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The Practical Disciple » Uncategorized » Self discipline exercises

Self discipline exercises

For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7)

Last night I was watching a video with my son Matthew that was part of an online course we are taking together. It is a course in developing online products. The instructor actually gives away a number of products to participants in the course. They are completely free to reproduce them and put them online. In the video the instructor was addressing the concern that if he gives the products away won’t the market then be flooded to the point that his students can’t realistically compete. The short answer was no. Mainly because he explained that the sad reality is that 99% of the people who take a course fail to do the work necessary.
I was reminded of a real estate agent I met who was extremely profitable at what he did. A young competitor called him up one day and said, “I know that you probably won’t want to do this, but I was wondering if there is anyway you would meet with me for lunch and share with me what you do that makes you so successful.” The agent agreed without hesitation. He went and he shared the many personal disciplines that he regularly exercised to succeed so well. Afterwards, the young competitor said, “I still can’t believe you where willing to do this. Why did you do this? Aren’t you afraid I’ll take your business?” The agent explained to him, “I am really not worried about that. Very few people are willing to do what I do to be successful.”
Unfortunately, I can relate all to well to these stories in my spiritual life, both as a mentor and a student. I can’t tell you how many books, retreats, sermons, cd’s, videos, and classes I have sat through that gave me clear direction that would benefit my spiritual life. Yet, finding myself applying far to little. I also have seen this in the church regularly. I repeatedly hand people spiritual disciplines in kit form, but sadly only a very limited number apply tools long enough to see the fruit.
My concern around this very human reality is heavily on my mind as I try to re-craft an online bible mentoring program that people will actually hopefully apply themselves to. I am not trying to sound dismal and skeptical here. The harsh reality though is that we are conditioned daily to crave newness and immediate gratification which are both antithetical to the self-discipline necessary to develop depth in any discipline.
I have noticed that whether you are talking about sports, academics, finances, business, or spiritual growth, the people who excel have tremendous personal discipline. They share some common characteristics and practices. Highly successful and disciplined people:
Disciplined people have clear plans for what they will do. Clear to-do lists for the day. Journals for their prayers. Stated or written intentions and goals. Do you consciously have any plan for how you are growing in your relationship with God. Do you have a plan for improving your study of the Word or prayer life? Do you have a plan for what you will give in money, time or talent? Do you have a hope or vision for how you will be different as a disciple in six months? If so, do you know what specifically you are going to do to get there? You cannot expect to arrive somewhere, if you have no destination in mind or no plan to get there.
Application step: Write a description of how you would like to be different as a disciple in the next six months or write down an accomplishment that you would like to achieve to honor God. Make a list of the steps you need to take to transform these hopes into realities.
The greatest intention in the world without action is worthless. Once you craft a plan, work it. Work it without fail, not just when it is convenient. I have noticed disciplined people stick to their plan to completion. They do not keep willy-nilly jumping to a new idea or plan. I actually recently heard discipline defined as “not changing course unless a different choice brings you closer to your destination.” Stay focused on taking action daily and consistently. No matter how small a step you take, take a step.
Application step: Track your progress. Create charts, checklists or other visible reminders that reflect your progress. For example, on the corner of my bathroom mirror I have written the following with a dry erase marker: “Blog Posts–41/210.” I have a goal of writing 210 posts in 2010. The first number is my current count of posts year to date. I update it each time I produce a new posts. It stares me in the face every time I stand at my sink. I have several other goals similarly tracked on my mirror. Notebooks can be another great way to track progress. My son and I have a notebook for tracking our progress in a joint venture. We print out lists of actions steps. We then check off and date when we accomplish them.
This principle goes hand-in-hand with working a plan. I have often voiced it this way, “Don’t work ahead and don’t make an exception.” This principle is really a principle of boundaries. Disciplined people resist distraction. How often do you put together a to-do list and then later you find that you spent hours doing other things with limited progress on your actual list. This may be symptomatic of a lack of self-discipline around staying focused. Or you may be grabbing at other solutions before applying something long enough to see its fruit. Keep on your plan. Discipline also draws boundaries on working excessively to the point of burn-out. A lack of rest is a lack of discipline. I am discovering more and more that fatigue debilitates discipline faster than any other factor in my life.
Application step: Define the upper and lower boundaries for the activity you will put into a discipline and stick with those boundaries. At first this will very likely induce stress, but over time it will extremely reduce stress.
Disciplined people think and plan fully through things. They don’t half do a task. As Christians we are supposed to do all that we do as if we are doing it for Christ. Doesn’t it follow that we should do all things excellently? Doesn’t it follow that we shouldn’t be sloppy or disorganized about how we approach our spiritual disciplines?
Application step: Go back and evaluate your plan. Is it specific and thoughtful or have you just thrown a loose idea out there? What if someone else had to follow it? Could they follow it clearly?
It’s one thing to have a destination in mind and even a plan for getting there, and it is an entirely different thing to understanding why you are going there. Disciplined people don’t only know what they are doing but they understand why they are doing it. This clarity of purpose is partly what allows disciplined people an edge in accomplishing their plans. When the going gets tough, they can remind themselves of the importance of the activity they are doing.
Application step: Look at your plan and write down why you want to succeed. What is your motivation? What will be accomplished ultimately?


