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The discipline of being disciplined!
October 3rd, 2019

Behavior change can be fun, exciting and novel when you embark on something new, but when that wears off, what then?

Ah the age-old challenge people and organizations struggle with…how to sustain a new behavior until it becomes habit.

New behaviours can be sexy and exciting when we first embark on them. Our brain is stimulated in such a way that it has to function at a higher level, be more conscious about the new behavior. Whether it is to exercise more, to eat healthier or to stick to something that we have struggled to sustain over time, like writing, painting or saving some cash!

We might put lots of effort into the start, like post-its on the fridge, setting an elaborate goal, or getting our supporters and cheer leaders lined up for the first milestone party.

Like people, organizations focus heavily on the start of the change, the launch, but when the excitement well runs dry and the novelty wears off, our engagement wears off too. Given most people are motivated by not losing rather than gaining, if there is not enough perceived loss, in other words if we are not disadvantaged sufficiently to stick to the new behavior or task, there is little reason to continue.

Our interest wanes, we drop the behavior and we may enter the cycle of disappointment followed by justification. Our confirmation bias tells us it wasn’t the right time, or it wasn’t really working that well for us and hey, no one is watching now anyway!

Discipline is needed to support long term change because most organizational change, or even personal change, doesn’t keep us entertained for very long! Discipline is the piece that gets us over the boredom hump so to speak. It is an internal driver, a compass that keeps us pointing in the direction in which we set out.

It takes discipline to stick to something, to wait for something, to keep doing something when there is no quick or apparent result. It takes discipline to do something in the face of discomfort, distraction or adversity. It takes discipline to believe in what you’re doing helps, even if the results are not overt or pleasurable.

When we lack timely, poignant and expected feedback about our effort, we can easily disengage. For example, when we don’t know if or how our charitable donation helps, we may be more likely to send it to an organization that keeps and publishes clear records and impacts of the money they receive. The ‘feel good’ that comes from the connection to our direct impact keeps us giving.

In a world that has become so instantaneous, so real-time, we seek immediate feedback and when we don’t get it, our attention and discipline dissipate.

The personal skill of discipline comes from mindfulness. Discipline is rooted in making conscious choices that often go against pleasure seeking or instant gratification. Although it is entirely possible to make discipline pleasurable and rewarding! The ability to make your own choices in a world that wants to decide for you is incredibly empowering.

When we slow down enough to make a conscious choice about engaging in something we are struggling to execute, we are resisting impulses to easily and quickly avoid the struggle or even the conflict caused by a perceived forced choice. Nudge explains this in great detail. Marketing relies heavily on distraction and impulsivity. Ads drive choices, not people. Unless you’re disciplined.

One form of discipline came to me through karate in my late teens. I learned to push through pain, distraction and discomfort, to push my mental and physical stamina beyond my self-perceived limits, to remain in postures and movement patterns or kata for hours on end, fighting the desire to break out and rest.

There are many practices of body and mind flow and movement such as yoga and Tai Chi. The repetitive nature of such activity lies only in the patterning of movement, the pose or position. Everything else within the movement or pose, the attention to the body and mind throughout is up to you to deepen, lengthen, strengthen and balance physically, emotionally and spiritually. The discipline of practice opens doors to much deeper experiences.

There are many other ways to develop discipline over both thought and behavior and reap the rewards of being able to choose rather than default mindlessly and conveniently to target-marketers, neuro-economists or even that tiny wee bag of Malteasers at the cash!