Saturday, November 22, 2014

How to Build Discipline and Conscientiousness

The recent post highlighted why conscientiousness is the single personality trait most consistently associated with life success.  We commonly hear traders extol their passion for their work.  Desire alone, however, is only half the success equation.  It's conscientious follow-through that makes the difference between dreaming of success and waking up to make it a reality.

Can we cultivate conscientiousness?  Can we improve upon our ability to pursue goals in a disciplined, intentional way?

Michael Posner's work in cognitive neuroscience suggests that a key element in self-regulation is the development of executive attention.  This makes sense:  the opposite of conscientiousness is not laziness; it is distractibility.  The distracted person is one who cannot sustain directed action:  intention requires attention.  Posner's work finds that attention can be trained through the use of challenging video games and through such processes as meditation.

Indeed, a study of short-term integrative mind-body meditation training found that it was effective in improving both attention and the regulation of emotional responses.  By learning to focus attention, build mindfulness, and control the body's state of arousal, subjects were able to lower their cortisol response to stress; lower their negative emotionality; and improve positive emotional experience.   

Similarly, training in the arts appears to lead to changes in the brain that are associated with improvements in attention and general cognitive functioning.  Cognitive discipline, a precondition of behavioral discipline, appears to be a capacity that can be trained.

An interesting study looked at conscientiousness as a set of behaviors, not simply a trait that people have or don't have.  Behaviors negatively correlated with conscientiousness included "avoid work"; "impulsivity"; "antisocial"; and "laziness".  Behaviors positively correlated with conscientiousness included "organization"; "cleanliness"; "industriousness"; "appearance"; "punctuality"; "formality"; and "responsibility".  Viewing conscientiousness as behaviors opens the door toward cultivating habit patterns that are conscientious. 

By building habits that make us more conscientious, we avoid the circularity of needing conscientiousness to follow a program of building conscientiousness.  Each of the conscientious behaviors listed above can be turned into a daily action that is repeated as part of an ongoing routine.  By making the behavior routine, we take it out of conscious control and automate it--enabling us to cultivate the next positive habit.  A particularly promising strategy is to use the mind-body meditation training described above to start the day with regulated attention and arousal and then use that mindful state to enact a conscientious behavior.  Over time, that would build habits of both cognitive and behavioral self-control.

The important takeaway is that disciplined lives start with disciplined days and those start with disciplined acts.  If we do not achieve a degree of mastery over mind and body, it is difficult to believe that we will sustain a path toward life mastery.

Further Reading:  Turning Success Into a Habit