Discipline: A motivating force for long-term progress

Preface

Each year, I choose a word that will serve as a theme and help facilitate my goals, habits, and intentions. Whenever I feel stuck or complacent, I’ll reflect on the focus word to ensure my decisions and actions are leading me in the right direction. This approach to goal-setting has helped me to cultivate long-term progress and self-development, which is often more fulfilling than crushing those easy short-term goals. (Although I do still love crushing short-term goals.)

Last year, my focus word was “Discomfort”. Well, well, well, did that prove to be a challenge or what? I had big plans to get out of my comfort zone, be bold, and try new things. In particular, scary things. Where did I end up? Confined to the most comfortable place of all, at home in lockdown. Seeking discomfort in isolation proved to be far more challenging than I ever imagined!

So, this year (2021), I needed something completely different. I know what I want – what I need – in order to achieve my goals and foster good habits. A motivating force. Something to do with consistency, frequency, regularity. Small steps to progress. But no single word could cut it. I need a driver – a theme that would enable all other good intentions to fall into place.

That’s it!

My word for this year is DISCIPLINE.   

Motivation is helpful, but personal growth requires discipline.

Why wait for motivation to get moving? How much time will pass and how many opportunities will be lost while waiting for inspiration to strike? The solution is already available – it just requires a little more planning and intention. It takes discipline.

To clarify – in this context, discipline is not about this definition:

train (someone) to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience

Apple Dictionary

It’s about this:

(discipline oneself to do something) train oneself to do something in a controlled and habitual way

Apple Dictionary


In the carrot vs stick metaphor, the carrot represents reward and the stick is punishment. One could be motivated by reward or punishment, yet there’s a third element missing: The willingness to be self-driven in order to achieve the desired outcome.

Motivation alone isn’t enough for sustained progress. If we rely simply on being in a motivated mindset, then what happens on the days when we lack energy or are preoccupied with other pressures? When we fall into a rut it can be hard to get back on track again if self-discipline isn’t practised.

All successes begin with self-discipline. It starts with you.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

Cultivating effective habits

A major key to self-development is knowing what you’re chasing. The first step is to identify your goals and intentions. They may be to do with finances, health and fitness, skills development, relationships and family, community, work and business. Clear, tangible, achievable goals.

The next step is to work out an action plan. What steps need to be taken in order to achieve these goals? This could be the difference between “read 50 books one year” versus “read for one hour per day, five times per week”. The former is a goal, the latter is the action taken to achieve that goal.

Then, we need to put systems in place to enable those frequent habits. Make it so simple that it’s hard to fail. Schedule, prepare and automate. For example, block out time for your reading goal. If you want to read in bed before you go to sleep, then adjust your night-time schedule to finish up an hour earlier (SCHEDULE). If you’re reading in transit, make sure your kindle is loaded up with books or pre-pack a book (and bookmark!) in your bag (PREPARE). Keep an up-to-date list of books you want to read so that you don’t spend valuable reading time endlessly browsing for something to get hooked on (AUTOMATE). The concepts are simple, but they can apply to any habit you’re trying to implement.

Make it easier on yourself by removing distractions. Single-task by practising focussed attention on one thing at a time. Leave no room for excuses, temptation, or procrastination.

The Four Laws of Behavior Change are a simple set of rules we can use to build better habits. They are (1) make it obvious, (2) make it attractive, (3) make it easy, and (4) make it satisfying.

James Clear, Atomic Habits


Small steps in the right direction

Being accountable to regular bite-sized actions will help to foster good habits that not only help you to achieve your goals, but develop you into the person you want to become. It’s the difference between “reading 50 books in a year” and “becoming a voracious reader”.

“I have read many books” vs “I am a reader”.

You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.

 James Clear, Atomic Habits

Discipline is not deprivation

If the idea of discipline is loaded with a sense of being denied or deprived, then let’s reframe this thinking. What positive actions you could add into your life, rather than restricting or removing? If you’re starting out to improve your lifestyle, simple habits executed regularly can make a great difference in the long term. For example, drink an extra glass of water each day. Spend 30 minutes practising a new language. Set a consistent wake-up time. Meditate for ten minutes (even five minutes frequently is more effective than twenty minutes occasionally). Prepare a financial strategy (e.g. a budget) at the start of each month.

Making healthy choices a part of your lifestyle leads to improved wellbeing and a sense of accomplishment. When I go for a walk or jog, there are many roads that lead back to my house. At every corner, I could choose left to return home, or I could continue straight ahead on a longer route. At every corner I have a choice. Straight ahead is the disciplined approach. Choosing straight ahead is empowering. To this day I have never regretted going straight ahead.

Choosing the hard thing that you know is better for you pays off in the long run. There’s freedom in having a choice. Self-discipline is not punishment – it’s empowerment.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

Desiderata

Self-respect and boundaries

Being disciplined is so much more than instilling good habits. It also includes consistent, structured time around rest, recovery, and play. It requires the ability to set boundaries for your accessibility to others. It’s about showing up, on time, fully present.

Self-discipline leads to self-respect, self-esteem, and self-worth.

Don’t wait for motivation to get you going. Practise discipline to make sustained, compounding progress with conscious choices and a long-term vision.


Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.

Abraham Lincoln

Last word

We are now halfway through 2021, so you may be wondering how I’m going with my theme of discipline. I’m doing pretty well in some areas and terribly in others. I’ve been keeping on track with the goals I’d set out for work and finances. After getting sick for the third time this year, I made a lot of improvements around rest and health. I haven’t been allowing as much time/energy for fitness as I had intended, but it’s a great improvement since last year. I’ve been better at spending time with family and friends.

Where I’ve been lacking the most is with my personal projects and downtime! I’ve read only a few books, have learnt hardly any te reo Māori, have done no work on my novel or other writing projects, and this is the first blog post I’ve written in a year! But hey – now I’ve written one blog post this year – let’s see if I can keep it up!

The word DISCIPLINE has been ever-present in my mind and I strongly believe that it has enabled me to make good progress and stay accountable in certain areas.

In the past, I’ve often found that life doubles down on the theme I choose for the year (see aforementioned “DISCOMFORT”!). But it wouldn’t be growth without challenges! I’ll be keen to share how a disciplined second half of the year works out.

Now, please share below – what’s your word for this year?

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash