a long time, and who has always greatly respected your commitment to self-awareness and self-improvement, I beg you to examine the orientation of your heart around this issue. Imagine what your life might have looked like if you were born several decades earlier and lacked the privilege of knowing about meditation and ADHD. Think about how people would judge that David. And think about how fair those judgements would have been. Think about the compassion and sympathy you have for Alternate Universe David, ground down in a giant machine he did not build and cannot escape, being blamed by everyone around him for things over which he has no meaningful control. And with that compassion and sympathy in your heart, take a second look at: “…a taboo around ascribing agency to people who don’t belong to dominant classes.”

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AN April 30, 2024 at 5:20 pm

I’m grateful you had this epiphany and shared it. As someone else with ADHD I suddenly saw a new thought paradigm for me as I read this. I think recognition of this split is really going to genuinely help me and give me permission to be more strict with myself. Something actually useful i read on the internet!

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Beth May 3, 2024 at 12:22 pm

After countless attempts to establish new (“good”) habits and relinquish old (“bad”) habits, this got me thinking: What if the habit I really need to establish is a practice of self-discipline?

I have begun asking myself regularly, “What would a person with self-discipline do here?” Most times, the answer is exceedingly clear and the resulting action is astonishingly easy to carry out. And there is a weird mood boost I get upon taking the disciplined route.

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Pipsterate May 5, 2024 at 9:54 pm

I saw someone explain the secret to their success once. It had two steps:

1) Imagine what I’d do if I wasn’t lazy.

2) Do that.

It sounded absurdly reductive and almost cruel at first, but I’ve been surprised by how often it actually works. Not all the time, but often enough to make a difference in my life.

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Léna Léman June 11, 2024 at 12:06 am

I’ve had the same experience as you, David. Self-discipline reliably makes me feel good in a very special way. But I have to be intentional about it and set rules or it won’t happen. When I practice it intentionally and make progress on my projects (like writing, or sports), my life just feels better. It’s a serene feeling of accomplishment and groundedness that nothing else can produce.

“I’m sure there are many people who have had the inverse epiphany to mine: they always recognized the need for self-discipline, but thought self-forgiveness was inappropriate or unhelpful. May we all find the part of the puzzle we’re missing.”
This is a crucial point. How do we find out what is right? I believe it was Scott Alexander from Slate Star Codex who once wrote a very interesting post on how to recognize which path is the right one: it’s the one that creates the most reluctance and inner resistance. If the idea of practicing intentional discipline seems unpleasant and you’d rather “cut yourself some slack” and “let things be”, you should probably practice discipline more rigidly. Conversely, if you’re horrified as the mere thought of self-forgiveness and it would seem hard to do so, that’s probably the way to go. The article was great, I just don’t remember which one it was.

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