The Art of Self-Discipline

All of us have the experience of quitting an activity because it was too time-consuming, too costly in either effort or money, or because we were just over it. I remember when my children took Tae-kwon-do. We got involved initially because my youngest needed an activity. My oldest liked the class too, so we signed them both up. As they progressed through the belts, the class time and requirements increased. The cost of each test and belt continued to increase, the time commitment both in class and out of class increased. And while logically we wanted our children to finish what they started, we let them quit. And honestly, we never regretted the decision because we recovered something more valuable – our precious time. 

Take another example – piano and guitar lessons. The kids have been taking music for a few years now. When my daughter moved into middle school, we talked about her giving up lessons. She resisted regular practice, and I was sick of making her do it. After many discussions, she decided to stick with it. And it was the turning point she needed. As a result of her decision, she has invested more of herself into learning. She has found opportunities to perform and grow this skill. Now she decides when and how long she practices; and, although there are days she doesn’t want to do this, the majority of the time she chooses to practice without my insistence.

The hardest part of learning is self-discipline –  doing something when you do not feel like it, continuing with something when it no longer shines, when the “newness” has worn off. Learning a new skill for the simple purpose of understanding something better is one thing. Learning it in application to our lives is entirely something else. There is an art to moving beyond something new and fun into something meaningful and significant. Meaningful skills such as learning a new language, playing an instrument or a sport, regular yoga practice, exercise, saving money, – all require discipline and struggle. 

Think about an exercise plan. We join gyms, enroll in programs geared to help us change something, invest money in memberships, coaches and gear. Just recently I joined Crossfit and began a 6-week challenge. While I have reaped some health benefits, there are days I simply don’t want to go. Yet showing up is the hardest part. My mental battle begins prior to arriving at the gym. The energy I spend trying to convince myself I don’t need to go would be more beneficial spent at the gym. Self-discipline helps me resist this battle. Once there, I’ve committed. 

Diet is another timely example. We buy books and join online platforms to figure out how to eat well, yet within reason. We sign up for meal plans and grocery pick-up and delivery. We join 30-day detox and restrict food groups to reach our goals. We track calories, protein, and amounts in order to stay within our limits. 

Think about faith. Do you meditate or pray daily? Do you journal? Practice yoga? Read daily? All of these, if done regularly and long-term, require one common trait: self-discipline. To take on new learning demands taking a step back. That initial step asks you to think through decisions. We have all made decisions hastily, only to regret it later. Practicing patience requires self-discipline. 

Ryan Holiday, author of Stillness is the Key connects the investment in stillness to clarity of mind. He recognizes the common quality between the most successful leaders is their self-discipline. In a range of professions, experiences, time periods and occupations, he points out that quieting the mind enough to focus, allows us to hear our truth. “Each of us needs to cultivate those moments in our lives. Where we limit our inputs and turn down the volume so that we can access a deeper awareness of what’s going on around us. In shutting up – even if only for a short period – we can finally hear what the world has been trying to tell us. Or what we’ve been trying to tell ourselves.”

Many of us go through phases with routines. Being consistent with these routines requires a deeper understanding of their purpose and place in our lives. Why did I begin the task in the first place? Does it make me better? Does it add value? What is the value? Bottom line – consistency is hard. If change were easy, we would reach goals and move on without struggle. The struggle challenges us to follow through on our routines even when we feel uncomfortable. Then we allow ourselves to grow and better understand our purpose. Many times we think of quitting. But the times we struggle and pursue our routines successfully, the reward is worth it. 

As Xunzi said, “If a person puts even one measure of effort into following ritual and the standards of righteousness, he will get back twice as much.” Most great philosophers and thinkers practice some rituals to think clearly, whether it involves stillness through meditation or yoga or if it involved a hobby like fishing or running – something that allows the mind to escape. 

How do we teach the art of self-discipline? How do we lead with this trait? The important routines in my life, the ones that center me and help me show up at my best, are the ones I’ve tried, changed, quit, and returned to, because I recognize their value. It’s why I have such planned mornings. I know that this time of day is one I control fully. When I wake up early, I get to choose how I start my day. When one of my children wakes me up, I begin my day reacting. I know that I am centered when I have some stillness early in the day. These are the moments when I intentionally decide what mindset I will have for the day ahead. I get to choose gratitude. I get to choose patience. I get to choose joy. 

I remember the Folger’s coffee commercial where the mom is in bed, cozily sleeping, and her husband or children wake her with a steaming cup of coffee. The sunlight is streaming across her bed, and everyone is smiling all around. I love this vision. The reality in my home is very different. When I sleep in, I’m often awakened by running feet jumping into bed followed by lots of questions about the day ahead. While I smile and enjoy the snuggles – my day started on someone else’s timetable. 

Caring for others is part of having a family and being a mom. It’s a huge part of my life as a leader with students and teachers as well. In order for me to be able to care for others, I must practice the art of self-discipline, I must wake up a little earlier than my family. I read, meditate, and practice yoga as part of my morning routine.  I get to choose how long I do these things; and, the amount of time isn’t nearly as important as simply the act of doing. This self-discipline empowers me to slow down, arrange my day, and ultimately be the kind of care-giver I want to be, in all my roles.

With each goal we pursue throughout our lives, personal and professional, self-discipline plays a part. Once we have allowed ourselves to be still enough to understand what we have to give and want to pursue, our routines to support those activities are the framework to achieve them. Leading others means we live what we advise, it means we listen before we react, it means we are always learning. It also means we make mistakes, we take on too much or deny what is important. It means we recognize that self-discipline in our lives leads us to fulfillment.

3 Comments on “The Art of Self-Discipline

  1. Just read your Chapter 13 on self-discipline. Very insightful-I loved reading it. Sentence structure much better-it flowed very smoothly.




  2. This is probably the hardest habit to make in my life. I understand the need, the results, all of it, but the actual “doing” the things that require I am proactive rather than reactive is a constant struggle.


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