D – Delight in Discipline

Self-discipline is a hallmark of the healthy, wealthy, and wise. Discipline is a tool that successful people possess and develop. Being able to take actions in the moment that may be counter to our urges or less than pleasurable yet beneficial to our longer-term pursuits is what self-discipline is about. It reflects being able to keep our eyes on the prize. Discipline is about making the right choice. The one that may be seen as hard and not easy. It’s about seeing the consequences of a choice and opting for the one that is better for you in the long run.

Discipline as Bob Proctor has put it, “Is giving yourself a command and following it up with action.” Alternately put by W.K. Hope, “Self-discipline is when your conscience tells you to do something, and you don’t talk back.” Elbert Hubbard offered, “Self-discipline is the ability to make yourself do what you should do, when you should do it, whether you feel like it or not.” Finally, Brian Tracy suggested, “Persistence is self-discipline in action.” Discipline is doing the difficult thing now that helps make tomorrow better.

Leonardo Da Vinci offered a great argument in favor of discipline suggesting, “One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.” At its essence, discipline is about mastering oneself.

Often, we see discipline as difficult. It is depicted as putting the “grrrr” in grit, it’s jaw clenched, raw effort, compelling one to do tough stuff. It’s seen as grudgingly doing the things we need to do. Discipline, we believe, is required to do the things we have to do. Are there things we can do to help us improve our self-discipline? Getting clear about our goals, connecting consequences to choices, and giving ourselves a chance are three techniques we can adopt to help build our discipline muscle.

Jim Rohn suggested that “Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishments.” The ambitious are driven by their goals. The goal guides choices. Discipline connects between where we are and where we’re going. If we see someone living an undisciplined existence, it may be not because they don’t have the capability for discipline but that they don’t have clear goals. Robert Elias Najemy observed, “A person without discipline is like a ship without a rudder in the storm of life.” Too often, aimless and undisciplined go hand in hand.

Getting clear about goals is identifying an interest in and commitment to something that is more important than momentary pleasure. They know what they want and they’re willing to do what it takes to get there. In an episode of The Knowledge Project podcast, Dr. Julie Gurner talks about discipline. She observes, “I think we talk about discipline because it feels tough to do. We’re doing the hard thing. We’re slogging through. But when we are at our best, we’re not slogging through. Great people are obsessed and they’re not slogging through. They are driven. They are motivated. They are deeply, deeply engaged.” Discipline isn’t needed when we’re right where we want to be. Discipline isn’t an ingredient when we’re doing things to which we’re completely committed. With desire, effort is almost automatic.

Clarity creates a lens through which to make decisions. A choice either moves one to their desired destination or it doesn’t. It’s this clarity that makes deciding easier and looks like self-control, will-power, or discipline, but is more deep desire for an outcome. It’s not a negative force holding one back from making bad choices. It’s a positive pull tugging one to where they want to go. It’s not berating oneself for having to do the right thing. It’s a constructive choice to do the thing you know will take you where you want to go. When what you need to do and what you want to do are the same thing, have to’s become get to’s, and raw discipline isn’t needed.

“If we believe in a brighter tomorrow,

Then a sacrifice today is easier to swallow.

Bring near what you hold dear.

Make your goal vivid and clear.”

With a vivid and visceral vision pulling you to your goals, it’s easier to WIN. This type of discipline helps us see What’s Important Now. The alternative is being aimless where our attention is easily captured by any distraction. When we live impulsively in the moment, our future is more likely to become a mess opposed to a success. The less clear we are about our goals, the more likely we will be tempted by short term distractions and ignore the consequences of choices in the long term in favor of the immediate pleasure. If we don’t have a clear, detailed, positive future vision for ourselves, we’re unlikely to behave today in ways to create a better future. Where the future is fuzzy, dim, or depressing, we won’t consider it in our choices today. It’s like it doesn’t exist. Clarity helps us cut through the clutter. Goals pull like a magnet. We are drawn to doing things that take us where we want to go. Clarity creates the benefit of binary. Choices can be seen through the lens of either/or.

They either: Help or hurt. Direct or derail. Elevate or evaporate. Help you climb or lead you to collapse. Make you better or leave you bitter.

Lead you to success or leave you in a mess.

“With each choice we make,

One of two paths we take.

One serves, the other stifles.

Each decision, therefore, is not trifle.”

We can only see the binary nature of decisions where we have clear vision. Goals make decision making (and, therefore discipline) easier. Willpower can be seen as a reflection of goal power. The stronger our goals, the stronger our willpower is likely to be. When faced with competing choices and temptations, a clear goal guides us to pick something that will move us toward our desired destination. Goals thereby drive discipline. Those that reflect strong self-discipline aren’t impulse driven, but inspiration driven.

A second tool to developing discipline involves connecting consequences to choices. It is applying one of Newton’s laws of motion to our lives. It is recognizing that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Our choices lead to actions and our actions have consequences. What’s the cost versus the benefit of a given action? The lure of pleasant distractions and pleasurable experiences is that the benefits are felt right now and the cost isn’t felt right now. What’s the harm in having a cookie right now? What’s the big deal about watching an episode of my favorite show on Netflix? Sure, I have five minutes to scroll through my favorite social media app. None of these have “costs” in the moment. In fact, they are each rewarded with positive feelings right away. They become easy defaults into which to fall. However, easy, comfortable defaults done daily lead to pain and misery down the road. Where we eat a cookie daily, the pounds over months will add up. Where we are easily distracted, our continuous development becomes stalled. For these types of decisions, discipline is of value. Where the distance between action and consequence is large, discipline is a helpful tool. Discipline in these cases involves reminding yourself of the longer-term consequence of today’s decision.

