“Discipline brings freedom,” said Richard Foster.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately meditating on those three words.
To me there’s a difference between being organized and being disciplined.
Most people who know me would say I’m pretty organized. I handle paperwork quickly and efficiently. I’m timely in completing tasks, returning emails and phone calls. I stay focused on reducing clutter and keeping my laptop files in order. In fact, one friend told me recently that she thinks I’m one of the most organized people she knows.
Truth be told, however, I may be organized, but I am sorely lacking in discipline.
Discipline, to me, is about forcing yourself to make the most important priorities routine. It’s about doing them consistently, so that over time your life begins to bear the fruit God wants it to bear.
Organization cares little about what’s truly important; it only focuses on becoming more efficient at whatever your hand finds itself to do.
The way I’ve tackled this problem in the past is to take an extended period of time to get away and reflect on my gifts, opportunities, responsibilities and passions, and afterwards distill these disparate pieces of information into a list of priorities.
“This,” I tell myself as I stare at the completed list, “is what I am going to focus on! Like Odysseus’s men who put beeswax in their ears to muffle the sirens’ luring melodies to steer them towards the rocks, I’m going to schedule, prioritize, and systematize my way into staying focused on what’s most important.”
But sure enough, after, let’s say, a few days, or sometimes, honestly, within a few hours, things start to slip. By the week’s end I’m back to feeling guilty for allowing the tyranny of the urgent to slowly take my life back over. “The best-laid battle plans,” the old maxim goes, “rarely make it past the first few gunshots.”
That’s because, as I’m learning, discipline is not about declaring our priorities, it’s about completing achievable tasks every day.
This is where I’ve been slipping up.
Anne Lamott’s father’s once gave her advice about the need to discipline herself regarding her writing. She recalled his words went like this:
“Do it every day for a while,” my father kept saying. “Do it as you would do scales on the piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things.”
That final statement, to me, is the secret to becoming and staying a disciplined person. Commit yourself, not in a generic sense to vague priorities, but to finishing things.
Literally, start with anything.
That’s what I’ve been doing.
I’ve been focusing my time and energy finishing stuff.
That article I said I’d write.
Those books I’ve started, but have been laying on my nightstand for months.
That small task that’s been sitting on my to-do list for months.
Ecclesiastes 7:8 tells us, “It is better to finish something than to start it.”
That’s why I’ve been devoting myself to finishing everything I start. I mean EVERYTHING. Trying this has quickly made me see the importance of saying “No” and not starting things I know I shouldn’t spend time on (which is half the battle).
Sure enough, like Richard Foster said would happen, this discipline has brought freedom to my life; mostly in regards to how discipline makes me feel. I feel centered and on track, but mainly I feel good about the way I’m spending my time and the kind of impact I’m starting to see.
If you feel the need to become more disciplined in your life, take the writer of Ecclessiates’ (and Anne Lamott’s father’s) advice: make a commitment to finish things.
You’ll be amazed at the difference it will start to make in your life.
Have you struggled with a lack of discipline? What have you done to overcome it?