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Discipline is not what you think

colorful circular art piece with discipline text

When we see a successful person, what traits come to mind? Often they are perceived as natural talents or even lucky, but the inconvenient truth is that these folks use discipline to make progress when motivation has flagged or circumstances get challenging.

So, what is discipline anyway? It appears to mean different things to different people but usually seems to have a negative connotation. Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition describes discipline as an aggressive act with overt negative connotations such as punishment and correction. Even self-discipline is defined as a corrective action.

It’s no surprise then that discipline is often thought of as a distasteful but good for you kind of corrective action that needs to be taken. We feel bad or awkward for people that get disciplined, they’re taking it on the chin. On the other hand, we tend to admire people that demonstrate self-discipline, they’ve taken their spoonful of medicine. But what if these folks we admire know something others don’t about what discipline really is, and that’s what makes them more successful?

Discipline is there for when motivation fails you.

This is in fact, the exact situation. Which is why I want to talk about discipline today. When we reframe what discipline really is, and view it from a new perspective that while very simple, it has profound impacts on our ability to pursue and achieve goals.

Think of discipline not as an action, but as a metric. The presence of and level of discipline exhibited in progressing any given goal you have tells you something important. We’ll get to that in a minute. First, a new definition of discipline as a metric that we can use.

discipline, self-discipline noun
: the manifestation of one’s commitment to a goal.

This essentially says that if you are committed to a goal, that commitment will manifest as the discipline required to achieve it. You might think that this is the role of motivation, that we must be intrinsically motivated, be self-motivated, or even have external motivation in order to act. But motivation is variable, it comes and goes- sometimes you just don’t feel like doing something. That’s where the discipline comes in. Discipline is what you draw on when motivation fails you.

When motivation is scarce, discipline provides the catalyst for action. Whether it’s reading that hundred page RFP of dense circular and vague requirements, or putting in your best effort on the gym torture device of your choice, we need to do these things in pursuit of various goals.

Discipline is only needed as a catalyst to start,
then motivation can take over.

If we are truly, emotionally and mentally committed to accomplishing or doing something, we can reach into the well of our commitment to overcome any lack of motivation or energy and begin whatever it is that needs done. When we do, we’ve used discipline to override inertia and thus refreshed our commitment to the goal at hand.

There’s a funny thing about this you should know up front. Often, discipline is only required to get started. When you exercise discipline to move the needle on your goals, your brain gets a little dose of happy juice as a reward. This triggers things like internal motivation, creativity, and flow all start waking up. This in turn can improve your mood, reduce anxiety, and most importantly- advance progress toward your goal.

If I were motivated right now, what would I be doing?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up dreading having to get on the elliptical in the morning. But I remind myself why I do it (it’s NOT because I like to work out), and so I just get on and go whether I feel like it or not. Ultimately I find myself lost in the moment with heavy metal blaring, tracking my heart rate, and thinking about all the calories I’m burning. By the end of the scheduled workout I sometimes find myself considering extending it another 5 minutes just to hit that next mile marker- and sometimes I do because that’s consistent with my goals.

The next time you find yourself thinking of punting on what you know needs to be done, simply ask yourself, “If I were motivated right now, what would I be doing on this?”. Then take a breath, and get started. You’ll be glad you did, every time.

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