Follow on

I once made a determination to call a friend on the phone every day for one year.  He was new to the practice of Nichiren Buddhism and struggling with a misery of an intensity I’d rarely seen.  Anxiety and depression were overwhelming him and ruining the quality of his everyday life.  I’d hoped to encourage him by leveraging some discipline of my own.

Most days we’d talk for under two minutes.  My goal wasn’t to engage him in a lengthy and significant dialogue every day, which would have been exhausting to us both, but rather simply to remind him I was there and to try to bolster his determination to do something that he said he wanted to do and that I thought would help resolve his suffering. Sometimes we’d talk about the practice of Nichiren Buddhism and the effect practicing it had on my life.  Sometimes we’d talk about the barriers he found himself facing in trying to commit to chanting twice a day.  I found myself returning often to the metaphor of weight lifting.  I told him that steady efforts, if made day after day, pile up over time to yield formidable gains in size and strength.  He needed to accomplish the same thing with his life-condition.

He always thanked me for calling and asked if I was planning to call him again the next day.  I always answered yes.  “I don’t know where you get the discipline,” he’d often mutter just before saying goodbye and hanging up.


I think of discipline as the ability to expend energy toward a goal on a consistent, repetitive basis.  Every single one of us has the capacity to do this, no matter how lazy we may think we are.  Our ability to manifest discipline depends mostly on the state of our life-condition, but we can also say several factors are required for us to lead a disciplined life:

  1. A strong commitment.  If you intend to perform an action over and over again, you need to care about the reason you’re doing it.  If you don’t, you have two choices:  either find a way to understand why what you’re doing is important or find another reason you already care about to do it.
  2. A plan you believe will work.  Showing up to a baseball game having trained to play tennis will guarantee defeat no matter how sincere your intentions are.  If you lack confidence that the action you’re taking will lead to success, you’ll have trouble committing to it on a regular basis.
  3. The energy you need.  Consistency requires energy.  Eat well, exercise regularly, and get adequate sleep.
  4. An ability to go through the motions when your drive weakens.  There will always be days you don’t want to continue, days you try to convince yourself it won’t hurt to skip doing what you’re doing.  Treat these thoughts like the devilish functions they are.  Be neither frightened nor distracted by them.  Keep your eyes focused clearly on your long-term goal and continue even when you don’t feel like it.  Don’t let momentary fatigue or weakness ruin your momentum.
  5. Creative thinking about your schedule.  You must find a way to include your activity in your schedule in a sustainable way.  The number one reason my patients tell me they can’t exercise regularly is that their busy schedules won’t permit it.  “You can benefit from just 15 minutes of exercise a day,” I tell them.  “Is it really a problem of inadequate time to find 15 minutes to do something out of the 10-12 hours we spend awake each day?”  We really do have enough time.  What we often lack is the ability to prioritize and to set boundaries with others whose demands we allow to monopolize our schedules.
  6. Others around us who are doing the same thing.  Discipline is contagious as a virus.  Committing to your action with a partner will engage a sense of obligation to him or her that will help sustain your drive toward consistent action.  On days you don’t feel like taking action toward your goal, your partner’s discipline can buoy yours, and vice versa.
  7. A competitive nature.  If you have one, use it to motivate yourself.  Pick someone or something to compete against.  Not that you ever need to let anyone know, but if thinking about your activity as a competition motivates you, then do it.
  8. A willingness to start.  Carry out your determination every day, even if only once or for only one minute.  I told my Buddhist friend that chanting even a single time was better than not at all.  I tell my exercising patients that even going to the gym and doing only one set or jogging only five minutes is better than not going at all.  Often it’s mustering the activation energy that represents the greatest barrier to consistent action.  Once we get ourselves started we often discover continuing is less difficult than we thought.  What frequently makes starting an activity hard is our tendency to dwell on how much of it we have yet to do.  Focus all your energy on just getting yourself to start whatever it is you’re trying to do and don’t worry at all about how long you’re going to do it.  In fact, give yourself permission to stop immediately after you start.  Often, once you do start, even if you want to stop you’ll find yourself continuing.
  9. The creative use of technology.  Whether it’s a daily call to a friend, taking a medication, working out, or chanting, technology can help.  Program reminders into your cell phone.  Track your progress in a computerized spreadsheet program.

