The importance of discipline in a successful life

I spent a glorious hour last week tuning into a live talk with the author Alexander McCall Smith, hosted by the Caledonian Club in London, but of course all on Zoom (which made it much more accessible, if less social). Anyway, he was, as ever, a delightful speaker – entertaining, modest, self-deprecating, intelligent, with a wealth of experience in life and work behind him. He is also (as his fans will know, and very much appreciate) a prodigious writer, and he was very clear in his talk about how he achieved this – through discipline and focus. He has a system – a certain number of words a day minimum, and a certain time of day when he writes – and if he does not follow this structure, he feels discombobulated … and he knows that he does not produce what his publishers, his audience, the world at large – and he – desire and need from him. Without Alexander McCall Smith’s self-discipline, the literary world would be a far less rich and interesting place.

This is a tale I have heard told multiple times over the years by authors speaking at the International Edinburgh Book Festival about their success and how they achieved it. I have also heard it from successful entrepreneurs, from professional sportspeople, from senior leaders in schools … from everyone, in fact, who has ever been successful at anything. Setting your mind to something, with rigour and focus, and sticking to it, finding ways to make it a part of your daily existence, is – it is probably fair to say – a necessity if you want to self-develop. This isn’t a novel idea – Aristotle pretty much had it nailed, in fact, when he wrote back in the 3rd century BC that ‘through discipline comes freedom’.

So what stops us? Perhaps it is the fear of what ‘rigour’ or ‘focus’ might mean in practice? Or the fear of change, of something different? Or perhaps we have tried before and ended up not quite achieving what we wanted to? My simple advice would be – quite simply – bin all of these thoughts, as they aren’t serving you well. You can’t change the past (although you can change how you think about it); you can, though, change the future, so do. Just take any inhibiting thoughts by the scruff of the neck, acknowledge anything they may have helped you with in the past, and then just put them firmly and definitively on the side of the path you are planning to follow. You need never be alone in this pursuit of a goal – choose your companions, guides and coaches, and you will set yourself up to succeed … and enjoy doing so. If you are looking for a modern, straight-talking guide to developing self-discipline, with exercises to help you, then I recommend Willpower by the fabulous Ros Taylor, executive coach and businesswoman extraordinaire. One of her key recommendations is to remember that the self-discipline or willpower required to fulfil your goals is a mindset: “Willpower is limitless, but remember: acquiring a willpower mindset is a journey, not a leap.”

So – take heart and have courage on this journey, and above all embrace it. Discipline … the key to success. Enjoy!


    • Caz Jude on March 29, 2021 at 12:31 pm
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    Such an interesting read Helen. I had thought a lot about resilience, but not about will power. However it is equally important, if we give up on something then we can’t make our dreams a reality. We need to be thinking about how we train future generations to have the will power and discipline to prioritise what needs to be done and complete tasks. I have friends and colleagues who have planned to do additional qualifications and either not done them or not completed them. The only reason I did my Masters was because my friend applied to do hers. However she never started the course. Setting daily/,weekly goals that are manageable clearly helps as long as they are realistic and include time to deal with the unexpected. Having will power and determination is hard. It is easier just to give up on something, but we have to keep going in order to have the opportunity of an even brighter future!

    • KATHRYN WYER on March 30, 2021 at 12:44 am
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    Thanks for this – the reminder I needed today. As someone who is rather fluid by nature, I need the imposed discipline if I am to achieve anything. Although difficult to adhere to for me, the discipline really does give freedom and it requires constant work. Ideally something cultivated in children from a young age too.

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