Cultivating Discipline

I wrote about the role of Motivation, Drive, and Discipline in another article. Here, I want to dive deeper into how to cultivate these aspects – particularly discipline – to help you built & keep progress and momentum on your game, even when things get hard.

Cultivating Drive

While it may seem Drive is an innate, set, piece of the psyche – like most anything, it can be grown and strengthened. Drive is intimately linked to your why. This, of course, is going to be different from person to person, tethered to their personality, temperament, and psychology. One why is not better than another in terms of Drive – what’s important is understanding it. The more you can distill and crystalize your why, the more you can use it lean into your Drive.

Drive provides the route to getting, achieving, or connecting with your why.

Cultivating Motivation

Motivation can be hard to simply ignite.

While you can’t always just call upon it (like you can with discipline) you can provide a mental environment that’s more conducive to it. Sometimes, of course, it just strikes – born from an internal inspiration (like how a great new idea can provide motivation to do research) or an external consideration (like how an incoming tornado provides motivation to take shelter… Or, if you live where I do – to open your front door and look for funnel cloud).

If you find yourself looking to jumpstart motivation, you can try:

  • Thinking about previous successes.
  • Thinking about what’s already accomplished
  • Thinking about what there is to gain

If you’re like me, you’ll find some of these work better than others – and it’s entirely dependent on my state, my environment, my task or project, and more.  The kicker is, even finding the right tool may not summon forth the motivation you’d like — which leads us to our next topic.

Cultivating Discipline

Unlike Motivation, Discipline is directly under your control – it’s the tool you can always bring to a task (it may not always feel like it, but you can). Cultivating Discipline is conceptually simple – but it’s far from easy.  It requires building habits, it requires focus, and perhaps most challenging – it requires doing the “hard thing”.

Cultivating Discipline is largely a function of practice, habit-building, and mindset.  I’ve seen some interesting information on more carefully regulating dopamine to help your brain tie a sense of reward to progress – but, I, myself, don’t have enough experience or knowledge to advocate for that – though, if it works for you – fantastic.

For me, as dour as it may sound, Discipline is cultivated by managing pain. You have to make the pain of not doing the work – the lost revenue, the lost opportunity, and the lost career growth – greater than the pain of discipline. Motivation is largely about what you have to gain. Discipline is largely a function of what you have to lose.

I want to stress that this does not mean embracing your work – or your life – with pessimism and defeat. Discipline provides a route to success. Doing what you need to do in order to accomplish a large and important goal is inherently optimistic. But, when you get down to biology – neurons & synapses – most times, your brain would much rather watch a youtube video than work on that spreadsheet again. There is, for lack of a better word, a sense of pain attached to the work.  In order to get your brain on your side, it’s helpful to show it that in reality, the pain you’ll experience by doing the work is – over the long term – significantly less than the pain of not accomplishing your goals.

As I said, simple – but not easy. At the risk of going meta – you need Discipline to develop Discipline. And you’re never going to be perfect. No one is. But the more disciplined you can be, the more you can accomplish.

Though, as noted, it can certainly be challenging to develop discipline, there are a few strategies, tools, and approaches you can use to help make it easier.  Several options are outlined below. And, at least for myself, when I’m actively trying to further develop my discipline, I find that breadth is better than depth – I found more success integrating elements from many of the strategies & tools below, rather than over-indexing on one. You may find the same is true for you.

Habits, Tracking, and Systems

Habits, Tracking, and Systems can help mitigate both Cognitive Load and Decision Fatigue (sworn arch enemies of Discipline), taking them out of the equation, and making it much easier to get done what you need to get done. A solid habit means you won’t have to think as hard to get started (the task itself may still require heavy thought – but you won’t waste as many brain cycles actually getting that task started).

Tracking supports you as you build and develop those habits. It provides real, tangible, proof of your work and growing discipline, becoming a self-reinforcing loop.

Lastly, systems can wrap your habits and tracking into a repeatable, executable sequence. Meaning – once you’ve developed and honed it – you can just follow the process and get what you need, further reducing the cognitive load and decision fatigue.

