Self-control, discipline, ‘grit’ – these are portrayed as universally desired traits and are ingrained in us from a very early age. Indeed, even the most liberal of parents, who desire nothing more than for their children to follow their dreams, want them to do so in a structured, organized and disciplined way, as that is widely-acknowledged to be the most reliable path to success.
So, many of us make lists, draw out plans, step-by-step itineraries, vision boards, reminders, milestones – anything and everything that would motivate us to trudge on towards our goals and to stay on track. We install apps that control our social media use, limit our Netflix time, make promises and compromises with ourselves in order to fuel this motivation and be productive and efficient. Many go a step further and deny themselves any positive reinforcement until their work is completed – an assignment finished, an article edited, a book read or a report compiled.
This is one extreme of the productivity spectrum: in stark contrast to those of us who procrastinate and require time pressure to feel motivated, many people are at the mercy of their self-discipline, their rigid schedules almost a self-imposed challenge to see how much they can accomplish and how quickly.
Increasingly, however, studies are being published which reveal the potential hazards of such rigid self-discipline. Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently published a study which identified a correlation between high levels of self-discipline and a decline in mental health and self-confidence in teens. Some of the subjects were shown to be wholly dependent on the quality of their schoolwork and sports performance for their self-image, developing unhealthy levels of anxiety and isolation if their grades or standards slipped.
Another report, published this year by UCLA, found that the socially-drilled “need to succeed” has a drastic mental impact on high school students, as they are increasingly pressured to decide their future career paths from an early age, and to map out their post-graduation route.
Author and educator Alfie Kohn explores similar ideas in his book Why Self-Discipline is Overrated. Kohn argues that those of us who complete a task the moment it’s assigned may be viewed as paragons of virtue, but “often the truth is that these individuals need to get the task out of the way in order to stave off anxiety and erase the negative feeling of leaving something unfinished.” Ultimately, Kohn concludes, “many individuals feel that their worth depends on their performance, which is a slippery slope in the context of self-esteem.” So, although this is an efficient way of getting work done and ticking items off your list, it’s not a recipe for an enjoyable life.
Crucially, efficient and productive individuals may be praised by society for their internal motivation, but sometimes all that means is that they are adept at internalising society’s “need to succeed” bootcamp model. So while we celebrate individuals who are ambitious – “driven”, we call them – it’s possible they’re being driven by relentless drill sergeants of their own making.
Numerous writers are also turning their attention to this issue and interrogating the usefulness of self-discipline. Authors Anne Marsh and Gavin Aisley, for instance, mock the idea that those individuals who denounce a rigid disciplinary schedule are destined to be lazy, unambitious underachievers who will fail at life.
Writer Susan Piver, meanwhile, relinquished scheduling in favour of asking what she felt like doing on any particular day instead. She found that she still accomplished all her necessary tasks, but in an effortless manner and without the need to leash herself to a strict to-do list.
So, it’s possible that loosening our self-imposed collars for some breathing space and trusting ourselves not to collapse without a rigid schedule might not be anathema after all.
Feature image credit: Amy Silverman Fit