Persistence: Much more effective than willpower and discipline

I am so grateful for our backyard. We have so many different areas – including a firepit with a built in bench that wraps around it. We had some nice weather last weekend and decided to go out, make a fire, and roast some marshmallows.

Sure, we have matches. Sure we have lighters. But we also have flint!

Survivor is one of my guilty pleasures, so naturally my Inner High Achiever wanted to use the flint.

I built the fire structure and stuffed the bottom of it with crumpled up old flyers. I had another piece of paper, with a little saw dust on it. Scraped some magnesium off the flint and got to work creating sparks.

Got a big spark and a little flame came to life….and then went out.

I scraped more magnesium, and made another little flame that also went out.


And again.

Ugh! Why can’t I do this?

I set everything up again, but this time decided to try it without the sawdust.

Magnesium – check. 

Flame – check!!! Put it on the fire and BOOM we had a marshmallow-roasting-fire ready to go!

What was the secret? 

Was it how much magnesium I scraped? 

Or was it trying again without the sawdust?

Was it willpower?

Was it discipline and sticking it out?


But I think the winning factor here was actually something else entirely.

When willpower falters and discipline waivers, curiosity becomes the guiding light towards lasting change

Why Willpower Often Doesn’t Work Long-Term

Picture this: you’re determined to stick to a new morning routine. Initially, you’re full of motivation! But as time goes on, it becomes harder to resist the temptation of snoozing in bed. Keeping up with the plan you had requires a huge increase in effort. This is because our brains start to perceive the effort (and these new habits) as a threat. Activating the body’s stress response system. This can manifest as increased cortisol levels, heightened anxiety, or even feelings of overwhelm. Also, our Inner Critic fights it with negative talk. Our Inner Doubt Dragon brings up all of the other times we tried to start something new and failed.

And so we dig into willpower.

However, relying solely on willpower often sets us up for unrealistic expectations. We expect ourselves to constantly resist temptation without considering factors like fatigue, emotional state, or environmental triggers. When we inevitably falter, we may experience feelings of guilt or failure. Which can further exacerbate stress and make it even harder to stick to our plans.

Then, when willpower still doesn’t work, we resort to discipline.

Why Discipline Also Often Doesn’t Work Long-Term

Discipline sounds great, right? Especially for high achievers! It means we’re in control! We have the power. We get to decide. Our Inner Perfectionist gets to do a little happy dance every time we stick to our plan!

But here’s the plot twist: discipline only likes stability and when everything is predictable, discipline is great.

In the pursuit of habits, ditch the rigidity of willpower and discipline – embrace the fluidity

But when life throws curveballs (which happens on the regular) or motivation starts to drift off (which happens in early burnout), discipline alone might not cut it. Picture this: you’re trying to learn a new language or stick to a daily meditation practice. At first, discipline helps you show up every day, but then life gets hectic, and suddenly, that iron will starts to bend.

Plus, discipline can be a tough taskmaster. When we slip up or fall short of our own expectations, it’s easy to beat ourselves up, triggering a vicious cycle of guilt and self-doubt.

So, while willpower and discipline can be powerful allies, both of them push us forward without looking at the reasons why we even need them in the first place.

But what do we do when willpower and discipline aren’t enough?

What to Do When Willpower and Discipline Don’t Work

Coming back to my fire-making example, we could have been there for hours if I kept pushing through, trying the same thing over and over. Lighting a fire in this way with flint works for my partner every time, so it should work for me too. Right? Willpower and discipline say if I keep doing what works for someone else, eventually I’ll get it to work for me.

It may end up being true – but most likely it will either come at a cost, or still not work out.

One of the things we often forget when we’re following what we think we should be doing, or what we think we want to be doing because someone we look up to on the internet or in a book says it’s a good idea – is that we’re not them!

Discover the secret sauce to habit formation: the 'yes, and' mindset of curiosity and adaptability

What they do works well enough for them, and that’s great. But we need to figure out how to make it work for us.

That’s where persistence comes in.

Persistence is different from discipline or willpower. Its so much more effective because it includes that one vitally important factor – curiosity.

Rather than continuing to push through, persistence invites us to take a step back, assess and create a different plan if we need to.

Persistence embraces the idea that it’s okay if something didn’t work out because we ask the ever so important question: why?

It creates space to explore, rather than blindly follow.

The truth is persistence is like an improv act because it uses the key improvisation rule of “Yes, and”.

Why You Need to Use the Key Rule of Improv If You Want to Stick to New Habits or Routines

The “yes, and” rule of improv is like the secret sauce for fostering curiosity and persistence without kicking our stress levels into overdrive. 

Here’s what the rule means: in improv, when one performer introduces an idea or scenario, their scene partner responds with “yes, and…” to accept the premise and build upon it. This principle encourages collaboration, spontaneity, and a mindset of openness to new possibilities.

Now, let’s apply this to forming new habits or routines. Instead of approaching change with resistance or self-imposed pressure, we can embrace the “yes, and” mindset. Picture this: You decide to start a daily meditation practice. Instead of fixating on potential obstacles or doubting your ability to stick with it, you say “yes” to the idea and then add, “and I’ll start with just five minutes a day.” This gentle approach allows room for curiosity and experimentation without triggering the stress response.

Similarly, when we encounter setbacks or challenges, or when life throws us one of those inevitable curve balls, the “yes, and” mindset encourages us to view them with curiosity. We can ask ourselves, “Yes, this didn’t go as planned, and what can I learn from it? What made it harder for me to stick to the plan? What can I do to make it easier? Is this even what I really want? Do I need start smaller?” 

Stop wrestling with willpower and discipline – opt for the gentle guidance of persistence instead

This line of self-reflection builds back our motivation and excitement, while keeping stress at bay. By embracing the spirit of “yes, and,” we can navigate change with curiosity, adaptability, and a sense of playfulness, making it easier to stick to our desired habits and routines in the long run.

Stop Relying on Willpower and Discipline, and Choose Persistence

Embracing the “yes, and” rule of improv offers a refreshing perspective on cultivating curiosity and persistence in our pursuit of new habits or routines. 

Instead of rigidly adhering to a predetermined plan or succumbing to the pressures of willpower and discipline, this approach invites us to collaborate with ourselves, embrace spontaneity, and remain open to new possibilities. By saying “yes” to our intentions and adding “and” to explore different strategies or adjustments, we create a supportive environment for growth and self-discovery. 

This mindset encourages curiosity-driven self-reflection, allowing us to adapt and pivot as needed without activating the stress response. Ultimately, by adopting the spirit of “yes, and,” we can infuse our persistence with flexibility and a sense of playfulness, making it more enjoyable and sustainable in the long run.

Transform your journey towards habits from a battle to a collaboration – with yourself, for yourself, and by yourself.

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