April 25, 2017

Lesson #4: Discipline — Can You Go the Distance?

Fast and easy. Two words that are so often put together but rarely deliver. There is nothing fast and easy about being a great leader. It takes hard work. Real hard work.

Those that put the time in, day after day, week after week and year after year succeed. Those that don’t will try every fast and easy approach until they throw their arms up in failure.

To truly get what you want out of life, you have to have the self-discipline to stick with tasks, push through obstacles, do the work when everyone else is having fun, push away the negativity and endure the countless hours of practice it takes to succeed.

It’s no secret that achievement takes discipline.

Take for example, the Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei in Japan.

These guys have some amazing discipline. They have a ritual to gain enlightenment where they have to run, for 100 day stretches, 2 back to back marathons around Mount Hiei.

This grueling ordeal take seven years to complete and is so intense that if they don’t complete their run each day, they are supposed to take their own life.

If that was not bad enough, during their fifth year, they have to sit in the lotus position before a raging fire and chant mantras for nine days without food, water or sleep.

Only 48 monks have completed this grueling feat since 1885.

Reality Check

Most of us don’t need as much discipline as the Marathon Monks. They have dedicated themselves fully to achieving enlightenment.

I’m sure most of us would never want to do such a feat (that whole taking your life if you don’t complete it — pretty hard core) but we do want to achieve something. To be disciplined in achieving your goals, you need to first accept where you are today and what your capabilities are.

Just like it takes seven years for the Marathon Monks to take their final challenge, it may take you incremental steps to get to your goals. As I have said many, many times, you don’t run a marathon without first running a mile.

Assessing your present condition is as simple as following these three steps:

  1. Honestly and accurately evaluate where you are today.

  2. Accept that this is your present reality.

  3. Vow to make incremental improvements not massive leaps:

The biggest part of maintaining discipline is not getting discouraged with setbacks. Sure, you need to push yourself but only after you get some success.

Setting Goals

Goals are an important part of being disciplined. Without a goal, there is no focus. Without focus, there is no discipline.

Focus and discipline go hand in hand primarily because most of us lack focus. I know I’m guilty of focus problems when I sit down to write. Just writing this took me longer than planned because I was distracted by the great articles on The Art of Non-Conformity or all that email in my inbox.

What I had to do is set myself a goal — write 250 words before reading Chris’s blog. I know that seems like a silly goal but as most writers know, once you get in the grove, 250 words blossoms to 500, then 1000. Pretty soon, the job gets done.

When setting goals, I like to follow the SMART goals model:

  • Specific: The specific What, Why and How

  • Measurable: How do you know you are done?

  • Attainable: A goal should push you but not break you. Nothing will frustrate you more than setting lofty goal after lofty goal and not achieving any of them.

  • Realistic: A reality check that you can achieve it.

  • Timely: A specific short term timeline, like one week from now or one month. In my experience, personal goals past a couple of months will probably not get done.

You don’t have to get carried away with goals. In fact, like anything, it’s best to start out slow and build up to it.

Take On Challenges

Discipline requires some form of growth. Without growth, discipline is just routine — I get up, brush my teeth, have coffee and read the paper. What transforms routine tasks into disciplined tasks is challenging yourself to do better.

Without challenges, we would never push ourselves to do better. We would still be running 5k’s instead of half-marathons. We would still have that outline instead of a published book. We would still wake up at 6:00am and lie in bed for an hour. Challenge yourself and you will build discipline.

Putting The Time In

No one ever achieved greatness without doing the work. Usually, it takes a tremendous amount of time to be disciplined enough to achieve greatness.

Malcolm Galdwell’s Outliers puts the time at 10,000 hours of practice to be an expert at something. This conclusion is complemented by Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code.

In the Talent Code, Mr. Coyle tries to figure out why some places are hotbeds for greatness and why talent seems to be “natural” or inborn. His conclusions: you need to practice (maybe not 10,000 hours) but you need to practice better or what he calls deep practice.

Deep practice is about putting the time in and challenging yourself to use that time for maximum effect — kinda like if you only have 10 minutes to your deadline, you better be efficient.

The next time you sit down to practice, think about how efficient your sessions are and how you can make them better.

Suck It Up

Discipline is hard. So hard that all of us will slack off at some point or another. Realize that when you start to slack off, it’s your brains way of telling you that real improvement is about to take place.

I know that this sounds a little weird. Let me explain.

We humans like to cheat a little. When things are going well, we tend to feel good about it and stop trying so hard. We cheat on our diet or don’t go for that run when we know we should.

These little cheats are a sneaky way your brain conserves energy since survival is all about maximizing energy intake while reducing energy consumption. If you can adequately perform a task, then why waste the energy to improve.

Still sound a little weird. Okay, how about an example.

Let’s say you are learning how to play a musical instrument. You learn some of the basics pretty easily but are now starting to struggle. It’s frustrating because it’s starting to get harder and harder. You are spending more and more energy for little to no gain.

Something in your primitive mind clicks and says “why the effort for no gain?” It’s basically a survival skill — conserve energy so you can live another day. So, you stop and never try again. That’s why it’s so hard to be disciplined — your own mind is tricking you into stopping.

To train yourself to stop being tricked, try some of the items below:

  • Just 5 minutes more: Sometimes, all it takes is just a little more effort and wham o, you are back on track.

  • Slow down: Slowing down a bit and being a little more deliberate can get you back on track. By slowing down, I mean taking your time to understand the issue or blockage.

  • Back to basics: When all else fails, take a step back and focus on the basics. Most of us make things way too complicated. By focusing on the fundamentals, you can break up your task or problem into manageable chunks.

  • Reflect on success: Remembering a recent success can snap you out of a funk or blockage by reminding yourself that you can do it.

  • Take a deep breath: Taking a minute or two to breath in and breath out can do wonders to lower your frustration levels. Try it sometime when you are about to give up.

The power of being disciplined amplifies your strengths while minimizing your weaknesses simply because the more you get done and learn, the more productive you will become.

For a leader, discipline shows that you can follow through on your vision and lead by example.

Take-a-way: Discipline is your secret leadership weapon. Use it to breakthrough the challenges life throws at you.

Things to Ponder

  1. Set some short term SMART goals. Make them obtainable within a week. Do this for 4 weeks.

  2. Assess how you do work by writing down all the things that distract you. Take one of these distractions and set a goal to reduce or eliminate it in 2 weeks. Repeat until all your distractions are reduced or eliminated.

  3. Write down what frustrates you. Next to each item, write down why that particular item gets under your skin. Next to that, write down how that frustration impacts your discipline. Over the next month, work on reducing one of your frustrations to zero.

  4. The next time you hit a blockage or get frustrated by your lack of progress, take a step back and relax. Close your eyes and breath for one minute. How does that make you feel? Write a paragraph or two on your feelings.

Exploring Further


This post is part of a series called Leading from Within, a FREE course on how to lead your most important supporter — you. If you landed here via other means (like Google, Twitter or a friend), you can learn more about the course and sign up here.