Three Things I've Learned About Ice Cream (er, Discipline)

A quick note before we get to today's blog post:

Beginning in September, I'll be adding a weekly Q&A post to this-here blog. In this blog series, I'll be answering YOUR questions about being a creative entrepreneur. You can submit your own question to the queue (it can be about your own business even - be as specific as you want to be!) by scrolling down the sidebar (over on the right) to the Q+A section.

Now onward.

I’ve been thinking a lot this summer about discipline.

I’ve occasionally found myself googling things like “how to become more disciplined.”

But the advice I’ve found has usually been pretty stupid and has felt pretty useless, and all of that has led me to question what discipline even is and whether I need to develop it as a personal and professional trait.

My layperson’s definition of discipline is this: it means behaving a certain (desirable) way even when (or especially when) you’d rather do something easier or more pleasurable.

Being disciplined means sticking to your 10K training plan when you’d rather sit on the couch with some Netflix. Being disciplined means eating cheerios for breakfast when certainly bacon would be tastier. Being disciplined means putting down your book (or the Cupcake Mania app) at bedtime instead of reading (or playing) long into the night.

All this inquiry around discipline has helped me realize three important things:

First: in order to develop discipline around a particular aspect of your life, you actually need to figure out what the desired behavior is (keyword: desired; keyword: behavior). This seems obvious, but in my experience it’s not. In fact, I think a lot of people forget this crucial part of discipline. Let’s say you want to be more disciplined about your work day. If you don’t actually sit down and think about what the most desirable behavior would be, you’re not really developing discipline. You’re developing frustration. You’re telling yourself to “be more disciplined” or to “work harder” but you’re not actually giving yourself parameters. Telling a child to “be good” in line at Target isn’t nearly as effective as telling her to stand still next to the cart without touching anything. And when telling that child to “be good” does work, it’s only when you’ve already taught the child what “being good” actually means in terms of her behavior.

Second: in order to really develop discipline, the desired behavior has to be defined in positive terms (something you want to do), not negative (something you don’t want to do). A quick example: I’d like to be more disciplined about writing the Memo emails, but simply saying that I don’t want to finish writing and posting them on Sunday each week doesn’t really give me something to DO. It doesn't give me something to stick to throughout the week. It outlines an undesirable behavior, but it doesn’t give me a desired behavior. Instead, I might decide that the desired behavior is writing a draft each Monday, editing it each Wednesday, and setting it up to send every Thursday. That’s something I can work on holding myself to.

Third: discipline has natural limits. You can grow discipline like a muscle, but you have to work it. You need to develop routines, give yourself reminders, and keep working at developing the desired behaviors. Along those same lines, when you’re already being super disciplined about many aspects of your life, it can be hard to develop discipline around something new. It can be mentally (and sometimes physically) exhausting, in fact.

I think I believed before that because I was (and still am!) undisciplined about certain things in my life, I must be an undisciplined person. But what I’ve come to realize is that I’m actually extraordinarily disciplined (I suspect that all entrepreneurs are), and it’s because of that fact that I struggle to be disciplined about certain things. I mean look, I get up and work for myself. From home. Five days a week. This despite the fact that I’ve got a hammock and a bed and ice cream in the freezer and not one single person telling me what to do. Despite those temptations every single work day, I actually work. I ignore my bed and my hammock and my ice cream (most days). I ignore my chores and my toys. I put my head down and I do what I need to do. I’m a discipline ninja!

Acknowledging that fact, acknowledging just how damned disciplined I have to be every single day just to do what I do, that actually gives me such hope when it comes to the other things around which I’d like to develop more discipline (ice cream, I’m looking at you). It also reminds me that I don’t actually want to be a robot who only does the desirable behavior in every situation. It helps me see that I can relax about some things. It also helps me see that I don’t need to feel like I’m undisciplined just because my desired behavior is sometimes just to do the thing that’s pleasurable or easy.

I’d love to know if you think of yourself as a disciplined person, and whether this post changes the way you think about discipline at all. Leave a comment and let me know.