Take These Daily Steps to Develop Greater Discipline

By Mara Abbott
Olympian, CTS Athlete, and CTS Contributing Editor

I’m sure you all saw them – the tongue-in-cheek tweets, the self-deprecating Facebook comments highlighting the irony of watching the astonishing physical feats at the Winter Olympics while ensconced in a couch eating Doritos. (With a side of mint chip ice cream. And beer.) Clearly, those athletic fools on the plasma screen are taking up more than their fair share of humanity’s “discipline” allocation.

Hardly. Discipline isn’t the special sauce that allows us to adhere to challenging habits, and it’s an infinitely renewable resource. Discipline actually is a habit itself ­– and as such, it can be trained just as surely as your coveted watts-at-threshold.

My parents started with me early. As the youngest child in a family with an appetite for outdoor adventure, I often found myself hiking, backpacking or skiing at the back of the four-man Abbott Train. Loathe to show my fatigue, I would pick a rock ahead, or a tree. I just have to keep going until I make it to that tree, I would think, selecting an arbitrary trail chunk that felt manageable. Then, if I want to, I can sit down and quit. Having attained the tree, I would discover I had just enough energy to fixate on the knotted log one switchback up. I just have to make it to that log.

Many years later, in my first elite national cycling championships, I found myself in the lead group as we headed up the finishing climb to Seven Springs Resort in Pennsylvania. I was quite certain that the next pedal stroke might be my last, but maybe… I just have to make it to that road sign, then I can quit if I want to. Just to that road sign. I didn’t get dropped.

Thanks, Dad.

Pick manageable goals

Just like an athletic training program, it isn’t wise to attempt an instant sedentary-to-marathon transition, but do remind yourself that small changes add up. You will not wake up tomorrow and be suddenly capable of going to bed an hour earlier, adopting a sugar-free diet, attending a daily meditation group, foregoing social media, and also cooking every meal from scratch (if that describes your life already, you are on your own). You are abundantly capable, however, of going to bed ten minutes earlier or of starting your day with five minutes of deep, conscious breathing. Choose actions that might seem silly in quantity, but then hold yourself unequivocally accountable to show up for them. You can train discipline, but you can also overtrain it. Embrace steady, consistent progress over a meteoric rise (and ensuing burnout).

Do it every day

Focus on consistency, let go of magnitude. In building discipline, you are increasing your base capacity to rise to a challenge or goal. You will not change your life by mastering one single habit – no matter how great it is. There are no magical cures. You can, however, give yourself confidence in your resilience to take on whatever may unfold in front of you. Making discipline the habit you focus upon is like the old trick of using a single wish from a genie to ask for more wishes. Confidence requires repetition, constant reminders that you alone are the one who took the action, and thus, that you are capable of repeating it. Lao Tzu says, “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” I say, “I don’t care how small the action is, so long as you commit to yourself each and every day.”

Plan ahead – but be flexible

You will encounter obstacles and temptations on your path. These can be easier to navigate if you have identified them in advance. Do you get sucked into clicks and swipes every time you encounter a screen? Try deleting shortcut apps or posting a power-button sticky note to remind yourself to break the cycle. Have trouble overindulging when you dine out? Look at the menu ahead of time so you can make a smart choice before you are ravenous. Planning to go on a family vacation? Envision the schedule ahead of time to identify places where you can fit in your fifteen minutes of stretching without missing out on the experience.

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That being said, understand that goals and circumstances will shift, and be willing to honestly re-evaluate your commitments as necessary. One day off after two weeks of victories does not negate your successes. Allowing one day to turn into two or three as you convince yourself, “I wasn’t capable of this anyhow,” just might.

Reward yourself and be confident

My parents made me a points chart in my first season as a summer league swimmer. I accumulated credit for going to practice without complaining – and for rinsing my suit and hanging up my towel afterwards (though with adult reflection, that part may have just been for them). I could trade the points in for small rewards like nail polish or a soft-serve ice cream cone. Once, I made my dad go see Titanic with me after we laid stakes on my ability to not complain through an entire backpacking trip.

If your inner monologue is overfull with ways you can improve, and reasons your actions aren’t enough, this will not be a fun or fruitful process. Your big picture goal in pursuing discipline is to create confidence and consistency. A reward, a deserved whoop of glory or a self-assigned pat on the back is the best fuel you can ask for. You can chart your progress internally or on your smartphone-type device – or you can get out the poster board, a pack of five-color shiny star stickers, and tack it up on the fridge. As you prefer, so long as you celebrate your accomplishments!

The bottom line

Discipline is the simple habit of showing up for your goals every single day. All it requires is one small step – and you’re the only one who can take it. Begin. One foot forward, one deep breath, again and again… and again.

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Comments 4

  1. Can see how you became an olympic athlete. Hopefully you had lot of fun on those backpacking trips,swim camps also. Fantastic advice!

  2. Great article and advice, thanks!

    This sentence resonates for me: “Confidence requires repetition, constant reminders that you alone are the one who took the action, and thus, that you are capable of repeating it.”


  3. agree with everything in the article.

    i would add:

    1. know your purpose. discipline for discipline’s sake ain’t gonna work for most of us. (my current one is climbing a 6000 meter peak.)

    2. learn how to get up quickly, b/c you will fall off the training wagon many times. i’ve learned that spending your time wallowing in your lapse just makes matters worse, and makes it harder to bounce back. best is to acknowledge the f up and pop right back up. 🙂

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