Dev Rangarajan
    Discipline vs. Decision Making
    What should I wear today? vs What should I eat today?

    I remember listening to a podcast with Jocko Willink, and his philosophy is that the more disciplined you are, the more discipline you have. He was pushing back against the idea of ‘decision fatigue’, and I remember at the time I thought he was wrong. Decision Fatigue is definitely a thing, it’s hard to make a lot of decisions throughout the day.

    It’s been maybe a year since I heard him say this, and I think I’ve obtained some additional clarity. It’s entirely likely I change my mind on this again, but here are my current thoughts. Discipline and decision making are two related, but different things.

    Let’s define discipline as doing things that don’t feel great. Maybe that’s getting up early, going to the gym, not eating that birthday cake, etc. It probably doesn’t take discipline to eat, or watch tv, or do things that reward you with dopamine. We care about things where you have to sacrifice the short term for the long term. Jocko’s argument, as I understand it, is that if you get up early it’s easier to go to the gym. Exercising discipline gives you the win and more ability to exercise it again.

    Now, let’s talk about decision fatigue. Steve Jobs was famous for only wearing one outfit, as some sort of decision fatigue hack or something. This is definitely something you can feel. Picking a restaurant after a long day seems hard, deciding what to wear for a night out, etc. Designing a kitchen is just an endless series of decisions, and it can be exhausting.

    So the question is, what’s happening here? How can it be easier to go to the gym after waking up but harder to decide what shoes to wear?

    I think there are a couple things at play here. Discipline is exerting a lot of willpower to overcome some sort of mental barrier, but once that barrier is overcome the willpower need drops away quickly, and you feel good about what you’ve done. It doesn’t take discipline to stay in the gym after you’re under a barbell. However, there’s a lot less urgency when it comes to picking an outfit. The stakes are low, but in your head red shoes vs blue shoes is just as much a decision as voting for a red senator vs blue senator.

    So maybe we shouldn’t be focused on the ‘decision’ vs ‘discipline’ but rather the amount of time spent spinning. I think spinning fatigue is what’s actually occurring when we talk about these processes. When you’re trying to get out of bed at 5 am, you feel these two forces fighting against each other, but to an outside observer you’re still in bed. When you decide to wear the shirt with a pattern, the two forces have equal voices, and they’re both valid because you can’t apply any sort of discipline style argument to the problem. Wearing a certain shirt is not going to meaningfully affect your life. The stakes are so low that you can become paralyzed, and that’s a tiring process.

    When you decide to go to the gym, or sit down and do some deep work, you’re aligning with a values system, and that’s energizing. When you decide to wear the light wash jeans, there’s no value system, so you should just make a decision and not overthink it.

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