There are all sorts of philosophies, books, and articles written that dance around the topic of discipline. Life hacks, tips and tricks, short cuts, scheduled regimens - everyone is trying to figure out quick and surefire ways to lead a more productive and successful life. I definitely don’t profess to be an expert on these topics by any means, but I do want to share with you my thoughts and experiences on what has worked for me, and what I’ve found success in.
First of all though, we need to define the difference between discipline and habits, because while they are entirely related, they’re not the same. In fact, I believe they’re two sides of the same coin.
Discipline is the ability to take action in accordance with a particular system of thought or belief. It is the ability to fight against one’s natural state of inertia and take action. It often is used interchangeably with will power, and tends to be associated with doing things that go against our natural selves.
For example, we associate discipline with the ability to refrain from eating that second slice of pie, or the act of choosing to go home instead of continuing on with your mates late into the wee hours of morning.
Habits on the other hand, are the actions that we take without much thought or intention. They are our body’s default actions, our programmed auto-responses to stimuli and situations. They are often overlooked and not thought about precisely because they are automatic, and our conscious mind therefore does not detect them.
I’ve read several great books on the topic - the two foremost authorities being “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, and “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. They both define habits as being a multi-part function. The cue prompts us to crave the thing in question, which causes us to respond to the craving and gain the reward for our action.
For example, after dinner (cue) we desire to end on a sweet note (crave) and therefore procure a dessert (response) which makes us feel satisfied (reward).
Leading a more productive life then, requires both discipline and good habits. It is not enough to rely on sheer force of will to make lasting changes in one’s life. Nor is it possible to build great habits without some semblance of discipline. We need both working in tandem to permanently affect our behaviors.
Both Duhigg and Clear propose means for tweaking that multi-part function to change our default behaviors. By changing the cue (ie avoiding the casino), changing our craving (ie learning to make a delicious yet healthy snack), changing our response (ie deliberately leaving your cash at home), or changing the reward (ie buying yourself a treat after working out), we can make lasting changes.
In order to tweak any of those parts of the function though, we require discipline.
Change tends to go something like this:
- You determine you wish to make a change in your life, one that is not currently a natural occurrence
- Your discipline allows you to overcome the natural inertia of it initially, and your zeal for the change propels you forward
- You tweak one or more of the habit function to incentivize the right behavior
- Your discipline allows you take the right action the first few times
- After a few times, the habit becomes solidified and you’ve changed your behavior
My boys, I wish nothing short of a rich and fulfilling life for you both, and I am convinced that the path to that is through actively and intentionally changing our behaviors to reflect the character that we wish to embody. Being productive, being successful, building deep connection, and having rich and meaningful experiences are all deeply connected to the character that we have. My prayer for you both is that you grow up to be men of great character, men that are continually seeking to learn and grow, and men that love, support, and encourage one another on this journey. I love you boys!