At the moment, I’m feeling overwhelmed, torn in many different directions, and it occurs to me that I need to implement more discipline in my life. But the word creates mixed emotions for me.
Whenever I hear the word “discipline,” I think of being in elementary school and the strict teachers disciplining us kids.
In hindsight, I’m thankful for the experience (I hated it as a kid) because it instilled in me a strong sense of personal accountability. I knew what was expected of me, and I also knew the consequences of not following through on those expectations.
Later, when I started my first job in advertising at BBDO in New York, I saw how important discipline was in the context of work. Agency reports had to be written in a very specific way. Protocols needed to be followed. Brand guidelines needed to be upheld. Discipline created the space for and supported creativity (which is what we were selling at the time).
When I was in my 20s and early 30s in New York, I started running marathons—which required an enormous amount of discipline. This inherently influenced the way I treated my work, which also influenced the way I structured my life. I needed to wake up at a certain hour in order to get my morning run in. I needed to leave the office by a certain time in order to get home to take care of myself and prepare for the next morning. And so while the majority of the conversation today about productivity is focused on time hacking or other “tricks” to get more done, faster, discipline needs to be a constant in one’s life in order to be successful.
If we lack discipline in one area of our lives, chances are, we lack discipline in other areas as well.
That said, I don’t believe the best way to live life is to structure yourself out of serendipity. There’s a balance. So if you’re wondering how you can practice discipline in your everyday routine, here are a few small but effective ways to develop the skill.
1. Start by being disciplined about something you love
It’s much easier to get yourself to show up for things you genuinely care about than to force yourself to participate in something you don’t.
For example, one way I practice discipline in my daily life is with my dance classes. I truly love showing up, I love how an hour of dancing makes me feel. I am choosing to spend my time this way. I’m rarely tempted to schedule other things over this time because I love it so much, and I know that showing up is a commitment to myself. And since I love what I’m showing up for, it’s easier to keep that promise.
The reason I encourage you to start “practicing discipline” with something you love is that it will help you notice where you’re overextending yourself in your life. If every week, you are having to convince yourself to keep that commitment over other things, then you might be signing yourself up for too much. And if you’re over-committing, chances are, you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed. And if you’re stressed and overwhelmed, you aren’t going to be able to settle into an effective daily and weekly routine.
2. Remove more than you add
If you want to create simplicity in your life, you must remove more than you add.
Whenever we feel like we should be doing more, we tend to think the answer is to “do” more. Productivity hacks, smarter To-Do lists, etc., all point in the direction of “doing,” when in reality, efficiency is created by removing: removing obligations, removing commitments, removing unnecessary projects, and so on.
If we constantly find ourselves in a place where we set goals but aren’t able to follow through and achieve them, chances are, we don’t just have a discipline problem. We have a “busy” problem. We’re trying to do too much—more than any human is capable of doing—which results in a feeling that we’re letting ourselves down.
Before we can practice discipline in our daily lives, we need to make sure we’re starting with a “to do” list.
3. Learn which activities require intense discipline and which require none at all
For me personally, the ideal scenario is cultivating discipline around the things that need it, and then having a total lack of discipline in other areas of my life—which creates a sort of creative flow and space for the unexpected.
So discipline in work, working out, and other things that are necessary each day allows room for more creativity and fluidity in other areas. Discipline around scheduling means we can officially schedule out personal time or social time or time to “just be,” which is where there might be some magic.
Balancing in extremes.
The real purpose of discipline is to ensure that when you are focused on something, you are 100% present. Once that activity is done, however, you should give yourself some freedom. Be open to new possibilities. Let your mind wander. Create the structure for unstructured time.
4. Create routines around committed disciplines
Your daily workout, your weekly appointment with your therapist, your monthly dinner, or Zoom catch-up with friends—all of these mile markers can be helpful for cultivating discipline.
Let’s call these “committed disciplines.”
These are the things in our schedules that are ingrained in our everyday habits and natural routines. Knowing what time you go to the gym every day, for example, makes it easier to know what other pockets of your day you can take advantage of. Or knowing that every Saturday at 11:00 a.m. you have an art class you love taking means you have a few hours in the morning and the entire rest of the afternoon that day to be disciplined in other ways.
The key is to always be asking yourself, “Am I being too rigid, too disciplined with my time? Or am I not being disciplined enough?”
Having entire days with nothing scheduled isn’t the answer. Neither is having every minute of your day pre-planned.
Like everything, it’s a balance, and we learn what the right balance is by finding extremes and eventually landing somewhere in the middle.
Amy Stanton is the founder and CEO of Stanton & Company and coauthor of The Feminine Revolution.