A Few Words in Favor of Discipline

There can be no topic more grim than the celebration of self-discipline. Feel free to forgo this blog post and hope for better next time.

For both of you who are hanging in here with me, let me tell you what I have learned over the years about maintaining routines—of exercise, writing, dental hygiene, you name it. I have one lesson, both fundamental and essential, to offer in two words:

No. Exceptions.

For a long time now I have had a number of daily routines intended to maintain my health, quality of life, and productivity.

I do between an hour and ninety minutes on the treadmill (or walking in good weather) every day. I do six sets of weight repetitions every day. I alternate three-and-a-half minutes of planking with twelve minutes of bag work, one or the other every day….

Planking, for those who don’t know, is an excruciating exercise that consists of holding yourself horizontal above the floor or some other uncomfortably hard surface on your elbows and toes. If you happen to harbor the desire to experience three minutes as an unbelievably long and totally unpleasant time…planking is for you.

Bag work is striking a punching bag. I use a very large and heavy canvas bag that I hit without benefit of gloves, a leftover habit from martial arts training that eventually turns your knuckles into small calcified rocks. (There’s actually a good reason for this, if you’re a martial artist. When you hit something, a board or a brick or a jaw, it’s preferable that it break rather than your hand.)

I write at least three pages every morning Monday through Friday, take Saturday off, and edit the previous week’s work on Sunday.

I brush and floss my teeth three times a day.

And all that is—or at least was, through most of these years—a set of fantabulous lies.

Because I would make exceptions.

I’m tired or I didn’t get much sleep or I have unusual social obligations and it would do no harm to skip the workout just today.

The book is coming along really well and I’m feeling a bit unfocused (or any of the above reasons) and it would do no harm to skip working on it just today.

I hate flossing my fucking teeth and I’m not going to do it today. No harm if I do it all the other days.

But the thing is, you see, and here we return to the lesson, skipping today gives you this little nagging permission to skip another day—maybe not tomorrow, but another day soon. If one time does no harm, how could two times? Twice zero is still zero, right?

Pretty soon you’re mysteriously losing muscle tone and wondering why the book isn’t further along and lying your ass off to the dental hygienist about how diligently you take care of your teeth.

So now I do all those things every damned day no matter how much I don’t want to and, believe me, there are days I don’t want to, days on which I KNOW that I will die if I hold the plank for another minute or that there’s absolutely no point in opening the Word document because my mind is blank and I’m just going to spew garbage all over the page or there simply doesn’t seem to be time for everything.

But I do it—all of it—anyway because I have finally learned that one day off leads nowhere except to more days off.

Maybe that sounds too grim, too rigorous, even too self-righteous. Well, so be it. It was a damned hard-earned lesson to learn and I’m living by it as long as I can.

Finally, though, I have to concede two things: One, it may be that if I had even more self-discipline I could take the occasional day off without paying such a price; and two, there is the possibility that all this discipline becomes progressively easier as you get older and have nothing else to do but take care of yourself anyway.

Whatever. Right now I’ve got to go punch the damned bag.

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