October 7, 2011

Discipline – how to keep going when you don’t want to keep going

Discipline. What does the word conjure up for you? Stern faces? Failure? Childhood memories of sitting miserably with your maths homework in front of you, the sun shining outside?

I wouldn’t have finished a single novel if I hadn’t made use of great dollops of discipline, never mind four. I imagine there might be authors that skip happily to their desks every morning, but I’ve not met any of them. Getting myself to sit down and open my manuscript can be quite a battle.

However, I don’t believe that discipline has to be about threatening ourselves with a stick (and Gunaratana agrees, in my favourite quote about discipline, below). Discipline is a gift – it whispers in our ears to remind us about what’s important, and it offers us a hand when we want to give up.

Here are my suggestions to help you cultivate your capacity to keep on going.

1. Make sure your goals are utterly aligned with what’s important to you
Life is hard enough without setting ourselves goals that don’t really matter to us, and then holding ourselves tightly to them. Ration your discipline – use it when you really need it. If you find yourself setting too many unrealistic goals and then failing miserably at most of them, what else might be driving you?

2. Be gentle with yourself
We are all human beings. We are frail, we make mistakes every five minutes, we fail to meet the expectations we set for ourselves. Sensible contrition followed by appropriate action is right and proper, but I don’t believe that it adds anything helpful if we beat ourselves up. Instead, remind yourself that you are human like everyone else, do what you can to rectify the situation, forgive yourself, and think carefully about how you can support yourself better when the same situation arises again.

3. Be mindful
Be curious about your thought processes. What kinds of excuses does your brain invent when it wants to squirm out doing something important? ‘There’s no point, you’ll fail anyway’. ‘It’s just not important to me today’. You might start to recognise patterns, and over time these excuses will begin to lose their power. Say politely to each thought, ‘Thank you for letting me know that I’m going to fail, and I’m going to do it anyway’. And then do it anyway.

4. Get support
We don’t have to do anything alone. If you’re about to tackle a large project, tell a friend about your plans and ask them if you can email them with an update every fortnight. You might also want to think about getting a coach to support you with fortnightly or monthly coaching conversations. Being accountable to someone else is a helpful prop to your discipline, and it’s also marvellous to have a sounding board for the difficult bits and a cheerleader for the ‘hurray’ bits.

5. Cultivate good habits over time
We’re all learning all the time. Read books or do some research online about how to ‘get things done’. Use a journal to accompany you on your journey, and use it to learn more about your particular patterns. Invent rituals to help you get down to work (I light a candle before I start writing). Remember to feel pleased whenever you’ve strengthened your discipline muscles, and to celebrate when you finish bigger projects.

I’ll leave you with Henepola Gunaratana’s quote, which I’ve returned to many times over the years. Here’s to a new way of looking at discipline – as a gentle practice which offers us a hand to help us through the difficult spots. There are always difficult spots, and it would be a shame if we listened to ourselves and sat down by the roadside. Who knows what you’ll find just a little further on down the road!

“Discipline” is a difficult word for most of us. It conjures up images of somebody standing over you with a stick, telling you that you’re wrong. But self-discipline is different. It’s the skill of seeing through the hollow shouting of your own impulses and piercing their secret. They have no power over you. It’s all a show, a deception. Your urges scream and bluster at you; they cajole; they coax; they threaten; but they really carry no stick at all. You give in out of habit. You give in because you never really bother to look beyond the threat. It is all empty back there. There is only one way to learn this lesson, though. The words on this page won’t do it. But look within and watch the stuff coming up-restlessness, anxiety, impatience, pain-just watch it come up and don’t get involved. Much to your surprise, it will simply go away. It rises, it passes away. As simple as that. There is another word for self-discipline. It is patience.”

Henepola Gunaratana, from Mindfulness in Plain English

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