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desk-1148994_1920EMBRACING SELF-DISCIPLINE AND MANAGING PROCRASTINATION | A Research Article by Jennifer Lane Ramsey

A few months ago the majority of Pixar employees were told to come to work and wait. The company was literally paying them to come in and twiddle their thumbs while the creative department dealt with a common occurrence–they were in yet another “story crisis.”  From the time Toy Story was in it’s early days of production until the present day, Pixar has had shut downs due to story crisis at least once for every film.  The producers believe that these shut downs are crucial to Pixar’s success.  And,  it would seem that the results speak for themselves in box office sales and a growing shelf of academy awards.   On the surface it might seem like the shutdown is a total wasted effort.  However, the owners of the company believe that shutting down when something isn’t working gives them the time to regroup, diagnose what isn’t working, and create a much better platform for the story telling to continue.  To be able to recognize a story crisis and respond appropriately in the manner by which Pixar does so, is a demonstration of the kind of refined discipline that makes companies successful (Koulopoulos, 2015; Gallo, 2016 pg. 227).Pixar Ed Catmull (Image Credit Pixar and Disney animation president Ed Catmull in front of the colour script for Inside Out). 

In consideration of what leading experts and authors have to say about the concept of discipline,  self-discipline in particular, some common themes emerge.  Rarely do these authors define “discipline” directly but they talk with consistency about where it applies. The common themes they address not only define the topic but, when applied, they cr eate a pathway towards greater levels of self-discipline.   The consistent themes that emerge include: managing procrastination, eliminating distractions, and maintaining mental focus.  


Stephen Covey (2004)  appears to be the foundational author when it comes to discussions of productivity and time management.  In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey labels and rank tasks by their perceived urgency and importance.  They are placed into four quadrants based on their ratings in both categories.  His quadrants are illustrated by business leaders and motivational speakers in many different formats.  One example follows in figure 1.1: 


Although there are many  uses for Covey’s model, in general the final take home that Covey offers is that we tend to lose most of our time managing tasks that are urgent and yet unimportant at the cost of putting off tasks that are not urgent but very important.  There is a general overemphasis on quadrants 3 and 4 in how we spend our time, while quadrant 2 tends to get overlooked. There is wide consensus that the most important quadrant, quadrant 2,  tends to be the one that is subject to neglect. In fact, most experts agree that unless quadrant 2 is proactively pursued, it will be lost in the shuffle altogether.  Fig. 1.1 Four Quadrants as Applied to Project Teams Covey’s quadrants and the vocabulary tied to them are frequently referenced by other authors and speakers and at times his vocabulary appears to have entered the mainstream dialogue about time management without reference or explanation.

Rory Vaden, MBA and Self-Discipline Strategist,  acknowledges Covey’s concepts but he builds upon them in his book “Take the Stairs” (2012). Colorful Quadrants Covey based Jax on Pinterest modelAccording to Vaden, “Procrastination is the number one hidden cost in the workforce.”  His research indicates that employees spend an average of 2 hours of work time every day on mindless non-productive tasks and that these tasks are primarily chosen due to procrastination and avoidance issues.  Fig. 1.2 Stephen Covey’s Four Quadrants | Principles of Effective Time Management « CEO Focus Jax as on Pinterest

Time management experts frequently encourage their audience to make a list of tasks, rank them and then adjust their schedules around what needs to be done when.  They emphasize the need to reduce time spent in quadrants 3 and 4 and apply more energy to quadrant 2.  While this is a very rational and strategic plan, even when it is developed, there is a common struggle with implementation.  Self-discipline is the driving force required to implement a time management plan.   Rory Vaden is a nationally recognized expert, speaker and author on the topic of self-discipline. His work addresses the issue of implementation at a deeper level.

Vaden (2012), claims that the flaw in time management research is that it ignores the emotional component of the decision process behind the choices people make when they prioritize tasks.  According to his research,  successful people add another criterion to task evaluation and they weight it more heavily than urgency and importance.  The criterion that they added is significance.  

