Discipline Looks Different For Everyone

Ask anyone in any subset of the athletics industry about their top tips for getting in shape or improving in your designated sport, and they’ll likely tell you that the key to improvement is discipline. “You have to keep showing up,” they say, “even when you aren’t motivated.”

I’ve always agreed with this to some extent, especially as someone who often lacks motivation. Eight years of jiu-jitsu have made me constantly tired and sore, and sometimes I feel like I only show up to train because it’s just what I do after all these years, much like brushing my teeth or making my tea in the morning.

The truth is, I’ve never considered myself to be a disciplined person. I’ve made countless promises to myself that Today Is The Day that I develop a jogging routine or clean up my diet or start a project early instead of procrastinating until the final hours before the deadline. But, you know, running sucks and pizza’s great. Shrug.

For ages, this pattern turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I was surrounded by extremely disciplined people at the gym who did daily workouts at home (with no coach telling them what to do???), ate clean, and then showed up to train their hardest in jiu-jitsu. And I… was just not like that. I’d accepted it and loathed myself for it. I felt like a failure because I could only bring myself to exercise when I had someone in charge telling me what to do and how long to do it for. If there was junk food in the house, I was too undisciplined to keep away from it. And whatever kept me coming back to jiu-jitsu sure wasn’t “discipline,” so I chalked it up to another case of me doing something just because I wanted to, considering myself lucky that this habit was at least a good one.

It felt very strange and even wrong when my friends would tell me that they envied my “drive,” or that they wished they had my “discipline” to train as much as I do. The impostor syndrome hit me hard. My first instinct was to shut them down and invite them to spend a day with me so they could see firsthand what a mess I was when left to my own devices. But then I forced myself to let that go and tried to see things from their perspective. As it turns out, I do train pretty hard (and, like, all the time). And, no, my diet isn’t perfect, but I make an effort to keep healthy foods in the house so I’m forced to eat the right things. I may not be the type to schedule an at-home workout by myself, but if I arrange to do some sort of physically demanding activity with friends, I don’t bail unless I absolutely have to.

The more I talked with my friends who I saw as being hyperdisciplined, the more I realized that I wasn’t alone. Everyone who I admired for just Doing The Thing had their own ways of achieving their goals, and most of them involved a bit more creativity than the old mantra of “Do it even if you don’t want to do it.” When I expressed that I had a hard time exercising without someone ordering me around, one friend told me, “Oh, same. Now I only do group classes. It’s more expensive, but worth it.” Another acknowledged that they would find every excuse to not go to training unless they arranged to partner with a certain friend in class; the guilt involved in leaving their friend partnerless was enough to get them off the couch and into the gym. And you know, looking back, I’ve heard the phrase “I only showed up today because people were talking about going out for food afterward” fairly often.

Extend yourself a bit more grace if you think you’re undisciplined, and instead ask yourself what would convince you to put in the work needed to achieve your goals. Is guilt your biggest motivator? Friendship? The promise of a more immediate reward? Find out what your version of discipline looks like, and experiment with it until you find what works for you. Be willing to experiment, and be gentle with yourself when you inevitably aren’t perfect. Continuing to try, even when it gets hard, is discipline itself.


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