Discipline and Routine and…Dogs. (Again.)

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one out here in the Land of the Self-Employed saying that it’s difficult to establish discipline and routine.

In my quest to become a writer (and I assume it’s like this for other creative quests—y’all with me?) I am constantly looking for ways to improve performance.

There is no employer to do this for me.

I recently hit on a new way to improve the pursuit of self discipline and routine, so read on if you want to get hip.


Discipline Equals Freedom

Jocko Willink said this on an amazing interview with Tim Ferriss and I went into a sort of shock.

It’s one of those things that you don’t realize is fundamentally true until it’s said in just the right way at just the right time.

It now lives as the background of my phone so that I can (pretend that I) live by it everyday. 

neon sign reading "word harder"

Through self-discipline we can achieve a lifestyle in which we have the money and time to live life as we wish. Or maybe you just happen to have lots of money already, in which case, give me some.

In my case, I have to be disciplined in finishing my book and other writing projects. Once they are finished, the plan (oh god let it work) is that they will become a source of income somehow or another and lead to more jobs.

Eventually all this discipline will bring me to a place where I don’t have to work so much and I have the freedom to spend my time as I please.

Now for an aside…


Discipline and Financial Freedom

There is a lot to be said for Discipline=Freedom when it comes to managing finances.

Often people do not realize the importance of self discipline with spending habits because it’s too easy to spend when and where they please. Many are constantly in debt or living from paycheck to paycheck.

Instead, if you budget, you can set aside dough for amazing experiences like travel or investment opportunities that can put you in a place to eventually not have to work at all.

In my case, I was careful with what I earned over the past couple of years as an actor, and now I am afforded these months to focus solely on the book and blog.

(note: I am also very, very fearful about my financial situation. The money keeps going away. What is happening??)

People want the freedom to spend money however they wish, but they don’t realize that they buy many of these options at the cost of a greater freedom: Freedom to experience life in a big way.

I don’t mean cars and caviar. I mean time, adventure, and ability to give back.


Okay, off money and back to the daily pursuit of discipline…


The Symbiosis of Discipline and Routine

I’ve been wrestling with becoming a “disciplined person” for some time now. It’s important that I build structure into my life or I end up feeling like a half-cooked pancake thrown against a wall.

That’s what most days have felt like since I began trying to create my own income streams. The thing is that I know the various things I should do at some point, but planning out the how and when does not come easily. How do I paint structure onto a blank canvas? What is the first stroke?

large blank canvas

If you’ve been hangin’ with me you know I’ve implemented morning routines as a way to start my day off with structure. It’s my off-the-bat “win for the day.” I’ve been relatively loyal to it for months now, but when it’s over, I am routine-less.

Then what??

In the morning, I can do exactly the same thing (wake up, journal, read, meditate) and I don’t have to leave the bed. Once my feet hit the floor, though, the world opens up. The options for each day vary.

I can’t exactly follow a “daily” routine because my life is particularly variable. 

So, we’re going to get back to that conundrum of mine, but first, here’s a secret:

Discipline and routine are highly correlated. If you use discipline to consistently follow a routine, eventually the routine becomes habit and the level of discipline needed decreases.

It’s win-win: you need less discipline over time and the routine becomes second-nature.

In Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, he talks about Michael Phelps’ pre-race routine. He’s had the same one nearly his entire career.

Whenever he shows up at the pool, Phelps follows the exact same routine so that instead of thinking of when to put on his headphones or where to place his towel, he can filter all his mental energies toward his primary focus: winning.

When Phelps dives into the pool, every action he has taken preceding that first stroke has gone according to his well-planned routine. It is only natural that the continuation of this routine—which has an end goal of winning—will increase his odds of actually achieving the outcome.

I imagine him as Magneto strolling through a barrage of metal artillery and everything just bounces off his force field.

I want to be Magneto at my desk, utterly untouched by any thing or idea that tries to attack and steal my focus. Kind of like this opening sequence with the cars, but non-violent:

(p.s. I love X-Men.)

You wanna check your instagram? Send a text? Pet the dog? Froth some milk?

It takes around 23 minutes for us to fully re-focus after a distraction.

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

This, for me, is one of the most difficult components of maintaining discipline and routine. When there are variable options, I am distractible.


Routine Avoidance: A Case Study

Let’s take the simple act of brushing one’s teeth. 

I’ve said it before: I hate it. It usually takes me over three minutes to brush my teeth because I forget which teeth I’ve passed, so I end up having to double back just in case. It is soooo boring. And time-consuming! And people make fun of me for how long I take! 

Of all the things to complain about, right? I never said I wasn’t pathetic.

cartoon of sharp teeth in open mouths

For years now I’ve said to myself: I need to have a tooth brushing routine, I need to do the same circuit every day. And while I know it’s not impossible, that is how it feels.

I’ve always wondered: do other people have a tooth brushing routine? Do you do the same thing every day? (serious question.)

So there’s lost time added to the fact that I even spend too much mental energy trying to decide when I should do it. I don’t want to brush when I wake up because I’d rather wait till after teeth-staining tea or coffee. Then I forget to do it after that and think, “I better wait until after I eat…”

And then because my brain fails I just might go ALL DAY having forgotten to brush my teeth, which leads not only to the mental energy I wasted trying to plan out when I should brush, but the follow-up mental energy spent on berating myself for forgetting and being a dirty-toothed loser.

