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On Discipline

It’s ironic that the morning mail arrived with promotional brochures on two seminars: "Getting It All Done" and "Successful Project Management". Ironic because I’m sitting here at my computer trying to gather my thoughts about this subject. "Trying" because deadlines are stacking up like airliners at O’Hare airport.

We were facilitating a staff retreat for a client this week and their chief frustration was managing their time effectively to accomplish their goals. Everywhere we go, people share the same frustration. The finger can be pointed in many directions: ever increasing expectations; greater responsibilities; fewer human resources; diminished availability of volunteers; a faster pace wrought by technologic advances. You can add your own litany.

The finger can be pointed in many directions and often is, but we should be pointing at ourselves. It is a matter of discipline, or rather self-discipline. We are reminded of that all the time -- by supervisors, spouses, salespeople for time management tools, seminar presenters.

I don’t know about you, but I usually bristle when told I should be managing my time better. I think my response reflects my childhood experience of discipline. Even though I was reared during the ascendancy of Dr. Spock, I was disciplined by my parents just as most of us were. That small child is still with me.

There’s something to this, I think. Although it was necessary for us as children to be disciplined by our parents, it was often negative. We heard "no" frequently -- and sometimes quite loudly. We had our hands slapped, our arms yanked, our bottoms swatted, our ears pulled. Most of the time for good reason and with love -- for our safety and general well-being.

Gradually, our parents disciplined us less and less and we assumed more and more responsibility for ourselves. However, others took over our parents’ roles -- teachers, coaches, employers, et al. As a result, discipline as a matter of practice remains essentially an external control for many of us. Sometimes I think even our use of Day Timers and other such systems are as much an effort to provide discipline from outside ourselves as they are to remind us of meetings and tasks to be done.

Psychoanalyst Rollo May in Man’s Search for Himself wrote that freedom and responsibility go together. When we accept that principle, what "happens is that discipline from the outside is changed into self-discipline. He accepts discipline not because it is commanded...but because he has chosen with greater freedom what he wants to do with his own life, and discipline is necessary for the sake of the values he wishes to achieve....(I)t is, I believe, a lesson everyone progressively learns in his struggle toward maturity."

Discipline has to be integrally connected to our desire for growth and our love for ourselves. We have to get past the barrier of viewing discipline as sacrifice, denial or negative reinforcement. Philosopher Tom Morris in True Success concludes that successful living and working is partly a process of self-discipline. He believes that self-discipline is doing "whatever it is necessary to do whenever we want to, or need to, remain on target, pursuing what we deeply love and value even when we don’t especially feel like it. It takes self-discipline to persist through difficulties. But if what we are working toward is a goal dear to our hearts, that self-discipline is ultimately in service to the best sort of self-indulgence imaginable."

That’s a paradigm shift for many of us in our culture. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm points out in The Art of Being that "in our Western tradition duty and virtue are considered harsh taskmasters; in fact the best proof that one acts rightly is that it is unpleasant, the proof of the opposite that one likes to do it." In this regard he promotes the superiority of the Eastern tradition. "It bypasses the polarity between rigid, stiff discipline and lazy, slouching ‘comfort.’ It aims at a state of harmony, which is at the same time structuralized, ‘disciplined’ (in the autonomous sense), alive, flexible, and joyful."

Which do you tend toward -- the Western or Eastern attitude? It makes a large difference, I think, in how successful we are in our attempts to impose self-discipline habitually.

It’s not just a matter of will power -- of exerting our will over our inclinations. We have to stop saying "no" to ourselves and start saying "yes." How do we do that? Saying "yes" requires energy. Where does that energy come from? It springs from mission and vision -- both personal and organizational. And aren’t we fortunate that working for nonprofit organizations enables us to blend those easily?

Mission and vision connects "what" with "why". It’s easy to set goals for ourselves personally and in our work. But how much commitment do we really have to achieving those? You and I know that we have to be sufficiently motivated if we’re going to make them happen. We have to have the energy and enthusiasm that comes from pursuing something important to us. And it has to be something we love if we are going to pursue it day in and day out.

Stephen Covey puts it well in First Things First, "Without the passion of vision, ‘discipline’ is regimentation and restraint -- control yourself, grit your teeth, white-knuckle your way through life." Not a very appealing prescription for living life well, is it? He goes on, "But the passion of vision releases the power that connects ‘discipline’ with its root word, ‘disciple.’ We become followers of our inner imperatives, voluntarily subordinating the less important to that deep burning ‘yes!’ Instead of ‘control,’ we’re focused on ‘release.’"

We have to keep our eyes on the end results we want. And I mean that literally. I think it’s important to write down our goals and keep them in view at our desk. They need to be specific and succinct.

However, to make it work we have to get down to the real "why" that motivates us. For example, it may be good business for me to write a book. It may result in speaking engagements or the opportunity to work with new clients. Those are important. But the real motivation -- what will give me the discipline to make it happen -- is the desire to share ideas with others who can use them effectively to make this a better world for all of us. I want to have an impact. I want to leave this world a better place for having taken up space for the span of years I’m given. I want to bring the kingdom of God closer.

Then, when it comes to deciding between allocating time to writing or doing something else, my goal is staring me in the face. It helps stir up the passion I need to say "yes" to my own desire. And also to say "no" to those things that keep me from it; "no" to the inconsequential that can clutter up my life.

There are times when a specific task that is necessary to achieve my goal seems like drudgery. By keeping focused on the goal I can overcome the tendency to put aside the immediate task. As E.M. Gray stated in his essay The Common Denominator of Success, "The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don’t like to do. They don’t like doing them either necessarily. But their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose."

And so it is in our work as development professionals. You may not like using the telephone very much. But when you keep your attention on what you’re after -- which is developing relationships with those people who can make a big difference for our organizations -- it’s a lot easier to set time aside on your calendar, pick up the telephone, and make an appointment.

Time management is all about self-discipline. And self-discipline depends on saying "yes" to ourselves to accomplish what is important to us. So, spend some time determining how your work reinforces your personal values, create your goals on that foundation, and keep those goals fixed firmly before you.

Best wishes to you for a healthy, productive and happy new year.

Suggested reading:

Covey, Stephen, First Things First, Fireside, New York, 1994.

Covey, Stephen, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Fireside, New York, 1989.

Fromm, Erich, The Art of Being, The Continuum Publishing Company, New York, 1989.

May, Rollo, Man’s Search for Himself, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1953.

Morris, Tom, True Success, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1994.


Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy


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