My Love Affair with Discipline

(Ooh! Sounds kinky, don’t it?)


I’m writing my new book, and the concept of discipline is a central theme.

Self-discipline, as most people envision it, is a cross between the class bully and the tattling teacher’s pet.

Discipline is no fun, goes the thinking. It ruins good times. It kills creativity and spontenaity. It makes you stiff, uptight, and probably jealous of the happiness of others.

A little discipline is alright, I guess. Turn in your work on time, don’t spend all your money, don’t be late, drive safely. But don’t, like, kill yourself doing it. Life is short!

I don’t have much of an argument with this, actually. In examples like that, “discipline” is sheepskin coat for perfectionism, which is nothing more than the effort to be demonstrably worthy of esteem.

Discipline is the Mindful Practice of Focussed Effort

But I still love the word discipline. For me, it brings up the vision of a dojo, of a person kneeling on a mat in a gi, meditating on the nature of water and preparing, once again, to strive for a perfect control over body and mind.

To me, discipline implies that the effort is its own reward. You’ll never get to a point of perfect discipline, in the same way that you’ll never get to perfect satisfaction or perfect happiness.

Discipline is Not Just a Means To an End

Most troubling to me is when I talk to people for whom discipline is a means to an end: “I just have to go hard for a few more years, get some experience, it’ll be tough man, but it’ll all work out.” Hmm. Something’s not quite right here.

The first assumption is that it will be hard work in the short run, but after a while you’ll be able to slack off. There’s a conflation issue here: Working hard is not the same as “the mindful practice of focussed effort.”

When I turned twenty-four, I realized there was no way I wanted to be working as hard as I was for the rest of my life. But I took a look at my trajectory, and naturally, doing what I was doing would continue to get me the same result. So I realized I had to work smarter, not harder.

It’s funny that it’s called “not harder”, because working smart, in our culture, is a really fucking tough row to hoe. You’re getting undermined at every turn. People denigrate your results because you didn’t put in the hours they did. If you did this good a job in 10 hours, why didn’t you put in 20 and make it twice as good? There’s continual pressure to put in “just a little more time,” or “do just a little more” when in reality, a little more time, or a few more non-essentials, is not only not going to help, it’s going to actively hinder your process. Why? because your mind actually uses the white space that free time provides to learn better and think more creatively.

The second point is that discipline is a life-long effort. The reason it’s lifelong is because there’s a basic human drive towards security, comfort and safety.

The means that it will require persistent effort, every day of your life, or you will inevitably sink back to sea level, with sea level being defined as doing well-defined work, for a well defined wage, deeply in denial about the probability of change and the mechanics of entropy. Just saying…

“Become who you are.” Nietzsche

But discipline doesn’t mean being a hard-case. Necessarily, at least. The nature of water, remember? Infinitely adaptable.

Who do you want to be, really? A good father, a passionate defender, a true person of integrity?

A luminary in your field? Stylish? Serene? Down-to-earth? An adventurer? An iconoclast?

I don’t mean the sort of airy-fairy “I want legs like Angelina Jolie, as wealthy and connected as Arianna Huffington and as respected as Steve Jobs.”

No. I mean, who are you, really?

What are you capable of, profound or petty, bold or meek?

And what is the best, most distilled version of you, each brilliant facet lovingly carved and polished, each flaw seemingly designed for the sole purpose of adding character?

Whatever it is, get clear on it. Carry an image of it in your head, like a hologram, a skin that you’ll someday embody.

Every choice you make does one of two things: It either brings you closer, or further away from that hologram of who you want to be.

And that’s where discipline comes in. Without it, you’ll be the most flat, vapid, lackluster version of yourself.

But it requires you to overcome both that basic drive towards comfort and the deadly pull of inertia.

Discipline is needed in even the mundane decisions of the day. It’s me going to bed at my bedtime every night because it improves my productivity. It’s making the effort to eat vegetables instead of the easy and prevalent starches, and it’s treating my body right by letting it move and stretch.

Without the hologram to guide my focus, those actions would seem onerous or petty, depending on my mood. They definitely wouldn’t be worth the effort.

I struggle with them, and many others besides, every single day. Sometimes I fail. I mean, lets face it, there’s not a single day that I actually nail every single aspect of my katas. Even if I did, that’s not the point. Culmulatively it’s enough that I made more steps towards the hologram than I did back. See? No drill sergeant necessary.

But discipline isn’t tough, don’t think. It’s kind of annoying, in that I-know-better-but-I -wish-I-didn’t way. I know I feel better if I cook real food and don’t eat the sort of thing that comes in a box. I know I should stop when I start to feel signs of fatigue, instead of powering on. I know that allowing too many obligations to pile up not only reduces my results in all of them, but gouges big chunks out of my quality of life.

I know all these things. I have an iron clad case for every one.

But it still. takes. effort.

