Self-Discipline: The Pain and Pleasure of Teaching Yourself To Do the Boring Stuff

I have a love-hate relationship with self-discipline. I love the results, but I hate the process.

Discipline can be a loaded word.

We tend to think of discipline in terms of punishment.  As in, you have to discipline children, or when you do something wrong, the boss takes disciplinary action.

But what about self-discipline? Does that mean punishing yourself?

It can certainly feel like it.

I suspect I’m not the only one who wishes she had the self-discipline to ask for carrot sticks instead of fries. But when you see those tempting delights, all crispy and warm, or your nose gets a waft of their empty-carb-magnificence, it feels like torture to deny yourself.

And don’t even get me started on exercise. The yoga DVD I ordered in a fit of New Year’s energy is still sitting on my desk. Apparently, if you want leaner arms and inner peace, you actually have to unwrap the thing and use it. So much for the promise of changing your life for only $19.95.

But isn’t that always the way? We can easily envision the results. It’s the self-discipline required to get there that eludes us.

The word discipline actually comes from the Latin word disciplina, which means teaching, and discipulus, which means pupil.

In the case of self-discipline, we’re both the teacher and the pupil.

Which is kind of the problem. It’s hard to teach yourself something you’re not good at in the first place. In my own life, I’ve managed to teach myself how to organize my sock drawer, yet my basement remains, shall we say, a work in progress.

What I find most intriguing about self-discipline, or rather the lack of it, is how quick we are to blame our problems on external circumstances.

For example, the reason I don’t eat as healthy as I should isn’t because I lack the discipline to shop and cook. Oh, no. It’s because I’m sooo busy working and changing people’s lives and driving my kids to and fro that I don’t have the time. If I had more time, I’m sure I would be whipping up organic vegan meals every night.

We humans are a stubborn lot, and one of the things we’re the most stubborn about is admitting our own failings.

I’m no different from anyone else; I have all kinds of reasons for why I can’t seem to organize my finances, spend more quality time with my kids and stay off the cellphone while driving.

Yet if I look back on just about every failure and disappointment in my life, I can see where my own lack of self-discipline contributed to the problem.

Whether it’s not being organized enough or not doing the right thing often enough or doing the wrong thing too often, success or failure is often determined by how consistent you are with doing the daily, boring stuff.

Hoping for success is a good start. But it’s the self-discipline of making 10 prospecting calls a day, cleaning up for 10 minutes every night and saving 10 percent of every paycheck that ultimately enables you to accomplish your goals.

It’s a tough lesson to learn, and one I continue to struggle with. But at the end of the day, consistent self-discipline is the only real way to accomplish anything.

Darn it.

Lisa Earle McLeod is an author, columnist, keynote speaker and business consultant. The founder and principal of McLeod & More, Inc, she specializes in sales and leadership training. Her newest book, The Triangle of Truth, has been cited as the blueprint for “how smart people can get better at everything.” Visit for a short video intro.   Copyright 2010 Lisa Earle McLeod.  All rights reserved.