Vaden uses the term “3D-people” to refer to these people because they use three criterion instead of two to prioritize their time and attention. When a task is given a high “significance weight,” 3D-people give that task special focus and attention.  The additional question that these people ask in determining what tasks to focus on is “How long will it matter?”  Significance_cube2.jpg1

One common factor that factored into the perception of task significance is whether or not the task had the potential for automation. Vaden labels such tasks “multiplying tasks” because the time spent on them is returned almost like compound interest works in the financial sector.   When they identify a multiplying task,  some people choose to prioritize tasks that can be automated. He calls these people “multipliers” because they arrange their priorities in such a way that they multiply time in the future.  Multipliers do not give in to procrastination.  Instead they employ the self-discipline needed to give the significant multiplier tasks their best attention.  (Image Credit: Significance Cube | Vaden 2015).

To this end, successful multipliers are generally very aware and protective of how they spend their time.  According to Vaden, there is no such thing as time management.  He is quick to remind his readers that we can not control time.  What is required for success is “self management.”  In Vaden’s  words,  “Success is never bought.  It must be rented and the rent is due today,” (Vaden, How to Multiply Your Time 2015 Tedx Talk). Vaden discusses how to prioritize taks in “Procrastinate on Purpose” (Vaden, 2015).  Reader’s who want more information on this topic might want to check out his “Focus Funnel” which specifically deals with how to weigh task significance.


Studies in K12 education are consistently identifying self-discipline as the key factor that is preventing students from achieving success in the classroom.  Amitai Etzioni, professor of sociology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C, states:   

“In the last few years, several commissions did studies to determine what the main problems were in our schools and they all came out with the same remedies: They wanted more math, science and foreign languages pumped into the kids. But nobody paid any attention to the fact that these studies require-first and foremost-self-discipline.“  (Etzioni, 1988).  

Etzioni advocates for behavior modification plans that begin with a regimen  of rewards and consequences for identified behaviors that will increase self-discipline.  However, the desired outcome is for the motivation to become internally localized in students once effective study habits have been formed.

The key to developing these study habits, according to Duckworth and Seligman (2005), is the ability to put off short term pleasures in order to complete tasks that are significant, important, and/or multiplying. “We believe that many of America’s children have trouble making choices that require them to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term gain, and that programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement” (Duckman and Seligman, 2005).

The reality is that America’s children are far from alone.  Self-Discipline is frequently slaughtered in the interest of short term pleasure by the adults that surround them. Despite the fact that “Distraction is the greatest sabotaguer [sic]  of our goals” (Vaden, 2012 ).  We fail in work performance, nutrition, fitness, sleep, and relationships when we procrastinate due to the distraction of short term pleasure.   

Distraction is not always the stuff of indulgence.  Successful people often describe the need to say “no” to tasks, opportunities, and people that may all offer good opportunities for us but it is at the cost of more significant and important tasks that can not be put aside. Vaden claims that time management is emotional because in order to avoid distraction, we have to sometimes say no to people we really care about or want to please.  When faced with the distress of choosing between prioritization and pleasing people,  some individuals freeze in an emotional state of duality.  When this happens they often chose to do  and do nothing.  Other individuals may others say yes to too many things. Both choices can lead to ineffective results.

Brene Brown, PhD, LCSW describes overcommitment and people pleasing as attempts to embrace perfectionism, shame and a lack of wholehearted living.  In The Gifts of Imperfection (2010), she writes:

“When we can let go of what other people think and own our story, we gain access to our worthiness—the feeling that we are enough just as we are and that we are worthy of love and belonging. When we spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don’t fit with who we think we’re supposed to be, we stand outside of our story and hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, and proving. Our sense of worthiness—that critically important piece that gives us access to love and belonging—lives inside of our story.” (Brown, 2010).

People pleasing leads directly into perfectionism. Both serve as major distractions creating the potential for a very deceitful but destructive set up behavior patterns.     Our culture values busy people and perfectionism is more often applauded in the workplace than it is rejected.   However, this is not the reality of perfectionism.  Brown points out that perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be one’s best.  At it’s core, perfectionism is about “trying to earn approval and connection” (Brown,  2010) .  

People pleasing and perfectionism are among the most dangerous of distractions because they  create a sort of black-hole of activity in which a person may find themselves extremely busy doing tasks that temporarily please others, however they become completely inefficient at managing their own priorities.  “Busyness is NOT productivity!”(Ries, 2009) .


