Forget Self-Discipline and Willpower, Focus on This Instead

We all want to maximize our productivity and achieve goals. But each day is often a white-knuckle grind and the struggle of self-discipline is exhausting.

But there is a better way — editing your personal narrative.

Pastor and professor at Houston Baptist University, Russell Minick says, “The Story we operate from is the single most powerful factor in character development, not willpower.”

Your personal narrative is the story that shapes your view of the world and directs your behaviors. Your ability to exercise willpower is dependent upon the script you’re telling yourself.

A study by Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, took a group of college freshmen who struggled academically and felt intellectually inadequate. They were split into two groups; the intervention group were told that it’s common for students to struggle as freshmen but improve as they adjust to college life. They also watched videos of upper-class students reinforcing this message.

The goal was to prompt the students to edit their narratives — to reinterpret their negative, self-defeating inner-dialogue.

It worked. The students in the intervention group significantly improved in their GPA over the next year, and were less likely to drop out. In the control group (who received no information) 25 percent of students dropped out by the end of their sophomore year, compared with 5 percent in the intervention group.

To effectively edit your story, you need to understand the five stages every personal narrative progresses through. I’ve adapted MIT lecturer Cameron Herold’s model of the “transition curve,” featured by Tim Ferriss, to explain the most crucial stages for editing your story:

1.  Uninformed Optimism

Every new venture begins this way. Filled with excitement; you feel invincible and unstoppable. You are “green” with a shade of naivety, yet to deal with any major challenges or opposition.

2.  Informed Pessimism

This is where doubt creeps in. You’re more informed and gaining more experience, and you encounter information that conflicts with your plans.

As your pessimism grows, the mental struggle and doubt leads to fear. You begin to procrastinate as a coping mechanism. Your self-discipline and willpower become paralyzed.

3.  Crises of Meaning

This stage is crucial for editing your personal narrative. It’s the stage where Wilson implemented the intervention for the students. They experienced academic challenges in the “informed pessimism” stage and internalized the negative feedback, convincing themselves they were intellectually sub-par.

4.  Crash and Burn (failure to edit)

If you fail to edit your narrative and reinterpret the negative information, no amount of motivation, willpower, or self-discipline will pull you through the “crises of meaning.” A negative script dictating your life will only lead to failure and perpetual struggle. Your unedited story will lead you to crash and burn.

5.  Informed Optimism (with editing).

After incorporating new, supportive information into your narrative, you’re set on a motivated trajectory. However, your optimism needs to be informed — the new information needs to be valid and true. Using trite affirmations with no grounding in reality causes more frustration and cripples your performance.

The students from the study were exposed to real accounts from other students. The information was trustworthy. When your optimism is informed, you will truly believe a goal is achievable, and your behaviors will be congruent. Self-discipline and willpower becomes easier.

There are many ways to be exposed to “real” accounts and helpful storylines to weave into your own narrative. For example, reading biographies and memoirs. Books can expose you to what is possible and allow you to adopt their storylines into your own.

Editing your narrative is also a fluid process. Your story is not fixed; it is iterative. A “crises of meaning” may come at any time, or multiple times, in life. Negative scripts will enter your storyline and need to be replaced. Adopt a journaling practice. Regular reflection on your narrative will ensure you keep editing in a way that empowers you to stay productive and achieve your goals.