In my previous post, I talked about the importance of discipline in the Christian life. This week, I want to give you some tips to help build up discipline. These will, of course, require some discipline to use and stick with them, but using tools and systems can stack the deck in your favor and make it easier to leverage a little discipline to create a more disciplined life over time.
- Focus on building habits, not gritting it out.
It’s easy to think of discipline as just a matter of having grit, being tougher than the toughest problems. While it’s not necessarily bad to go out and do the toughest thing you can, the psychological cost of this makes it hard to stick with, and thus not a great place to start. It’s much more effective to have small, consistent gains over time than to do something super tough one day and then slack off for a week. Also, once a habit is formed it will reduce the difficulty of doing whatever the habit is, making it require less discipline, and help you to build a pattern of discipline that will make it easier to exercise discipline overall.
- Wake up at a consistent time, even on weekends.
This is a great habit to start with, because it provides a solid foundation, and is simple to execute. Simply get an obnoxious alarm clock, set it for your wake-up time, and put the clock where you’ll have to get out of bed to turn it off. When it goes off, don’t go back to bed, even when you’re tired. Starting the day by exercising discipline instead of doing what feels nice will help to start you on the right path for the day.
- Have a morning routine.
This helps with the previous point, in that it gives you something to do instead of just going back to bed. It can also be a great time to get important things done before you get distracted by the demands of the day. Having a morning routine that gets stuff done, even little stuff like making the bed, helps to get you into an active frame of mind where you’re taking initiative to do stuff, rather than coasting through the day just doing whatever feels good.
- Take a cold shower.
This is a great part of a morning routine, because it forces you to do something unpleasant that has immediate benefits, in the form of feeling immediately more awake. Best of all, it’s not super difficult to do and it only takes a few minutes.
- Plan your day.
It’s much easier to exercise discipline when you have something to exercise it on. By planning the next day’s activities ahead of time, you have time to prepare yourself, and you make it harder to make excuses, which is an important part of being disciplined. It also gives you something to exercise discipline on. I find it helpful to have the day’s list of tasks somewhere that I can’t avoid seeing it, so I don’t conveniently ‘forget’ to do something when I’m feeling lazy.
- Build in incentives.
The best book on psychology I ever read was not written by a psychologist, but an economist. In his book Knowledge and Decisions, Thomas Sowell explains how people are motivated to act based on rationally considering the incentive structure they operate in. We can use this in building discipline by building in tasks that are difficult or inconvenient, but result in tangible benefits. An example of this would be making the bed. It’s an inconvenience, but there is an immediate, if small, benefit in having a freshly made bed. The same can be said of decluttering a shelf or desk, sweeping a dirty floor, or polishing a sword that’s needed it for a while. Okay, maybe that last one doesn’t apply to most people, but the point still stands. Humans, by nature, don’t typically do things we don’t find rewarding in some way.Thus, if we build in an incentive to the activities that build discipline, especially early on, we can incentivize ourselves to build discipline, making it less difficult to force ourselves to do what we need to do. Especially early on, incentives can help to get the ball rolling on living a disciplined life.
- Push through the difficulty spike
Doing hard things isn’t fun and, as anyone who’s made a New Year’s resolution can tell you, your motivation will run out and you’ll want to quit. This is what most people do; once they lose motivation, they give up because it suddenly and unexpectedly feels harder. This is also where you’ll really start to build discipline, by pushing through when your routine suddenly seems a lot harder for no apparent reason. This is where starting small with incentives that are immediately realized can help, because it requires less willpower to push through a few minutes of difficulty to get the reward, and once you’ve done that, it becomes a tiny bit easier to do it the next day. This is what makes building difficulty into your daily routine so good for building discipline; you’ll run out of motivation, and suddenly what you were doing will seem too hard, or too trivial, and you’ll be tempted to skip it, just this once. But by not skipping it, you’re exercising discipline, and by exercising discipline in the same area every day, you’re building it faster, until the perceived difficulty of what you were doing suddenly drops, because you’ve built the discipline to confront it every day.
- Have a reason to be disciplined
Discipline for discipline’s sake is going to be hard, if not impossible, to keep up. If you make discipline its own goal, you won’t have an external reason not to give up building discipline when it gets hard. This reason can be just about anything that isn’t discipline itself. You might want to build discipline to be more productive, or because you’re having trouble meeting your goals, or because you want to rise above mediocrity. Having an achievable goal to work towards is just adding an incentive on a longer time-scale, which will give you a reason to put aside the excuses and do what you need to do.
- Don’t give up when you fail
No matter how motivated you are, you will have off days. You’ll have days when you hit the snooze button, don’t follow your plan, and succumb to the siren song of procrastination. It happens. What matters is what you do when you realize it’s happening. The ever present temptation is to write off the day or even the week as wasted, and promise to do better tomorrow, or next week. This attitude won’t help to foster discipline at all, but rather the opposite. Instead, what you need to do when you realize you’re letting your discipline slip, is to get back on track as best you can. You can’t get the time back, but you can put the phone down and get back on task. It takes discipline to stop being lazy, and exercising discipline builds discipline.
- Don’t count on autopilot
Discipline isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something you do. No matter how disciplined you are, it will always require a conscious choice to do stuff you don’t want to do. Discipline makes it easier to do what you don’t want to, but you still have to make the choice, or it will never happen. A disciplined life is one of constant intentional decision making. This is what makes it such a powerful tool for accomplishing your goals and getting more out of life, even when it’s difficult.
There you have it, ten tips to help you foster discipline in your life. Discipline is one of the best and most basic tools for living a more God-honoring life. It’s useful for performing Christian duties like going to church when you don’t feel like getting out of bed, serving other believers, and fighting against temptation.These tips have helped me, and I hope they’ll help you too.
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