On Discipline, Shortcuts & Building Something Worthwhile Over Time

Oct 01

I am seeking a sort of relentless commitment to the task at hand.

I’m aiming for discipline.

Discipline is remembering what you want.
—David Campbell

In the past few months I’ve intentionally scuttled many of my own side projects and shunned outside opportunities in an effort to—quite simply—do what I say I’m going to do, when I say I’m going to do it, and, as my dear friend Lee so eloquently put it, to do the same thing every day even when I don’t feel like it.

Many of this generation cling at all costs to the belief that there is another way, one which satisfies their love of a quick fix. There is not.
—John Kellogg, How I Became A Guide

Disciplining my body not to get Coca-Cola Classic at every meal is not all that different than disciplining my mind not to visit Twitter at every mental break. And the outcome of not denying those desires is not all that different either—giving in makes me gain weight. After all, calories are just a measure of energy. How much energy can I obtain from the things that I’m taking in? Do I have enough fuel for the task(s) at hand?

The toll of empty calories, be they physical or pixel, limits what I can do, and for how long I can do it. Everything consumed is burned up or added on. There is no third option.

[People] at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.
—Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

Gladwell was talking about musicians. The idea travels freely between areas of expertise…

Photo credit: Pumping Iron, by Charles Gaines and George Butler, 1974

The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens.
—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pumping Iron

I’ve been in a season at work for the past few months where—because of my failures in discipline and leading myself—I’ve had less responsibility. More time to think. More time to do the kind of design task(s) that come relatively easily to me after ten years of designing. Maybe you’re in a season where less responsibility sounds pleasant. If so, we are in different seasons, and we are likely very different people.

I don’t like less. It hurts. It is painful not to be able to make certain calls. Painful not to be trusted with leadership. But even more painful to be bent in such an analytical way that I know precisely why things are as they are, and I wholeheartedly agree that it is a good and right and wise decision for me to be exactly where I am, doing exactly what I am (and am not) doing.

I like pain for a particular reason… [I like] the pain that is necessary to be a champion.
—Arnold Schwarzenegger

And so, it is here, in the “area of pain” as Arnold called it—that seemingly endless, unnavigable chasm between the bad fruit of your past actions and the future things you want with such vehement immediacy—where decisions are to be made, the only decisions I can actually control. The decisions of the daily. The decisions of discipline.

Plato said, “The first and the best victory is to conquer self.” Will I press through the pain? Do I want the thing bad enough to walk/climb/crawl the entirety of the chasm, with no guarantee I can make it, or that what I want is waiting on the other side? Can I escape the gravitational pull of entitlement and instant gratification that’s so engrained in my bones it often feels inescapable?

Because that’s the rub of discipline—there are no shortcuts. I can’t bend the calendar to skip the next however many weeks, months, years any more than I can wake up 30lbs lighter tomorrow. I can’t make anything happen, except to do what I say I’m going to do, when I say I’m going to do it, every time something hits my desk. I’ll do that tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. Until my actions produce different fruit than they have in the past.

One painful duty fulfilled makes the next plainer and easier.
—Helen Keller, The Story of My Life

I am tired of words. And I say that with the knowledge that they are integral to my daily life, not just for communicating but quite literally forming the foundation of my livelihood. But words are easy, and they come easy. And while sometimes they are true, words are just tools, means to ends. Sometimes they lie. Sometimes they cower in the gray in-between. And sometimes they die, full of intention and promise.

What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m aiming for discipline. And aim is at least both word and action.


  1. Oooohhhh. Today, we came upon one of my favorite ‘core sayings’ of George MacDonald, a contemporary of C.S. Lewis, during our devotion time. “When a man’s will once begins to aspire, it will soon find that action must precede feeling in order for him to know the foundation of feeling.”

    I think another way of saying the same thing is just act until the action becomes the belief. If you set the goal, do the actions that precede, which say to the world you are serious, even if you are not sure. The action will become the belief. In the Christian world, we sometimes call that faith.

    I am not very good at getting myself in gear to make my desire reality. But I have been trying so hard these last few years to listen to my beliefs and make my actions fit, even if I am not so sure I am on the right track. It seems to be working. I ask for a lot of help.

    I found out I was trying to do too much under my own strength.

    I believe in you.

  2. Eddie Staples

    Excellent. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Wow this is an excellent article! It’s exactly in line with my recent thoughts on discipline (http://iheart.stephyharrison.com/2012/09/07/long-suffering/). I have been studying Hebrews 12 lately, and have been choosing an attitude that takes satisfaction in hardship because of the fruit it produces (as opposed to avoiding it).

    I enjoy your blog, and I admire the work put into Newspring. Posts like this inspire me to step up in my work ethic.

  4. Matt Parsons

    Dude…please write a book.

    That’s all.


  5. Thank you for this. Thank you for being transparent, honest and incredibly eloquent! This is challenging and encouraging. Thank you!

  6. Euan

    Really appreciate your honesty in this article Joshua. I know that my failure to manage self has hamstrung not just what I do, but in many ways who I am, and as you say, less responsibility is given. I’m grateful for having people around me I trust who challenge and encourage me and speak into my life right into the difficult to hear places. Throw off the shackles that so easily ensnare! Keep going matey!

  7. I am a full time Christian counselor and talk about the importance of developing spiritual disciplines with my clients. We live in a microwave-oriented, fast food society in many ways and that often translates into our walk with the Lord. Thank you for the insights!

  8. “discipline is remembering what you want”
    I love this. It is simple, but not easy. I set reminders in my calendar to restate my goals, otherwise, I would never get back on track.
    It is an eloquent post, thanks.

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