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Harness Discipline and Kick Ass

Let’s look at how discipline works. When I think about discipline, I personally get mental images of a monk or martial artist who has their body, mind and spirit calm and focused – their entire essence and being dedicated and channeled into everything they do. This of course, is a largely conceptual definition that doesn’t really help anyone unless you want to hang out at a monastery full-time. Let’s look at how we can make it more applicable.

Why Discipline?

Darling Harbour, Sydney

Discipline, or the idea of discipline has been one of my recent fascinations and pastimes (I know, the hazards of being a productivity blogger). The more reading and research and experimenting that I’ve done on the subject, the more I’ve realized just how much our upbringing and background has on our ability/inability to use discipline in our lives.

Some readers may or may not know this, but I’ve always been really productive, and pretty disciplined – in most areas. From about elementary school onwards, I’ve never let a deadline lapse, I’ve always done the right thing (mostly) and the idea of routines, systems, checklists and using mind and body hacks to get things done better and faster is just part of who I am.

It has nothing to do with being Asian or growing up in a Confucian household. While I’m sure a genetic test at 23andme.com would tell me that I’m a descendant of Genghis Khan, as my girlfriend puts it, “dating you is like getting to date a white guy who happens to be Asian”.

Ever since I moved out to Asia 4 years ago, I’ve always felt that there as something missing in terms of my productivity. At first, I blamed it on the things about the local culture that really annoy me – the lack of intellectual depth, basic common sense missing in a lot of places and a general indolence that seems to be present everywhere.

But that’s unfair because, you know, it’s their culture and they have every right to live however they want. So I put the focus back on myself. After some time thinking, I had an epiphany moment while in New Zealand last year:

Deep Thinking Place
A great place for generating life-changing epiphanies.

I did an inventory of discipline and control across the different parts of my life.

  • Do I have daily systems and routines in place? Yes.
  • Do I have a task management system that works? Yes.
  • Are my relationships good? Mostly.
  • Do I get enough downtime? Yes.
  • Do I procrastinate? Not in a long time.
  • Do I read enough and expand my knowledge and intellect? Yes.
  • Do I enforce my boundaries? Mostly.
  • Do I exercise emotional control? Wait a minute…

And so I discovered 2 things that were eating away at my productivity and discipline:

  1. Boundaries in particular relationships that I had formed during my childhood (read: family).
  2. How often my emotions did yo-yo backflips at the small petty annoyances and inefficiencies of day-to-day life in Asia.

In turn, this led to…

The Idea of Discipline

Discipline is the idea that you live by a code of conduct or principles that govern your life. In my case, part of this code is being the best version of myself that I can be.

And my self-analysis had revealed the areas where I was not living up to this code.

It also led me to the idea that “discipline” is a domain of life – much like our health, our relationships, or our wealth. It’s the area that you actively pursue to manage instant gratification and to keep your focus long-term, allowing your goals to come into being.

What I Tried and Discovered

Harness Discipline Dragon

Of course, being an Efficient Asian™ I set about systematically correcting things.

The first was starting to enforce boundaries in particular relationships. That ended up being spectacularly explosive, and the lessons from that are a tale for another time.

The second was addressing this issue of emotions. Correcting things here had a huge impact on my quality of life

For one thing, little day-to-day annoyances stopped bothering completely. But it didn’t end there. I discovered that by exercising discipline over my emotions, it become easier to exercise discipline over other parts of my life. Working out and eating properly took less effort.

And then really good stuff started happening – in my personal life, in my relationships, with Asian Efficiency.

I suppose if you’ve watched The Secret you could call it the Law of Attraction or something. Only now there was no mystery as to how the mechanism worked, it was simply a matter of harnessing and exercising discipline in one area of my life… and letting it carry over into other areas.

So here’s the theory I came up with:

The more discipline you harness in any area of life, the stronger your abilities with self-discipline become, and the more discipline in all areas of life.

What you are doing is telling your mind and body (and perhaps soul) that you are capable of controlling your life and capable of achieving great things, and in turn, they reward you with the results that you want. You gain clarity, purpose and the ability to take massive action – and everything just seems to work.

In short, the more discipline you cultivate in different areas of life, the better you will do in all areas of life.

Here’s How You Kick Ass

Keeping in mind that this concept is entirely from my own journey and experience (the only other people I’ve shared this with is Thanh and a couple of select others), I’m pretty sure this can and will work for everyone. Consider it “cutting edge” Asian Efficiency – that is what you’re here reading for anyhow.

Here’s how I would implement this.

  1. Pick 2 areas to start harnessing discipline in. I suggest that health be one of those areas if you’re not already working on something there.
  2. Work out what discipline means to you in that area, then go do it. For example, in Health, it could be to work out 3 times every week. In Emotions, it could be to do the 10 day mental challenge – and then keep doing it.
  3. That’s it.

There is no “where to go next” or anything.

I know – it’s not exactly sexy, or slick, or smooth. But it is the secret to getting you to that next level of productivity, and to getting and doing everything you want out of life.

If you have any questions or would like to share your own experience with this, send me an email or leave a comment!

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Last Updated: March 30, 2021

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. Great read. Discipline has been always a key factor in producing good results especially for people engage in business. Discipline to follow new things and routines is not as easy for those who have been used on what they’re doing. Thank you for writing this article.