Maintaining Balance

While the first “go-to” when I mention maintaining balance is the idea of breaks or other forms of self-care. There’s actually much more to it (though, breaks and self-care are critical to keeping up long-term high performance).

So, while balance may mean taking a break. It could also mean taking a break from that task. You may need to switch to another task to allow your brain to continue thinking about the first.

Balance may also mean balancing time & effort. Most high performers I work with strive to over-deliver. There’s merit to that. However, there’s also wisdom in figuring out when and where to over-deliver. Not everything has the same value to a client or stakeholder. Balance effort by focusing on the pieces that they care about most, that deliver the most value, and provide the best return.

This more focused approach makes it easier to stay disciplined, as your attention is narrowed and your goals are more clear.

Rest & Recharge

I touched on this a little above when discussing Maintaining Balance – But rest & recharge time is vital to long-term success in any field and to avoid burnout.  As high performers, we can all think of times we needed to put in extra time and extra effort to get results we felt good about delivering. Rest and recharge are necessary so that you have that energy and focus when you need it – precisely for situations like that. If you’re constantly running on empty, you won’t have the energy & focus to capitalize on the best opportunities.

Discipline takes a significant amount of mental energy, it’s critical you keep enough “in the tank” to be able to push if and when you need it.


This, admittedly, is not always in our own hands. Our work environment, role, experience, team, project, deliverables, timeline, and myriad other factors all play into how much agency (ie. freedom) we’re given to complete our work.

From my experience, mid and senior folks are able to work best, and best foster discipline, when they’re given ample agency to figure out how best to accomplish that work. It’s what allows them to build out the habits & systems discussed above.

I’ve also found that more junior folks work best when given a smaller range of agency (think guidance, not micro-management), and having them work with a senior or manager to develop habits and systems together.  One reason for this is that we want our more junior folks to develop good habits and good systems which help them learn, grow, and sets them up for success – and ultimately more agency.

Another reason is, juniors, are at max cognitive load a lot. They’re learning, which is critical but comes with a cost. Working with them to develop their habits, tracking techniques, and systems together removes some of that load — allowing them to learn, and improve, faster.

Applying All This To Your Own Productivity

Everyone is different. What works for one person won’t work for another. To that end, I suggest seeing what, from the information above, resonates with your own work style, environment, and projects.

Minimize Decision Fatigue and Cognitive Load

I will say, regardless of approach – looking for ways to minimize decision fatigue and cognitive load will give you more “headspace” to focus on your tasks – This is key to letting you embrace your drive, capitalize on motivation, and keep going through discipline.

Find or Develop Systems That Work For You

Finding systems that work for you is also a solid approach. The great thing about systems is that not only do they help you focus and run some tasks on “auto-pilot”, they can be tailored to your own needs. The more you can “mentally automate,” the more you can focus on more important work.

Batch Tasks To Maintain Momentum

Lastly, when and where you can, batch your work. This will make it significantly easier to keep your momentum when motivation fades and discipline needs to kick in.  As a leader and a producer, context-switching is part of my job. So, for me, batching tasks for the windows where I can go “heads down” is very helpful.

This approach helps me maintain discipline by minimizing friction. I start the session with a clear idea of what I need to do and all the work is related. It helps me sustain my motivation by allowing me to make measurable progress. Lastly, this batching supports my internal drive by giving me a structure and system that allows me to do my work at the quality level I want.

A Final Word

Drive and motivation are important factors in driving you and your team to make progress on your game. Unfortunately, if you rely on these alone, it will drastically slow your development and potentially derail your entire game. The key is not to rely on these but to build on them with discipline. No matter what tools you use to track and manage your progress, the single most important tool you have is discipline.

It’s hard to cultivate discipline. I don’t want to downplay the challenge here. Building habits, doing the hard work, and sitting down to get stuff done when you really REALLY don’t want to do that, is an incredibly difficult set of skills to develop. However, the benefits you gain far outweigh the challenges.

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