On the surface it is obvious that highly successful people are able to apply self discipline to delay gratification and resist distraction.  However, they also utilize self discipline to focus their energy on pressing through the tasks and practices they know will yield the most “Return on Time Invested” or ROTI according to Vaden (2015).  Steve Jobs was the epitome of the kind of razor sharp focus that is the birthplace of excellence.   While there may be some question about Jobs interpersonal skills and his management style, there is no question about his ability to innovate products of unique quality that have literally changed the world.   Just has his products have a very minimized focus and utility, Jobs also had a focus of mentality in how he approached his personal work ethic and how he ran his company.

SAN FRANCISCO - JANUARY 15: Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs holds up the new Mac Book Air after he delivered the keynote speech to kick off the 2008 Macworld at the Moscone Center January 15, 2008 in San Francisco, California. Jobs introduced the wireless Time Capsule backup appliance, iTV 2 and the new ultra thin laptop MacBook Air. (Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO – JANUARY 15: Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs holds up the new Mac Book Air after he delivered the keynote speech to kick off the 2008 Macworld at the Moscone Center January 15, 2008 in San Francisco, California. Jobs introduced the wireless Time Capsule backup appliance, iTV 2 and the new ultra thin laptop MacBook Air. (Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

(Image Credit: Sakuma, 2008 | Steve Jobs With the MacBook Air ).

According to Ries of “Lean Startup,” Jobs advocated the following three principles in approaching time management with self-discipline:

1) Know what you are focusing on at all times.

2) Make sacrifices that matter.

3) Don’t let vanity get in the way (don’t sugar coat things).

According to people with and knew him, Jobs’ approach to tasks, time, and people bordered on brutal. However, there is something to be learned from his ability to focus that applies to a general understanding of the power of self-discipline.  By insisting on end to end design control and by listening to the public but not catering to every demand, he was able to focus on a very small list of products.  Because his company did not become involved in the research and development of a lot of products, Apple has generated billions of dollars in revenue from thirty products.  Jobs’ approach was to tell the public what they needed and wanted and he could do so because of the focus that he had placed in his product line.   He knew with every launch exactly what was being offered.  Every detail of a MacIntosh computer or an Ipad or an Iphone is created with a specific measure of quality.  They are products of focus. However, the focus for them was more about saying no to other ideas than saying yes to the ones that were chosen. According to Jobs, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully” (Ries, 2009).

This is the same kind of razor sharp focus that is seen in the training programs of elite athletes or in the formation of young dancers.  The ability to minimize distractions and focus energy on a consistent and continual basis is the soil from which productivity and success are grown.

According to Vaden (2015), the need to apply intense focus and priority management has to happen with an even stronger persistence as individuals rise in leadership.  Leaders are subject to an intense amount of interruption.  However, the most successful among them learn that the real danger to be avoided is “priority disillusionment” which occurs when we let our most significant priorities go unchecked. 


What these leaders, researchers and success stories tell us is that self-discipline can not be underestimated when it comes to predicting success.  In reality, the truth is that most of us struggle with the ability to apply discipline in one or more areas of our lives.   When this is the case, Vaden (2015) suggests that the issue is not necessarily laziness.  To resist the urgent tasks, delay self-gratification, and maintain focus requires a high degree of energy.  “Not having to use self-control is actually the best way to be good at self-control, because people have limited willpower and you don’t want to have to be using it all day,” says Kathleen Vohs, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota whose research specialties include self-regulation. “You want to save it for the unexpected or the uncontrollable.”  In Consciousness terms, this could be translated to taking responsibility for one’s energy and managing it well.  

Another critical factor that runs throughout the research is the need to focus on self-care. Sleep deprived people and undernourished people are already approaching the stresses of the day from an energy deficit.  This is going to create trouble for them when it comes time to manage their priorities.  According to Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor in chief of the Huffington post, we are in the midst of a sleep deprivation crisis in the United States.  It is raising anxiety levels, increasing health-care costs, decreasing worker productivity, and causing a rise in both motor-vehicle accidents and “overall sleep-deprived stupidity.”

Carol Dwek, PhD Stanford University Professor and author of “Mindset,” describes the mentality of highly successful people as they approach long term goals.  They find it easier to achieve success if they break larger goals into smaller ones. They also tend to focus more on creating velocity towards achieving their goals over the milestones that may have been made. Her research on highly successful college students who carry heavy loads of course hours indicated that “They’re not burning themselves out. They know how to regulate to get the most out of themselves.”   (Dwek, 2006). They also had a tendency to break large goals into smaller ones and they operated with a mentality in which they expected to see success.