(This is the type of high drama that occurs when you don’t leave the house all day.)

Recently, though, I had a lightning bolt. Just brush my teeth when I use the bathroom for the first time after having tea. Make that my routine. Never stray.

I’m going to make a note in the bathroom so I can help myself to create a disciplined routine until it becomes habitual. Isn’t that cute?

dozens of colorful post-it notes

I realize how ridiculous this is. We’re talking about effing tooth brushing and it’s like I am trying to work out an algorithm for World Peace. I’m not saying I am a complex individual. In fact, if you didn’t already think it, I’m sure that by now you’ve decided that I am not. This is just my shit.

Now, let’s get to the meat…

How do we establish routine for things more important than toothbrushing?


Us + Dogs + Psychology

Because it’s often so difficult to understand myself as a human animal, sometimes I find it easier to understand myself as an animal animal.

We all have various “states of being,” and sometimes we are ruled by one more than others. Here are a few you might be acquainted with:

It’s not that we’re walking around with multiple personality disorder (I’m not, at least. I’M NOT, OKAY!?), it’s just that we’re fickle little humanoids. Sometimes the moods are beneficial, and sometimes they’re not.

Think of these various mental states as individual dogs in a pack. Their habitat is your body.

The amazing thing about assigning roles to our different mental states is that it gives you a framework for predictable behavior. With that, you are better able to manage expectations and predict problems.

One thing to know about canine pack mentality is that it’s important for them to have a leader: the Alpha.


“In the wild, most dogs are followers, but if they don’t have a leader to follow, a dog ‘ or dogs ‘ will attempt to take control of the situation. The lack of strong leadership leaves the dogs in an unbalanced mental state, and they will do whatever they have to do to fulfill their needs. In nature, this can create chaos in a pack.”

Cesar Milan, Renowned Dog Trainer


Basically, it’s the dogs’ natural state to have an Alpha to provide for and protect the pack. When an Alpha is absent, the whole pack feels unsafe.

This is also why so many tiny dogs are fucking insane. Owners often don’t train them properly because they’re so small and easy to deal with. The lack of discipline leads to stress and instability for the pup. They’re pack animals; they want leadership.

Without an Alpha, all your states of being are running around within you wild-eyed and desperate for stability. They take turns trying to rush the throne as leader but in the end, they just don’t have what it takes.

Only Alpha can be Alpha.

General-existence you, meanwhile, ends up with no control over which is going to reign at a given moment. It’s chaos, baby.

But there’s a solution:


Make Disciplined You the Alpha

But…there’s a problem here:

This pack of wild dogs has existed without leader for so damn long. The disciplined one lunges for alpha position, but is always met with resistance.

All Discipline needs is to prove itself as a reliable leader, so, the way we’re going to do this is through RoutineBecause maybe Disciplined You can’t just hop up and start being disciplined one day (I know I can’t).

That is why if you implement routines, you make disciplined behavior second-nature—it becomes habit.

In my case, I plan to create a routine of daily scheduling and stick to it. I want to be a schedule-making person because it always helps me nail down and carry out what needs to get done. 

But, typically a few days go by and I end up forgetting to create one, so this time I’m putting reminders everywhere and I’m doing to be disciplined about establishing the routine (and the routine will lead to disciplined behavior—wahoo!)

discipline fortune cookie quote

Discipline uses its right-hand-man Routine as his champion, becoming stronger through its support. And you know what? Maybe you’ll always need the support of Routine. Maybe Discipline will never be able to stand completely alone, and that’s okay. No man is an island and all that.

You know what else? Alpha is going to want to take a nap sometimes. Or chase after a mate. A temporary hierarchy will take place in the absence of an Alpha. That’s fine. That’s going to happen.

Just ensure that Alpha comes back, or chaos reigns again.

If you have Discipline in the throne with Routine at its side, things aren’t so bad. The rest of the pack knows that there’s a system, a leader…a protector.

And ultimately, that’s what this is all about:

Taking care of yourself so you can be your best self.

Maybe you don’t need to think of yourself as dogs to do that. But maybe it helps. I hope it does.


And if you don’t want to think of yourself as dogs, fine, I have yet another piece of gold: 

Think of your inner state as a school bus full of children. Discipline has to be the bus driver, and all the other moods can be assigned to a kid.

Your quiet self sits with his knees on the back of the seat in front of him and stares out the window. Distracted self runs up and down the aisles hitting the backs of heads. Social self chatters away with her seatmate.

They all exist doing their own thing, but sometimes The Driver has to stop the bus, stand up, and lay down the law.

school bus on the highwya

this photo is giving me ptsd 

I’m just going to say this now: I printed out a blank weekly calendar and have filled it out like crazy while being a consummate baller of organization this week. It feels amazing.

What do you think? I used to be a dog-sitter; maybe the pups messed up my brain. At any rate, leave a comment!

And if you want to hear more from Jocko Willink, the man who said “Discipline equals freedom,” here’s a good primer:

Let’s get to work!

Photocred: Photopin.com

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