Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

It's All About Building Discipline and Habits

Whenever I coach people, I tell them that they need to take the time to build discipline and habits before they’ll be able to do what they want to do. Some of them get sick of hearing me say that. But all of them agree that discipline and habits are essential for what they’re trying to accomplish.

Many people, though, find it hard to muster the discipline required to build habits. Mainly because they go about it in an inefficient way, a way that increases the odds of them failing.

What I want to share with you is what I teach my coaching clients about building discipline and habits. It’s worked for them. It just might work for you.

Start with a Plan

A plan is like a map. It gives you an idea of where you are, where you’re going, and lets you plot how to reach that destination. Without a plan, without the steps to follow to reach your destination, the journey is harder than it needs to be.

Think about what you want to do and where you want to be. Then, try to break what you need to do into small, manageable chunks.

Once you’ve got your tasks broken down, give yourself a reasonable amount of time to complete them. As the legendary Duke Ellington said:

I don’t need time, I need a deadline.

Giving yourself a series of deadlines will help you build the discipline and the habits that you need. But remember to make those deadlines reasonable. Don’t say I’m going to do x, y, and z by 4:30 p.m. on Friday. Most likely, you won’t meet that deadline. You’ll get discouraged. You might even give up.

An Example

Recently, I was working with a someone whose files were disorganized. Very disorganized. She was spending way too much time trying to dig up the things she needed.

We discussed her problem, and we came up with a plan. I had her sketch out, on paper, where she wanted all of her files to go. It wasn’t quite a directory tree; more of a set of boxes. I worked with her to tweak her diagram and when it was where it needed to be, I set her a group of tasks with deadlines.

Choose What’s Easiest

Low-hanging fruit, and all that. Why? Tackling the easiest tasks first helps not only build confidence it eases you into building discipline and habits. Say you’re starting to run. You don’t do 5K on the first day. You might do a few hundred metres or a kilometre, then slowly build up.

Let’s go back to the example of my coaching client. After I set her a group of tasks with deadlines, I had her focus on organizing what she seemed to be most enthusiastic about: her collection of music.

She took the sketch that I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, and zoomed in on how she wanted her music directory to look. I suggested few ways in which she could break that directory down: by decade, by genre, by group. She decided on the latter, and further broke that down by individual albums. She then organized the music of her favourite groups first — groups to which she listens to the most.

I gave her a deadline: to do that by the next coaching session.

Allocate A Little Time Each Day

Trying to do everything in a marathon session can be taxing and potentially frustrating. When travel, don’t reach destination by leaving house and taking few steps. It’s a long, gradual process.

Going back the my coaching client, I suggested that she devote 10 to 20 minutes a day to organizing her music collection. That helped her get into the rhythm and the discipline she needed to build the habit of not only organizing her files but keeping them organized. The tasks became part of her daily routine.

Slowly Build on What You’ve Started

As your discipline grows, so does your confidence. When that happens, you have the tendency to try to reach beyond where you are now. Sometimes radically. In theory, pushing your limits is good. In practice, that can cause frustration and knock you off track.

Instead, slowly build on what started. Each week, add five or 10 minutes to the time that you’ve allocated to what you’re trying to do. You will notice gains. They may be small, but no matter how small gains are gains.

The Tools Don’t Matter

The right tools can help, but it’s far too easy to get caught up in the search for the so-called perfect tool that you don’t get anything done. Anyway, the perfect tool doesn’t exist.

Use what you have. And remember that the tools don’t do the work. You do the work.

Building discipline and habits takes time. It takes effort. In building them, you’re tearing down old habits and patterns of behaviour. You’re rewiring your systems. You’re going against deep grains. Expect to backslide. Expect to slip into old habits every now and then. Don’t get angry with yourself. Don’t lose faith. Don’t give up. You’ll reach your goal of building discipline and building new habits.

Just take it one step at a time, one day at a time.

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