I’ve had a long-running, on-again-off-again affair with self-discipline. I admire the iron discipline of dancers, and would love to have that sort of discipline myself. I’ve been working on it all my life.
“Success” methodologies have been around since Victorian times, but my first introduction to the idea of creating one’s own success was in the 1980s, when my employer put everyone through a course on affirmations and positive thinking—a mix of New Age and New Thought ideas, and Neurolinguistic Programming. The general concept was that you didn’t need to “make” yourself do anything. By repeating positive affirmations each day, you would program your mind for the success you craved. After that, doing what needed to be done would become automatic. A habit.
Positive thinking and the “Law of Attraction” have exploded since 2006, after the release of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret was published. The Secret further ejected self-discipline. You just had to think [think really hard, one presumes] about what you wanted, and the world would drop it into your lap. You didn’t have to do anything at all to make your every wish manifest. It would just happen.
A lot of the new ideas, methods and systems designed to deliver personal growth, awareness and success, tend to downplay the role of self-discipline, or even reject it completely as a dud concept that doesn’t work. Academic papers have been written, proposing that self-discipline is “troubling” and undesirable.
Striving to do what you say you will do, when you say you will do it, has become embarrassingly old-fashioned, according to the new approaches to success and productivity.
They’re conning you.
There’s a bit—actually, a lot—of sleight of hand going on when these courses and methodologies promise you success without the need for self-discipline.
Mostly, the con is worked via a switcheroo: Instead of mentioning the dirty concept (self-discipline), they talk about habits. They dangle habits as the key to the universe. After all, would you buy a course that promised you’d have to work hard to earn your reward, whether you liked it or not?
Don’t get me wrong. I think habits, used properly, are super-weapons.
There have been millions of words published, pulling apart habits, the psychology of habits, how to use them, and how they create success for us, with no effort needed. Try here, and here, and even here. I’ve also written a great deal about the power of habits.
Once a habit is established, it is a thing of joy. It does work automatically.
You have to set the habit, first.
This is where the books and posts and gurus really start tap-dancing around the core unpleasant fact: It takes self-discipline to establish a habit.
It even takes self-discipline to keep a habit going. Not a lot of self-discipline, to be sure. But some. Unlike bad habits, good habits can be fragile and easy to break.
Say, for example, you set up the habit of getting out of bed an hour earlier every morning and writing for sixty minutes before the rest of the household erupts. It goes swimmingly for a couple of months, which is well past the 30 days “everyone” says a habit takes to form.
(In fact, how long a habit takes to “set” varies from person to person and differs from habit to habit. The habit of closing the toilet lid each time you use it can set in a few days. The habit of not smoking can take years to properly establish itself.)
But after a couple of months of writing every morning, there’s a power outage one night, and everyone sleeps in. Only your cat singing the song of his people just outside your bedroom door wakes everyone up.
No writing happens that morning. Habits do not automatically guarantee that the behavior they encourage will always happen no matter what. They simply lower our resistance to repeating those habits.
So there will always be days when you can’t get to things that you should. Shit happens.
It’s the next morning, when the alarm goes off and you’re looking at the nightstand clock through sleep-filled eyes, that you must deploy a smidgen of self-discipline, because your sub-conscious will talk you out of getting up.
There were no consequences for not writing, the previous day. No supervisor yelled at you. No professor dropped your grades by a point because you didn’t complete four pages. No one fined you.
And your subconscious is going to whisper to you: What does it matter? One more day won’t hurt. I’ll make up for it tomorrow.
This is where self-discipline must save the day. This small moment, when Resistance is whispering its siren song about tomorrow being a better day. This is when you have to use discipline to do what you said you were going to do. You have to make yourself get out of bed and trudge to your desk.
The habit of rising early to write is established, so you won’t have to use a lot of discipline to keep the habit going.
New habits, habits you are trying to establish, though, take nearly pure discipline to complete each time, until the habit is set. Depending upon how long it takes for the habit to set and how disciplined you are in performing the habit every time you should, the degree of discipline you need to get the task done each time will gradually diminish as the habit takes over.
Having a really good reason for doing the task helps with setting the task. The more emotion and excitement you feel over the end results the habit will deliver, the more likely you are to form the habit at all.
But motivation does not last, and this is where pure discipline takes over…just until the habit is formed, and you can relax a bit.
Most of the productivity and success methodologies and gurus who tell you that discipline is a dirty word, that habits are the cure-all for everything, are using pure motivation to drive you along until the habit is set.
It’s easy to find very powerful motivations for just about anything you might want to achieve, but as New Year’s Resolutions have demonstrated for generations, just being motivated doesn’t work.
Sooner or later, you have to grit your teeth and just get ‘er done.
Powering Through Without Habits Is Lethal, though.
Relying purely upon your iron will to work through big projects and achieve the end goal is probably asking too much of yourself.
There are people who have enormous reserves of willpower and discipline and can power through just about anything, simply because they set their mind to it. David Groggins is one. I’m not. Not even close. I succumb to the lure of “tomorrow” far too often.
And I’m not the only one. We merely human writers can’t make ourselves write any more than we can make our cats stop yowling at three in the morning.
That is why Just Starting is such a powerful tool. It doesn’t rely on motivation, or pure habit to get you to write. You just have to use a modicum of discipline (15 minutes or so) to keep you at your desk, before the power of the story, and your love of writing kick in, and keep you at the desk for much longer.
But you will have to use self-discipline for those fifteen or twenty minutes.
Don’t steer away from Discipline!
Discipline is not a negative thing. It is one of the core principles of writing more, but it doesn’t have to be a white-knuckles-and-sweat, drop-dead-at-the-finish-line thing.
Used smartly, self-discipline can help you achieve everything you want.