The funny thing about true discipline — not control-freak-perfectionism– is that it’s exhilarating. It’s joyful. It’s like hauling yourself up a rock face… yeah, it’s 88% pain in the ass, but then you get in the zone, and you realize, you’re about to do this thing. You get excited. You get fierce. There is no fucking way you’re not going to make it to the top of this cliff.

Discipline gives you experiences like that all the time. It gives you a sense of accomplishment, agency, and confidence.

It doesn’t make you feel bad when you fail. If you tried your hardest, you didn’t fail. It doesn’t make you feel bad when you eat that bag of chips — you make you feel bad over that bag of chips. Your misguided sense of perfectionism is what does it. Discipline knows you’ll have the opportunity to make a better decision the next time, and it doesn’t worry about what’s already in the past.

There’s about 80 more pages like this one in my book, but I wanted to hear from you– what’s your concept of discpline? You like it? Hate it? Mixed feelings? Did my article change any thoughts on the concept for you? I’d love to hear what you think.


34 thoughts on “My Love Affair with Discipline”

  1. Shana, you got me thinking and that is good! 🙂  I would agree that most people see discipline as being “boring” or “uncool”.
    However, I think your post just made “discipline” cool!!  
    I know for me the hardest part is being discipline during the journey and not worrying about the end result or the hologram. 🙂

    1.  @cnadeau If I got you thinking, my job here is done 🙂 
      I saw in your interview you mentioned “being present”. Well, that’s a sort of discipline, because you remain grounded in the sensory experience of the moment, not fantasizing about other things. I think it’s so important to enjoy the journey, even as you keep one eye on the destination (the hologram). In fact, half the discipline is in exercising good judgement in deciding when to be fully present, and when to hold yourself apart enough to analyze. There’s such an art to it!

  2. Powerful writing, Shanna, and a great point.
    Discipline is part of the journey, and the word has like a billion connotations, but in it’s pure form — it’s just this:
    More specifically, focus on dropping the bulls*** of society and listening to the pure-er call of our hearts. Easier said than done? Maybe. Worth the discipline? Definitely.
    BTW: Do you rock-climb?

    1.  @Jason Fonceca That’s a great way of putting it. Though opposing discipline with society is a bit problematic, given that society isn’t precisely coherent on the concept of ‘right living’ 🙂
      I actually don’t rock-climb, cliffs being rather hard to find where I’m from in Saskatchewan. I’ve tried it the odd times in gyms, but that’s all. 

      1.  @Shanna Mann Mmmmm… what seems more appropriate to you — all 7 billion people on the planet coming to agreement on “whats right”, or everyone following their heart, and letting each other be?
        I loooove rock-climbing, takes discipline 😉

        1.  @Jason Fonceca It’s the ones that don’t see fit to let each other be that concern me. 🙂
          I just mean that setting yourself up in opposition with society puts you in tension with it, it’s a reactive state. Since the only competition that exists is within you, society is irrelevant. Everything is irrelevant, really, except I do like to read about other people for the simple reason that it’s often not until you read about people doing something outside your paradigm that you even realize you have a paradigm.

  3. I love discipline – ha, that sounds weird in my head 🙂
    More specifically I love the fact that we have the ability to control what it is we think, say, and do.  Discipline, or lack thereof, is a precursor to habits (good and bad) – and that is just amazing to me on so many levels.  Great write up here, Shanna!

    1.  @JasonAnthony  I know; “Between stimulus and response, there is space”. I love to notice the stimuli and consciously choose my reaction… and knowing that willpower and attention is finite, choosing which aspects to give them to on any given day is a splendid dance all by itself.
      You’re right that discipline can be the basis of bad habits in the long run. I know exactly how little food and sleep I can get by on. My life is hell at that point, but I can do it. So every time I get pressured, there’s a temptation to go into that battle mode, even though I know it’s not smart or healthy in the long-run.
      I’m glad you liked it!

  4. I have always related discipline to training, control, goals; that sort of thing. I taught my kids that if you have discipline from within you won’t get it from outside. 
    Good to see you correcting misconceptions about the word and related concepts.

    1.  @spinhead Ha! That’s good advice. Maybe that explains why I so rarely  <a href=”″>face the consequences</a> of my actions 😀
      As for correcting misconceptions… it’s a thankless task, but it keeps me busy!

        1.  @Shanna Mann  Hey Shanna, Dhara here from Livefyre. We definitely have HTML functionality on our roadmap, so kindly stay tuned! Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you’ve any questions for us. 

        2.  @Dhara Mistry  @Shanna Mann I hope the eventual HTML-function will let us ‘commenters’ use it, too, Dhara! (at the very least, bold, ital and underline, please 🙂 )

        3.  @Karen J  @Dhara Mistry@Shanna Mann 
          Underline? On the web? Oh, Karen Karen Karen . . .
          You can always go UNIX geek: bold with *asterisks* and emphasize with _underscores_ fore and aft.

