An Exercise for Creating Discipline

I used to write a lot more often. Those who have followed my trajectory since 2007 know that I used to do marketing and copywriting for a living. Between 2007 and 2012, I used to write much more heavily. I was trying to build a presence online. You could see peaks and valleys in my writing activity. There were frenzy periods, where I was writing every day religiously. Then there were stallouts. And then there were times when I was writing with no clear purpose or goal behind my writing. I never put a system in place, and it shows.

My personal experience with writing mirrors that of what I see in businesses regularly. People tend not to put systems in place until they have no choice, such as when buying into a franchise or being acquired. The real clincher when it comes to implementing a system: you have to keep following the system especially when you don’t want to. In my experience, most people by nature don’t have the level of discipline necessary to follow through without some form of forced accountability. I believe that’s only because of the way our educational system is set up. We don’t teach kids to be self-disciplined. We teach them to rely on external discipline, because that’s how you create obedient workers. Most of us were conditioned for a paycheck-to-paycheck existence. It’s up to each of us to change our own internal programming.

Self-employment creates a new challenge that many never figure out how to navigate. External accountability doesn’t go away when you own a business, but rather changes form. Instead of reporting to one boss, you report to multiple bosses, which is a good thing in the sense that no single entity has the power to take all of your income away. Having multiple bosses also introduces numerous logistical complications and the need to juggle priorities. Every client expects to be treated like the only one, and no client cares about your other clients. They don’t care about you or your business. People just want what they want. People don’t care what’s in your contract or what was initially discussed. People feel entitled to expect whatever they want. You can navigate the landscape of self-employment without any additional discipline if you don’t hire any employees or take on any overhead. You essentially end up with a patchwork of part-time jobs, which is a perfectly good way to make a living if that’s what you want to do.

If you want to build something bigger than yourself, it takes a system, which means giving up some degree of freedom and control. I’ve seen business owners who were sitting on gold mines with huge opportunity to grow, but due to their unwillingness to give up freedom and control, they stayed small. I don’t think people are always aware of what’s necessary. For years, I thought I could just muster more discipline on my own. I do believe it’s possible to slowly cultivate a higher level of discipline over time, but that in the short run, we are wise to make our plans assuming that our discipline level will not change in any serious way.

Jim Collins and a “Culture of Discipline”

If you’ve read the iconic business book, Good to Great, you may be familiar with the concept of a “culture of discipline” as Collins depicts with numerous examples. Collins argues that creating structure, processes, and hierarchies can “kill the entrepreneurial spirit” and that “the purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline.” I agree with Collins. Many of us have witnessed firsthand what happens when an organization attempts to instill discipline through a set of rigid top-down rules. Collins goes on to assert that the solution begins with hiring the right people, which I agree is critical. Here, I’ll come at the problem from another angle. Discipline on a team does not come from the top. We all need to learn to “lead up,” or persuade others to do things without the need for an official mandate. In any professional line of work, we frequently find ourselves needing the cooperation of people who don’t have to do what we say. Herein lies the key, in my opinion, to a culture of discipline.

To create a true culture of discipline, we have to first understand where discipline comes from. There is externally imposed discipline, and there is self-discipline. The bottom line: you can force people to do some things, but not everything. Force and coercion have inherent limits. You can’t force people to care. You can’t threaten people into being creative. You can’t use punishments and rewards to incentivize the spirit of innovation into existence. Self-discipline comes from a clear sense of purpose. Whether you serve in a leadership capacity or not, your level of power and influence directly correlate to your self-discipline. People who carve out time for the important and resist the tyranny of the urgent have a certain power that coalesces about them. People who say “yes” without thinking find that others respect them less. Any individual on a team can get the ball rolling by choosing self-discpline. But how? What does self-discipline look like? And where does one “get” self-discipline?

If you want something to start practicing today, here’s a quick experiment you can try. Ask yourself one question: if you had an iron will and unbreakable discipline, what would you do every day? Write out a list of the things that you’ve been saying you want to do, but aren’t doing.

I did the exercise recently, and here’s what I came up with:

  • Exercise every day
  • Strictly limit sugar intake
  • Track what I eat every day
  • Write every day rain or shine
  • Make outreach calls every day
  • Read every day
  • Hire someone
  • Only check email at scheduled times
  • Follow my daily plans to the letter
  • Learn the piano
  • Find an immersive group to practice learning one language per year, and meet with the group weekly

I’m still not doing most of these things, but the exercise got me motivated enough to write this article.

I don’t believe I’ve identified a silver bullet here, but perhaps that’s the nature of the beast. I don’t believe there is a silver bullet. But I think the exercise is worth trying. If you try it out, I’d love to hear about any insights you got.

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