The world loves to shine a light on successful people. They could be an athlete, singer or business person. If they are a success story, you can bet our media will publish it.
The story you rarely see is a painful and boring one. It’s the story of the self discipline that made these individuals a success.
Take Phil Mickelson. He is one of the greatest golfers and putters to ever play the game. I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s not from god-given talent. This guy works his tail off. He has one drill where he putts 100 three-footers in a row. If he misses one during that string of 100, he starts over.
I can only imagine how many times he’s had to restart that process. I’m sure he would have loved to get out on the course and play. But he didn’t. He stays on the putting green until the task is complete. That’s self discipline.
Now I’ve got some bad news to share. If something requires self-discipline it is going to suck. If it was fun, easy or enjoyable, it wouldn’t need self-discipline.
No one ever said, it takes self discipline to go shopping. I’ve never heard someone mention the self discipline they showed going out on the town.
We need to deprive ourselves in the short term, so we can get what we want in the long term. That means doing something we don’t to do or not doing something we want to do. This is self discipline.
Now the good news. Since this is hard, and believe me it is, the majority of the world won’t do it. If this wasn’t the case, there would be millions upon millions of successful people all around.
I started to learn about self discipline around the same time I started setting goals. I figured out that to achieve anything I had to make choices on the journey. Those choices weren’t always fun, but they led to my success.
I always remember the sacrifices I made when I wrestled for two years. To make the sport fair, you have to wrestle in your weight class. In other words, if you weighed a 170lbs you had to go up against someone that was within a few pounds.
Throughout the week I’d have choices to make. Do I eat a grapefruit for breakfast or enjoy some cereal. Do I grab a soft pretzel at lunch or eat more protein. Do I run a few more miles after school or watch some TV.
No one told me what to do. It was up to me. Achieving my goal required me to make the right choice, to have self discipline.
Even though this is hard, there are some things that make it a little easier.
Years ago, I decided I wanted to break 80 in golf. I was an average player and would shoot between 85 and 95. While some days I would only be a few strokes from my target, the goal never seemed to be in reach. In golf, improvement can come faster when you start, but slows down once you get into this range.
The thought of hitting this goal was overwhelming. In my mind, I had to get better off the tee, from the sand, with my long irons, with my short irons, chipping and putting. In Texas it can get windy, so I needed to work on hitting low shots, left-to-right shots and right-to-left shots.
Instead of being overwhelmed I took a step back and came up with a plan. In golf about half the shots come from 100 yards and in, that’s wedge shots, chip shots and putts. So instead of bombing drives for a half an hour on the range, I went out and practiced my short game all summer long.
By telling myself upfront, to focus on three shots vs. all them it was easier to ‘chip’ away at my goal. Guess what happened? I shaved four strokes off my handicap and started breaking 80.
Motivation is the spark that lights the fire and self discipline is the fuel that keeps it going. In my golf example, I had a goal to get better and it motivated me. Spending hours on the putting green practicing took self discipline.
Without motivation, self discipline is harder. It already sucks enough so why not make life easier? Sometimes it’s easy to find the motivation. When I was in sales, I knew what I would make on each deal and that motivated me to do the painful work of researching and cold calling.
Of course, sometimes it’s hard to find the motivation. I remember starting a little side business years ago. Looking back it wasn’t something I was very passionate about, it was more of a distraction. While I had some fun in the process, the concept quickly died off. Regardless of the my self-discipline, I always felt like I was pushing a boulder uphill.
Now when I set out to achieve something, I always make sure I’m clear on the motivation. If I can’t find it, I question whether or not I should bother with the project in the first place.
Studies show that about 40 percent of our daily activities are from habits. These are things we do without much thought. Since we aren’t thinking about the action it is often very easy.
One way to make self discipline easier is to wrap the hard stuff with positive habits.
I have a goal to write five of these letters a week. Each one takes 3-4 hours. To make things easier I’ve gotten into the habit of jotting notes down late in the evening. I’m also in the habit of going to sleep earlier. This makes getting up easier and then I start my morning routine of coffee, reading and writing.
I do the same thing, in the same way, every morning. By putting myself on autopilot I don’t give my brain a chance to complain. When I started I needed a lot of self discipline. Now it’s pretty easy, thanks to my habits.
As Teddy Roosevelt said, “With self-discipline most anything is possible.” Self discipline doesn’t care about money, education, appearance or talent. It’s something we all have, but unfortunately, don’t use enough. It’s the one thing that stands between where we are and where we want to go.