Habit vs. Discipline

Habit vs. Discipline

I am not a disciplined person. Now, some people who know me to be a regular gym-goer and early-to-bed’er may call bullsh*t, but it is absolutely the truth. I’ve never been the type of person who walks a straight line between Point A and Point B; I’m more of a meanderer, feeling and thinking in creative and cyclical ways. While I am deadline-oriented and unfailingly diligent when working for others, I often struggle to achieve self-set goals.
Cut out sweets? I can eloquently reason my way into the benefits of dark chocolate, the harmlessness of small pleasures, and the evils of diet culture. Time to practice? I can easily prioritize writing deadlines, laundry, private clients, and other important tasks. And let’s not mention procrastinating on my taxes or the persuasive seduction of Netflix or that second glass of Pinot Noir. If I were truly disciplined, you might already have my book(s) on you shelves. Discipline is not my forte.
Fortunately, I have come to realize that habit is different than discipline. James Clear in Atomic Habits, defines a habit as “a behaviour that has been repeated enough times to become automatic.” Discipline, however, is about prescribed conduct, obeying rules, and self-control. They are not antonyms; they are kissing cousins. I believe it is easier for an undisciplined person to create or change habits than it is to become a disciplined individual.
One of the simplest ways for me to guarantee that I hit the gym or sticky mat is to establish a habit that requires little to no forethought. I set out my gear before I go to sleep – yes, just like Mom did for me in kindergarten: socks, undies, leggings and sports top. They’re piled neatly beside my bed before I turn out the lights. The kettle is filled with the water for my morning green tea, and my backpack is stowed and ready in my front hall closet so I can grab it and get out the door before I’m too awake to object.
Other daily and weekly habits disguise themselves as discipline, as well. To safeguard sleep hygiene, an alarm goes off on my phone to remind me it’s time for my bath, and having a novel on the go helps me to avoid snuggling up with a blue-lit computer. Grocery lists and food prep Sundays help stave off midday grazing and expensive Uber-ordering. I try to stack habits, layering something I’m not inclined to do with something I like to or must do. For example: I adore fresh, clean sheets but too often forget to water my plants, so every Saturday morning I’m in the habit of showering the flora in between stripping and making my bed. Whenever I can, I look for accountability partners, track results, break larger projects into small jobs with specific deadlines and daily work schedules…
Gazing through a yogic lens, “discipline” may be equated to the Sanskrit term tapas, which comes from the Sanskrit root tap, meaning “to burn.” To apply discipline, you need to strike your own match, fan your own flames with determination and purposeful drive. It’s absolutely doable, but requires effort and implies that we are already willing, dedicated, and overcoming conflicting desires. Habit, on the other hand, is more closely aligned with concept of “samskara” or an enduring pathway in one’s psyche. Input from experiences and sensations, whether conscious or not, create grooves into which we easily slide. It’s difficult to smooth out a deep negative groove (for example, having that after-work cocktail) or create a new and enduring one (starting up regular meditation). However, once you dig through the hard topsoil, you hit something softer, more fertile, which may lead to the path of lesser resistance – a positive habit that becomes part of who you are.
Little cheats are everywhere. With self-examination and awareness, you’ll find what works for you. Then repeat until a habit is formed. If you’ve got any tips on cultivating the habits, I beg you to share! Or, if you’re looking for an accountability partner, I’d love to help. Keep me posted..*


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