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.
I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.