Cultivating Discipline

By Michael Krueger

Everyone can use a little more motivation. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone say that he wishes he was less motivated.

When it comes to fitness, motivation doesn’t really mean all that much; it’s fickle and very fleeting. What seemed like an iron-clad promise last night to get to the gym early dissolves into the annoying beeping of your alarm.

So, what can you do to get around your own self-defeating sabotage?



I don’t like the idea of using “tricks” to get myself or anyone else to do the things that are needed to be done. I’m not stupid, and neither are you. I can tell myself all kinds of stories to row, lift, or do whatever the day calls for, but I still know they are stories. So, let’s act like adults and find meaningful ways to succeed.

Start by reminding (or deciding for) yourself why you are working out to begin with. It’s back to setting goals; reasonable, attainable, yet challenging goals. These need to be your goals—not mine, not your spouse’s, not the department’s… YOURS!

Sit down with a sheet of paper and write down what you want to accomplish. Once you have a list, attach priorities to them. Once you have that done, underline the top three, because that is as many as you can address at any one time. Next, separate them and write down what it will take to achieve these goals. Once you have that done, pick one, and make a plan to make it a reality.

That’s the way to do it: Pick just one and do it…no motivation is needed. Now, it’s on to the next part that will make or break you.



Motivation might get you going, but it isn’t going to get much done on its own. Motivation is mostly talk and “pie-in-the-sky” thinking. Once whatever was motivating you is achieved, the energy from that motivation is gone and must be replaced by a new motivation. That’s why training for a particular event is problematic for many people.

I know people who joined a running group to train for a charity race and did very well. Race day came, and they ran their race. Afterward, they were excited and justifiably proud of what they had accomplished. The problems didn’t arise until the next scheduled workout day came and half of them didn’t show. This is where motivation shows its inadequacy and lack of staying power. Discipline is where true and lasting success lies.

We’ve all slogged through things that we didn’t want to do. We complained, but we still got it done. There was no enthusiasm involved, and the quality of the work was probably less than it could’ve been. Unfortunately, even though you showed up, your attitude didn’t benefit. When you work with a negative mindset, you don’t nurture discipline.

Discipline is more than just what gets you to do your workout even when you aren’t motivated to do so. It builds character and raises your self-esteem. It makes you better because you met personal adversity and rose above it through inner strength.

I’m sure that you’ve had to deal with someone who, for some reason, was angry and negative. You’ve been trained how to de-escalate a situation, so you didn’t lower yourself to their level, you maintained your control and didn’t buy into their energy. This is the same discipline you use on yourself when you need to get into the gym and do your workout when you’d rather do pretty much anything else.

It’s not a matter of talking yourself into it or forcing yourself to do it. Rather, you look at the situation logically. You know your goal, and you know that this workout is necessary to keep you on track to achieving it, and then you do it.

Sounds simple, but as we are all aware, it’s not.


The “How-To” Part

People talk about discipline as something that you have or you don’t. Discipline is like anything else you do; you only get better at it through practice. It’s a dichotomy that you need discipline to regularly practice discipline. Oddly enough, it helps if you treat it as a skill rather than as an innate ability. By understanding that it is something you must practice, you can accept that you probably aren’t going to be very good at it when you first begin. This can really take the pressure off.

So, the way to practice discipline is like any hard thing: a little at a time. Discipline works best when it’s applied to your entire life rather than little isolated parts. People will say that it takes discipline to work out regularly, and this is true, but it also takes discipline to do your laundry on a regular basis rather than scramble around in the morning looking and sniffing, trying to find your cleanest dirty shirt. Everything in a well-lived life takes discipline. A little here and there builds momentum and eventually becomes a part of you.

So, how do you practice discipline? The easiest way is to pick some small part of your life that you would like more control over. For some people, the previously mentioned laundry chore is a good place to start. The next time you wash your clothes, dry them, fold them, and put them all in their place and you will feel pretty good about yourself. You’ll feel especially good when you go looking for something clean and it’s right there, ready to go. The next time it needs to be done is the tough one. In fact, you’ll probably fail; that’s just a statistical reality. Most people get the first attempt right but then slip up on the very next one. They will complain about their lack of discipline, but it’s okay since this is just practice.

Just as learning a new firefighting skill, cooking or riding a motorcycle takes time and effort, and so does discipline. You didn’t fail at doing your laundry; you failed at implementing a new life skill—discipline. It’s a skill that you’ve only just begun to practice, too. You wouldn’t criticize someone for not doing well at a skill when they’ve only tried it once, right? By realizing that it’s not about doing laundry or whatever, it’s about working on the skill of discipline. You just need more practice.

When you’re learning to apply discipline to various parts of your life, you will find that you’re more successful at some things than others. Just as you may have a great jumpshot, you may not be able to dribble to your right. But knowing that you had the discipline to have worked harder on your shot than on you ball control can give you the confidence that if you practiced more, you will, in fact,  improve.

So, becoming more practiced at discipline extends to all aspects of your life. You practice and train better with improved focus and a calmer attitude because you now understand that being disciplined in your thinking and movements will make you better. You don’t get better just because you practice; you get better because you apply discipline to your practice.

Soon, that discipline finds its way into everything you do. People tend to be naturally sloppy in their living, thinking, and skill application. We’re like that because we can be; the consequences don’t seem to very great. However, if you look at the truly successful people (and I’m not just talking about athletes, artists, and business people) but also at the people who really enjoy their lives, you can see how that discipline extends way beyond the court, stage, or office.

Won’t it be nice when everything you do is done with control and clarity? Discipline frees you from the sloppiness of impulse and reaction. You regulate your life in a way that makes the most of everything you do, be it eating, sleeping, working, or playing. No one can provoke or manipulate you or make you feel less than you are. You are your own person, and completely in charge.


Life Choices

People think that being disciplined means denying yourself the things you want. What it really means is knowing and getting what you want most in life rather than simply settling for what you think you might want right now…

…and that’s how you create a peaceful, happy, and successful life.


Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.

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