“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” – Jim Rohn
Over the summer, I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with my kids. We took several road trips, and we undertook some home-improvement projects together. My kids range in age from nine to seventeen, and I thoroughly enjoy their company. They are old enough to appreciate the world with avid curiosity, and Carrie and I are having a lot of fun introducing them to new experiences.
Recently, we had a discussion on a profound topic: superpowers. The question was “if you could have any one superpower, which would it be?” I’m sure this is a discussion every child has had at some point, and my kids began talking about the advantages of various powers: the ability to fly, invisibility, super-strength, super-speed, and so on. Cogent arguments were put forth for each, and then my daughter asked, “Which power would you have, dad?”
I thought for a second and then said, “Discipline. I would like to have super-discipline.” The kids looked at me quizzically – this wasn’t any superpower they had considered before. I went on to explain that it seemed to me that many of the great feats and accomplishments of history were achieved through vision and discipline. The best part of this superpower, I explained, was that it is actually achievable by mere mortals.
My kids rolled there eyes and said it didn’t count. “Lame,” my fourteen-year-old son said. I argued my case a bit more but finally gave in and said that if they wouldn’t allow discipline as a superpower, I would take the ability to travel through time.
While discipline might not make the cut as a superpower, I would argue that discipline, especially self-discipline, is critical to one’s ability to achieve success in life. The ability to dream big and set goals is important too, but I would argue that without discipline, it’s nearly impossible to achieve anything worthwhile in life.
I feel this is especially true for artists. I marvel at an artist’s ability to get into the studio and work persistently toward his or her vision. An artist, it seems to me, must have an incredible drive to work day after day through difficult circumstances. It takes real discipline.
But what is discipline, and how does one acquire it?
Google’s dictionary defines self-discipline as “the ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses; the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it.” This seems like a great start, but how does one obtain this ability? How are the temptations overcome?
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to cultivate self-discipline. It hasn’t been easy. I have aspired to do many things – build a successful art gallery business, create a strong family, and publish an engaging blog :-), to name a few. I’ve discovered that each of these goals is hard to achieve, and that there are many temptations to abandon those goals. I’ve worked very hard to develop discipline to work toward my goals. I’ve also learned that, for me, it isn’t enough to tell myself that I just need to be more disciplined. I struggle to remain focused and can be easily distracted.
I hope that some of what I’ve discovered about self-discipline will help you in your creative process. Before I share what I’ve learned, however, allow me to share what I heard from readers about discipline.
How Discipline Affects the Artistic Process
Several weeks ago, in preparation for writing my article about the hard work of creating, I asked readers how they feel discipline (or lack of discipline) affects their work. Their comments gave me an idea of the importance and challenges of maintaining discipline in the studio. Here is a sampling of the comments:
Discipline involves getting set up and prepared to paint. Lack of discipline affects my work by allowing household chores, gardening, caring for pets or obligations to friends to consume all of my time. To be able to paint, an artist must be selfish with their time.
Kim Blitho – Matong, Australia
If I am disciplined – setting aside frequent work days and following through on them – I get plenty of artwork done and I think my technical skills improve. There are times I can’t do this, and I feel my work suffers if I am more sporadic in my approach.
Lori Bradley – New Bedford, MA
My disipline with my art never lacks. Sixteen, eighteen hour days are not uncommon. If I’m not painting I’m working all the other areas that go along with producing art and selling..I love the challenge and have never not wanted to do it.
Mike Palmer – Jackson, MI
Discipline is key in creating and producing any form of artwork or design. One must be disciplined with their time, energy and focus.
Bentley Buran – Santa Monica, CA
I am not a social painter, I am more comfortable working alone, listening to CDs or Pandora. This discipline helps me to concentrate on what I need to do to be successful at art. I often meet with other artists after work and we share ideas and help each other. I feel that my schedule helps keep me focused, and I have the freedom to rearrange the routine if I feel it is important
Jenny Lankford – Marshall Texas
Discipline is everything. Without it, I find it very hard to stay organized and be creative. Structure and organization clear my head and give me the breathing space I need to be artistic.
Emily Randolph – Phoenix, AZ
I’m a reasonably disciplined person – I think it helps but it’s not everything. Showing up and just starting is worth a lot. Once you get started, it’s like eating potatoes chips, you can just stop with one – you keep going.
Cindy Wagner – Huntsville, AL
Techniques that Have Helped in My Development of Discipline
These comments reflect my experience with discipline as well. While developing discipline is a long process, I’ve found four key approaches that have helped me become more disciplined.
First and foremost, I’ve learned how important it is for me to have a routine and, as much as possible, to stick to it. Life is crazy, and there are always a myriad of activities that need to be done. I find that if I’m not careful, I can easily spend all of my time stamping out fires and never working toward my goals.
It’s even harder for me to concentrate if my weekly schedule devolves into chaos. I’ve created a daily routine that allows me to get to work early and focus on my big projects first. I try to rise at the same time every morning, I leave for work at the same time, and I block out regular time each day to work on certain projects. When I’m in my routine it’s much easier to work in a focused way. I never have to wonder what I should be working on at any given time – my routine tells me.
I’m very reluctant to allow intrusions into my routine.
I know many artists struggle to create a routine because they have to juggle full-time jobs, family responsibilities, and other priorities before they can get into the studio. I would argue that even if there are only a few hours a week available to create, it’s best if you can make those hours into a routine and then protect that routine with all your power.
The time that we do have to work and create is even more fragile today because of the myriad of distractions that are ever-present. Electronic devices are powerful tools, but they are also powerful distractions. If at all possible, I would urge you to turn off your phone while you work, or at the very least, silence your notifications. Every time you pause to see what’s happening on Facebook or to respond to an email, you lose momentum and your precious creative time slips away.
Work on One Thing at a Time
I’ve learned that if I want to accomplish something, I have to concentrate on it. While writing this post, for example, I’m not also trying to develop a new marketing plan or rehanging the gallery. All of those things are important, but I’ve learned that when I start a task, I need to stick to it until it’s finished and then move on to the next. I would far rather finish one job than start three and not complete any.
Make a List
I find that having a to-do list helps me keep my focus. The act of writing down my tasks helps me feel I’m in control of them, and it also assures me that I won’t forget to do anything. I discipline myself to never do anything that pops into my head right when it occurs to me. I put it in my to-do list so that I can make sure I’m completing the tasks of highest priority first.
How Have You Developed Discipline?
What have you done to cultivate discipline in the studio. How do you motivate yourself to stay on track? What are the challenges you face in maintaining discipline? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.