How to harness the power of discipline to help you thrive
Discipline can be perceived as a dirty word, conjuring images of toil and labour as we strive towards impossible goals that we inevitably abandon. But discipline doesn’t need to be about deprivation and drudgery. It can become your ally, helping you to live your best life. The Dalai Lama suggests, “A disciplined mind leads to happiness, while an undisciplined mind leads to suffering.” Perhaps it’s time to become a disciple of discipline.
The word “discipline” has all sorts of connotations. You can instantly feel straitjacketed by a sense of strictness, regulation and restraint. Our lexicon for living well has changed in recent years and we now gravitate towards terms like “flow”, “acceptance” and “presence”, whereby we feel a sense of ease and calm.
The notions of discipline and flow are not mutually exclusive, though, and don’t need to be in opposition. Taking a disciplined approach to life can lead to a sense of true autonomy whereby you can create the space to relax and pursue what really matters in your life. In tandem, they can lead to a meaningful outcome.
Taking a disciplined approach to life can lead to a sense of true autonomy whereby you can create the space to relax and pursue what really matters in your life.
Discipline should not be seen as a denial of having fun but rather as saying yes to those things at the right time. There is nothing better than treating yourself after you have done something to earn it. Ironically, discipline is all about achieving balance and harmony, which are, philosophically speaking, modern tenets of life as we combat a chaotic world.
Moreover, discipline doesn’t have to be 24/7 but rather should be incorporated into daily life. In his most recent book, Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual, American author, podcaster and former Navy Seal Jocko Willink provides a salient example of how discipline is the pathway to liberation, despite this seemingly being counter-intuitive. He says, for instance, that sleeping-in appears to be a form of freedom as you are free to do nothing and once in a while it feels great just to laze away the morning (sometimes it’s even necessary).
However, the problem with sleeping-in, especially if it becomes the norm, is you don’t get anything done. Consequently, as Willink points out, jobs bank up, you end up playing panicky catch-up and even lose control, lamenting your lazy, opt-out approach. Ultimately, this attitude to life leads to stress. Discipline, on the other hand, can liberate your life.
We all know that feeling of self-recrimination when we’ve given in to laziness or allowed ourselves to be distracted by YouTube videos. You can feel quite down on yourself when you know you’ve avoided things that needed to be done or squandered time that could have been used more productively. You can make excuses that you’re relaxing but you know deep down this is not the case. Avoidance and procrastination can become chronic and even lead to more serious mental health issues.
Slow & steady wins the race
Being disciplined in no way means you have to “go hard or go home”. But many take an all-or-nothing approach. Everyone can relate to the pain and pitfalls of setting tough goals only to fall down at the first hurdle. Take the perennial problem of losing weight. We’ve all heard of or been victim to yo-yo dieting and part of the reason we fall for fad diets is because we want fast results.
We live in the age of instant gratification as products and services have become so accessible. You can stream programs instantaneously and binge-watch your favourite shows. From food to fashion, everything is available on-demand. As our attention spans have shortened, we’ve become more impatient and less tolerant.
Playing the long game is simply not an option for many, but for those who are prepared to do the hard yards, albeit in small bite-sized chunks, results are forthcoming and they tend to be permanent. Discipline is synonymous with habit. Good habits performed daily create lifelong change.
In the example of losing weight, rather than go on a diet to lose kilos fast, only to succumb to the late night proverbial junkfood hit in desperation, the slower approach of maintaining a nutritious regimen over a longer time will inevitably yield better results. You see this in all areas of life.
Going hardcore at the gym for two weeks will barely create a difference in your physical wellbeing, but doing a workout three times a week for a year will produce a change in size, shape and fitness. Moreover, once you’re in the habit or have adopted a set routine, it’s much easier to stay in that groove. The stop-start approach means we never get into a momentum and are often left feeling demoralised and frustrated.
Decide to be disciplined
Jeff Olson, who wrote The Slight Edge: Turning Simple Disciplines Into Massive Success and Happiness, discusses how small actions over time will make a big difference in the long term. He argues that the daily decisions you make have a cumulative effect. Mathematically speaking, this makes perfect sense. Just as you may decide to eat nutritious food every day to achieve an overall goal, Olson points out that eating healthily for one day makes no impact at all. It’s the compound effect that yields the results.
Conversely, munching down a chocolate bar occasionally won’t make a significant difference at all to your median weight. However, a chocolate bar every day of the week for a full year will eventuate in having to invest in a new wardrobe. To paraphrase an old saying, one sunny day does not a summer make.
Discipline is synonymous with habit. Good habits performed daily create lifelong change.
Any major undertaking, such as training for a marathon or mastering an instrument, requires this regulated approach. In addition there’s a range of subsequent decisions to optimise lasting success. In the case of losing weight, it isn’t merely about the discipline of nutrition and portion control. For instance, what you put in your shopping cart matters so when you open your fridge only an array of healthy options is up for grabs. Temptation is not there to derail your resolve. It’s these collateral decisions that make a difference in how achievable the goal is.
