Print Friendly, PDF & Email

man drowning

Personal discipline: everybody wants it, most people think they have it (privately at least) and yet it remains a scarce and elusive prize for the vast majority.

Self discipline is the foundation of everything worthwhile in our personal development. Physical health requires discipline. Emotional stability requires discipline. Spiritual growth requires discipline. Building a great blog requires discipline. Financial peace requires discipline. [Fill in the blank with a goal or improvement you desire] requires discipline.

In this post I want to talk about what self discipline is and give you a  few practical steps to begin the process of developing personal discipline.

There is No Substitute for Discipline

It is popular today to promote and replace good old fashioned self discipline with gimmicks, feel-good “self” focus or fad driven motivational techniques. While all of these give a short term boost, none of them are lasting or effective. It’s much like steroid users in athletics… they get buffed up quick and enjoy the advantage, but in the long run it is dangerous, ineffective and counter-productive.

Discipline is the key to success personally, professionally and spiritually. Much to the chagrin of today’s culture, there is only one way to get discipline and that is by hard work, tough choices, sacrifice and time. I’ll come back to those in a few moments but first I want to share a parable with you.

It is an old parable the teaches what true desire is. This story has taken many forms but it goes something like this:

A student approaches a Teacher and declares, “I desire to learn from you”. The Teacher responds, “very well, follow me.” The Teacher leads the student to the ocean and motions for him to follow into the water.

When they are about chest deep in the water, the Teacher grabs the student and forces his head underwater. At first, the student is calm, thinking, “this is just part of some test, he will let me up in moment and I will impress him”. After a minute passes the Student begins to worry and struggle. Soon he is desperately trying to surface and becomes frantic.

The Teacher holds the student under the water to the point where the struggling ceases and the student almost passes out. Upon releasing him, the student angrily gasping for air shouts, “Are you crazy! You almost drowned me!”.

The Teacher looks calmly into his eyes and says, “when you desire to learn from me, as much as you desired to get a breath, then return, and I will teach you”.

A drowning man will do ANYTHING necessary to get air. True desire is equal only to what you will do (discipline) to get the object of that desire.

A person may exclaim a desire (“I want to be debt free”; “I want to lose weight”; “I really want to write on blog more consistently”), but until that person is willing to do WHATEVER it takes, it is a mere statement of sentiment, not true desire.

Desire is the seed, the foundation, the fuel of discipline. Our discipline will parallel the degree and intensity of our true desire (as opposed to a casual emotional want).

Desire = Discipline

The quality and authenticity of any desire you may have is only as genuine and sincere as what you are willing to do to get it (what we call self discipline).

  • What will you give up?
  • What will you re-prioritize?
  • What will you suffer?
  • How will you spend your time and money?
  • What actual hard choices are you willing to make to get that desire?

Whatever those choices are; whatever discipline you are willing to exercise… that is the genuine measurement of your desire, and that desire becomes the seed, the life, the bedrock of developing your personal discipline.

If you desire to grow, improve and develop personally, emotionally and spiritually, what are you actually going to do to (discipline) to see that desire fulfilled?

Practical Steps to Develop Self Discipline

So what? How do you start developing personal discipline? Do you flog yourself? Eat rice and beans? Live a monks life?  No. In fact, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. I’ll give you a few practical things to kickstart your effort:

  • Small Daily Changes
    • Start making changes each day… small changes, effective changes. I’m routinely asked “what is the secret to self improvement?” and I always give the same answer: find out what is right, and change your life to fit.  You can’t do this all at once but each day you can make small changes: get up :15 minutes earlier, choose to eat one healthy meal, set aside :10 minutes to read, block out uninterrupted time for spiritual growth, allocate time for family.
    • You can examine every part of your life and make a list of small changes you can begin to implement. Don’t try to make them all in one day. Spread them out. Make one or two changes a day, or even a week. You have to be realistic or you’ll simply burn out.
  • Give Up Something
    • We live in a culture where immediate self gratification is the holy grail. This ingrained mindset is poison to self discipline. Giving up something, even temporarily, is a practical and powerful way to get the feeling of discipline and begin developing it.
    • Examples: if you eat too much, determine to give up some type of food or portion of food for a period of time. Give up a TV show or an amount of viewing hours. Give up some sleep and wake up early to exercise or work on spiritual growth.
    • It doesn’t matter what it is. Find something to give up and choose to give up all or a portion of it for a period of time.  (Note: don’t give up the truly important or hard things just because this is a perfect excuse to get out of it!)
  • Identify Lack of Discipline
    • This is a hard one. You need to ask your spouse or a close friend to honestly tell you an area that you are undisciplined about. It won’t be fun. Be prepared NOT to be defensive. You asked for their help.Once they help you identify an area, don’t go overboard. You aren’t going to fix 20 years of lazy habits in one day. You aren’t going to start exercising, spend an hour reading the Bible, and start to post three times a day on your blog…. all in one shot.
    • Pick one thing. Decide on a VERY achievable goal so that you can experience the feeling of success and motivation.  Work on one specific area and don’t be concerned about all the other things you need to work on. Build your “discipline muscles” each day and you’ll be able to tackle bigger needs down the road.

You didn’t get undisciplined in one day and you aren’t going to fix it in two.

If you had nothing but those three suggestions for the rest of your life, they are MORE than enough, even if you are somewhat disciplined already. You could take this simple list of three and repeat them over and over with remarkable results.

Let me close re-emphasizing what I started out with and remind you WHY self-discipline is important: Self discipline is the foundation of everything worthwhile in our personal development…  Desire = Discipline.