Mastering the Art of Self Discipline
Discipline is freedom.
Now you may not agree with that statement, and you wouldn’t be alone. For many of us discipline has become a “dirty” word associated with the absence of freedom.
Yet the exact opposite is true.
As Stephen Covey writes, “the undisciplined are slaves to moods, appetites and passions”, and in the longer term, the undisciplined lack the freedom that comes with having particular skills and abilities developed through self-control.
Now, self-discipline is the ability to get yourself to take action regardless of your emotional state. In other words, it involves acting according to what you think instead of how you feel in the moment. It is self-discipline that drives you to:
- Go to the gym when all you want to do is lie on the couch and watch TV
- Wake up early to pray or to go for a run
- Say “no” when tempted to break your diet
- Only check your email a few of times a day
It involves sacrificing the pleasure and thrill of the “now” for the benefit or pleasure of the “later”.
Short-term pain for long-term gain.
Self-discipline is critical for leadership, for lifestyle, for health – for everything. And in my mind, in a day and age where we are constantly bombarded with distractions like social media, and where the pace of life is ever-increasing, I think self-discipline is becoming one of the most important distinguishing characteristics between those who stand out as leaders, and those who are simply swept away by the flow of the ordinary.
The good news though, for those of us who struggle with self-discipline, is that it can be developed. Here are three thoughts that can help.
1) Self-discipline is a Muscle – You’ve Got to Work It!
Just as everyone has different muscular strength, we all possess different levels of self-discipline. Everyone has some – if you can hold your breath a few seconds, you have some self-discipline. But not everyone has developed their discipline to the same degree.
Just as it takes muscle to build muscle, it takes self-discipline to build self-discipline. You see, when you weight train, you lift weights that are just within your ability to lift. You push your muscles until they fail, and then you rest. This is called “progressive training”, and it’s the same when developing your self-discipline.
You have to start with weights/challenges that are within your current ability to lift but which are near your limit. And once you succeed, you increase the challenge. If you keep working out with the same weights, you won’t get any stronger. Similarly, if you fail to challenge yourself in life, you won’t gain any more self-discipline.
I think many people make the mistake of trying to push themselves too hard too fast when trying to build self-discipline. If you try to transform your entire life overnight by setting dozens of new goals for yourself and the expect yourself to follow through consistently starting the very next day, you’re almost certain to fail. This is like a person going to the gym for the first time ever and packing 120kgs on the bench-press. You will only look and feel stupid.
Know your limits, start small, and build your self-discipline muscles progressively.
2) Self-discipline Takes Courage
Did you notice the sweat dripping from the man in the picture at the start of this blog? Make no mistake, self-discipline is often extremely difficult. Moods, appetites and passions can be powerful forces to go up against. Therefore self-discipline is highly dependent on courage. Don’t pretend something is easy for you to do when it is in fact very difficult and/ or painful. Instead, find the courage to face this pain and difficulty. As you begin to accumulate small private victories, your self-confidence will grow and the courage that underpins self-discipline will come more naturally.
3) Self-discipline Moves from External to Internal.
To develop self-discipline, we need input from others, especially at the start…
For over 20 years I trained as a gymnast and through all those years I had only 3 coaches. These coaches pushed me beyond myself and beyond what I thought was in me. Even though there were times when I hated them and wanted to just give up, I am so grateful for their amazing persistence and determination that helped me to achieve what I achieved.
Through blood-sweat-and-tears, and spending 30+ hours a week together in the gym, an incredible, almost father-son bond was formed with my coaches, and I always felt like I had someone in my corner who wanted me to succeed just as much as I did.
The truth is self-discipline doesn’t come naturally to any of us. We have to learn it, and most times we need people who can hold us accountable and help us along the way.
That’s why I’m a huge fan of getting a personal trainer, or joining some sort of class with an instructor. If you are a runner, then join a club like Regents. To have others around you spurring you on can make all the difference, and it becomes a platform to develop the habits of self-discipline.