Work on Discipline, Not Motivation

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Most of my mornings start the same way: alarm blaring, cat pawing at my hair. I crawl out of bed (eventually), have breakfast and coffee, and post a new “Today I learned” factoid to my Google+ page. Then, unless I’m sick enough to be bedridden, I sit down in my office and write until lunch, with occasional breaks to stretch and read items of interest.

What I work on changes: blog posts, articles, story drafting or rewrites. It’s usually dictated by deadlines, and only occasionally by what I “feel like.” In fact, before sitting down in front of my laptop, I sometimes feel nothing but reluctance. My brain is foggy, and I could do with another hour or two of sleep free of feline harassment.

Still, I dig in. It may be torturous at first, every word looking and sounding like crap- but often, just a few minutes of that slog propels me into a zone where forming sentences isn’t as hard. Habit kicks in and pushes words out. When I’m really “on,” hours fly by without any awareness of their passing.

Every time I power through reluctance, I’m strengthening my discipline. It always comes back and saves my butt whenever I feel like I can’t.

When you’re serious about doing something- even if it’s something you love- motivation won’t always be there. You can’t schedule it, so don’t bother. Build up your discipline instead by following the mantra of Just fucking do it. Set aside some time every day, week, whatever, and treat it as you would treat any other important commitment. Don’t make excuses for yourself. Remember that the human brain is a master of rationalizing, and will come up with perfectly good reasons why you shouldn’t do this or that, if you let it.

Start small and move up, if you like. No need to run marathons on day one. Take a jog around the neighborhood, then the park, then the city. You know what fuels motivation? Progress– and discipline will get you progress!

Every time you complete a scheduled session, reward yourself with something small, something that won’t sabotage your hard work (no candy bars after workouts!). This positive reinforcement will help lock in the habit.

Sure, sometimes you power through your unwillingness to write, exercise, etc. and still feel miserable by the end. There are always bad days. They shouldn’t be the norm, though. If bad days keep stacking up, ask yourself why. Is this something you don’t value as much as you think you did? Could you be doing it differently?

What’s funny to me is how one can know all this stuff, and be super-disciplined with some things, and yet not be disciplined at all with others. I’m good with exercise and writing, but languages, crafts, drawing- I’ve struggled to restart since leaving my full-time job. I treat writing as “work,” and I see other interests as “not work.” Shouldn’t I give myself a break and do those things when I feel like it?

There’s nothing wrong with that- but doing things that way means your skill will plateau. You’ll maintain- maybe even lose- and won’t ever gain. If you’re OK with that, fine. If you want to improve, though, there’s no way around discipline.

This isn’t about making every day a strict training regimen. It’s not about being super-intense about every activity you take part in, either. It’s about deciding what matters to you, and not waiting for something as fickle as motivation to give you permission to chase it.

What are you really disciplined with, and not so disciplined with? Let’s trade notes in the comments!

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