In my work with women who want to play bigger in their lives and work, I often hear this:
“I want to make x change, (start a business, get in great shape, get my artwork out there in the world) but I have no self-discipline! I start working on it and just don’t stick with it.”
It’s easy to point the finger at “a lack of self-discipline.”
Our culture has told us that self-discipline is what will help us stay the course when the going gets tough. That there is some mysterious combination of commitment, willpower and drive that helps the worthy ones stick to their goals. The rest of us are left beating ourselves up for lacking self-discipline.
I think we are getting something very important wrong here.
Consider this: The original meaning of “discipline” was
to instruct, to train
It referred to situations when there was an instructor and disciples (the word “discipline” comes from the word “disciple”). There was a clear and absolute authority who had control over subordinates.
Somewhere along the way, this idea began to be applied within the self .
The idea was that one part of us could be the “instructor” authority figure over the rest, and discipline the rest of the self into orderly action.
No one checked with the reality of the human psyche to see if this was really the case.
When you are in a situation that requires so-called self-discipline, do you feel like one part of you has the clear authority of an instructor, and all those other parts – the fearful parts, the tired parts, the resistant parts, listen and obey like disciples?
So maybe it’s time to let go of the search for self-discipline.
There’s a piece of the idea that is worth holding on to. There is something important, something relevant, around the concept of discipline. Something like discipline is important: we need some ability to keep moving toward those aims to play bigger, to share our brilliance more fully in the world — even when a part of us is freaked out, trembling in fear. Even when this new way of doing things feels difficult, unfamiliar, way way way out of the comfort zone. When it just feels too hard.
If it’s not “self-discipline,” what is it?
In the past, when you’ve been able to stay motivated despite difficulties, when you’ve stuck with working toward something even when it was hard, what was it that helped you?
What helped? Supportive people? A routine that really worked for you? A clear vision of what you wanted to achieve?
You might even think, “well, it was self-discipline,” but what do you really mean by that? What are the ingredients of that? What actually allowed you to stay the course in the difficult moments?
Here are four of my favorite alternatives to “self-discipline” – other paths to get unstuck, recharged, and back into living our brilliance.
1. Set the right goals in the first place.
Goals that are actually tied to your dreams, your values, to what holds meaning for you. You can’t expect yourself to sustain motivation if your goals come from your inner critic, from a sense of “shoulds.” Ask yourself, or do some journaling about: are your goals coming from your heart, your deepest desires for your life? Or are they from your inner critic?
2. Deal with your fears.
Often, what looks like a lack of self-discipline or a drop in motivation is really fear taking hold. Fear of the unknown. Fear of change. Fear of sharing your brilliance in the world. See if you can become more aware of when you are feeling afraid, and use tools like these for dealing with your fears. You’ll need to do this again and again – fear will keep coming up.
3. Write it alllllllllll out.
Are you listening to the part of you that really hates the plan you’ve made to achieve this goal? Take our your journal and write for thirty minutes, putting down all your feelings about the goal and how you’ve been working on it. Here’s the tricky part: see if you can observe everything that you write with a spirit of welcoming and kindness – not judgment. It’s all okay. It will make a huge difference just to give those write out these feelings and to listen to them.
4. Design wise plans for action.
When I set a goal, sometimes I make unrealistic plans for how to get there. Like, “I’ll get in shape by going to the gym for 40 minutes a day for the rest of my life.” I actually expect that I should have the willpower to do this!
Think about what you want to achieve and then ask, “How can I make this fun? How can I make it meaningful?” Brainstorm about ways to achieve the goal that would truly feel fun and meaningful to you. Ask yourself, “What supports and sources of motivation would be really helpful to me?” “What awesome celebrations could I create to mark my milestones along the way and help me stay motivated?” Design thoughtful, realistic plans that are supportive to yourself.
You don’t need to find that ever-unfindable willpower. You don’t need to find an inner army marshal who can order around the rest of you. What you do need are:
- goals that reflect your values, your heart, your dreams
- wise plans for action that reflect what really works for you
- supports that set you up for success
- ways of listening to and dealing with the fears and emotions that will arise
All good news.
photo credit: VASANTH
Join the discussion 11 Comments
Tara, I whole-hearten sly agree with all the points you share here. I have had my own complex relationship with the word discipline over the years. I have found commitment resonates with both my heart and mind. The one additional element that I always add as an umbrella for my specific goals is an overarching intention… What is it that I am willing to practice more if in my life? Ex. I am willing to practice making choices that support my physical vitality. Then my goals ( the specific and measurable actions) I create for myself are in alignment with and support of my larger life intention. The one criteria for my intentions is they must be based in love and support the highest good for myself and others. Thank you for sparking this important discussion. 😉
I love your take on self-discipline, when I try to apply it, it truly feels like there’s one part of me pushing the other, while it should be a wholehartedly loving pull instead.
I think rather than self-discipline, what gets me through is value and worth. Is this something I strongly value? Is this worth it to me? A “no” to either of those questions make completing something very difficult.
Great points! I’d like to add one more: ensure balance and equity. I found the biggest obstacle to achieving my *own* dreams and goals was helping everyone else – family and friends – achieve theirs and having no time, energy, motivation (you name it) left for myself. How often do my painting and writing get set aside – yet again – to answer the desperate cries for help from others. More than self-discipline, I need resistance!
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This is a beautiful article. Tara’s discussion of self-discipline and whether it is actually possible for the human psyche removes a lot of guilt. It’s quite frustrating when the frightened parts don’t “obey” as we think they should!
I also like Sheilah’s comment about needing resistance more than self-discipline. For some reason, helping others seems to take precedence and taking the time for oneself brings on guilt.
Thank you for reminding me that I don’t need an inner drill instructor but an inner therapist. When I wanted to get my art into gallery shows, I (without knowing it) followed all of your suggestions. And I did achieve my goals. What I needed today was a your gentle reminders.
Tara, what you write does make so much sense…but I have a question. My 15 1/2 year old son, a 10th grader, lacks motivation and “self discipline”. Your words pertain to women, but do you have any advice on where to turn for my son? Just because he’s a teen ager and male, does that mean none of what you write pertains to him? Do we just need to keep pushing and punishing him through school and then watch him “sink or swim” when he’s 18 and trying to find his way as a young adult? I’m very worried about him and my heart breaks for him.
With Love ~ LeAnne
Omigosh you are brilliant. I needed this today. I don’t even know when it was published but I am so excited that I found your blog (not even sure how I found it!!)
P.S. I love, love, love your about page. The person you described growing up reminds me of the environment my little page is growing up in, and I hope she is also able to live in mindful, gracious ways.
Thank you for this post!
I can really relate to this post. So often I start something but become easily distracted.I find myself going off on a tangent and not completing what I had originally started.I began to blame myself for not being more self disciplined. Your post has really made me aware of other factors that can affect whether or not goals are achieved.It really has given me greater clarity and helped me to put things in perspective.
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