Ultimately, I succeeded in accomplishing my goal.  My Buddhist friend didn’t answer my calls every day, but every day he got one.  Three hundred sixty-five in all.  He didn’t chant every day, but every day he started out with the determination that he would.  In the end, however, he chose not to continue with his Buddhist practice.  And though his continuing was what I’d ultimately hoped for, I still managed to show him I cared about his happiness with more than words—with my disciplined action.  And as his story isn’t over yet, who knows what else that year of daily phone calls might one day accomplish?

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  • I like your definition of discipline Alex—the ability to expend energy toward a goal on a consistent, repetitive basis. Even though to decide to be disciplined at something is a choice it somehow seems more of a choice when put in the way you have. 🙂

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by DrRemy, Alex Lickerman. Alex Lickerman said: Discipline ain't easy, but it sure is worth having: https://imaginemd.com/2010/07/18/discipline/ […]

  • Thanks for this article. I had a hard time learning the difference between discipline and punishment, but I believe I’m on the right track now—all I had to do was give up my expectations about perfection!!! I find that it takes a long time practicing before the practice filters out of my brain and into my heart.

    I especially like numbers 5 and 6 on your list. I would always say I didn’t have time, then spend plenty of it dithering around with mundane business; now I’ve found some friends to practice with and I find that not only do I have time, I make sure to leave a little for the mundane business. (My practice is painting, which I’ve returned to after a 20-year hiatus to find that the stress is gone and serenity—acquired through the 12 steps—has taken its place.)

  • Thank you for more wise words just when most needed. :o)

  • Great blog, Alex!

    Although I think your point #3 per se requires quite a lot of discipline, #2 was a real eye opener! Thanks!

  • Lovely piece. I practice Nichiren Buddhism myself and have had a similar experience with my best friend. She resisted for 18 months and finally caved in when she saw the tremendous changes in me. I have a hunch your friend will too!

  • I struggle daily with anxiety and a near constant state of overwhelm. I’ve recently set some goals for myself (which in itself is a challenging task) to achieve by my birthday. I know that they are achievable—not too ambitious. But often I’ll lose my discipline because I’m overcome by a crisis of meaning—”what does it matter anyway if I accomplish these pitiful goals?” I think it’s probably perfectionism rearing its ugly head. But I recently realized that much of my anxiety, overwhelm and depression stem from my not being able to trust myself to follow through with what I’ve decided is important to me. I don’t stick around to support myself. And I’m also quite good at finding plenty of evidence to prove that I won’t stick around for myself, that I won’t follow through. No wonder I get depressed! I like that you called your friend up every single day because it modeled discipline and consistency in a wonderfully accessible way (a simple phone call) and simultaneously showed how powerful something so simple can be—an act of unfailing support by a friend for 365 consecutive days. Even though he didn’t achieve his original goal, I’m certain that experiencing your act of discipline on his behalf will always stay with him as a very functional lesson on discipline (I hope that makes sense) and I’ll bet that he makes use of it, one way or another.

    Thanks so much for your work!

    Catherine: I so very well understand that little voice that says things like, “”What does it matter anyway if I accomplish these pitiful goals?” As I wrote in the post, this kind of thought represents a devilish function that simply must be ignored. It sounds like you have a good intellectual grasp of the obstacles that get in your way as you strive to accomplish your goal. I’m so glad my story might have provided you even a little bit of inspiration that you can accomplish what you’re setting out to do. You absolutely can do it! Don’t give up. Small efforts made every day to advance toward your goal even a little bit will eventually place you within reaching distance of the finish line.


  • Really a great mind-booster. I would have never expected anything better than this. And I am also happy about other thousands of people who might get the benefits of this writeup. Many thanks, Alex.

    PG 🙂

  • Re: #5. You’re only awake 10-12 hours per day?

    Mary Ellen: Actually, no. Good catch. 😉


  • This is a great list, Alex. Another “keeper.” The only thing I’d add is “flexibility.” When I was the dean of students at a law school, I spent a lot of time helping “undisciplined” students come up with study schedules (whether it was for final exams or for the Bar Exam). What I discovered was that if a student had, for example, a plan to study Torts on Monday, Contracts on Tuesday, and Property on Wednesday, but something unforeseen interfered with the schedule, they’d throw the whole thing out and start randomly studying (which was much less disciplined and much less efficient).

