Self-discipline is a virtue, and every virtue casts a shadow—unless it’s balanced by its opposite virtues.
Too much humility makes you self-deprecating. Too much vitality makes you hyperactive. Too much perseverance makes you obsessive. Too much focus makes you narrow. Your greatest strengths can be the source of your greatest weaknesses, unless you use your strengths wisely, balancing them with opposing strengths.
In the case of self-discipline, some of the opposing virtues are flexibility, flow and playfulness. Without these, you can go to the extreme of being rigid, stubborn, and obsessive.
First, examine your motive, to ensure you are practicing this virtue for the right reasons. Ideally it is based on a vision or a goal—not based on the feeling that you have to do more to just be “good enough”. Mindful Self-Discipline is based on self-love, not shame; on self-respect, not self-punishment.
Second, avoid going to the extreme with self-discipline. Balance it. If discipline for you means burning the midnight oil for weeks on end, or obsessively pursuing a goal at the expense of your relationships or physical wellbeing—then you are in for trouble.
The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long. —Lao Tzu
Having strong self-discipline is definitely good. If you can also enjoy some healthy indulgences without a sense of guilt, then you are safe. But if you end up living a workaholic life, always avoiding pleasure as a shameful indulgence, you risk experiencing more and more regret for being inflexible and not enjoying life. This is not what Mindful Self-Discipline is about.
Self-discipline includes taking care of yourself, to ensure sustainability and enjoyment of your journey. This involves:
- Getting enough sleep, and proper meals
- Scheduling breaks, time off, and fun activities
- Having cheat days
- Keeping some areas of your life undisciplined and spontaneous
- Balancing work, relationships, and health
- Indulging, with moderation, in your favorite “guilty pleasures” (without the guilt)
Be as disciplined about indulgences and rewards as you are about work. Plan for them, follow through, and enjoy them without inhibition. Make sure to also celebrate your small wins.
Third, consider the metaphor of fire and water, as two forces in our personality.
Fire is the dynamic energy of desire, ambition, focus, and productivity. It gives you fuel to move forward and achieve things. It converts dissatisfaction into a drive for change.
Water is the cooling energy of satisfaction, acceptance, relaxation, gratitude, and connection. It makes you happy in the present moment. It brings peace and contentment, here and now.
Living a life that is healthy, happy, and fulfilling involves finding the right balance between the fire and the water in you.
The balance will look different for different people. We each get to live with this question—and make adjustments as we go. Just don’t forget that balance is key. Self-discipline gives shape and reality to your inner fires, and it can protect your inner waters.
When your self-discipline is balanced, it is sustainable. It becomes a lifestyle, rather than just something that you practice for a short period of time and then burn out.