Discipline is a word that is used frequently and yet most people don’t fully understand the concept. When I was younger I thought that just going out and doing something above and beyond my normal daily routine was discipline. I would clean my room or go exercise and thought that I was showing great discipline in doing this.
The problem for me was that this isn’t discipline. Discipline isn’t doing something once; it is about consistently doing the right things.
Too often we spot problems which point to a lack of discipline but we don’t know how to improve. We start to show up late for work for a few days, or we notice that we started to gain weight. We may make a purchase that puts us over our credit limit, or we get a bad grade on an exam.
Atul Gawande states in Checklist Manifesto that “discipline is hard—harder than trustworthiness and skill and perhaps even than selflessness. We are by nature flawed and inconstant creatures. We can’t even keep from snacking between meals. We are not built for discipline. We are built for novelty and excitement, not for careful attention to detail. Discipline is something we have to work at.”
I agree with his statement but find myself asking “so how, then, do we work at discipline?” If it takes discipline to work at being more disciplined are we just using circular logic that doesn’t have any real practicality?
There is a line in the Tao Te Ching that gives some insight. The 2,500 year old text provides just enough for us to understand and gives specific instructions to achieve. It says “Confront the difficult while it is still easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.”
This is the key. We have to see that the small decisions we make, and the small behaviors we adopt lead to the bigger, more noticeable challenges later on. We have to realize that today’s diet leads to tomorrow’s health, and buying that item today leaves us with less money tomorrow.
Instead of looking at discipline from a judgment standpoint, use it to improve. Look at the small steps that you can take today to form into habits. Then, once they become habits, grow them to achieve more and more. If you take this stance of constant improvement, and do it from the perspective of very small steps, then discipline becomes a byproduct of your newly created system. You become more disciplined by slowly, consistently changing your behaviors.
What happens is that the focus shifts and you realize that you are sticking with new habits and starting to accomplish long-term goals. This adds fuel to the fire and will give you the “novelty and excitement” that Gawande mentions.
Always look at small, consistent ways to improve rather than giant steps that take great effort. The small steps are enough to get you moving in the right direction and small enough to continue doing them. This is how you become disciplined, by DOING the right things consistently.