Discipline gets by with a little help
As the Beatles sang, “We get by with a little help from our friends.” And discipline has brothers-in-arms. Like the famous Fab Four there’s the fab four of success: discipline, drive, determination and dedication. It’s interesting that talent is not a prerequisite. Effort does not require talent.
When we see amazing sportspeople we marvel at their incredible talent. But what we don’t see is the days, weeks, months and years of working on their craft to achieve that level of performance. Sport star Rahul Dravid modestly observes, “I think we judge talent wrongly. What do we see as talent? I think I have made the same mistake myself. We judge talent by people’s ability to strike a cricket ball. The sweetness, the timing. That’s the only thing we see as talent. Things like determination, courage, discipline, temperament — these are also talents,”
By reframing discipline as a talent, you can embrace it and more readily apply yourself to tasks. You can submit to routines and rituals. You don’t have to be obsessive; you just need to be regular. That’s the trick.
Great writers such as Graham Greene attribute their success to maintaining a manageable but almost religious approach to their work. He wrote for three hours every day, not a minute more or less. Once this ritual was entrenched, he was bound to it and it became second nature. His output was prolific. He made his talent shine because of his disciplined practice.
This is the beauty of discipline and it can apply to every area of life. What at first can be laborious, or even boring, can transform into a meaningful and beneficial experience. In effect, intention becomes purpose, which becomes realisation.
The anti-discipline movement
In many ways, qualities like discipline and drive get a bad rap when they should be exalted. Television talent shows where exceptional teenagers become overnight sensations may give the impression that this qualifies them for lifelong stardom. They may be unaware their supposed path to glory is a very rocky road that requires endurance and effort if they are to survive, let alone thrive.
In a society that has become addicted to instant gratification we have swapped “head down, just get on and do it” with “do what feels good right now”. While there is some validity in taking the path of least resistance, for many of us it can surreptitiously give us permission to do the bare minimum or not act at all.
Just as discipline has its friends, it also has its foes. They include apathy, procrastination and avoidance as well as the sense of entitlement that has gripped our modern psyche. The assumption that there must be an easy way out rather than having to do the hard graft is standard fare.
Discipline is good for your health. It fortifies you against the disappointment of failure as it gives you stamina, a sense of purpose and productivity where you know instinctively that good things come to those who work and wait.
Discipline, no talent required
Life, it’s said, is not a spectator sport. Nor is it a sport where things come easily. You have to roll up your sleeves and work hard to achieve your goals. Of course, life circumstances have a role to play and bad luck or misfortune can keep you from not being able to play a proactive role in your life.
Yet many sit on the sidelines, never taking chances in the game of life. Whether they battle their own internal resistance and doubts or perhaps lack purpose or motivation, they don’t make things happen and wait passively for life to happen for them.
But there is a third category of people who step up, knowing that life never hands out guarantees, but they still go for it and it’s these people who make things happen. They work towards a goal or are strongly guided by a purpose and pursue it with vigour, organisation and discipline. The more they persevere, the more they cultivate and hone their skills, making them more formidable and focused.
The secret is that anyone can do this. All you have to do is decide to be disciplined. And you can do it with this five-step plan.
Five steps to leading a disciplined life
- Set a goal (start out simple — eg, aim to climb Mount Kosciusko before you set your sights on Mount Kilimanjaro).
- Write a plan of action with the strategy or approach you will use to reach your goal. Put what you need to do in place. For instance, if you want to climb that mountain, set out the program you will need to implement. Then break it down into time segments to track your progress (a month/six months/a year).
- Get specific by writing your daily to-do list so you create a specific routine to implement your goal program. Remember the old adage coined by Vincent Van Gogh: “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
- Run periodic reviews to see how you’re travelling. This helps with motivation.
- Give yourself little rewards along the way until you reach your final goal destination.
The potential of discipline
Do you remember being read to or reading to your children that wonderful tale by Dr Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go? In fact, this story is a philosophical parable that’s worth revisiting, especially when you’ve lost your way. Don’t let its whimsical tone belie its profundity. At its heart it reminds you that life is for living, so don’t abandon yourself to merely existing.
“Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away! You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”
Throughout the story, the author explains that you will meet those who are just “waiting” for life to happen and as a result they let life pass them by. He also warns there will be pitfalls, scary moments and people who will seek to derail you. He even talks about loneliness: “…
alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot …” But don’t get deterred, because success and adventure awaits.
This story implores you to chase your dreams. If you want to write that opus or lose those holiday kilos, you have to find the determination and mental rigour to get up and do it. Not just once, but over and over until you get to where you want to be.
Becoming a disciple of discipline isn’t as bad as you think once you get the ball rolling. Success does not come to those who wait but those who act now.