In my work as a leadership consultant, there have been a few recurring themes. Dealing with failure is one, and discipline is another. These topics are closely related, in that failure can often result from lack of discipline…and in some cases, it is practically assured.
In my last blog on discipline, I made the point that discipline is not dependent on your level of motivation. In fact, it cannot be, by definition. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines self-discipline as “the ability to make yourself do something, even if it is difficult, so that you can achieve a goal”.
The key word in this description is ‘difficult’. When things are easy and fun, discipline is hardly necessary. But, as I learned through many years of soldiering, discipline is what you fall back on when things get tough. When the difficulty is so great that all your focus is on the obstacle, or the pain, that you’re facing, your goal and its appeal can disappear from view. No problem for the disciplined: you’ll keep putting one boot in front of the other, staying the course until the goal again becomes visible. And it will then be those few steps closer, fuelling your motivation to continue.
Not everyone, of course, has this level of discipline.
Interestingly, I’ve met people who are somewhat successful, but have still fallen short of their own goals. They fell short not because of a lack of talent, but a lack of discipline. Yes, talent will get you a start, but only discipline will enable you to reach your full potential. These talented people who struggle to move beyond their gifts are in need of the same discipline embodied by relatively untalented, yet somehow successful, individuals. Some people will inevitably take longer than others to become elite in their chosen craft, even if working at a higher rate — but discipline will always trump talent in the long run. (You might have previously heard me talk about this here.)
So, what if you lack discipline? What can you still achieve? I’m going to make a strong statement here and say, you can’t achieve very much — certainly nothing meaningful.
There is no silver bullet to being successful, no single ‘big break’ moment. Watch how many people waste their biggest resource, time, by ‘waiting’ for a breakthrough or the chance of a lifetime. I’m sure you’ve heard people say, ‘I could have done (insert achievement here), but…’, as if there is no time and no way to still achieve their goal. Unsuccessful people are never short of one thing: excuses. They will often assign blame to others and fail to take responsibility for their own mistakes. Successful people, on the other hand, are very good at taking responsibility for everything they do, and having the discipline to see things through.
Here’s the good news, though: we can all develop self-discipline, regardless of who we are and where we have come from. We weren’t born with discipline; it’s a quality we can either adopt or reject, cultivate or neglect. Being disciplined is something we must choose to do. This is an empowering notion. I’ve encountered successful people from all manner of different backgrounds, and what they all have in common is discipline. None of them drag their feet. Regardless of profession, gender, privilege or poverty, discipline allows the weak to become strong and the strong to become stronger.
Discipline will yield best results when applied to things we’re passionate about, as the resulting drive and motivation help us to get going. But, as discussed previously, motivation is short-lived and easily derailed without discipline. So, with that in mind, it’s worthwhile thinking of discipline as a goal within itself, and developing it as such. Then, it’s always in your toolkit for whatever mission you take on. In your mind, you know you’re capable of exercising it as required. It’s a part of your character.
Try this: set yourself a daily task that has no essential value other than to show self-discipline. Basically, you’re exercising discipline for its own sake. There’s a lot of that in the army — I mean, who needs an ironed shirt to be effective in combat? It’s in the martial arts to some extent, too. For you, the task might be as simple as making your bed each morning, if you usually don’t bother. Or, maybe you’re up for more of a mental challenge and resolve to start every shower with a minute of cold water. The less ‘drive’ there is to complete the task for its own intrinsic benefits or enjoyment, the more effective it will be for honing self-discipline. And yet, you can likely see how even these simple activities could have some peripheral benefit. Choose something that’s difficult but has a positive side effect.
The Disciplinary Environment
Another great way to learn discipline is to immerse yourself in a disciplined environment. I cultivated discipline through martial arts and my service in the armed forces — and I enjoyed being an army recruit because it was exactly what I expected the army to be. It goes without saying, the military will force you to be disciplined in every facet of your life. This is so that when you’re thrust into a combat situation, you won’t make excuses or be indecisive; you have to move forward, otherwise you’ll expose yourself to unnecessary risks.
Of course, you don’t have to be a soldier to understand discipline. Find the right environment for you; surround yourself with disciplined people you can learn from. Discover the things that work for you, as well as the things that don’t — but try to avoid the same, well-trodden paths. Instead, seek out situations that allow you to work harder and do better than you would if you weren’t in that particular space. This self-awareness will translate to self-discipline and the motivation you need to get across the finish line.
Discipline Through Routine
Self-discipline isn’t just about imposing rules upon yourself; it’s about overlaying your experiences of discipline onto your personal life. This can be achieved by following a routine that is an extension of the disciplined environments in which you put yourself. I’ll go back to my martial arts training as an example, as I regularly apply concepts from my budo training in everyday life. A typical warm-up consists of kihon (fundamentals) practice, which can be done alone and without any special equipment. I start each day with these drills, because it helps me maintain a disciplined mindset for whatever I have to face.
Choose an activity that keeps you focused, and stick with it, pushing further and further back those mental barriers to completion. Routine practised every day is essential to self-discipline and is how we form habits; these habits, in turn, ensure the consistency that guarantees results. Through routine, you will reach a point where the good work becomes second nature. So, for self-discipline to thrive, you need to arrange your life and mission plan to facilitate a routine.
I learned this lesson long ago, and not the easy way (because there isn’t one): Cultivate discipline, and you will take hold of your destiny. Not only does it offer a pathway to achievement, it provides a way back to your self — and your ‘normal’ state — when the occasional chaos of life throws you off.
Hopefully, some of the tips above will be of value to you in your efforts. If you have some of your own worth sharing, feel free to contact me via my Facebook page.