Discipline is more rooted in mentality than what most people realize. Successful people are not only self-disciplined in action, they live in a mentality of self-discipline.  In addition to living in the ways described above, they also have a very unique mentality when they approach overwhelming tasks.  Their mentality allows them to see discipline as abundant rather than scarce.   Those who struggle with discipline in one or more areas of their life have trouble adapting positive self -fulfilling prophecies about the goals they want to achieve.  Vaden (2012)  states, “Oftentimes with people who are struggling with self-discipline, it’s not that they have a lack of discipline or a lack of work ethic; in many cases it’s that they have a lack of vision. They don’t have a clear enough picture about what they want in their life, and it’s not compelling enough to pull them through the muck.”  

On one level discipline is merely about doing the tasks that need to be done on a consistent basis.  However, the choice of what those tasks are going to be, the self care behind dedicating oneself to complete them, and the courage it takes to say no to competing priorities is something that does not come naturally to most people.  The good news from all of these experts and authors is that discipline is something that can be cultivated and sustained with behavior modification and consistent practice.


In February of 2016, Pixar took home their 8th Academy award for best animated feature for Inside Out.  They also have been nominated three times for Best Picture by the Academy.  It would seem that the approach to stopping production to handle “story crises” is one that serves the company very well.   This is not surprising given what the current research on time management and success demonstrates.

Oscar's on Display at Pixar's entrance to NBC News.Oscar’s on Display at Pixar’s entrance to NBC News. Image credit:

Consistently managing procrastination, eliminating distraction and focusing effort, are the substantial ingredients in what creates a successful business empire, an elite athlete, or an academy award winning animated film.  They also are the building blocks of the very kind of discipline that is the essence of success.

Works Cited:

Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Hazeldon.

Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic. New York: Free Press.

Chrisman, C. (n.d.). Pixar and Disney animation president Ed Catmull in front of the colour script for Inside Out [Digital image]. Retrieved from   Used in Image 1.1

Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents. Psychological Science, 16(12), 939-944. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01641.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Etzioni, A. (1982).  The Role of Self-Discipline. Phi Delta Kappan (November, 1982).  A PDF of this article is available here:

Four Quadrants as Applied to Project Teams [Digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Franklin-Wallis, O. (2015, November 17). Inside Pixar: How it embraces a crisis (Wired UK). Retrieved April 17, 2016, from

Gallo, C. (2016). The storyteller’s secret: From TED speakers to business legends, why some ideas catch on and others don’t (Pg. 272).

How To Multiply Your Time | Rory Vaden | TEDxDouglasville. (2015.). Retrieved April 17, 2016, from

Huffington, A. S. (2015). The sleep revolution: Transforming your life, one night at a time. Harmony.

Johnston, S. (2015.). 5 Habits of Highly Disciplined People. Fast Company. Retrieved 4/17/16

Koulopoulos, T. (2015, November 20). One Thing Steve Jobs Did at Apple That Will Instantly Improve Your Productivity. Retrieved April 17, 2016, from

Magida, P. (1988, November 27). Experts Say Education Begins With Self-discipline. Retrieved April 17, 2016, from

Ries, E. (2009, August 01). Lessons Learned. Retrieved April 17, 2016, from

Rory Vaden, Self-Discipline Expert, Take the Stairs, Keynote Speaker, Productivity, Customer Service and Sales Tips. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2016, from

Sakuma, P. (2008). Steve Jobs With MacBook Air 2008 [Digital image]. Retrieved from!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/gallery_1200/steve-jobs-macbook-air-2008.jpg

Sorkin, A. (Director). (2015). Steve Jobs [Motion picture on Streaming on Amazon].

Stephen Covey’s Four Quadrants | Principles of Effective Time Management « CEO Focus Jax [Digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved from  (as used in Fig 1.2).

R., Pagliarini. (2012, February 13). The secret to self-discipline. Retrieved April 17, 2016, from

Vaden, R. (2015). Significance Cube [Digital image]. Retrieved from

Vaden, R. (2015). Procrastinate on purpose: 5 permissions to multiply your time.

Vaden, R. (2012). Take the stairs: 7 steps to achieving true success. New York: Perigee Book.

TarcherPerigee.  A free one hour audio seminar covering this topic is available at