The writer John Cheever put on his suit every morning and
rode the elevator down in his apartment building.
Instead of exiting at the ground floor, he continued to a
storage room in the basement.
There, he shed his clothes and wrote in his underwear until
noon. Then he dressed again, took the elevator back up for lunch,
and continued his day, having completed his most important
The first and most rational fear of a self-directed learner is, How
will I get things done? If Cheever is any example, then the answer
is simple: Treat your life like an incredibly well-paid job. Show up
every day, put in the hours, push forward, and then the magic
starts to happen.
The author Stephen Pressfield calls this approach “turning
professional.” The idea is that we get things done by throwing away
our excuses, demolishing all distractions, cutting the crap, and
summoning every ounce of our self-discipline.
But we must tread carefully around the word discipline. As the
essayist Paul Graham explains, “One of the most dangerous
illusions [we] get from school is the idea that doing great things
requires a lot of discipline.” Many top achievers and highly creative
people, Graham argues, are actually terrible procrastinators who
have little discipline for tasks that bore them.
So we have two approaches to discipline. The first is putting your
nose to the grindstone, shedding all distractions, and doing the
work, no matter what. The second is not forcing anything, seeing
procrastination as feedback, and waiting until inspiration strikes.
Both are correct.
Try this. The next time you’re facing a daunting self-directed
learning task—something that no one is going to make happen but
you—ask yourself three questions:
If I don’t do this work, will I feel badly afterwards, perhaps
even physically ill?
When I’ve done this work in the past, did I feel like it made an
important difference either in my life or in the world?
When I’ve done this work in the past, did I just need to get
over the initial hump, and then self-motivation took over?
If your answer is “yes” to all three questions, then your calling is
true. It’s time to disable the Wi-Fi, write in your underwear, or do
whatever else is necessary to buckle down and focus.
If the answer is “no” to many of the questions, perhaps you’re
working on the wrong project, or you’re approaching it the wrong
way. Buckling down might not help here—it’s time to change
And if the answer to the questions is, “I don’t know,” or, “I don’t
have enough information,” then it’s time do a little research. Try
the focused approach and watch yourself carefully. Are you feeling
engaged? Is this worth your time? Then, after a period of genuine
effort, ask yourself the three questions again.
For myself, I think about running and writing. If I put off a long
run or a writing project for too long:
I start to feel badly, sometimes even physically ill.
I stop feeling like I’m making a positive difference in the
world and in my health.
I realize that I’m just avoiding the startup hump—the putting
on of the shoes or the opening of the word processor—and
not the work itself, which I thoroughly enjoy after I’ve begun.
More than anything else, the art of self-directed learning is the art
of knowing what engages you, what distracts you, and what’s most
important to achieve in your life right now.
Gathering such knowledge requires a seemingly endless amount
of reflection, discussion, and self-examination. But the payoff to
this work, in the words of my friend Dev Carey, is that “discipline
becomes simply remembering.”
Self-discipline isn’t some universal attribute that you
either have or don’t. It’s a product of matching your
actions to the work that’s most important in your life.