    So, I changed my strategy. I’d help them draw up the schedule but I’d tell them that they should expect from the start that unexpected stuff might come up and that, rather than just throwing the schedule out when that happened, they should re-work it or just pick up where they left off, even if it meant only spending one hour on Torts instead of three on a given day.

    This worked much better.

    Toni: Great point.


  • I just came home from a recovery event, so this is perfect timing. I want to start some new routines which require discipline.

    I want my goals to be achievable—not too many changes at once.

    Thanks, Alex.

  • Great post, Alex. I couldn’t help but read this and think about discipline as it applies to WRITING!

    Your model works very well in that regard. Thanks for the inspiration.


  • Alex, as usual another post that is spot on. I use some of these same techniques to help me to exercise regularly on an elliptical and bowflex machine. Off to do that now. Goal: 6 pack by 60 (I will soon be 59 and have the first 2 cans so far :^). Also found that when I hit the slopes in November that I can ride from the first day of the season with full strength and energy. I snowboard 50-60 days a season and the workouts over the summer and during the week in winter require discipline that the riding does not. It has been working well this way for several seasons now and I really like the added energy and bounce I have every day I work out too.

  • Hi Alex,
    Great post that I think resonates with so many of us because there are only so many hours in a day. Not to confuse time management with discipline, but I do find the two wrassling on a regular basis!

    I really connect with *going through the motion when you drive weakens*. Sometimes its easy to blame a lack of inspiration for not doing something.

    I recently posted 35 Shots of Truth and wrote: “Inspiration is an excuse created by a lazy person who needed an reason for not having accomplished something. Inspiration is a tiny ingredient in the recipe of creation—the other 98% consists of hard work, knowing when to start over with a new approach and listening to that voice that tells you *you can do it* when you think you cannot.”
    Also, what a wonderful lesson in friendship for all of us. Taking the time–MAKING the time is something that can always fall to the bottom of the list. Your story reminds me how its the little things that can create strong bonds.

    Take Care,

  • Great post Alex. It resonated with me in a really powerful way. In fact, I used number eight this morning, before I even read your post. I didn’t want to chant this morning…at all! “Just start,” I told myself. And I ended up chanting much longer than I normally do. I now have a feeling of great determination to create value in my life today for myself and those around me.


  • Great post, thanks. Here’s a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr that helps me start a new project, practice or routine: “Take the first step. You don’t have to see the whole staircase to take the first step.”

  • Hello, Alex! I’ve been a long-time reader of your blog and I’ve found so many of your posts helpful during times of stress and even during times of non-stress. I come to your blog when I need encouragement or advice, when I want to contemplate on an idea, or when I’m just happy and feel like reading something uplifting. Thank you so much for your hard work and generous spirit.

    Now I’m commenting because this recent post has made me hopeful for being able to expand upon the discipline I’ve gained by taking up running as exercise. Several if not all of the points you’ve listed have helped my boyfriend and I reach our goal of running one continuous mile by his birthday. That might not seem like a lot for some people but it was a challenge for us. However, it was not an impossible goal, although I did keep saying that we’d crawl to the end of that mile if we had to! We set a goal, a deadline, we slept earlier (and that we were more tired than usual helped), we ran consistently and accepted that sometimes we just couldn’t (sickness or really hot days), we challenged ourselves to do more each day, and sometimes just to start, we encouraged each other when we saw the other struggling, and we thanked our bodies—lungs, legs, heart, for keeping us going. It also helped that we were able to measure our progress by running on a track. We accomplished our goal right on time. Now we’re aiming for more!

    I hope to be able to apply what I’ve learned to my academic work next semester. Discipline is a skill that can develop over time, and it is a skill that will only help you develop others. Your post has helped me identify what I’ve had the most trouble with (starting and consistency), and running has helped me realize that I can start, keep going, and follow through. Who knew this hobby would end up teaching me so much!

    Leslie: I’m so glad you found the post helpful. I love how you approached your goal and congratulations on accomplishing it!


  • Alex,
    What is your daily discipline like?