Updated: Jun 16
What is your reaction when you hear the word “discipline”? Do you cringe or do you feel safe? Do you want to rebel or do you feel a sense of comfort?
I heard the phrase “self-discipline” used last week and I found myself having a visceral reaction to the word. It sent me down a path of unpacking, more unpacking then I’ve done since I moved into my house. What exactly do we mean by ‘discipline’? Is discipline unquestionably virtuous? And if so, why do I feel such a strong need to rebel against it?
Let’s start by defining discipline. Dictionary.com has blessed us with 12 definitions, 9 noun and, 3 verb. I’m taking the liberty of picking the definitions that are most applicable here.
Discipline (noun): activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training: A daily stint at the typewriter is excellent discipline for a writer.
Sounds good right? But wait, check out the next definition:
Discipline (noun) punishment inflicted by way of correction and training.
Yikes! Punishment?! To be clear, that’s not the definition people are using when they talk about self-discipline BUT having an alternate definition for the word that is so negative impacts its connotation. When someone says ‘discipline’ somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m thinking ‘punishment’.
Thesaurus.com gives the following antonyms for the word “discipline”: agitation, ignorance, chaos, confusion, negligence. That’s pretty harsh. Can we create a better polarity for the other side of discipline? How about ‘creative flow’?
Let’s unpack some of the other connotations of the word “discipline”, and then we’ll dive into when discipline can be helpful and when it can be harmful.
A NEW DEFINITION
Because I was unsatisfied with the definitions out there for discipline, I’m working through creating a new definition. Like Brené Brown says “if there’s not a good definition, we can go make one.” Let’s go make one...
I propose this new definition for the word discipline, in our context.
Discipline (noun): Simple guidelines that define a boundary to support commitment and enable creative flow.
WHAT IS DISCIPLINE, EXACTLY?
Does Discipline imply consistency? I had this feeling that in order to qualify as disciplined, I would have to follow a routine from now until forever. I am not a routine-type person so the idea of routine really turned me off. When I let go of the idea of having to do something consistently, more seemed possible. I can pull out some discipline when I need it, and let it go when it’s no longer serving me. A friend gave me this example. When she’s in-between projects, she is very disciplined with planning time and tasks to keep herself focused on what’s next. When the next project emerges, she drops the planning because the work keeps her on track. She had been beating herself up about not sticking with the daily planning discipline until she realized that the discipline was no longer needed, and she could pull it back in when she needed it.
Discipline as a tool in the toolbox, for use when necessary, and put back in the box after it’s done its job.
Is Discipline prescriptive? I grappled with the questions of prescriptiveness because I don’t like to be told what to do, even if I’m the one telling myself what to do. The simple answer is no, discipline doesn’t have to be prescriptive. The dictionary describes discipline as a “regimen” but it doesn’t specify the nature of the regimen. Discipline can be prescriptive if that's what you need, but it can also be a container. For example, I might be disciplined in taking 30 minutes in the morning to do some kind of physical movement, without the prescription of 20 push-ups, 30 sit-ups, and a 2-mile run.
Discipline is a container to hold your commitment, not a prescription to commit to.
Does Discipline mean willpower or drive? I have a ton of willpower and drive, but I don’t like discipline. Is this a paradox or can both things be true? You can absolutely have willpower, grit, drive, ambition and tenacity, without discipline. My little test for this is knowing that I do hard things without a reminder to do hard things. Where I think discipline can help is by channeling your willpower in productive ways. We all know really driven people that are scattershot, diluting their energy.
Discipline can channel willpower into productive flow. Discipline won’t give you willpower.
Does Discipline mean doing something you don’t want to do? Along the same lines as willpower, is discipline a way to make yourself do something you don’t want to do? Discipline is one way, it’s not the only way, there are other ways. I personally find that if I try to make myself do something, it works short term, but not long term. If I work on uncovering my resistance, it’s a lot more sustainable. I ask myself, “Why am I making myself do something I don’t want to do? And why don’t I want to do it?”
Discipline can spark short-term action to do things you don’t want to do but know you should.
When Discipline is lacking, do we fall into disarray? The big fear is that if we don’t have discipline, we’ll just fall into slothfulness, sitting on the sofa all day eating potato chips and bon-bons. If this is, in fact, the case, it might be, I’d suggest there’s something going on beyond lack of discipline.
If dropping discipline will lead to everything falling apart, get curious about why that is.
Does Discipline block creative flow? Well designed discipline should enable creative flow. If discipline is too cumbersome, or too restrictive, or even if it’s too open, it can block creative flow. When discipline causes more focus on the discipline than the creativity, it starts to work against itself. I tend to check in with my own discipline and ask myself if it’s helping me achieve a flow state. And I always have to be careful not to fool myself with excuses.
Sanity-check your discipline to make sure it’s serving you, and you are not serving it.
Is Self-Discipline different from Team/Organizational Discipline? I find it intuitive for groups to need discipline but less intuitive for individuals. With groups we need to get everyone on the same page, coordinated, so some discipline seems to make sense. With an individual, it’s not as clear. When I go back to the proposed definition, “simple guidelines that define a boundary to support commitment and enable creative flow”, it applies to both individuals and teams. The difference is in implementation; with teams, it’s about interaction with each other, and with an individual it’s about how we manage the interaction between different parts of ourselves.