  5. HectorAvellaned

    Hmm. I’ll be honest and say that its a bag of mixed feelings. There =have bee times when I have been so disciplined and it hurt so bad but at the end it was ll worth it. But the, I get the opportunity to be disciplined again and I just want to ‘live a little’ 🙂 I definitely will be thinking about this post when I am writing my book – work on the last page for the day or go get an extra 45 minutes of relaxing. As an Internet Entrepreneur to me it’s all about ‘how bad you you want it’? Good luck with your book! 

    1.  @HectorAvellaned For me the answer to “How bad do you want it?” is always “It depends.”  That’s why I have to keep the hologram in my head, because it’s the swing vote. 
      Good luck with your book as well!

  6. Capable of being diciplined?  Absolutely.  Do I always want to apply it…well that’s another story.
    Its sort of a love/hate relationship we have going on here, to the degree that I’ve chosen to focus on dicipline as a theme this year.  How to better apply and focus myself without waging mass warfare with the old grey matter. 
    Lets say its a work in progress, report cards aren’t due out for some time yet 🙂

    1.  @JackiePurnell The old “I know better but I wish I didn’t” thing 🙂 Yup. That drives me nuts.

    2.  @JackiePurnell Every one of us does exactly what we choose, all day every day. And we choose what we want. Usually, what we want now wins out over what we know we’ll want later. Daniel Kahneman calls it the battle between our present and future selves.
      Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Switch” has enormous practical info on how to make it practical. Will power doesn’t exist, not as a tool for change.  The short answer from all the research is that we need to make the right thing the easy thing. Instead of doing the hard mental work to create that scenario, we depend on will power to get us to the gym or out of the donut shop or whatever (can anyone tell that one of my current challenges is losing the weight I’ve picked up over the years?)
      It’s all about coming up with the right arrangement so we’ll gladly do what’s best for us because it’s the clear and simple path.

      1.  @spinhead I agree.  It Is all about choice.  However that doesn’t make me less vulnerable to my own self talk and conditioning.   
        Making the right thing the easy thing – now thats something to work with.  I suppose it depends on the behavior you’re trying to program as to how easy that is to implement.  – Haven’t read Switch yet, will have to check it out.

  7. For me, discipline means seeing the vision and doing what’s necessary to make that vision a reality. It’s an inner want, not an outer motivation that is the driving force.
    It’s also the ability to deny the promise of immediate gratification for a chance to be truly arrive at a place of deeper meaning.

    1.  @jeannepi Yes! That’s a great definition of discipline, and one that I somehow overlooked in my delving into the nuances. Thanks so much for the insight, Jeanne!

  8. Hi Shanna,
    It’s absolutely true that people look at the time you spend on something rather than the results. That’s especially true at many work places where you get paid by the hour…
    I share your view that going forward more than backward is what really counts. And it’s the true goal of discipline (and maybe life in general too) 🙂

    1.  @petersandeen Absolutely. Beating yourself up over what you can’t change =/= learning from your mistakes.

  9. Shanna,
    Excellent… I too like discipline and though on personal reflection I know that I’m missing discipline in certain aspects of my life, it something I try to focus on.
    I would say that the common belief that discipline stifles creativity is NOT true.  You can be disciplined to Creativity… That is Blogging for me.  There are days I don’t want to write.  But I know, for my business, for my success it’s important and necessary and the discipline to think outside of my standard topics and be creative in those moments is crucial.
    Thank you!
    Ryan H.

    1.  @Ryan Hanley I know what you mean. Sometimes, putting your back to the wall creates great results, but the discipline of showing up, day after day, primes the pump and makes inspiration flow more evenly. The trouble is… there are no guarantees. That’s where I think a lot of people can’t persuade themselves to do the work… because there are no guarantees. 
      But you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. 🙂

      1.  @Shanna Mann  @Ryan Hanley 
        “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
        ^^^That should be an “inspirational poster” – can’t think of a place, person or time when it wouldn’t be true and appropriate!

  10. I’ve read somewhere that discipline is when you put your higher goals (ex: studying/passing an exam) in front of the smaller ones (ex: spend the afternoon drinking beer instead of studying). I think it pretty much sums it 🙂

    1.  @Miguel Ping Yep. But, all things in moderation, including moderation. Perfectionism is a pernicious disease. 🙂

  11. SteveBainesBiz

    Great post Shanna.  I love discipline.  Discipline is so powerful, with it you can achieve anything… ANYTHING.  While training for my Half IronMan this morning (there’s a case study in self-discipline) I was listening to Robin Sharma’s book “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari” – great stuff on Discipline in there!

    1.  @SteveBainesBiz An Ironman definitely shows some discipline. But I actually felt that “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari” was a pretty simplistic view of discipline. A nice, neat parable, but I thought it lacked real meat. What are the biggest lessons you took from it?

      1. SteveBainesBiz

         @Shanna Mann I agree it is pretty simplistic.  Basically just reinforced what I already do, but for many people it is critical first steps to getting them to think different and begin down the discipline path.

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