Celebration of discipline

The word ‘discipline’ has more than one meaning. So you know the sense I intend here, I’ll begin with a definition: Discipline is an attitude of mind and a way of doing things without which hardly anything worthwhile or lasting gets done.

Therefore, I’m not writing about discipline as punishment. During my school years in Scotland I had unwelcome meetings with the tawse[1] (the word is plural of taw which means whip) which inflicted considerable pain on my hand. Thankfully, this so-called discipline was abolished in the 1980s. Punishment is not what I’m meaning here when I use the word ‘discipline’.

Nor does my title ‘celebration of discipline’ imply the meaning of discipline used by Richard Foster in his 1978 book ‘Celebration of Discipline’. Wikipedia describes Foster’s book as an examination of ‘the inward disciplines of prayer, fasting, meditation, and study in the Christian life, the outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission, and service, and the corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.’[2] It’s a remarkable book which has sold over a million copies. But I’m not writing about spiritual disciplines.

A few examples will show the sense of ‘discipline’ I mean.

Example 1    At the age of 17 I learned to touch type. (I was taught both shorthand and typing at a further education college, as part of training for journalism. There were only two males in a class with 20 females.) On large, old-fashioned typewriters, we learned to rest our index fingers on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys, and type fffff jjjjj, over and over again. Then we did fjfjfjfjfj and jfjfjfjfjf. The following week we did the same drills with middle fingers on the ‘d’ and ‘k’ keys, moving gradually from ddddd kkkkk to dfjkdfjkdfjk or kjfdkjfdkjfd or even dkfjdkfjdkfj. When more fingers and keys were in play, we moved on to simple words and sentences. Initially these exercises were mind-numbingly boring but, with practice, I did learn to touch type which gave me a great sense of achievement. While most of my fellow journalists typed with only two fingers and stared at their keyboards, I used eight fingers and one thumb (the other thumb is never used), and to this day don’t look at the keyboard. The discipline of those drills gave me a skill for life.

Example 2    For many years I prepared at least one but often two sermons every week. Often I’d write them out in full, some 4000 words each. There were two problems:

1) Never enough time to research and prepare;

2) Sometimes a mind blank about the next sermon.

There were two answers to those two problems:

1) The absolute deadline of an approaching Sunday. I had to be ready by then, which forced me to get on with the preparation;

2) The remark of Scottish theologian William Barclay about ‘writer’s block’: that the art of inspiration is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. In other words, stop faffing about and get on with the work.

The discipline of the deadline and the discipline of just sitting down, starting the work, and letting inspiration come, meant my sermons were always ready.

Example 3    Twice recently we’ve noticed a woman go past our house, but she pauses after every two or three steps. Why stop like that? She’s training her young dog to walk on the lead by her side. She moves forward, so does the dog, but after only a few steps the dog pulls ahead. So, she stops, makes the dog wait, and then begins again. When the dog gets it right, it’s rewarded; when it gets it wrong, she never shouts, just waits and then they restart. Most importantly, she never gives up on the training. My wife Alison knows a lot about dog behaviour and she’s impressed. That woman’s discipline – of herself and the dog – will have huge benefits for years to come.

So, with these examples in mind, I hope you can see why, for this blog, I defined discipline as:

  • an attitude of mind
  • a way of doing things
  • without which hardly anything worthwhile or lasting gets done

Discipline is about how we think and how we act. And discipline is necessary to succeed in things that matter.

I’ll expand on each of these.

Discipline as an attitude of mind

I was probably only the right weight once: on the day I was born. That day came only a few years after World War II ended, while food shortages were still common. My parents’ idea was that a chubby child was a healthy child. In fact I was overweight. I’m still chubby, though keep protesting much of it is muscle. I’ve read various books on losing weight. One book effectively pronounced me a lost cause. The author said that, in middle age, almost no overweight person gets back to their ideal weight and stays there. The very few who maintain their right weight have rigid discipline. They’d achieve their daily step count no matter the weather, and would not eat even a single square of chocolate.

The rigidity of that statement troubled me then and still. But I got the author’s point that a seriously disciplined mindset was essential. I’ve known people try to break drinking and smoking habits who lost the battle early on because they told themselves ‘Breaking the rules won’t matter just once’ or ‘I can have a holiday day occasionally’. But those ‘just once’ and ‘holiday’ days soon become frequent, and the cause is lost. Sometimes being lax with discipline is immediately and seriously dangerous. If, when I’m riding my motorbike, I wasn’t unfailingly disciplined about doing my life-saver shoulder check, I might be dead.

