Say the word discipline and watch those around you either cringe or nod in sage agreement. At least, that’s what happens to me. And I use this word all the time.
For many people, the D-word brings up visions of tyrant drill sergeants and habit-wearing nuns snapping wooden rulers on the fingers of unsuspecting (and clearly undeserving!) students. It’s the killer of creativity, a crusher of spirit, and the rigid antithesis to fluidity. Sticking “self” in front of “discipline” only means we’ve agreed to do it to ourselves.
And then there are the people like me, who credit self-discipline for their greatest creative achievements, most notable successes, and continued youthful appearance. Am I nuts? Very possibly. But in case I’m your kind of nuts, read on for tips on how I use self-discipline to self-motivate, self-inspire, and otherwise kick my own self into action pretty much every day.
The first step is to recognize that self-discipline requires action. It’s not a trait that can be inherited or a quality that can be bought. It can’t be given as a gift, stolen, or loaned. And worst of all (or best of all?), it won’t stick around forever once we get it. Self-discipline is action. If we don’t act, it disappears.
But how can we act if we don’t have self-discipline?
And how can we become self-disciplined if we’re too undisciplined to act?
The quandary has left many well-intentioned people stuck at the starting line while their friends, colleagues, and competitors raced ahead. The farther everyone else gets, the harder it becomes to move forward, until those initial steps, that would have been easy if done at the beginning with the crowd, seem daunting and pointless.
This is the moment when wistful wishes arise:
If only I had kept at it.
If only I had done what they did when they did it.
If only I had discipline.
It’s easy to get caught in this debilitating cycle and why so many of us repeatedly exchange unattained goals for newer, fresh-starting goals. But will a fresh start really make a difference? Not without action. And that brings us round circle to the original quandary:
How do we act diligently when we lack the self-discipline to make ourselves do it?
We act. Self-discipline is as simple and difficult as that.
The trick is to keep the size of those actions small and the praise for those actions large. We do this, by keeping our steps challenging yet attainable and by repeatedly acknowledging our efforts. If we move forward, great. If we stumble in the effort, also great.
Effort is action.
Action is discipline.
Self-discipline is the key.
Self-discipline is not measured by results: Results are the byproduct of self-discipline.
Think about it. If self-discipline were measured by results, then all those hours, days, and weeks we spend experimenting, failing, and trying new approaches wouldn’t count. And yet, isn’t that exactly the kind of effort needed on the path to any achievement? How else do we learn, invent, and progress if not through countless failed attempts?
Failing is a necessary part of learning and progressing. When we think of failure in this way, we can appreciate all those wrong forks in the road and congratulate ourselves for the effort and determination it took to take them.
No one is born with self-discipline nor is it some magical trait that, once acquired, we can rely on for the rest of our lives. Self-discipline is a day to day process–a series of wins and losses, sprints and stalls–that gets us where we want to go.
PS: If you’d like some more helpful ideas, checkout 5 Tips for Building Good Habits, 5 Empowering Things to Do While Walking, or Carb-Counting & Exercise: How I Dodged Diabetes. And if you’d prefer your helpful strategies spiced with exotic travel, philosophical musings, and a Taipei typhoon, I invite you to read Stay Calm and Get It Done: Five Strategies for Staying Positive and Productive.