An aspiring author friend recently wrote me a plaintive note.
“Discipline has been a big topic on my mind lately,” she said. “I’ve seen a pattern recently of starting something and not finishing the project and I’m fearful this is what will become of my book.”
There are plenty of people more productive than I am, including author and Wharton professor Adam Grant, whom I interviewed for Forbes. But I have managed to publish a book while running a consulting business, and for the past several years have blogged at least two or three times a week.
I like my work, but like most humans, I like reading in bed and watching Downton Abbey a lot more, so writing and consulting are indeed acts of self-discipline. Here’s my recipe for building more discipline into your own life.
It’s always hard to make yourself do something you don’t feel like doing. But most of the things that advance our careers fall into that category.
I’ve found I can be more disciplined if I give myself a choice of activities, which is possible if there’s enough lead time and you’re not hard up against a deadline. Writing a blog post may feel challenging, but if I’m choosing that consciously instead of the other “must do” activities on my list (compiling my taxes, writing a report, editing a video), it feels more fun and exciting. Try to create a mix of activities that you can choose from.
One misunderstanding about self-discipline is the idea that you can constantly run on all cylinders. Even the most productive people have to take breaks, and (like runners) can only sprint periodically, while resting up in between.
As consultant Tony Schwartz has written, humans perform best when we “manage our energy” and essentially do interval training with work, humming away for 90 minutes and then taking a quick break to rest and refocus. It’s a lot easier to be disciplined when you don’t have to do it all the time.
Baking is a mysterious process, transforming a gloopy mess into glorious soufflés and hearty loaves of bread. When it comes to self-discipline, we need to create a similar chemical reaction in our own lives.
Periodically, subject yourself to “high heat” and see what emerges. Maybe it’s a writers’ retreat where you go away and focus intensively. Maybe it’s simply an afternoon in a café, where you pledge not to leave for the day until you get that report done (one of my favorite tricks). Maybe you can organize a group of like-minded friends into an accountability group, reporting monthly and keeping each other on track.
Whatever your preferred method, you need to put enough time, heat, and energy into your project of choice so you can begin to see results. Otherwise, it’ll forever be a puddle of dough and not the elegant final creation you’re seeking.
What’s your recipe for success? How do you hone your self-discipline?