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Why So Many Creatives Struggle With Discipline

by | Process

Could a self-described lack of discipline be largely due to a simple misunderstanding of the word?

After a recent talk at a conference I got into a conversation with a creative services manager charged with leading a large internal team of creatives. After a few minutes, he confessed that he struggles personally with discipline, and that he notices the same pattern playing out on his team. While team members typically meet their commitments to the organization, the process is often littered with missed cues, frustration, poor communication, and unprofessional behavior. He said that it’s difficult to get them motivated to rally around the work.

Discipline is sometimes perceived as a “dirty word” because it’s interpreted as pushing through the muck, doing the unenjoyable activities first, and forgoing the chocolate cake for the steamed broccoli. However, I think this is a gross misunderstanding of the word.

Discipline simply means making an agreement with yourself, and keeping it.

That’s all. Nothing more complicated than that. The problem with discipline begins when we don’t understand which commitments are worth our effort, when we make too many commitments, when our commitments conflict, or when we are subject to the unclear commitments of others.

Creatives Make Too Many Agreements

Even great jugglers have a limit on the number of balls they can keep in the air. If you make too many agreements with yourself you will eventually fail to keep some of them. This is often the result of “guilt work”, or things that we think we should be doing, but really don’t want to. (Note: yes there are things we should do that we don’t want to. It’s a part of life. I’m referring to discretionary commitments we make because we ought to rather than because we are charged with getting them done.) This has a snowball effect on your confidence and energy for your work. You have to be careful about how many agreements you make with yourself and ensure that each agreement you make has a clear course of action. If you don’t, the ensuing guilt and shame from dropping balls, and the subsequent sense of loss of focus will trickle down into all other areas of life.

Discipline simply means making an agreement with yourself, and keeping it.

Take some time to consider all of the agreements you’ve made with yourself in every area of your life, and consider a handful of them you want to focus on first. As you follow-through on your agreements, even small ones, you will notice your focus and energy on the rise. I regularly clear my desk and project list of “guilt work” so that I can just get one or two neglected things done, and it makes all the difference in my level of clarity.

Creatives Make Conflicting Agreements

Another problem is that creative pros sometimes make conflicting agreements, such as committing to a project that directly steals time and energy from another one they’re already committed to, or working on a project that conflicts with personal values. Again, doing this robs resources from other potentially valuable work and begins the downward cycle of frustration and confusion.

You need to know yourself, and have a clear matrix of priorities that defines how you make decisions and commit to work. Sure, unless you’re a freelancer there will always be projects you’re involved in that you have little say in whether to take on, but you need to ensure that you’re not regularly putting yourself in a position of doing work that directly conflicts with what you care most deeply about.

Creatives Are Unclear About Their Agreements

Most creative pros aren’t lazy, they often just don’t know what to do next. Many people are carried along by their work rather than stopping to define it, establish clear challenges around their work, make agreements with themselves, and distill a sensible course of action. If you tell them what to do, they’ll knock it out of the park. However, the uncertainty around their work often causes them to hem and haw, and to push work off into the future where they hope there will be more certainty.

The key is to get very clear about next steps, and to center your work around clear problem statements so that you understand what you’re accountable for. Clarity trumps certainty, always.

Discipline does not mean drudgery. It simply means making an agreement with yourself and keeping it.

Take a few moments today or this evening to list the places in your life where you seem to lack the kind of discipline you desire to have.

Once you’ve done this, identify the agreements you’ve made with yourself in those areas, and see if you need to modify, prune, or clarify them.

Finally, make sure that you’re not trying to act on too many agreements simultaneously. Make sure that you’re succeeding on the important ones before adopting others.

Be disciplined. Make and keep your agreements with yourself, but do it wisely.

Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.

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  1. Lavonda Pflug

    Good information! I’ve made more agreements with myself than Bayer has made little white aspirin pills. Keeping all those agreements? Now that’s another story.
    I wouldn’t call myself a creative “pro”, but I still have a hard time trying to decide what to do next. Yes sir, tell me what to do and no one can do the job better. (well, maybe) But hem and haw…That’s me!

    I may have to read and reread this dozens of times before I get it completely and can hope to put your ideas into practice. But the one thing I did instantly was identify myself and a “creative.” I don’t know that I’ve ever been allowed to do that before. It feels good. Even with all my hang-ups. lol

    Again, good, helpful information. I’m glad I stumbled onto your site!

  2. Hashim Warren

    “Most creative pros aren’t lazy, they often just don’t know what to do next.”

    Todd, this point can’t be overstated. I like how the Heath Brothers phrase it:

    “What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. Change accelerates when people understand — in specific, behavioral terms — how to reach their goals.”

    When I do a Pomodoro drill I have to write down exactly what I plan to accomplish in the next 25 minutes. I write it on the notepad on my computer. Just that act of clarity makes me extremely more disciplined.


  3. jurgen wolff

    good stuff. I find it useful to insert a 24-hour pause between being thinking of taking on a new project and actually deciding whether or not to do it. This cooling-off period makes it easier to look at present commitments and check whether I will have the time, energy and resources to also do the new thing, and whether it’s really consistent with the outcomes I want.

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