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The Art of Self-Discipline

art of self-discipline

Sigh, not self-discipline again…

I’m not sure there’s any other word in the English language that leaves me with quite the same heady mix of youthful enthusiasm, an undercurrent of rebellion and a vague sense of impending guilt.

Most of us have our own (rarely positive) associations with the notion of self-discipline, and I wish there was another word to describe this phenomenon that wasn’t quite so… off-putting.

But here we are.

The truth is that self-discipline is helpful. It enables us to get s*** done, it helps to build our self-esteem (actions aligned with principled goals = higher self-esteem), and, depending on where we choose to exercise self-discipline within our lives, it leaves us healthier, more learned, more self-aware, higher performing, more satisfied, as well as many other warm and fuzzy outcomes.

I am by no means the self-discipline queen – I’m all too aware of how easy it is for me to fall off the wagon and want to stay in bed watching Dead Like Me instead of getting up and doing just about anything else. As a result of this, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be self-disciplined and what the not-so-secret ingredients are.

“Self-discipline is the ability to organise our behaviour over time in the service of specific tasks… [It] requires the ability to defer gratification in the service of a remote goal. This is the ability to think, plan and live long-range.”

– Nathaniel Branden

1. Accept that it’s your responsibility

The only person who is going to be able to be self-disciplined for you is you. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) this isn’t something we can just delegate to other people.

Accepting that it’s our own individual responsibility to be self-disciplined requires us to see things as they really are, embrace reality and act based upon that awareness. It sounds really easy when I put it like that, but the number one reason I keep hearing that blocks people from doing what they want to do is that part of their sub-conscious is waiting for a knight in shining armour to come and make all the hard decisions, endure the discomfort and ultimately take responsibility for them.

Needless to say: This ain’t gonna happen.

We are responsible for our own levels of self-discipline, and the consequences of exercising or not exercising self-discipline are also ours to own. That means it’s our responsibility to make sure our goals are aligned with our values, and that we’re working towards things that are in our best long-term interests (not things we’re doing to make other people happy or to slap a temporary band-aid over an old wound or need).

2. Set your non-negotiables

Like the name suggests, non-negotiables are things that you commit to doing every single day (or week, depending on your goals). They are the things you need to do to keep your life heading in the direction you want. Being aware of your non-negotiables and honouring them whatever the weather is a solid foundation for the art of self-discipline.

Our non-negotiables might shift over time, depending on what we’re working on and what’s happening in our lives at any given point. The important thing is awareness: staying conscious of what our non-negotiables are, why they are non-negotiable, and how we can best honour them.

3. Commitment

Commitment involves accepting there will be days when you definitely don’t feel like doing your non-negotiables, and that that’s OK: you can feel demotivated, experience that, and sit with it, without letting it control you.

At the risk of downplaying the complexity of topics like motivation and habit formation, sometimes it really is as simple as deciding “This week, I am going to get up at 7.30 each morning to meditate/go running/make my lunch/study French/walk the dog” and honouring that commitment. That means adopting an approach of firm compassion. 

When we have firm compassion for ourselves, we notice, accept and empathise with the resistance, and then we go out and do the thing we were resisting anyway. There’s no guilt or self-flagellation involved – it’s more about healthy internal guidance.

4. Develop a routine

I find it helpful to do my non-negotiables first thing (although this doesn’t always happen). Developing a routine can be very helpful, especially as you’re exploring your relationship with self-discipline for the first time. When we have a set time at which we do a set activity, it’s easier to overcome resistance as we’re not waiting for ourselves to feel like it in order to do something.

“A purposeful, self-disciplined life does not mean a life without time for rest, relaxation, recreation or random, even frivolous activity. It merely means that such activities are chosen consciously with the knowledge it is safe and appropriate to engage in them.”

– Nathaniel Branden

5. Learn your favourite excuses

If you only implement one thing from this list, PICK THIS ONE. Excuses will be at every corner, luring you in with their promises of lie-ins and free candy, but listening to them is a sure path to regret and dissatisfaction later down the line.

Acknowledging that a) we make excuses, and b) they totally work on us, is challenging. No one like to admit they fall prey to their own internal mind gremlins, but it happens to everyone (it happened to me this morning) so give yourself a break and acknowledge that hey, this is expected.

Pay attention to your internal dialogue and make a mental note of all the excuses that front your feelings of resistance. Here are some of my favourites to get your started:

  • I’m too busy
  • I don’t have time
  • I’m too tired
  • I have all these other things to do
  • I don’t think [insert person’s name] will be pleased if I do that now
  • I’ll do it tomorrow (no really, I will…)
  • [insert situation here] is going on and even though it’s out of my control I’m going to dwell on it anyway, and then I can’t do [insert goal here] because I just don’t feel like it and [situation] is taking up too much of my headspace

6. Keep a ‘have-done’ list

This suggestion is around acknowledging and rewarding yourself for being self-disciplined. I find a reward in ticking things off my ‘to-do’ list, and in keeping what a ‘have-done’ list – a record of everything I did in a day or week.

When we fall behind or skip a few days of work on our goals, it’s easy to focus solely on this and dwell on all the reasons we’re not capable of meeting our goals. Maintaining some kind of list or chart when it comes to my goals helps me maintain a positive perspective on how I’m doing. If I skip a few days of exercise, I feel a lot more motivated to start again when I look at how many days I managed to fit in before that, and what a great roll I was on, than when I simply focus on what I haven’t done.


7. Do it mindfully

When we’re conscious of how good it feels to get our exercise in, tidy up the house and so on, we’re more likely to see the intrinsic rewards in the activity. This is super helpful for our motivation down the line, because when we inevitably come up against resistance, we can say “Hey, remember how great it felt to clean the kitchen? And how you smiled a little on the inside every time you walked into the room and last night’s dinner wasn’t still caked onto the stove top?”

When we’re kids, we have so many negative encounters with discipline that revolve around “If you don’t do this something very bad will happen.” The sad irony of this kind of motivation is that there’s nothing as demotivating as feeling obligated to do something otherwise hellfire and brimstone are going to rain down on us in one form or another. The more adults use this kind of motivation on kids, the more kids get used to this kind of motivation and start motivating themselves in this way.

Switching from extrinsic “I’m doing this because bad things will happen to me if I don’t“-style motivation, back to intrinsic “I’m doing this because good things will happen when I do“-style motivation can be tricky, because we’re not used to it. Being mindful of how we’re motivating ourselves to do things, however, can make or break our long-term self-discipline practice.

8. Give yourself a chance

Most of us are approaching this whole ‘self-discipline’ minefield with years of sub-optimal “discipline” (see above) behind us. Shifting our approach to self-discipline will take time: when we change the way we motivate ourselves, we’re forging new neural pathways and this is a slow and steady process. The longer the existing pathways have been there, the longer it takes to course correct, but each time we use the new way of motivation over the old, that new pathway gets stronger.

As you explore your own self-discipline, be gentle with yourself. Remember, the key lies in firm compassion, not whacking yourself over the head with a metaphorical mind stick. Accept that you will fall off the wagon many times over (and you will), then pick yourself up and get back on it.

The only person you’re responsible to is yourself. Showing up and doing the best you can do: that is what self-discipline is all about.

Do you have any tips for self-discipline? Leave a comment and let me know. 

Photo Credit: kaibara87 and AlicePopkorn via Compfight cc

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