For me, a life coach, the phrase self-discipline conjures up images of being strict, tough and perhaps even rigid to force myself to get things done. For the purposes of this article I use the phrase to describe the way we regulate and direct ourselves. What self-discipline looks like to you may not be what it looks like to me.
How we do things is a deeply personal expression of our wants, needs, intentions, self-care, strengths, responsibility, beliefs and values, an outward reflection of what is important for us. I think of self-discipline as a continual recalibration and adjustment of what’s important in my life. All of us struggle with doing what needs to be done versus doing what we desire. None of us is immune from distraction. We live in an age of distractions that tempt us from good habits and intentions. How comfortable are you with your ability to balance competing needs and desires in your day?
Self-discipline is a balancing act. We are a collection of values, motivations, intentions, fears, potential, abilities, quirks, strengths and stories we tell ourselves. How all of this translates into self-discipline depends upon how aligned we are with our goals and how we balance priorities day to day. The balance you strike is reflective of your personal style of self-regulation. Are you happy with the way you balance your life or do you tend to let things slide a long time before you notice things are out of whack?
One thing I notice about people who are content with their ability to regulate themselves is that they are aware of their priorities, they are clear about them, they take responsibility for them, they take time to focus on them and they have a way of balancing competing demands on their time. My intention isn’t to judge or tell you that you should be more efficient, just be aware of how you feel about what you do in a day and notice if it works for you.
As self-discipline is so deeply personal, let me tell you about what I do and don’t do well. I learned some of my self-discipline from my mother, who has a lot of good habits and pushes through her resistance like a bull. Although I developed some good habits, I am not a creature of habit. I tend to do things as I feel like them. When I exercise good self-regulation, this feels good. When I’m not, the train slips off the rails pretty quickly. I tend to put off things like paperwork, collecting overdue accounts or cleaning. I have to face the fact that I may never ever feel like doing paperwork or making difficult calls.
I put these things on a weekly list of action steps related to my goals. I want to be financially responsible and have a neat house. So even when I don’t feel like doing paperwork, it goes into the hopper and usually gets done in the course of a week. When I face resistance to doing something onerous like doing my taxes I break it down into small achievable steps like sorting receipts, invoices and bank statements. I do my best to make it feel like something I want to do by listening to music, having a cup of coffee and having a time limit to get it done.
As I write this article I am aware of the tug of many distractions: checking email; wanting to have a cup of coffee; wanting to get up and stretch; feeling my neck is sore. Sometimes it’s tough to focus on my intentions. If I am not responsible and I don’t hold myself accountable, I find myself emptying the dishwasher instead of doing what I intend, which is to sit and finish this article. The tug of distraction eventually proves irresistible so I use it as a way of taking a break and even rewarding myself for having applied myself and resisted distraction as long as I could. So let me tell you how I regulate myself …
I understand self-discipline as the practice of noticing what’s going on in my life, identifying and clarifying my priorities (my weekly list), balancing and making adjustments as I go along. The best metaphor I can think of is it’s like driving a car. Imagine looking over my shoulder while I drive: I have a goal or an intention (to go somewhere), I get in the car and make myself comfortable, I check conditions, make adjustments, scan the road and set off.
While I am driving, I continually check the mirrors, stay focused, adjust my speed and watch for other drivers, all while keeping my eye on the road. Not only am I interacting with other vehicles and responding to them, I am tempted by distractions and aware of other things I want to do. If I avoid distractions and stick to my intentions I will make it to my destination without turning into a fast food place or sending a text message while driving.
When I face a challenge, I take a deep breath then I check in with myself and notice what happens. I feel things moving around. What I notice is a dynamic balancing as I mentally move around priorities and make things fit together again. I might do this dozens of times a day, whenever I have to switch from one activity to another, to make sure I’m applying myself in the way I intend. I think of my brain as having a shifter. When I complete a task my brain is always asking, “what’s next?” The question, ‘what’s next’ is the shifter.
As long as I have a clear idea of my priorities and stick to them, shifting from one priority to another is effortless and clear. When that happens, I have a productive day and feel satisfied. When I am unclear about what’s next, I become prone to distraction. I’m prey to procrastination until I feel I know what’s next. This is where my list of action steps helps me figure a way out. Spending too much time in distraction mode gives me that sweetly sick empty feeling I had when I was a kid when I ate too much candy. That’s when I know it’s time to get back to doing something more satisfying.
I noticed that many distractions came up for me while writing this article because I found it difficult to wrap my head around this topic, making distraction and avoidance almost welcome. Now that the piece is almost finished I am beginning to feel a sense of accomplishment, empowerment and satisfaction. It takes focus, determination and persistence to push through resistance and avoidance. After all, I’m the only one who cares whether I write this article.
Let me leave you with one more element of self-discipline – self-care. I think it’s important to be responsible and balance my goals because it’s a way of caring for myself. If I don’t care enough about myself to do what I say I want then who will do them for me? I am constantly balancing self care with care for others. Think of a spectrum that ranges from selfish (extreme self care) to being in the service of others (an absence of self care). I balance my needs, wants and desires, but not at the expense of others I care about. It takes discipline and self-awareness to strike a balance that’s right for you. I can care for others but not at my own expense. It’s a balancing act. It’s about you.
I think I’ll make some coffee and empty that dishwasher now…