Whether we’re thinking of personal safety or goal achievement, a ‘happy go lucky’ attitude isn’t good enough. A disciplined way of thinking is essential.

Discipline as a way of working

I’ve had six books published and contributed chapters to two more. Is it difficult to write a book? For me, the honest answer is ‘no’ and ‘yes’. At any moment I have 50 ideas of things I could write about, and at least one of them makes some sense and would be of interest. So I don’t lack a subject. Then, once the idea is clear, writing isn’t difficult for me. I’ve written easily since I was a child. I could churn out thousands of words a day if I needed to.

But I have at least two difficulties with a major writing project. The first is the simple but hard one of making myself sit down and type the words. My mind will flip to ten other things I could do, some of which will be more fun and give quick rewards. Writing can be a slog, and a book is a long game. The work is tough. The second challenge is editing. Writing the first draft for a book is creative and perhaps exciting, but after that comes revision after revision: correcting typos, clarifying thought, cutting unnecessary material, watching for contradictions, and so on. That’ll happen at least ten times, and I’ve edited some books more than twenty times. Editing is very tedious.

I deal with the first of these – making myself do the work – by creating a non-negotiable deadline (publishers often impose those anyway!) A favourite phrase of mine is ‘A deadline is the mother of motivation’. It works for me.

And I deal with the second – making myself do the boring work – by defining minimum targets I must meet each day. So, when I typed my 400+ page thesis on a typewriter where almost no errors can be corrected, my goal was three pages a day. I would get home from an evening meeting about 10.00, then type and retype from 11.00 to 1.00 in the morning to achieve three perfect pages. I could not do that every night (I was often travelling), but on every day possible I produced three pages without fail. It got done – and the thesis was accepted.

Each person will have their own method, but it must be a disciplined way of working.

Discipline as essential for anything worthwhile or lasting to get done

Three things fit under this heading.

First, you can be casual with trivial things but must be serious to achieve important things. When a young golfer began on the professional tour, his brilliant play got everyone’s attention. He won a few tournaments, and the experts tipped him for the top, saying that with his potential he’d win all the major championships. Yet as he moved through his 20s there were only a handful of modest successes. When he was 30, he admitted he’d put more into living the good life than into his golf game. Now he would change. But he didn’t change. He didn’t dedicate himself to practise or to follow his coach’s instruction, and never succeeded at the highest level. He lacked discipline, and never fulfilled his potential.

We’re constantly tempted to dabble. We do a little of this, then some of that. We start and then stop. We do what we like and avoid what we dislike.

Life can be lived without discipline. But it’ll be a life devoid of what’s most worthwhile.

Second, the best things in life last only with hard work. You can bring in a team of designers, gardeners, labourers and volunteers and create a beautiful garden in one or two days. Plenty TV programmes show that’s possible. But, all too often, the garden they make is at its most gorgeous only until the TV cameras leave, or for only a few days. Why not longer? Why not always? Because a garden is a living, changing thing, and without disciplines like weeding, watering, fertilising, pruning, cutting, planting its beauty won’t last.

Nor does a marriage stay wonderful without constant care and investment. Or a career mature without development and upskilling. Even a product needs continual adjustment or reinvention to meet evolving tastes and needs.

Disciplined hard work is essential for longevity.

Third, to win a race you must both start and finish. In London and Chicago I’ve watched marathon runners stream past heading for their medals at the 26 mile finishing line. I’ve stood off to the side thinking how marvellous it would be to run a marathon and get a medal. But there are two barriers for me. One, I’d never have the courage to enter. Two, I’d never have the ability to finish. And you don’t get the medal without entering and finishing.

Many read a novel and think they could write just as well as the author. Or listen to a singer and reckon their voice is just as good. Or consider they could give advice just as ingenious as the consultant their firm brought in. But they don’t do any of these things. They don’t start, or, if they do, they don’t finish. They lack determination and they lack perseverance, both of which require discipline. Only with those do the best things actually get done.

Let me finish with this. Some people are super-disciplined. Some people are ill-disciplined. Then there are those who are disciplined in some things but not others. I’m in that middle category. Usually I long to be more disciplined. I’d achieve more of the things that really matter to me. Yet I wouldn’t want the possible downsides, such as the inflexibility that I sometimes see in my super-disciplined friends. So, in respect of discipline, my report card would read: ‘Has some discipline, but might benefit from more!’ Perhaps you’d like to ponder what your report card would say…


[1] More about the tawse here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tawse

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Foster_(theologian)