Six Tips to Building Raw Discipline This Year

January is a month when millions of people decide to become more disciplined. We commit to losing weight, focusing better, eating right, exercising more, etc. etc. Of course, those resolutions fade by March for most of us. Ugh.

Our problem is that most of us misunderstand the art of being disciplined.

One of my favorite Habitudes® images is called “The Discipline Bridge.” It teaches us that wherever we want to go in life, we’ll likely have to cross a “bridge” called discipline. It’s how goals get achieved. We probably won’t win the lottery. Or, get lucky at an invention. There’s no such thing as an overnight success.

Serena Williams looks like a natural on the tennis court. Stephen Curry looks like a natural on the basketball court. But both had to develop their talent. In the words of my long-time mentor John Maxwell, “Talent is never enough.” They’ve spent untold hours cultivating discipline in their craft to play at their current level. In fact, it would be difficult for Serena Williams to make a bad tennis shot. She would have to think about it and try hard to do so. Why? Because she’s crossed the “discipline bridge” in the game of tennis. She’s stroked that ball thousands of times until it’s become muscle memory. Now, she can cross that bridge without even thinking.

Understanding How Discipline Is Cultivated


I’ve found too many people end up saying, “Well, I’m just not a disciplined person.” And they give up on a goal. May I suggest that they (and we) need to understand discipline better in order to experience it more consistently? Let me explain.

Raw discipline is challenging to build but satisfying once it’s built. In fact, once you become a disciplined person in one area, you’ll find the “bridge” can be built in a number of areas in your life. But beware. It’s easy to confuse other traits with it.

Discipline Is Easiest to Develop in the Areas of:

1. Our Strengths

As a kid, I watched Pete Rose play baseball. They called him “Charlie Hustle.” He was very disciplined on the baseball field. He played in 17 all-star games at five positions in the major leagues, and he is the all-time MLB leader in hits (4,256), games played (3,562) and at-bats (14,053). Yet, Pete Rose is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame today. Why? His discipline was categorical. He was disciplined in baseball, but not in life. His gambling problem remained an addiction years after he left the game. It is easy to appear disciplined in an area of strength, but beware of assuming you’ve become a disciplined person. The key is to transfer the habits you’ve created in that category to others in which you have little talent or strength.

2. Our Concerns

When I’m operating in a subject I’m deeply concerned about, I find it easier to cultivate discipline. For instance, I have a keen interest in developing young leaders. I don’t necessarily claim I am the best ever at it, but my concern for this need is so great, I’ve developed lots of expertise on it. I have studied, I have practiced, I have observed, I have surveyed and I have written on the topic now for more than the proverbial “10,000 hours” that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book, Outliers. It’s been a central issue for me for over thirty years. When I reflect on the issue, I see that my discipline emerged out of concern more than anything else. It didn’t feel like work or like discipline. I felt compelled to pursue it.

3. Our Standards

This one is subtle but very real. People with certain temperaments have very high standards of excellence. Some of them are so high, they drive others crazy. These high standards are good, but can masquerade as raw discipline. For example, I know people who have such high expectations for perfection or performance, it drives them to . . . well, perform well. (Ever met a neat freak?) Yet, many are undisciplined in other critical areas they don’t find appealing. Why? It’s their standard of excellence that drove them to perform well; but without a standard they can’t seem to kindle any discipline or ambition to get going. At times the standard works against them. They feel if they can’t be “excellent” at something—then why bother to even get started?

4. Our Interests

It is easy for me to confuse the ambition I feel for an area of interest, with discipline. In other words, sometimes it’s our passion at work, not our discipline. For instance, my son has been challenged to cultivate discipline or ambition in certain areas of his new career as a young professional. But give him an assignment in screen writing or story telling or even creating environments to convey a message—and you’ll be amazed at how disciplined he is. It almost seems like second nature. The moment my wife and I gave him permission to turn one of the rooms in our house into a media room, he was on it in a flash, creating an inviting atmosphere. His girlfriend calls it “The Curtain Principle,” because he even hung curtains within an hour.

Six Tips to Building Raw Discipline

  1. Beware of categorical discipline. Don’t confuse any of the areas mentioned above with discipline.
  2. Read extensively on a subject before setting a goal. Build a concern before a discipline.
  3. Start with a discipline in a strength area, and begin those habits in other areas.
  4. Watch out for perfectionism. Learn to live with being in a process of growth.
  5. Cultivate new habits by placing them next to established ones in your schedule.
  6. Begin small; celebrate progress. Putting wins under your belt builds momentum.

As you begin this year, be wise as you set goals and build personal disciplines. It’s been said: “Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all. Talent without discipline is like an octopus on roller skates. There’s plenty of movement, but you never know if it’s going to be forward, backwards, or sideways.”

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Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes

Habitudes helps students and young team members:

  • Break out of the herd mentality to influence others in positive ways.
  • Take initiative and set the pace for other teammates.
  • Overcome complex problems through creative persistence.
  • Capitalize on personal strengths to be career-ready upon graduation.

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Six Tips to Building Raw Discipline This Year