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Redefining Self-discipline (and Why it Matters)

Can you imagine what your life would feel like with more self-discipline? What would you do? When you take action on something that matters to you regardless of your immediate impulses—you practice self-discipline. It’s choosing to move forward to act on what you most care about despite hardship, and it feels really good. In fact, we could all use more of it. Every time that we practice self-discipline, we choose to reclaim our life. We pursue our dreams, act on them, and stay motivated when we don’t feel like it. We engage in self-discipline by exercising our willpower and focused attention to choose action over distraction.

But self-discipline is not exactly what we’ve been taught. Most of what we think about when it comes to discipline is actually obedience. Why? Because as we were growing up, discipline came externally: someone knew and chose what we had to do. So it makes sense that we grew averse to discipline because it involved doing things that we didn’t necessarily care for. Being obedient meant we were well educated and indoctrinated to follow what others told us to do. It meant being well behaved, attentive for instructions, and striving for perfection. Wouldn’t you agree? In the past, factories needed obedient operators. Eventually, management gurus like Peter Drucker realized we needed knowledge workers instead. But perhaps what the world needs today is creative workers who sprout out of passion, not obedience.

Notice that self-discipline has nothing to do with half-hearted pursuits of obedience. Mature discipline is driven by clarity, courage, and contribution. It is gentle, but truly committed. It’s the hallmark of the free person. Self-discipline is not about being abusive, or repressing our feelings or the feelings of others. Self-discipline is about aligning with what we find meaningful, respecting our wants powerfully, and being personally responsible. So how do we leap to action? How can we stay consistent in our efforts? Let’s consider the following strategies:

  • Clarity (ask why, why, why)
  • Awareness (recognize your distractions)
  • Leverage (tweak your environment)
  • Trust (achieve small victories)

So how exactly do we exercise clarity? We do this by reminding ourselves what we stand for and by working our way towards it. When will I start pursuing what I really want? How can I begin? What meaningful action can I take today? Our ability to remind ourselves what we really want, and why we want it is what will catapult us into action. Ask yourself: how can I be more deliberate in my learning, effortful in my work, and focused on my contribution? We can become our own best coach by setting rules that reflect our clarity and serve as a reminder of what we will and will not do. Healthy boundaries and a clear picture of what we want are empowering motivators.

Additionally, we can build self-discipline by being aware of the things that distract us. Why is it that we lose our focus? What are the temptations that derail us from taking meaningful action and staying with it?  It is so easy to be busy without really moving forward. Things like social platforms, meetings, e-mail, phone calls, listening or reading to negative media, and t.v. It’s hard. I know I like to feel connected and keep in touch with people, but recognizing distractions is not judging distractions. It’s doing something about it. As adults, we tend to discipline ourselves by being harsh. In our desire to change, we starve ourselves with diets. We over-exert at the gym. We pull an all-nighter. Essentially we hurt ourselves—instead of being gentle, patient, and encouraging.

In Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath explain how to tweak the environment and how they applied it themselves when writing their book: “Dan bought an old lap top, deleted all its browsers, and, for good measure, deleted its wireless network drivers.” How can you leverage your environment in a way that’s exciting and motivating? How can you design it in such a way so that you feel encouraged and compelled to act? How can you design-out the distractions or temptations? Can you imagine such an environment? When we see disciplined people, what we really see are people that know what matters to them, and have consciously tweaked their environment.

But nothing is more powerful than taking action and seeing ourselves grow! What kind of exciting, compelling and small goals can I start with? We must achieve small victories and build momentum. Self-discipline is like a collection of small acts of courage toward personal freedom. To stick to what really matters to us and build a habit of self-discipline, we must believe that we can. Trust that whatever you will begin you can accomplish. Trust that your life’s work is worth pursuing. Believe that with enough time and effort—you can achieve your goals and make anything happen.

Self-discipline is ultimately about reminding yourself why you really, really care to do something, over and over again, and doing it. We can begin a life with more self-discipline that starts as we define what we truly care about, recognize what distractions affect our focus, design those distractions out, and powerfully believe we can accomplish our highest aspirations.

Juan F. Diaz

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Great insights into self-discipline. Your link and contrast between obedience and self-discipline is helpful on both a personal level and in the context of Parenting. I’ve found that self-discipline came easiest to me when I had the most clarity and really understood, internalized and valued the why(s). So writing down all the whys is a great starting point for anyone seeking to improving self-discipline (or alternately and perhaps more powerfully by creating a vision board or mission statement) and a tool to review to help maintain that discipline. I believe the more effort spent in defining and creating the vision you have the more likely you are to succeed. Or as Stephen Covey recommends in 7 habits of highly effective people in Habit 2) Begin with the End in Mind. Per Covey the process of creation or transformational change happens twice. First in the Mind and the second time in reality.

Juan F. Diaz

Ted! Thanks for the comment. I see what you mean- a vision board is quite literally a visual reminder of our desired destination (the end in mind). Often, the challenge with self-discipline is also about personal resistance (temptations/comfort) and everyday obstacles and distractions. I find that tweaking the environment and accomplishing small victories are very practical methods to create/change personal habits and gain momentum. Thanks again!

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