5 Observations to Improve Discipline

“Discipline equals freedom” – Jocko Willink

That bold statement by Jocko Willink on the Tribe of Mentors podcast resonated deeply with me and sent me on what is becoming a year-long journey to understand the meaning of discipline and better apply those principles in all areas of my life (not just productivity). Inspired by Gretchen Rubin’s podcast, Happier I set “Discipline” as my one-word theme of the year.

Throughout the past six months, I’ve been struck by five observations about discipline:

Discipline needs a positive reward

Discipline is inherently hard.  It’s the act of denying ourselves something now for future benefit.  Charles Duhigg shares that every habit has a reward that reinforces that habit in our brains. We can effectively change our habits and be more disciplined by being intentional with how we use those rewards.  My favorite example of this is the jar of chocolates Duhigg has on his desk that he can only eat from once he’s finished a weekly review.

Discipline can be measured and improved

During the GTD Summit, Marshall Goldsmith introduced the idea of a “life report card” that allows you to answer a series of daily questions designed to track and improve discipline.  This practice is crucial because, as Marshall says, “If I haven’t fixed it by myself by now, I’m not going to fix it by myself in the future.” Or, as Peter Drucker put it, “What gets measured gets managed”.  It’s easy for me to say or assume that I’m a disciplined person, but until I can accurately express that I’m succeeding and failing in my goals, I cannot make progress.

The way you measure your discipline matters

In the book Triggers, Goldsmith shares that there are two types of questions we can ask ourselves: Active Questions focus on what we can do to make a positive difference, while Passive Questions focus on what the world needs to do to make a positive difference for us.  Active Questions begin with “Did I do my best to…” and prevent us from blaming others when we fail to accomplish something that is important to us.

The reason why these questions work is that we have created a test for our lives that contains the following qualities:

  1. We write the question.  Unlike tests in school, we have full control over the questions we put in the test of our lives. 
  2. We write the answer. We know what the desired end goal is and how to achieve it.  This removes ambiguity and allows us to focus on the discipline to complete the next action in each of these goals
  3. We know it’s important. Since we have control of what goes into the test, we can set goals and discipline ourselves toward things that really matter to us. When we have some skin in the game, we’re more likely to care about the goal and work harder to achieve a positive outcome.
  4. All we have to do to make a high score is try. Throughout this journey I’ve found that, for me, a mixture of active and pass/fail questions has been most successful. For example the question, “Did I do my best to eat healthy and stay within my target caloric intake” has helped me to stay more aware of my decisions and be more motivated to achieve my goals, rather than punishing myself for times that are not completely in my control (e.g. family emergencies, work travel, etc.). Other goals, I found, were more effective for me as pass/fail questions (e.g. did I read my Bible today?).

I need to be reminded to be more disciplined

Every year, I follow an annual ritual inspired by Michael Hyatt of closing out the last year and setting SMART Goals for the new year.  I have learned through experience that if I don’t review these goals daily, I quickly forget them and make little progress.  To combat this, I taped my goals to my bathroom cupboard along with a vision board to inspire me daily toward accomplishment. 

In addition, I’ve found that the one habit I’ve struggled most with is remembering to track my habits. After a conversation with my father, Eric Mack, I decided to switch to the Productive habit tracking app as you can set regular reminders at certain intervals to complete your goals and have much more control over the goal cadence (e.g. complete this goal three times a week at any time).  These are some of the only notifications I have enabled on my phone and I’ve found a near immediate improvement in my discipline metrics as a result.

Sometimes discipline means saying no to good opportunities so we can be available for better ones

During the Summit, Thais Godinho made the comment that “you can do everything you want to do, but not at the same time”.  I have been convicted of this for some time.  I’m naturally curious and love learning and trying new things, but I’m not always great at clearing my plate whenever I try to explore something new.  This is something I’ve started working on this year, and hope to share my journey along the way.

Do you have any tips for being more disciplined?  If so, I’m all ears!  Leave a comment with your tip or observation below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “5 Observations to Improve Discipline

  1. Wendy, I have watched you accomplish great things over the past few years. This article inspires me, because I have seen the fruit you have been able to produce by being disciplined, both in your professional life and in your personal life. I am motivated to try the Productive habit tracking app both you and Eric Mack introduced to me.

  2. Wendy, the idea that discipline can be measured and and improved is challenging and inspiring. Most often I hear people say they aren’t disciplined or they want to become better disciplined at something. You’ve offered some useful ideas. Thanks for sharing!