The clearer the cost of a choice, the easier the choice is to make. For example, self-discipline isn’t needed to steer clear of a hot stove. You know the consequence of a choice to touch something hot will be felt immediately and you know the feeling isn’t good. You don’t need self-restraint to avoid doing something you know will hurt right now. The immediacy of a negative consequence nulls the need for discipline. We only need discipline where the distance between choice and consequence is deep. A benefit of age is that the consequences of choices become clearer. We feel the pain of a hangover more with age than in youth. This becomes a natural force putting the brakes on our desire to imbibe alcohol. It’s the same with other treats. A third trip to the dessert tray at the buffet isn’t as tempting as the discomfort of eating too much is felt sooner and lingers longer with age. Moreover, the costs of poor financial choices are felt deeper as we age as we have less time left to dig ourselves out of the hole we’ve dug. It is less that we have developed greater self-discipline and more that we feel the cost of our choice sooner that drives better decisions.

The gap between choice and consequence is a factor. The greater the gap in time, the greater value discipline has. The less the gap in time, the less discipline required. The difficult choices that are likely to benefit our futures imply a cost now with a benefit in the distance. We discount that benefit and amplify the cost which makes doing something beneficial for our future seem tougher and daunting. Disciplined people close the distance connecting current choices with future consequences. They see more than just this moment. Life’s more than the next fifteen minutes. They want what’s best over the long-term as opposed to the short-term.

Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis proposes a pointed question to help us bring the future forward, “Are you willing to work now for your own later well-being, or are you so lazy and short-sighted that you won’t make the effort? The late businessman and inventor, Charles Kettering, connected his tomorrows to his efforts today through his belief that, “My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there.” He recognized that by making constructive choices today he was making his many tomorrows positive and pleasant.

Can we connect with the consequences of the choice both consequences in the moment as well as those down the road? Those that reflect discipline are better able to see their future selves. They aren’t waiting until they get older and feel the consequences of bad choices. They are taking a moment today to connect a choice with its consequence down the road. As Benjamin Hardy writes in Be Your Future Self Now, “The quality of connection you have with your own Future Self determines the quality of your life and behaviors now.” The disciplined see further in the future when making decisions today. It is that calculation that drives disciplined behavior as opposed to the calculus that considers only the cost and benefit of the moment. We improve the quality of our decisions when we consider where a decision will take us in the future as opposed to now. Look further when deciding now. Hardy writes, “If you stay connected with your Future Self, you’ll value your present.”

Beyond creating clarity and connecting consequences to choices, we can decrease our dependency on raw discipline by giving yourself a chance. Giving yourself a chance (GYAC) is about setting yourself up for success. For example, to make better decisions, reduce the number of options. Take time to review and seek to make changes to your environment that will help you to help yourself. By narrowing our choices, we decrease our need for deliberation while sliding seamlessly into doing things that serve our success. Remove junk food from your fridge and pantry and replace with healthy options. Meal prep your lunches and dinners for the week to reduce giving in to temptation in the heat of the moment. Keep the remote for your TV in a different room adding a step to make it tougher to turn on and tune out. Consider setting up a laptop without an internet connection to minimize distractions. Lay out your fitness gear so it is the first thing you see and put on in the morning getting you one step closer to your workout. Spend time with those that share your ambitions. Let your environment serve by creating guardrails guiding your good behavior. By controlling your environment, you guide your flow to help you get where you’re trying to go. In so doing, the need for discipline is decreased. You’re making the hard path easier to take.

Discipline is desired. It’s a secret of the successful. It’s something we would do well to develop. As we’ve seen, the good news is that we have it within our grasp to build. Discipline is the ability to insert a pause to allow a mental moment to ensure that a conscious choice as to what to do may be applied. With discipline, we’re afforded, as James Clear writes in Atomic Habits, the opportunity to see “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.” Before you do, give yourself the opportunity to decide. Queue some questions to ponder while you pause. We can consider asking do you want to cease or seize? Should you stop doing something or start doing it? As Benjamin Hardy suggests, “Some questions you could ask yourself are: What is the reason or goal for this activity? What benefit am I getting from this? Where is this activity taking me?” Additionally, Tiffany Shlain in her book, 24/6, offers a great question to insert which she considers a self-regulation question. Shlain encourages us to ask, “Is what I’m about to do a reflection of who I am? And who I want to be?” Vote with your feet and ensure your actions are aligned with the vision of where you’re trying to go. A witticism attributed to Warren Buffett is “What the wise man does in the beginning, the fool does in the end.” Discipline is the tool the wise use to do the smart thing sooner.

“Discipline is making choices in

Which your future self rejoices.

Everything in life that’s nice,

Carries with it some kind of price.

You can pay now, or

You can pay later.

The price in the future

Will always be greater.”

Summary Points:

  • Discipline is desirable.
  • It’s the secret sauce of the successful.
  • It’s easier when we’re clear about our goals.
  • Discipline is easier when we narrow the time between choice and consequence.
  • GYAC. Give Yourself A Chance by setting yourself up for success. Control your environment and influences to keep you on your path to progress.