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September 25, 2023

Iron Will vs Adaptable Will

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As someone who is incredibly self-disciplined and teaches a lot about it, I found this nuance about self-discipline very insightful. When we think of self-discipline we often think about will-power, and that to be discipline we must impose our will on the circumstances. This is a no excuses, non-negotiable, whatever it takes mentality.

While it’s very useful to have, it's not a sustainable source of action-taking fuel. When it runs out, it will lead to an unfortunate crash and recovery.

Taking the previous approach is something that the stoics and Ryan Holiday call “Iron Will”, meaning that there’s a strong and enforcing material to it.

The type of will and self-discipline that is built to last, that’s still strong but a bit more practical is what they call “Adaptable Will”.

‘Adaptable will’ gives you the space to read the circumstances in every instance and make the right decision for that environment. Iron will tells you to enforce the decision you already made no matter what, which might not always be the right decision.

What if you’re sick and you’ve committed to working out hard every day? Maybe you consider a lighter workout, or give yourself time to rest. What if you have early travel plans but you also have a non-negotiable morning routine? Do you wake up an extra hour early and compromise your sleep do the full routine? Or do you do a version of it and choose to prioritize sleep.

Adaptable will gives you the opportunity to make a moment by moment choice. Oftentimes the right choice is to do the difficult, uncomfortable, challenging thing. But instead of doing it without any regard to what’s happening, you choose to do it.

Similarly when it’s not the right thing to do, instead of feeling like you lack discipline, you can have confidence that you made the right intentional choice. With the adaptability comes flexibility, and it helps you to keep momentum going even on the days you don’t take action on something because with the best of intentions you’re choosing not to.

To make this actionable, the best thing you can do for your daily disciplines is prepare. Make sure you have them prioritized in your schedule. But also, know what a fractional version of the full activity would be so that you can elect to do that when that’s the right decision to make.

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