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What do you want to do?


Where success is concerned, self-control clearly matters. A Perspectives in Psychological Science study shows self-control outdoes talent in predicting academic success. A 40-year study published in American Scientist determined self-control strongly predicts adult success, regardless of socioeconomic background or even intelligence.

Can you develop greater self-discipline? Sure.

But it’s really, really hard. Self-discipline implies requires gratification–doing this, so someday I can have that. Self-discipline requires some degree of self-denial: I want to stay in bed, but I have to rise and grind. Self-discipline requires willpower, and even though relatively recent research runs counter to the theory of ego depletion and its impact on willpower, as anyone who has passed the candy jar 10 times knows, willpower is, at least sometimes, a finite resource.

But what if achieving your goals — or, more important, living the life you want to live — didn’t require self-discipline? Here’s the key, counterintuitive as it might sound:

Do what you want to do.

Hold that thought.

A friend of mine seems incredibly, almost obsessively, self-disciplined.

But he doesn’t see it that way. He wants to get up by 5 a.m. He feels it’s the perfect time for him to push ideas, initiatives, and projects forward. (Sometimes he’s so eager to get going that if he happens to wake up at 3.30, he hops out of bed.) He loves getting the kids up and taking them to school. He loves coming back to work on his body, then sitting down to take calls and have meetings, and then having lunch with his wife.

Every minute of his day is intentional and scheduled, especially his time with his family (in the best possible way.) That seems self-disciplined, but is the opposite. What what he does is fulfilling, or productive, or gratifying, or joyful.

It’s what he wants to do.

Which means self-discipline isn’t a factor.

Morning deep work? He doesn’t have to do it — he’s eager to do it. Take the kids to school? Doesn’t have to — loves to. Eat healthy and work out? Doesn’t have to–loves to. Loves how it makes him feel, loves the effect it has on his body, his mind, his energy levels, and his self-esteem.

Self-discipline? He doesn’t need it. The emotional rewards of doing what he does far outweigh any downsides.

That’s true for nearly every extremely successful person I know. They do what they do because they want to. Because it works for them. Because that’s the best path to success (in whatever way they choose to define success), fulfillment, and happiness.

Goals are great. Goals inspire. Goals motivate. Goals give our lives a sense of purpose and meaning. Yet the only way to experience a sense of purpose and meaning — and to eliminate the need for willpower — is to want the work, not just the goal.

As Inc. colleague Justin Bariso writes, emotional intelligence is making your emotions work for you, not against you.

When you consider a goal, take a step back and think about how you feel about that goal. Sure, you may want to achieve the goal, but is what is involved in what you want to do? If not, you’ll need a ton of self-discipline to see it through. (Which probably means it’s not the right goal for you.)

Want to someday be the founder of a $100 million company? You can’t just want the goal; you have to want the effort, perseverance, sleepless nights, and risks involved in building a hugely successful company. You’ll have to find, if not joy, then at least satisfaction and fulfillment in the tasks involved.

Want to someday be known as the inventor of a groundbreaking new product? You can’t just want the goal; you have to want to spend countless hours in your garage or basement, tinkering and iterating and failing, over and over again, on the way to an eventual breakthrough.

Want to someday run the Boston marathon? You can’t just want the goal; you have to want to go running, day after day after day, in pursuit of eventually running those 26 miles through the streets of Boston.

You can’t just want the end result. You have to want the work — and the work has to be something you want to do.

Because then you won’t need self-control. You won’t think about willpower. You won’t think about perseverance.

You’ll just do it because you want to.

No self-discipline required.

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