Self-discipline has a bad rap. For one thing, it’s boring. There’s just nothing sexy about saving money, eating healthy, being organized, or going to bed early. (Well, maybe that last one). We tend to feel constrained by these external expectations, that the outside world is constantly pressuring us to quit having fun and give up our independence. There isn’t really a model showing self-discipline as an active, creative choice. We can choose self-discipline as a powerful means of personal and artistic expression. We can choose self-discipline as an endlessly regenerating act of love. Self-discipline is kindness, both to self and others.
It doesn’t take much time in the company of small children to realize that discipline usually comes in when kids are either doing something dangerous, or being mean to each other. Hey, no biting! Stop grabbing stuff from other people. Don’t chase the cat. Look out! I’ve had to run full speed after little kids who were about to walk into traffic, toddle into the ring during sports matches, or nearly stumble into a swimming pool or fire pit. Lack of discipline is hard to do without annoying other people or stressing them out. That’s because our actions don’t occur in a vacuum.
This is where we start to realize that our own lack of self-discipline and self-control makes life difficult for others around us. When we’re late and our coworkers have to cover for us. When we don’t pack lunch or a snack, and then get hangry and start snapping at people who have done nothing to deserve it - again. When we allow our standards to slip and drive distracted, endangering everyone around us.
Then there are people like the guy in my building who likes to get drunk in the afternoon, week after week, and sing along to the same The Police Greatest Hits album off his balcony. Live your best life, my dude, but could you do that maybe in the shower instead? Otherwise you’re setting yourself up for an uncredited appearance on my podcast.
I’ve had many, many roommates and neighbors over the years. Some of them have been legends for all the right reasons, and others for all the wrong ones. The ones who steal your leftovers or your laundry quarters. The ones who leave giant wads of hair in the shower drain. The ones who run up your phone bill, and then move out with no notice and no forwarding address. The ones who never, ever do a fair share of housekeeping, the ones who can’t seem to live a single hour with a dish-free kitchen sink. It all comes down to a basic disagreement about where the line ends between our behavior and other people’s rights. When my freedom interferes with yours, then it’s not my freedom any more; it’s my unfairness.
There are also all the ways that my lack of self-discipline is unfair to me, myself. Sometimes Today Me is very selfish and works hard to create problems for Future Me. Tomorrow Me is constantly being expected to pay my debts, sort my papers, and wash my dishes. Past Me, why you so lazy?? It takes a while to realize that if I take action right now, it’s faster and easier and costs less than if I dump it all on Future Me. I do all my housework on weekdays so that Saturday Me can lounge around, sleep late, and do nothing. I do forty pushups so that Next Month Me can do fifty, and so that Summer Me can have awesome-looking biceps. Gifts for Future Me, a Future Me who is hopefully feeling very smug right now.
When I look back at Twenties Me, I usually feel very aggravated. Twenties Me had almost every possible bad habit. She was late everywhere she went. Her bag always weighed ten pounds and she always had neck and shoulder pain because of it. Her desk was always covered with papers and unopened mail. She was always flat broke and devastated by money worries. She didn’t know how to cook, she was as much as thirty-five pounds overweight, and she had constant problems with migraines and chronic pain and fatigue. Forties Me sees almost all of these issues as a lack of self-discipline (although, more charitably, it was a lack of knowledge).
When I get plenty of sleep, it helps me to show up on time, keep my commitments, and treat others with patience and respect.
When I nourish my body with healthy food and plenty of exercise, it helps me to have a high energy level and physical strength and stamina. I’m able to contribute when it’s time to move furniture and do the heavy lifting. I’m more likely to help others in a crisis, when in the past I might have *been* the crisis.
When I’m organized, I meet my deadlines and fulfill expectations. I even have a chance to exceed them, set higher standards, and build my reputation. I don’t waste other people’s time by being late, asking for extensions, needing other people to cover for me, or failing to follow through on what I said I would do. I can take my time and create something amazing.
When I feel like I am accountable for my life, it helps me to manage my commitments. I can pledge my time and attention, knowing I will show up and keep my agreements. I can rely on my resources and energy level because I know what I’m capable of. I never have to inflict my panic or burnout on others.
When I am in charge of myself, when I use self-discipline skillfully, then I know I can be fully present for others. I take care of my own needs and I have responsibility for my own enjoyment of life. Also, I have the room and the means to listen wisely and well. I have space in my life and my heart for those I care about the most. When others need me, I know I can be there. Self-discipline is kindness, to myself and others.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.