The Interconnection Between Goals and Discipline

When it came down to choosing the first topic to talk about in Personal Development Week, discipline was an easy choice. Without the discipline to follow through with anything, you’ll have a difficult time achieving any of the other categories.

The biggest misconception about discipline is that if you don’t have it, than you don’t have it. Discipline is a skill, and just like any other skill, it can be learned over time.

The Importance of Goals

Before I get ahead of myself, it should be understood that discipline goes hand-in-hand with goal-setting. If you don’t set any goals, then it’s pretty easy to have the discipline to follow them. Setting goals is absolutely critical to achieving success in life. Sure you might fall into some success by wandering aimlessly, but good luck sustaining that throughout your entire life.

The problem is that, many times, people set the wrong type of goals – “I want to lose weight” is fine and dandy, except it’s not well defined. How much weight do you want to lose? An ounce? 100 pounds? How much time will you give yourself? 10 seconds? 10 years? A good goal is quantifiable AND has a deadline. “I want to lose 10 pounds by the end of August.” Now you have something you can work towards, and something that you can measure success against.

Achieving Goals Through Discipline

Ok, so now that we understand a little bit more about goals, discipline is about achieving them. Just how it’s easy to have discipline if you have no goals, it’s pretty easy to have goals but no discipline. You create a to-do list for yourself, or make a New Year’s Resolution (“Yay I started something”) but then you never follow through and achieve it (“Well at least I ‘tried’ right?”).

The problem with mentality is that re-inforces failure. Failure itself is not a negative, in fact failing can often be the greatest teachers of all – the key is that you have to learn something from them, and then it’s not really failure, it’s experience.

So if your goal is to wake up at 6am every day for a month, then discipline is ignoring the extreme desire to hit the snooze button when the alarm clock rings. It’s getting up despite your brain and body telling you otherwise. It’s not skimping on the weekends because you were up late the night before. It’s waking up at 6am, day in, day out, for that entire month.

But what if you don’t have discipline? What if you can’t force yourself to wake up at 6am, or to eat healthy to lose 10 pounds, or save money for retirement? Well there are often two main problems that are preventing your success: the goal itself and reward/punishment.

Setting Goals

When you are setting your goals, they have to be attainable. And that may be the hardest part, because it requires you to be completely honest with yourself.

While it might be great to think that your going to de-clutter your entire life in an afternoon, be honest with yourself – will it really happen? Have you achieved success that way before? Probably not.

Humans only have a certain capacity for which they can do the same activity before they must take a break (and some can go longer than others, but everyone has to eventually stop). That’s why your goals must be actionable and ideally broken down into sub-goals.

If your overall goal is to de-clutter your life, create smaller sub-goals or tasks that can help you achieve that. Start by throwing away something you don’t need away, every day. Just one thing. You don’t have to go through your entire closet, or finish an entire room – just throw one thing away today, and then another tomorrow, and then another the day after, etc. By the end of the year you’ll have removed 365 things from your life by taking just a couple minutes out of each day.

A goal broken into tasks like that is attainable, it’s easier to have that type of discipline. Once you start to achieve success with those smaller goals, create more involved ones. Over time you’ll create the habit of achieving your goal, and you’ll want to continue that streak, even though your goals are more stretching.

Rewards and Punishment

One of the keys to building that habit is to have rewards for when you succeed, and punishment when you fail. This can be easy to do when your goal deals with a third party (there’s a reason so many people learn discipline in the military: you have someone there you will not let you fail, and if you do, you will be punished till you succeed).

But for more intrinsic goals, you don’t always have someone there, to be in your ear about just having that one piece of cake that falls outside your diet, or those mere 15 minutes you slept in today – you have to be your own punisher. You have to accept that if you sleep in now, you won’t be getting that SleepComfort bed at the end of the year.

The other important part to this is that you should reward yourself. Just like dogs/kids/co-workers learn via a reward/punishment system, so do you. So if you drop those 3 pounds in the first week, reward yourself with something (not food, as that would be contradictory, but maybe a trip to the spa, or purchase of a new DVD).

Creating Accountability

Many of you may be wondering though, what if you don’t have the discipline to discipline yourself for lack of discipline? (Great question, you’re really paying attention.) That’s where your friends and family can help, as can remembering to always start small.

Friends and family can help by simply letting them know what it is you are trying to achieve. Hell, this blog is great for that. Once I state I’m going to do something on here, I feel like I have to, otherwise, in a way, I’m letting people down, and worse, somebody could call me out on my failures.

Too embarrassed to tell your close ones about a certain goal? Join a group that has a similar interest and make it public to them, or try a site like where you can post what it is you want to try to do and you can find others trying to achieve the same thing.

The other part is so important that it bears repeating yet again: start small. Remember: discipline is learned, and once it becomes learned, it becomes a habit, and once it’s a habit, it’s a sure-fire way to success in all other aspects of life.

A Process to Build Discipline

If you really have trouble with discipline, try this:

  1. Set the goal that every day for a week, you are simply going to clap 5 times. That’s it: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Done.
  2. For each day you achieve this goal, reward yourself with something small (bubblegum from the store, and extra 2 minutes in the shower, whatever, just some type of reward, something small).
  3. The next week, set the goal to do 10 jumping jacks every day.
  4. Again reward yourself for the days that you make, and this time punish yourself for the days that you miss (each day missed = 10 situps the next day).
  5. For the third week, write out the word “discipline” 15 times.
  6. Repeat the reward/punishment for each day of success/failure.
  7. Now for the final week, simply say “I will succeed” (or any other cheesy phrase you want), 20 times a day.
  8. Reward yourself for the successes, punish for the failures.

By the time you are done, it will have been 28 days – coincidentally the number of days (it is believed) to establish a habit. If you succeeded every day for 28 days, you’ve just learned the habit of success.

Now take that, and apply it to something slightly bigger, but still a relatively easy goal. Over time you will be able to keep increasing the stakes of your goals, while achieving success.

So now that we’ve learned some of basics of goals and discipline, tomorrow we’ll talk about achieving success. The two topics are closely intertwined, but tomorrow, we’ll get more into the definition of success as well as talk more about the grand scheme of life.

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drew tarvin

Andrew Tarvin is the world’s first Humor Engineer teaching people how to get better results while having more fun. He has worked with thousands of people at 250+ organizations, including P&G, GE, and Microsoft. He is a best-selling author, has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and TEDx, and has delivered programs in 50 states, 20+ countries, and 6 continents. He loves the color orange and is obsessed with chocolate.

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