I sat down to write this article four different times before I began to put words to paper. That already tells you a lot about the context of this article: my ongoing clash with self-discipline.
So, this wasn’t a completely foreign scenario for me, waiting until the last minute to jump in and hit a deadline. I have struggled on and off with self-discipline since I was in high school. Call it laziness, call it insecurity — to an extent it’s probably both. I constantly go back and forth between doing what feels good in the moment and finding the drive to get something more pressing done.
Sometimes this has looked like procrastinating on projects or eating the late-night dessert when I know I didn’t need it. Other times, it’s looked like getting off the couch to fold the laundry pile that’s staring me down, or hitting play on the workout when I’d rather just scroll through Instagram.
It wasn’t until this last year that I started to notice the bad habits I was enabling in my life and their negative effects on myself and my family. I was more stressed at work. I was unhappy with my overall health. And my home life became significantly more disorganized. I needed a change. I needed self-discipline.
My desire for discipline wasn’t enough for me to adopt it, though — discipline is something that is only gained by repeated practice and strengthening our wills. As a first step, though, it helped me to notice the roadblocks I repeatedly ran into as I sought to become a more disciplined person. Seeing these challenges more clearly might help you adopt more discipline in your life, as well.
Our culture continues to sell the idea that we will find fulfillment in consumption and consumerism. So we’re constantly in a tug-of-war between doing what is easy and feels good — an option that is always in front of us, whether it’s Netflix or convenient comfort food — and denying ourselves for a greater good. When we allow our desires and passions to fully dictate our behavior, we lose part of what makes us human.
The first obstacle I faced in becoming more disciplined was simply having the self-awareness to see the ways in which I “go with the flow,” and where I could create time and space in my day to be intentional about my choices. It’s easy to want a quick fix. But that isn’t how discipline works. It requires hard work. It means taking a step back and being honest about our wants, our needs and what is necessary for us to make changes.
Reading about self-discipline will not help us become more disciplined people. Practicing mindfulness as we go through our day can make us more intentional, and help us recognize temptations drawing us away from where we want to go.
We subconsciously cling to excuses or illusions or defense mechanisms when it comes to making a change in our lives because that change requires risk and effort. We’re very good at self-preservation and staying comfortable. I turn to my defense mechanisms as reasons for my lack of self-discipline far too often.
For me, one illusion I fall into is the “what-the-hell” effect. You may have been in a similar situation: you’re trying to eat healthy but just had dessert while at lunch with colleagues, meaning your day of eating healthy is basically blown. So you say, “What the hell, I guess I’ll just eat unhealthy the rest of the day. What’s one more cookie?” You’ve already failed, so why not take the whole day as a loss?
Other defense mechanisms include denial, projection, passive aggression, or rationalization. Being aware of our own defense mechanisms is crucial to knowing ourselves better and identifying the barriers we’re subconsciously putting up to mitigate change.
Practicing self-discipline means getting uncomfortable. I realized I had to make peace with that reality if I wanted to push past the instinctual desires of my body and tell myself no to allow for something better. Each time you tell yourself no, you are creating a tiny ounce of self-possession, an ounce of self-discipline.
You won’t have any marathon runner or author or actor tell you they got where they are by sitting back and letting their achievements come to them. They got up and ran around the block, wrote that first page, or went to that terrifying audition. They put in the hard work and pushed through all the discomfort and external distractions.
Take the spiritual practice of fasting, for example. The practice of abstaining from food or another form of enjoyment is difficult. We become aware of the desire for something, but by saying no, we are able to focus less on ourselves, which gives us more room to focus on God. That kind of progress isn’t possible without denying yourself and making yourself uncomfortable.
Practicing discipline is not easy, and you’re probably going to fail at some point — and that’s okay. On this side of heaven, we’ll never be perfect. If you give up on a day or a project or a goal the first time you fail, you won’t get far. Progress comes from perseverance, not perfection.
Each of the four times I sat down to write this I thought, “How can I speak from a place of motivation if I struggle with self-discipline myself?” And the reality is, it’s something I’ll be practicing for the rest of my life. Discipline is like a muscle that we only build with constant work and practice. Consistency begets discipline.
When I’m at my best, the benefits of self-discipline have been transformative because it frees me to align my life to my values. Through practicing discipline, I’ve been empowered to stick to my decisions and move past moments of weakness. It has given me freedom in moments when I would have otherwise felt controlled by a fleeting desire.
By practicing discipline, I have brought a little more balance to my work, my health, my family — and after sitting down four times to write this, I have now accomplished this, too.