When you boil it down, individual and team discipline is the same, but it might look different on the outside.
What’s the difference between structure and discipline? I think of it like this; discipline is a commitment and structure is the container that holds that commitment. Structure creates a boundary, a space to create within, it keeps you from getting lost in distraction. Discipline connotes more control, commitment to staying within the structure, following the rules.
Discipline is a commitment and structure is the container that holds that commitment.
Does Discipline drive success? Ah here’s the big question. Discipline is not the driver, it’s not responsible for success, but it can help enable it. If you think of it like personal strategy and execution, discipline can help with the execution. But discipline itself is not a strategy. And here’s where it gets a little meta; you can use discipline to create a container for building a strategy, but my hypothesis is that you can’t have a disciplined strategy. My reasoning is that a strategy requires too much liminal thinking to be disciplined.
Discipline can help you achieve success, but it doesn’t drive it.
Does Discipline exist only in the eye of the beholder? When people ask me how I’m so disciplined to go to the gym every day or read so many books. My answer is “I’m not disciplined, I enjoy reading and (sometimes) physical movement.” I have a hypothesis that sometimes discipline is a way of assigning meaning to behavior in hindsight. We can misattribute behavior and miss the true driver of the behavior. My dear husband proclaimed one day that he lost 10 lbs. simply by eating less. When I tried eating less, I was really hungry and more prone to binging. What I found out later is that the doctor had increased the dosage of my husband’s thyroid medication, which in turn had made him less hungry. There are thousands of books written by people who misattribute their success to discipline. These books are read by many hopeful people who try to emulate the behavior using discipline, but fail to achieve the same results.
When you adopt someone else’s discipline, be aware that you may be adopting the behaviors rather than the cause.
Is Discipline a Human Construct?
All this talk about discipline got me wondering, did we humans invent discipline or does it exist in nature? I don’t know the answer, but here are some thoughts from colleagues I’ve asked:
Discipline shows up in nature as structure. The bend in a river, fractal patterns, a beaver’s dam, are all example of nature’s discipline.
It’s an artificial human construct that suppresses our true humanity. We need to let go of discipline to uncover our true creativity.
Clear as mud. What do you think?
WHEN CAN DISCIPLINE HELP AND WHEN DOES IT HARM?
If we view discipline and flow as polarities, seemingly opposite but potentially synergistic, we can uncover our hopes and fears for both.
When we are able to hold both discipline and flow in service to each other, discipline works really well. When the fears continue to butt heads, we fall into a downward spiral.
Discipline is helpful as a container. Discipline is harmful when it seeps into the container.
When discipline serves as a container for flow, it can really help. However, when discipline starts to seep into the container, that’s when it obstructs the flow. Let’s take an example from the Agile world of Scrum, the ever-popular 15-minute daily standup. The 15-minute daily standup is a great way for a team to connect and make sure nothing gets too far off track. It works great when teams set a disciplined time and location to meet, and maybe agree on the scope of the discussion, ‘what's the most important focus today, what’s could get in our way?’ That sets a container, and within that container, the team talks and collaborates. The discipline seeps into the container when teams go around the room asking 3 questions, “what did you do yesterday, what are you going to do today and what’s blocking you?” This discipline, which is immensely popular for some reason, gets inside the creative container and creativity and blocks the flow. The questions are too restrictive, the format is too siloed, and collaboration is hampered.
Discipline is helpful when it eases entry into the task. Discipline is harmful when it forces something that doesn’t want to happen.
When discipline helps us get something done and reduces friction, it can really serve us. But when it forces us to do something that really shouldn’t happen, it’s no longer serving. A simple example of this is templates, let’s say MS Word templates to be specific. If I can use a template that gives me nice fonts, page number, footer, and lays everything out nicely so I can just start typing my document, that really helps me. But if I use a template that requires me to fill out a bunch of options first, and then restricts me from inserting images, and won’t let me change the font, this template is now forcing me into a format that doesn’t fit my work.
Another example is exercise. When I have a workout class that I know I like, I go to every Tuesday, I know the people, it’s easy to just show up. When I find myself continuing to go to the class even if I’m injured or sick, the discipline is forcing something that doesn’t want to happen.
Discipline is helpful when it reminds us to do hard things. Discipline is harmful when it covers up the underlying resistance.
Discipline can be a great way to hold ourselves accountable. We need to do something but we know it’s hard, discipline can keep us on track. But when we try and use discipline to substitute for addressing the underlying problem, it can be harmful, or at best, not helpful. Let’s use the dieting example. (Diet and exercise, hmmm is it swimsuit season?) If your big diet problem is that you don’t plan well and then you come home tired and order takeout, a little discipline could really help you plan healthier meals, and prep them so that when you’re hungry and tired a healthy meal is there for you. If, on the other hand, your problem is deeper, and we all know what I’m talking about, then until you wrestle down those demons, no diet’s gonna help you. Oh, it will help for a little while, but the demon card beats discipline card, every hand.
What’s your relationship to discipline? Do you rebel or rely on it? Where do you need more? Where do you need less? Is anything about Discipline keeping you up at night? We’d love to hear from you!