Principles of Effective Research: Part IV
Effective people are self-disciplined. They work both hard and smart, in the belief that you reap what you sow. How does one achieve such self-discipline? It’s a difficult problem. Wayne Bennett, one of the most successful coaches in the history of the sport of Rugby League, sums the problem up well when he says “I’ve had more trouble with myself than any other man I’ve ever met”.
It is a tempting but ultimately counterproductive fallacy to believe that self-discipline is merely a matter of will, of deciding what it is that you want to do, and then doing it. Many other factors affect self-discipline, and it’s important to understand those other factors. Furthermore, if you believe that it’s all a matter of willpower then you’re likely to get rather depressed when you fall short, sapping your confidenc, and resulting in less disciplined behaviour.
I now describe three factors important in achieving self-discipline.
The first factor is having clarity about what one wants to achieve, why one wants to achieve it, and how to go about achieving it. It’s easy to work hard if you’re clear about these three things, and you’re excited about what you’re doing. Conversely, I think the main cause of aimlessness and procrastination is when you lack clarity on one or more of these points.
The second factor affecting self-discipline is one’s social environment. Researchers are typically under little immediate social pressure to produce research results. Contrast this with the example of professional athletes, who often have an entire support system of coaches, managers and trainers in place, focused around the task of increasing their effectiveness. When a researcher stays out late, sleeps in, and gets a late start, no-one minds; when a professional athlete does, they’re likely to receive a blast from their coach.
Access to a social environment which encourages and supports the development of research skills and research excellence can make an enormous difference to all aspect of one’s research, including self-discipline. The key is to be accountable to other people. Some simple ways of achieving such accountability are to take on students, to collaborate with colleagues, or to set up mentoring relationships with colleagues.
The third factor affecting self-discipline is a special kind of honesty, honesty to oneself, about oneself. It’s extremely easy to kid ourselves about what we do and who we are. A colleague once told me of a friend of his who for some time used a stopwatch to keep track of how much research work he did each week. He was shocked to discover that after factoring in all the other activities he engaged in each day – interruptions, email, surfing the net, the phone, fruitless meetings, chatting with friends, and so on – he was averaging only half an hour of research per day. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was typical of many researchers. The good news, of course, is that building this kind of awareness lays the foundation for personal change, for achieving congruence between our behavioural goals and how we actually behave, in short, for achieving self-discipline.