Career Path

Mastering the Lost Art of Self-Discipline

In a world where there’s a pill or an app for every problem, career coach Liz Bentley explains why we need to reclaim our self-discipline skills.

Self-discipline almost feels like an old-fashioned word—something that people once valued and practiced that has become almost extinct. It’s not that we don’t like the idea of self-discipline, but we’ve lost the realization that mastering the art of self-discipline takes constant practice.  

We struggle with self-discipline because we live in a world where instant gratification dominates almost every aspect of our lives: likes on social media, texting, medication for almost any ailment, a notice on our watch to tell us when to get up and move around. We’ve nearly lost our ability to remember that it all starts with motivating and regulating ourselves. After all, buying a workout outfit and a gym membership doesn’t mean you’re getting into shape. You actually have to go there and do the hard work.

All of our characteristics can become weaknesses; to overcome them, we first need to gain an awareness of and then develop the discipline to moderate them.

And it’s this hard work that we sometimes aren’t doing, or even shirking, thinking we can’t get there without support or someone holding us accountable. It’s a phenomenon that many sectors, such as the weight-loss industry, have successfully built their business models upon, namely this inability to have self-discipline. In the workplace, we see discipline showing up in two crucial ways: task- and action-driven discipline, and emotional discipline.

Task- and action-driven discipline is about getting your to-do list and overall job done. It’s doing what you say and saying what you do, hitting deadlines, and being appropriately responsive to all forms of communication. It’s juggling your workload and tackling it responsibly. This means sometimes working at home at night to finish a project instead of streaming Netflix or going out for a drink. We’ve definitely seen that many people who succeed in the workplace have such discipline and put in the hard work to break through to the first few levels of management. Their ability to get a lot done, especially when communication is so varied and complicated, pushes them to the top of the pack as someone people can rely on.

Emotional discipline is less obvious and can be more complicated, but is equally important. This is where we have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone to grow. For example, if we dislike conflict, we need to discipline ourselves to speak up and address the issues. If we talk too much, we have to discipline ourselves to shut it down when we’re rambling on and annoying our audience. All of our characteristics can become weaknesses; to overcome them, we first need to gain an awareness of and then develop the discipline to moderate them. Emotional discipline comes from within to help us rise and grow to the next level. In all leadership positions, especially as we get to the top, emotional discipline becomes more evident and vital than ever.

Here’s how to build both types of discipline into your life:

1.  Take a life inventory. First, look at your life and see where you aren’t living up to all you could be. When you are your best self, what does that look like? Where are you struggling? Recognize that you’re the person standing in between where you are and where you want to be, and be honest about what you really want.

2.  Diagnose categories. Figure out where you need to improve in both types of discipline.

3.  Practice. Everything in life takes practice and work. Remember that as we practice something, we evolve and improve, and it becomes a part of our regimen.

4.  Create accountability. Book a meeting so you have a natural deadline for that project you’re procrastinating on; set up a phone call to address uncomfortable issues; apologize when you make mistakes to be accountable to yourself; and make lists and set deadlines for work that needs to be accomplished.

5.  Don’t give up. I see people give up on disciplined activities and emotions all the time because they’re hard. Hard is the point—if it were easy, you’d be doing it already and you wouldn’t have to be disciplined. But we all know that doing something hard and achieving it is one of the most satisfying feelings in our lives.

Identifying and growing your ability to be disciplined is a game changer in both work and life. It’s the difference between good and great.

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