Is Discipline a Choice?

Discipline is a difficult word to define—self-discipline that is. But before we dive in, I challenge you to think about your own definition of discipline. Seriously, do it.

The opportunity to write this blog post has proven to be much more challenging than I originally anticipated. I had a difficult time clearly articulating my own definition of the word, let alone give advice on how someone else can develop discipline. Nonetheless, since I was writing about discipline I knew I couldn’t just give up. I quickly realized that discipline is hard to describe because of how different people are. However, I can say with confidence that the most disciplined individuals possess extreme clarity of purpose.

No one just wakes up one day and claims they’ve conquered the art of self-discipline. Discipline is like a muscle; it must be strengthened over time. Have you exercised self-discipline today? My guess is, you answered NO like me. However, I would argue that you’ve already made a handful of decisions this morning that would actually allow you to answer YES. The problem is that we are often more aware of the areas in our lives where we lack discipline than the areas where it is fully developed.

My theory is that people who skillfully exercise the art of self-discipline do it routinely because they continually take the necessary steps to overcome the challenge at hand. Discipline of a certain action over time develops into a habit—something we don’t intentionally think about but rather act on. For example, I love sleep yet I don’t get much at all (six hours a night if I’m lucky). However, my love for my family and contribution at work are both more important to me than sleep. It’s not that I love sleep less, I just value other things in my life more. On any given week, I don’t credit my ability to wake up early to discipline. Rather, I view it as something that must be done in order to accomplish the things I’ve identified are most important. Therefore, is discipline actually a choice?

Discipline isn’t motivating enough by itself to be an ultimate goal or guiding purpose. So the question still remains—how does one acquire or develop the art of self-discipline? In my limited experience, the key is to focus less on discipline itself and more on purpose.

Start with why. Coined by author Simon Sinek, I have found this principle to be extremely effective. The key to developing clarity of purpose starts with asking the all-important questions: Why are we here? Why do we do what we do? If you or your organization can uncover the why, you can better determine the steps it will take to accomplish your purpose. However, this road is not always paved with comfort. The habitual systems and processes developed as you answer these questions allow you to overcome discomfort and ensure your purpose remains the priority. Use your why to navigate the likely road blocks of discomfort and resistance you’ll experience on your journey.

Be faithful to your assignment. Once a purpose is clearly defined, connect it to your daily responsibilities. All too often, the purpose of an individual or organization is detached from reality. If daily actions aren’t in some way connected back to the why, then frustration and laziness begin to develop. It’s important that you are able to identify what daily progress looks like. Know where you’re headed and what part you play. Clarity on how to uniquely contribute to accomplishing your purpose is life-giving and worth waking up early for. The truth is, you can plan all you want, but reality tends to have its own agenda. Therefore, identifying the most important things and exercising discipline to accomplish them will better prepare you for the inevitable unknown.

So is discipline really a choice? At first, maybe. But then it can develop into a habit, why you do what you do and then ultimately part of your purpose. My challenge for you is to discover a purpose so compelling that it becomes second nature. Now that is a life of discipline!