That a disciplined person with much less talent and experience can brute-force their way into success inspires no end of frustration for us creatives. While we’re quarter-working on the ideas and interests that we absolutely can’t let go of, they have advanced their “too narrow,” “too specific,” “too unoriginal” (by our evaluation) work a few steps forward. In response, we go back to not working even harder during the day and eating more ice cream in the evenings. Maybe the introduction of a super fast leased line connection to the internet would improve our productivity?
At a deep level we know our frustration isn’t really about the disciplined folks grinding their way to success but rather our own discipline. We know how much more we’d thrive and be happy if we were disciplined. Yet we often feel constitutionally wired to not be disciplined, so much so that even the word discipline is something that provokes a visceral reaction for many of us. (I suspect that you’re only still reading this section because your curiosity and self-awareness has overruled the grimacing and urge to skip on to something more comfortable.)
Our innate talent, creativity, and drive combined with discipline are what make us forces of nature.
Without discipline, though, we can be miserable, petty, and unfulfilled. Discipline channels our energy into purposeful, constructive action; a lack of discipline diffuses our energy into destructive outlets — and what we destroy the easiest and most often is ourselves. Habits are discipline made automatic, but they’re made automatic in the beginning and maintained via discipline. Morning routines are an example of discipline made automatic, but effective morning routines don’t happen on their own. You have to set up the boundaries that create them and then stick with those boundaries via discipline.
Zooming up, picking fewer projects to finish also requires discipline. You’re carrying too many projects because you’ve said yes to so many that you’ve effectively said no to making massive progress on any of them.
A major part of our resistance to discipline is that we more often associate discipline with punishment or pain than with freedom or happiness. This association is understandable since, as children, for a lot of us, discipline very often meant punishment or pain. Those experiences aren’t the totality of discipline, though. The reality is that the happiest and most successful of the creatives among us are often the most disciplined. For instance, a near-universal practice among the titans and mentors that bestselling self-help author Tim Ferriss has interviewed is either a meditation practice or an exercise regimen. I’ve seen the same patterns among my high-achieving friends, colleagues, and clients as well. Discipline undergirds those practices and regimens, and most people report that it’s those practices and regimens that prepare them to do their best work.
An additional upshot to discipline is that it limits the decision fatigue that plagues so many of us. A consistent morning routine eliminates scores of choices every day. Habits remove other choices. Time blocking removes more choices about when you’ll do what type of work. Every decision removed from a day frees up mental and creative energy that can fuel your best work. We’re happiest when we’re doing and finishing our best work, and discipline, rightly applied and cultivated, allows us to do more of our best work. As paradoxical as it sounds, discipline creates freedom and happiness precisely because it’s what sets the foundation for us to do the things that matter most.