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7 Small “Mind Shifts” for When You Lack Discipline

by Jeff Cobb

Self Discipline

One of the biggest barriers we all face when pursuing our learning goals is a lack of self-discipline. We may know where we want to go, but putting in the time and effort to get there is another thing entirely.

Maybe you don’t manage to drag yourself out of bed early in the morning to write, like you told yourself you would. Or you skipped practicing your Spanish verbs the last two days.  Or… [fill in one of your own].

In these situations, many of us have a tendency to embrace the more negative side of discipline. We beat ourselves up; punish ourselves for our failures.  But in doing this, we start to develop a negative mindset about discipline that can only lead to more failure.

Here are some ways to shift your mind towards a more positive view of discipline:

1. Realize that discipline is the sum of many small parts

Discipline” actually derives from the Latin “disciplina,” meaning teaching or learning. A disciple, in the classic sense, was someone who followed the teachings and code of conduct of a master as a path to knowledge. Naturally, this doesn’t happen overnight. It takes many years of small successes – and failures. In fact, there really is no finish line for discipline. It is an illusion to say that a person is disciplined. Really we are always in the process of becoming disciplined.

2. Focus on the small parts

Given that discipline is an ongoing process rather than a set condition or one-time event, it makes sense to value the steps in the process. Your goal may be to become a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, but focusing in on mastering the Moa Seogi stance is a much more manageable short-term goal. Break that goal down into small chunks that you can begin to form into a habit. Maybe committing yourself to just 5 minutes a day of practice is all you can handle at first. But do that for 30 days, and you’ve got the foundation of a habit on which you can build.

3.  Keep the long-term view

You will fail. Even in the seemingly simple effort to commit just five minutes a day to practice, the day will arrive when you skip your five minutes. These are the times where we drive ourselves crazy. We focus too much on our short-term failings. Or, for that matter, on our short-term successes. But these single instances do not matter in the long run. What matters in the long run is that we continue the process of discipline.

4. Know your reasons why

If you understand the importance of learning goals and have been thoughtful in setting them, then you know what is motivating you to achieve a particular goal. Don’t lose site of that motivation. Make sure you have written it down and told others about it. Motivation is the positive energy of discipline. Always keep it close.

5. Enjoy yourself

It’s hard to push yourself to have discipline when you don’t like doing something, but let’s face it, even when we are learning about something we love, there will be less enjoyable parts. Memorizing vocabulary, for example, has never been one of my favorite parts of learning a language, but it has to be done. Doing it with a beer on the back porch is one way to make it much more enjoyable. Or maybe trying out some online flashcards. Find what works for you, but figure out how you can make the trying parts of learning a bit more enjoyable.

6. Screw up

Aristotle said in his Nicomachean Ethics “…as a practical matter, we must sometimes aim a bit toward excess and sometimes toward deficiency, because this will be the easiest way of hitting the mean, that is, what is right.” That may sound like Greek even in English, but one way of translating it is that you don’t really know and appreciate success until you have experienced failure. So don’t sweat it too much when you fall off the wagon. It’s a necessary part of the process.

7. Repeat …Wisely

Remember: Discipline is a habit. And habits, by definition, are behaviors that are repeated again and again. The important point is to recognize your “excesses” and “deficiencies,” as Aristotle would put it, and try not to keep repeating those. You will repeat them, of course, whether you like it or not, but over time repetition of “what is right” will prevail.

It seems appropriate to wrap up by saying that this post is part of my own effort to cultivate a more disciplined approach to blogging. Those who have been reading in the past month or so may have guessed that it represents another installment of my Zen Learning Habits series, inspired by Leo Babauta’s work at Zen Habits.

As always, I welcome your comments. How do you deal with the issue of discipline in your own learning efforts? Please comment and share with other readers.

- Jeff

posted on September 30, 2009

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve October 2, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Fascinating article, with a lot of great ideas for working through self discipline challenges. I like the idea of working on small parts, while keeping the big picture in mind, and giving yourself the ‘permission’ to screw up :) Good stuff!

Suzanne October 8, 2009 at 12:48 pm

Very nice post. Thank you. When I talk to people about learning, going back to school to get a degree, or upgrade skills, we often come to the part about actually doing it. The discipline part. Yes it’s a mindset, habits, just something you decide to do, day by day, task by task.
Personally I’ve never struggled with *discipline,* but that may be because I’m often doing exactly what I want to be doing in my big picture. Those little tips, reward structures and tricks to get me going on the days I don’t want to help as well. Some days, when it’s really bad, I’ll say to myself, “So what would I rather do?” I often come up with “nothing.” It’s comical.
I’ve learned what some of my barriers are to getting going.
1. Not wanting to put the effort in/the task is too hard
2. Not sure what to do/how to do it
3. Resentment due to exhaustion
4. Frustration connected to numbers 1 and 2

I overcome these by asking for help, breaking things down, finding another way to do something. Stopping and taking a break. Getting deeply involved with something else to clear my mind.

jtcobb October 15, 2009 at 6:58 am

Suzanne – Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts. And congrats on doing exactly what you want to be doing in your big picture! That’s certainly a huge help when it comes to discipline. Stopping, taking a break, and getting involved in something else is also very good advice. Just this past week I found myself picking up a potboiler mystery every few hours and reading several chapters to help clear my mind so I could keep plowing ahead on a big client deliverable. It definitely helped. – Jeff

asf May 21, 2013 at 2:10 pm

I love your post, except for item 6… I feel like the quotation you provided leans toward a different meaning than what you have assigned.
The virtue that Aristotle is intending to protray (i belive) is that the center is always the goal. Virtue is the perfect middle road. You aren’t too agressive, or to passive… neither passivity nor agressiveness are ideal, the middle road is the perfect one. So, what he means here is that sometimes, to find that middle road, you have to aim high or aim low. Your initial intent is off the mark, but you do this knowing that you are correcting for other circumstances.

Jeff Cobb July 14, 2013 at 10:25 am

I’m not sure I see how my interpretation is out of alignment with yours (with which I don’t disagree), but nonetheless, thanks for commenting and sharing that perspective – Jeff

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