Fairweather Fitness: or the Value of Discipline

I was out running on Sunday morning and it struck me that there seemed to be massively more other runners out than usual. Great to see so many people also making the effort to get themselves fit, you might think.

But hold on a minute. These are all new runners – they haven’t been out the previous weekends when it has been wet and cold. When the weather was less enticing, I had much less company as I work my way around the route.

This Sunday, though, the sun was out, as it had been for days, and it the London marathon was on. Everything pointed to getting out and pounding the pavement. And so every man, woman, and their dogs, had donned their dayglow tops and were merrily crashing around the roads and the park.

Now, the mere fact that people are out and about is terrific, and I offer them every encouragement. But it made me think, where had they all been the week before? Or that Sunday, six weeks ago, when the rain was coming down and it was cold? Or that Sunday, 12 weeks ago, when there was snow on the ground, and there was barely any light?

Of course, the answer is obvious. There is no temptation to be outside when the weather sucks: it’s going to be bloody hard work. But if you want to get anywhere, with anything, then you have to go out when the weather is cold, when it’s raining, when it’s tough. When it comes to fitness, you have to be willing to face all conditions, literally – but the same is also true of everything else, metaphorically. If you want to really get somewhere or achieve something, you need the discipline to keep going even when it’s rough as hell.

Lots of people, psychologists particularly, call this grit. Angela Duckworth wrote a terrific book about it called, somewhat prosaically, Grit. She defines grit as ‘the tendency to sustain interest in and effort towards very long-term goals.’

The power of discipline is, certainly in the self-help literature, well entrenched and there is absolutely no doubt that it is an enormously valuable character trait.

Returning, for a moment, to my fairweather friends out running on Sunday, there is no doubt that they should be afforded every praise for getting out there and doing something. But if you want to effect real change to your body and your physical fitness, then you have to have the discipline to do it day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, month out.

The real changes come about not because of a lovely run on Sunday morning but because you do that run every week. And it comes on the back of four other sets of exercise in the week. And you do that every week. Consistently. Even when you don’t want to, you still do it.

And this last bit is the key. You have to be willing to do things EVEN WHEN YOU DON’T WANT TO.

The ability to do this is called discipline. And, oddly enough, people who are able to utilise it consistently report being happier than those who don’t according to a 2013 study by Wilhelm Hoffman at the University of Chicago (reported here in The Atlantic). Various reasons have been put forward for why, most point to decisiveness and not spending time worrying about whether or not you are doing the right thing.

Discipline is the reason I have been able to go from weighing 18 stone to 12 and a half. It’s how I was (ultimately) able to make the change from being lost and profoundly distressed with my life to focussed and happy. It’s how I have been able to teach myself any number of skills from cooking, music, writing, investing, IT, wine…

It is how authors produce books. There isn’t a magic formula where some writers are just gifted books out of nowhere. The ones that really write well have discipline. They sit down every day and write, whether it is good or bad, they keep writing.

It’s how Mo Farah got to be one of the greatest long distance runners in the world. It’s how David Beckham became so good at free kicks. It’s how Jeff Bezos built Amazon. It’s how Elon Musk began to make the idea of regular space travel a reality.

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Now, this is not to suggest that discipline is the panacea to all problems. You need a whole lot more than blind grit. Indeed, wilfully sticking to the same path regardless is just as likely to be damaging as it is positive. As Einstein apparently said, repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.

I took too long deciding to change careers, most of which I put down to discipline without proper thought behind it. In my mind, just keeping going would get me where I wanted to be, in the end. I was definitely good enough, so I just needed to give it enough time. The discipline of sticking to the task controlled me instead of the other way around. I’m like it about a lot of things: give me a goal and I will get there.

I look back now and still think I might have been right. I still think, sometimes, that I should have stuck it out longer. Whether or not I should have, I now have a much more focussed and valuable way to use discipline. I set my goals and I figure out how to achieve them. My goals are, generally, more realistic and more clearly defined so the steps along the way are more easily discerned.

With weight loss, for example, the initial steps were simple. Just get out there and do something. Walk, run, jump… It didn’t matter as long as my body moved.

Over time, the goals became more detailed and specific as I learned more and developed skills. I started to do alter my diet, started to do resistance training, started tracking my macros and my calories. Right now, I am less concerned about losing weight and more interested in building muscle and strength. In the process, though, I have completely altered not only my body but my psychology. Learning how to harness my willpower and discipline in a healthy, productive way has completely changed my life.

A similar process has been played out in my professional and family life. My goals have changed as they have been achieved. Each time I hit something, I make a new goal. And figure out a strategy for achieving it.

But all the time, the bit that keeps it going is discipline. Make something a habit and it becomes easier. It doesn’t ever really get to be easy, but it does get to be something that makes me satisfied and proud.

I have changed and learned so much by using discipline. I have skills, thoughts, possibilities, that would never have come about with discipline.

Find it and use it!

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Published by

Robin Newton

Musician and teacher.

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