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On Discipline

At work we have something called non-goals. A non-goal is something important and interesting that you may want to work on, but intentionally opt not to, simply because other priorities matter more. Relegating something to a non-goal takes discipline – particularly when that thing is sparkly and alluring and potentially even more fun than the real goals.

It’s easy to think about discipline in terms of what we do in our lives. This is how I’ve looked at it for years, going through days in awe of my “disciplined” friends who do things like rise every morning at 5am to run or write a certain number of words every day or meditate for 30 minutes before their kids wake up. It’s harder to think about discipline in terms of what we don’t do.

More and more, I’m realizing discipline has two sides to it – it’s being mindful both about what we do, and what we don’t do. In my life right now, discipline is about doing less and being more. It’s about not rising at 5am if it means exhausting myself for the rest of the day. It’s about resting versus pushing through an injury, giving my body time to heal. It’s about putting my children’s needs ahead of my own. It’s about the tender balance between “going for it” and intentionally not going for it. It’s about goals, but it’s also about non-goals.

In a recent New York Times article, Gretchen Reynolds covered a small study concluding that pushing through fatigue to reach new levels of physical performance isn’t necessarily good for us. While working at our physical edge does offer benefits, crossing the chasm into flat-out exhaustion may not. This training lesson is also be a life lesson – reminding us that true discipline involves finding our own individual edge, but staying on side of it that keeps us well.

How does discipline show up in your life right now? Is it harder to stay focused on goals or realistic about non-goals?


Photo by Anya Quinn via Flickr Creative Commons

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. What a great post — this is something I’ve thought about a lot lately, but I don’t think I put it in words (in my head, anyway) nearly as eloquently as you just did. For me, becoming a parent has meant putting things on the back burner that I would love to spend a lot of time on… but spending time on those things would mean letting my true priorities languish. (For example: exercise. Right here, right now, it just can’t be my top priority. Being and eating healthfully, and yes, of course, getting exercise is super important always, but I can’t wake up early to do an exercise video and I can’t use my precious “extra” time to take a 1.5 hour yoga class. I can ride the bike we have downstairs or take a quick jog — that has to be enough, for right now anyway). It’s hard to stay disciplined about that because heaven knows I’d LOVE to be yoga-ing it up right now! Thanks for the reminder that discipline comes in many forms… xox

    April 24, 2014
  2. jenleap #

    I’ve been thinking a lot about discipline lately too. Before, for me, discipline used to mean strictly following what I felt I “should” be doing: following rules created by some unknown. Then something shifted and discipline took on a new meaning. I began to realize that discipline meant making sure that my actions were in line with my highest priorities and goals. It meant not acting on autopilot or taking the easy route. It also requires awareness of the shifting nature of priorities: as you said, sometimes what is most important is to rest.

    April 25, 2014
    • Thanks for such a thoughtful comment! I like your framing of discipline as “making sure that my actions were in line with my highest priorities and goals.” Beautiful. That’s the hard work. 🙂

      April 25, 2014
  3. ebriceno #

    I feel this is so important, and something I have lots of room to improve on. I like the term ‘non-goals’, and it seems to me that having a word to describe what it stands for can be very helpful, so we can identify when something is not something we’ll choose to act upon – I’ll share your post with my colleagues, thanks!

    April 28, 2014

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