What comes to mind when you think about discipline?
An athlete, working out multiple times a day, in all sorts of weather, no matter what?
An artist, waking up at 4am to write or draw, before the work day?
A student, studying and going to class instead of to parties?
A monk, living a sparse life, eschewing material possessions?
Someone who doesn’t check social media all day?
I think I grew up thinking discipline looked like work, looked like sacrifice, and was something that was a matter of will power. Sort of a Midwestern stoicism, American dream work ethic, eldest child mash-up.
Even now, as I look back at my younger self, I marvel at my apparent ease of discipline. I studied hard, did well in school and sports, and it all seemed to come easy. Did it come easy because I enjoyed it, because I muscled my way through, or because conditions were so different?
Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I had fewer distractions literally at my fingertips. When I was studying in high school and even through most of college, everything was analog. Okay, well maybe not exactly. But even when I’d log on to my old Dell desktop in my dorm room, the only things, really, I could do was check news or my email. And AIM status updates. There was less “going on” in that computer than there was in real life, so although there was certainly obsessing over the hidden meaning of away messages, it wasn’t as dynamic of a real-time environment. I could open Microsoft Word on top of everything and be reasonably focused and dedicated to the task at hand. Studying involved schlepping to the library stacks, pre-smart phone, pre-laptop. Distractions involved too many Diet Cokes and Swedish fish and gossip. Discipline meant hiding in a cubby for an hour in the quiet section rather than at the group study table. The obstacles to overcome were much fewer.
Now, I have a much more nuanced view of discipline. Discipline is not a muscling through. Rather, discipline is a combination of passion and logistics.
Passion can make it easier to set up the conditions to allow success, and the right conditions make it easy to take action and drive passion.
Really wanting something makes it easier to make the sacrifices it takes to make the logistics work. When you see someone with that passion, it’s easy to think that they don’t struggle with how to do what they want to do. They make it look easy, those early mornings or saying no to social events or keeping a certain diet. But, I think, the trick really is to make the decisions early (that is, set up the logistics), when you’re not under pressure or temptation. Don’t make the decision whether or not to go for a run at 5am when it’s raining—make it the night before by setting out clothes. Don’t make the decision whether or not to work on a project or check email when you first log on—make it the day before by blocking your calendar and writing a few very simple to-dos to get you started.
I’m feeling very out-of-sorts with my daily routine and struggling to get writing done, running done—things I love but that I talk myself out of in favor of things that are “easier.” Attacking my work email inbox. Scrolling through Twitter. Do I run first and then write, write first and then run, also take the dog out, also meditate?
I think, for me, despite having things planned and logistics seemingly sorted, I haven’t really—not really, truly—made the decision to stick to my plan. I insert a step of “feeling like it,” so that if I get to “run” on my calendar and I don’t feel like it, I give myself all sorts of reasons to do it later. Even though I know I will feel better if I just go. (No one said anything here about logic.)
That is, discipline isn’t about brute force or will power. It’s about understanding the mundane logistics that need to go into a mundane daily task, that over time adds up to something spectacular, and that these steps in and of themselves might not feel satisfying or even fun. Discipline is the trust in my passion, the passion that led to a plan, that allows me to trust a plan even when I don’t “feel like it.”
I’m working my way through this list of words that have changed in meaning for me over time.
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