The One Habit That Changes Everything

Discipline, The Keystone Habit

Discipline is an interesting concept.  One that has been pushed aside to some degree in our modern, consumerist society.

Why pushed aside?  Because encouraging discipline doesn't sell anything.  So the signals and symbols and examples and models of discipline tend to take a back seat in the media we are exposed to from day to day.

Yet for anyone who wants to succeed in life beyond the average, there is really no substitute for discipline.

Discipline As Its Own Goal And Habit

My thinking on discipline has evolved, and I'd like to share it with you.

You see, I used to see discipline as something that we apply while pursuing specific goals.  For example, you want to get in shape?  You need the discipline of eating well and exercising.  You want to succeed in business?  You need the discipline of consistent action--whether that be sales calls, innovation, research, etc.

But I have realized that there is a major gap in this perspective.  What do we do when we don't have clarity of purpose?  What do we do when we don’t have a burning goal?  Does discipline go out the window while we wait for a clear target?

There are a couple of reasons why this is problematic.  First, all of us have ups and downs in terms of clarity and focus.  We don't always know exactly what we are aiming to accomplish.

When that focus departs, if discipline is not its own habit for its own sake, we likely go to mush.  We drift.  We sleep in.  We consume mindless entertainment in excess.  The irony is that these moments of relative confusion are when discipline could be most useful, but is absent since we lack the clear goals that normally allow us to engage discipline and focus. 

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, discipline is a learned skill.  Something that becomes stronger with consistent, steady application.  Living a life of discipline is like living a life of good eating habits or exercise.  The more you practice the habit, the stronger it gets.

The point here is that discipline should not be a part of your life only when you are targeting specific goals.  If that is the case, you will have periods of drift.  And you might just get stuck there.

A Suggested Approach To Develop Discipline

I have a suggestion for you.  Make discipline itself a core goal and habit in your life.  What does this mean?  It means focus on living your life with discipline, regardless of the goals that come and go, the clarity that comes into greater and lesser focus over time.

How does this look in practice?  I'll tell you how I am pursuing this presently, though I'm sure this will evolve over time.

Choose a specific time to wake up at least five days a week.  I currently wake up at 6:15 am every day.  I am doing this seven days a week, but my rule is that I should wake up at 6:15 am at a minimum every Monday through Friday (five days).  Having a clear time to wake up (and an alarm set to make sure this happens) in and of itself develops discipline.  You also do your body a favor by giving it more regular sleeping habits.  (I do make sure to go to bed fairly early so that I am truly rested.)

Immediately upon waking up, I make my bed.  Always.  Even when I'm on vacation.  Even when I'm at a hotel and someone else will make the bed after I check out.  I have gone well over a year straight making my bed each and every day.  I track this little bed-making habit using the free web app TDP.me--which has the added benefit of gamifying my productivity

After making my bed, I immediately focus on doing something productive for one hour.  Each week, I choose what that productive activity will be beforehand.  Often it is the same activity for several weeks in a row.  For example, this week, my focus is on writing for at least one hour straight.  The way this looks is that I start by 6:20 am each morning (having woken up at 6:15 am) and I write for at least an hour straight. 

No Email, No News, No Joking Around!

Once I'm up and in discipline mode, I don't check email.  I don't send emails.  I don't read the news headlines.  I don't even make a cup of coffee.  (If I wake up before 6:15 am, but don't want to get to work yet, I do allow myself to read the news on my phone or clear out email.  But once 6:15 am hits, asleep or already awake, I am out of bed and focused on discipline for the next hour.)

The way I have chosen to measure discipline is that for one hour I have to do something productive.  This means I am creating something, not consuming something.  I have to be exerting productive effort, not passively absorbing someone else's effort. 

Here are a couple of examples of what I have written so far this week under my habit of discipline.  

The Biggest Mistake You May Be Making With Your Finances–Without Ever Realizing It

Personal Capital – The One FREE Portfolio Management Tool You Should Be Using In 2018

These posts were written (for the most part) between 6:20 a.m. and 7:20 a.m.

Discipline Means Productive Work

Honestly, my practice of making discipline its own habit is still a work in progress.  I am still defining what fits into the category of productive work.  For example, I would allow vigorous exercise into this hour-long discipline category, but not taking a walk--which is quite easy and something I like to do all day long.  I allow any kind of original writing, but not editing something I've already written.  If I were in coding mode, that would certainly count as well.

I also try to "pre-decide" the day or evening before what the topic is I will write about or what the other specific activity is that I will do.  That way, when I wake up, I'm simply executing on something productive rather than attempting to brainstorm. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of this habit of discipline is that when you know you have to really work and be productive when "the bell rings," you don't obsess about "should I do this, or should I do that."  You push perfectionism out of the way and get to work on something.  Anything. 

The Bed Makes Itself

There is a huge benefit to creating a habit of discipline.  Over time, the work gets easier and easier.  You build momentum.  Somehow there is less effort involved on your part because willpower becomes replaced by habit and momentum.  And this, my friend, is a miracle!  Effortless productivity.  A sort of holy grail.  After 447 days straight of making my bed right after waking up, the bed pretty much makes itself now. 

Creating a habit of discipline works wonders.  First, consistently producing something every day--something that takes effort--on a specific timeline gives you a sense of control and autonomy.  Second, you just get a lot done when you carve out a minimum of an hour.  (I should clarify that I don't usually only "produce" for an hour a day, but this is a great jumpstart.

Discipline Evokes Inspiration

I mentioned above that we need to focus on the habit of discipline as its own goal, especially for those times when we don't have clarity.  This is where things get interesting.  My sense is that the very practice of discipline--of taking action day in and day out--may well lead to the clarity of purpose that many seek. 

Perhaps the great British writer William Somerset Maugham was hinting at this very dynamic when he once wrote, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp.”  He also once said, "Imagination grows by exercise, and contrary to common belief, is more powerful in the mature than in the young."

So by developing the habit of discipline for its own sake, you may find the clarity and inspiration you were waiting on.

Make Discipline Your Keystone Habit

In closing, I want to again emphasize that this daily hour of discipline is as much about creating the habit of discipline as it is on the specific work product you are actually focused on in the moment.  Make discipline its own goal and practice.  You may find that this keystone habit makes everything easier--and even provides the inspiration and clarity you presently lack.

P.S.  This little post was written in the fulcrum of my morning discipline.  Between 6:18 a.m. and 7:47 a.m. (despite one irksome interruption!). 

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