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Developing Discipline

Four ideas toward that central but often elusive attribute.

Source: Pxhere

The holiday season has come and gone, and as I welcomed clients in the New Year, my pre-session small talk sometimes began, “Did you get any good holiday gifts?” They’ll say the usual: some piece of clothing, jewelry, or money donated to charity on their behalf. But alas, they didn’t get a gift that many of them badly need: more discipline.

True, a few people are born brilliant—intellectually, athletically, and/or artistically—and can accomplish and contribute much with little discipline. But most people, even those with good genes and environment, must work at it to achieve much, certainly to live up to their potential.

Many of my clients are bright, healthy, and had a good upbringing yet flounder, mainly for lack of discipline. The following have helped:

Get comfortable being uncomfortable. The definition of discipline is making yourself do something when you could be doing something more pleasant. You gain more discipline if you foundationally accept that being productive is core to the life well-led and, more pragmatically, that deferring your pleasure until enough work is done will, net, yield you more pleasure.

In other words, per the classic study, instead of taking one marshmallow now, if you can restrain yourself, you’ll get two later. Or as the saying in Chinese fortune cookies goes, "Better to have a hen tomorrow than an egg today."

Start short, simple, and easy. Do the first few-second task. For example, I didn’t feel like writing this article but got myself to by first forcing myself to create a Word file. That was a short, simple, and easy task.

Then, subconsciously, I asked myself, “What’s the next short, simple, easy part?" A title popped into my mind, “Gaining More Discipline,” so I typed that. Then it popped into my head that the word “More” was superfluous, so I deleted it—another short, simple, easy task. Then I noticed that the title could be alliterative if I replaced “Gaining” with ‘Developing.”

Then, I couldn't think of how to start the article, so I was tempted to get up and procrastinate but forced myself to think a bit. Two or three bad ideas flitted through my head, and then I thought that maybe the germ of an idea is that discipline is such a gift. That made me think about holiday gifts and, in turn, that I’ve been asking my clients about their holiday gifts. I didn’t know whether that would somehow work in the article, so I simply started typing about that. And that’s how I got going.

So, as many of my clients and I find, we may develop discipline by starting with what’s short, simple, and easy, and when stuck, resist stopping and instead take just a few moments to see if the next short, simple, and easy step pops to mind. If none does, take a short break so you can then view the problem with fresh eyes. If that doesn't work, maybe you can ask someone for help.

Employ the Pomodoro Technique. My clients have found this the most useful of the widely touted anti-procrastination tools. In essence, you work for 25 minutes and play for 5.

Forgive yourself. People who have trouble with discipline will likely continue to have trouble with discipline. Maybe all that's reasonable to expect is two steps forward, one back. That’s good enough. Don’t beat yourself up; just try to take the next baby step forward.

The takeaway

I’ve come to believe that a good way to end these listicles is to remind you that one size doesn’t fit all. So in the best case, you might find one or maybe two ideas worth trying. Is there one for you in this article?

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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