  2. Thank You for this interesting read! I personally am on a quite similar pursuit, currently finding myself at the following model of thought: the three Ds

    – DEVELOPMENT, in its most abstract form, is everyone’s aim in life
    – alas, since we are generally lacking the motivation to change and thereby develop, DISCIPLINE is the only means for reaching that aim
    – for discipline to stick and not to grow stale over a prolonged (life-long) pursuit, there is need of personal conviction and commitment, DESIRE is a necessary prerequisite

    best case, these three build a positive feedback loop, in which the gratification from development triggers desire. What do You think?

  3. Aaron, thanks for the insight, it is very powerful.
    But I feel very identified with Karen comments, I read about productivity, I put in place all kind of technics but at the end of the day, many times I got drag for old habits.
    I have thought: what if to be disciplined or organized or your willing power is related with your genetics?
    Why there is a child which is very organized and other under the same rules it is not?
    Why some people can discipline themselves effortless and others deal with that so much, even if they want and try?

  4. Great article! I’ve recently come to appreciate how important mental/emotional discipline is conserving energy and focus. A boo that really helped me was Positive Intelligence :)

  5. Taking an inventory of discipline is such a refreshing idea! ‘Discipline’ seems to be the ‘D’ word that we know we should keep up with it but don’t really want to talk about it because it’s so hard to practise!

    But when I was going through your inventory questions about discipline, it’s not all that bad as long as I have all the ‘yes’ answers!

    Always appreciate your creative ways of approaching productivity which could be somewhat rather textbook talk.

    Thanks for the great article Aaron!

  6. But what if you disappointed yourself once, say you are suppose to work out three times a week, but this week you only do it twice. Will you upset yourself about that? After several times of attempts with failure, will you give up?

    1. I supposed it depends on the type of person you are. Personally, I’m a 28 year old who has failed in areas of discipline more times than I’d like to admit. I definitely get upset by it. Sometimes, in my inner monologue I even use the term “disappointed.” However, even when i give in to instant gratification or don’t work out as many times as i planned to, it doesn’t effect the long-term goals. Do I get upset? Yes. Do I get discouraged? Of course. But I’ve alwasy been a big subscriber to “Fall down seven times, get up eight” and “you can’t fail if you continue to try. Failure only happens when you give up.”

      One concept I’ve been kicking around in my mind is the amount of self-respect you give yourself when you practice discipline. When you treat something well, and when you take care of it, you inherently value it more (think of anything you own that is of value to you, do you take care of that item very carefully? The answer is probably yes). So, a lot of my self-discipline comes from thinking “If I don’t respect myself enough to take care of me by doing the things I know will ultimately lead to satisfaction and success, than who will?”

      Hope that helps!


    2. Everything that Chad said :)

      I think there’s also something to the idea of self-knowledge and knowing that you’ve achieved something before. The gym thing is a great example – I missed a workout this week because of a couple of personal emergencies but I’m not upset about it. I know that for the past year I’ve gone 3 times a week for most weeks and that I can easily do that again next week.

      One interesting… I want to say metaphor but it’s more of a direct comparison… is when you talk to people who have built a successful business, lost it all and are building another one. They have this ingrained belief in themselves that if they’ve done it once they can do it again. Sort of “If I did it once I can do it again” – they don’t get disheartened, if anything their resolve usually goes up.

  7. Thank you for sharing your insight. Discipline, self-control is at the bottom of my struggles with productivity- in just about every area of life. I love order, organization, productivity, systems, etc- you could say that the subject of increased productivity is one of my “passions”- an area of ongoing reading and investigation. When it comes to putting knowledge into action, however, I struggle…and have found that lack of discipline is at the root of my problems. On the one hand, I have a vision of the way I want to be, the way I want to live my life. On the other hand are all of the actions I have considered, everything I think I need to do or “be” in order to get me to that place. Lack of discipline is what prevents me from turning the actions into reality. “Doing” and “wanting to do” are two separate matters and without discipline, I can’t achieve the “connection”. Would appreciate any recommendations regarding books, other articles on the subject. (Maybe I just suffer from “analysis paralysis”- always looking for more and better ideas…or that “perfect” system that will be my “magic bullet” :)….always looking, rarely doing. Sigh.

    1. Hey Karen,

      There’s a process that we developed/discovered recently called Supplying Action. It’s going to be part of our upcoming online course for next year.

      It works like this:
      1. Have a vision of the way you want it to be.
      2. Go supply an action towards that vision.
      3. Rinse and repeat.

      You’ve already got step 1 down it sounds like, you just need to add in an immediate supply of action after seeing your vision and keep on going between vision and action.

      Give it a go and let me know how it works out for you :)

      – Aaron

  8. Great article. Most of my life I’ve heard people throw the word discipline around like it’s accessible at any time for anyone who wants to use it; & its use is connected to an individual’s morality. Unfortunate but pervasive perception.
    This may be the most concise, accessible & applicable description of discipline that I’ve read. I appreciate you including the undeniable aspects of “nature & nurture” while offering suggestions on developing discipline for those of us who did not benefit from structured early development. Thanks for the great article.

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