Since leaving the Special Forces in 2013, I’ve worked as a leadership consultant for various people and organisations. And, more often than not, that work always tends to have the same essential purpose: I’m there to help people develop skill sets, processes or thought patterns necessary to achieve their goals.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no self-help guru (the world has more than enough of those). However, decades of soldiering at an elite level have taught me a fair bit about how to get shit done. As you probably know — in the back of your mind, at least — you can collect as many theories, principles and mind-hacks for success as you like, but you’ll achieve nothing without application.
That’s where discipline comes in.
Who Needs Discipline?
Whether we’re soldiers or sales reps, self-discipline is vital to get the most out of our efforts. For most successful people, it’s habitual — and it can become so for you, too. If you’re serving or have served in the armed forces, you’ll benefit from having had discipline drilled into you, literally. But if not, you might have to do some work to cultivate it.
Constantly setting goals (or as I prefer to say, mission objectives) is worthwhile, but only if we take them seriously. If not, what’s the point? Once we’ve decided on our goal or objective, we effectively have a destination in mind. The next step, then, is to map out possible routes, plot the best course and estimate a viable travel time (shortcuts not recommended). Such a plan enables us to stay ‘on mission’, and provides a basis for making decisions. It also helps us direct our efforts most effectively.
Of course, sticking to a plan requires discipline.
If instead we approach the journey without discipline (i.e. half-arsed), we’ll wander vaguely in the general direction of our destination and likely drift off course. So far off, in fact, that we may never complete the journey. At best, it will take much longer than necessary.
To be fair, sometimes life is like that: we go out after one thing, and discover something entirely different in the process. If that thing is genuinely of greater interest or value, it makes sense to change course. But often, it’s nothing more than a distraction for the undisciplined mind. Or, it provides a convenient excuse to stop moving toward what we really want, because the road ahead is looking rougher than expected.
We all know the type, don’t we? Those people who are always into a new job, hobby, business venture or get-fit-quick program — the last one discarded or incomplete, now all but forgotten. The one thing they really need is a course in self-discipline. Discipline gives us the ability to see things through, beyond those moments of difficulty and dissuasion, to a point where we can actually see the true value in what we’re doing.
Determine Your Destination
Make no mistake, your chosen mission will probably be challenging. It will also tax your resources — time, energy, social goodwill and maybe finances, too. And without discipline, it can be easy to waste those resources. When you expend energy without a purpose, you not only lose track of your objective but the means to achieve it.
However, a disciplined approached can ensure those resources are used effectively in pursuit of your objective. Consider this motto:
Discipline determines destination.
The meaning, I hope, is obvious: the level to which we apply discipline in our stated mission — i.e. our consistency and commitment to doing the work — has a direct and substantial effect on whether we ultimately succeed. This will also determine how audacious the mission can be, because if our goal is a far cry from our current situation, we’ll need the discipline to stay the course for longer.
Even with a strong mission-focus, it’s easy to make some wrong turns. You might misstep and even hit the deck a few times. But if you have the discipline to keep on turning up, putting in and taking those steps in the right direction, you’ll get there. (Even if you died trying, you’d still feel better than if you’d never made the attempt, and instead sat on your arse thinking ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda…’)
No doubt there’s something you want. We all want certain things; material, social and physical. This is desire. But if you really want something — like you do when your belly is empty — that desire becomes intent. For that intent to produce an outcome, it must then translate into action: prescribed, possibly; planned, ideally; purposeful, definitely. It is discipline, though, that will determine whether you act with the regularity and consistency required to ensure an effect.
But discipline is hard, no doubt. So maybe you think you need a spark to get started…a bit of motivation perhaps?
Motivation vs Self-Discipline
People often talk about motivation — needing it, losing it, regaining it — as if their every action depends on this wavering emotional energy. That shouldn’t be the case. By all means, try to understand what motivates you and get more of that in your life. But don’t expect it to be there when you need it. Motivation is the guy who’ll be there when you’re winning, but is likely to slip out of sight when you find yourself in a fire-fight. Discipline, meanwhile, will always be there right beside you, passing you more ammo.
Think of the last time you set out in pursuit of a goal, successfully or otherwise. Initially, it might have felt like your motivation was driving your discipline. For example, you’re determined to get fit, you’re pumped — so you commit to a gym program five days a week, and hook into it with gusto. Soon, soreness sets in and there’s still no hint of a six-pack… Motivation, out the door.
It’s an old story: we start out clear-eyed, focused and hungry to achieve our goal. Then, a little way down the track, things change. ‘Life’ gets in the way. We find our time and energy is being spent on other things of importance and, suddenly, our mission seems to matter less in the scheme of things. Or maybe we’ve just hit a wall, having failed to pace ourselves or having miscalculated the resources required.
This is when discipline takes over. It’s like having dollars banked for when the pay cheques stop coming. Self-discipline can make up for many other shortcomings and shortfalls, too, but it really comes to the fore when motivation wanes. Which is inevitable, whether or not we believe so in the beginning.
So, at the start of your mission when motivation is at peak levels, use it to start creating necessary habits that fit a realistic time frame for your mission. Good, intentional habits are the manifestation of discipline. Creating them can be hard work, but ditching them is just as difficult, which is another reason why they trump motivation. (And, why bad habits are hard to kick, as Charles Duhigg explains.)
The key takeaway here is that discipline is not dependent on your level of motivation; in fact, it is what gets you closer to your goal even when motivation is lacking.
Discipline fuels motivation, not the other way around.
If you’re interested in becoming more disciplined — and reaping the rewards — check out this blog for the follow-up. I’ll share a few tips that helped me stick at it and silence those little whisperings we call ‘excuses’. In the mean time, if you have some of your own tips on discipline that are worth sharing, feel free to contact me via my Facebook page.