Fasting from anything that matters to you will increase your baseline ability to practice discipline in all things. You don’t have to just fast from food. Give up something for a period of time that is significant to you or reflexive, i.e. spending time on facebook, watching television, texting, etc. A life coach that I know says, “The way we do one thing is the way we do all things.” There is a lot truth to that statement. The good news is that if we shift significantly how we do one thing it can effect how we do all things. So, discipline around how you eat will translate into greater discipline in how you study.
Pick a single activity each day and perform it with extreme excellence.
For example, next time you iron a shirt, do it very meticulously. Or next time you have to clean something, clean it until it is absolutely spotless. Actively working at attention to detail on a task will shift your awareness around detail in other tasks.
Practice waking and rising at the same time each day.
This is something that I have a particularly difficult time with, so I may be preaching mostly to myself. Nevertheless, there are two important reasons why you should do this. You will develop your ability to exercise placing boundaries which are critical to discipline. You will also dismantle fatigue in your life. Fatigue causes you to cut corners and compromises your judgement.
Use a timer on activities you easily get lost in and quit when it goes off.
I can get lost in activities all to easily. Some people set time boundaries more naturally than others. Using and obeying a timer will help expand your ability to set healthy limits. I used a timer twice this morning in the office. I spent 15 minutes “” (toss, refer, act, or file) in my offices and 20 minutes reading a magazine on children’s ministry. I knew that both of them were things that I could easily let consume much time so I set a timer. When my office gets out of control, I traf daily for just a few minutes at a time until it is restored to order. I set my timer and do nothing more and nothing less.
Maintain a Sabbath
A sabbath is a discipline in and of itself but I find the practice of it effects my ability to be disciplined. You need time for quiet reflection or you will become very muddied in your purpose and find yourself pulled about by every demand that comes your way. I am in the process of reestablishing a Sabbath time. I used to take half of every Monday and use it to wander in the woods for a couple of hours and then I would sit in prayer at the edge of a pond for an entire hour of uninterrupted prayer. When I maintain a day of rest like this my ability to be disciplined sores.  To learn the basics of sabbath read my sabbath post.
Practice stillness
Few things will awaken self-awareness like stillness and self-awareness is key to self-discipline. When we lack awareness we are reactionary. If you practice stillness, you will become much more conscious of thoughts and feelings going on inside of you. You increase your ability through stillness to observe thoughts and feelings and either respond to or disregard them. Sitting quietly observing nature and paying attention to my senses for lengthy periods of time has been particularly beneficial in this regard. Centering prayer though has been incomparable to any other activity in honing my ability to stay focused and not get jerked about by thoughts, feelings, and physical distractions. If you are unfamiliar with this practice then check out my centering prayer post.
Pray for self-discipline
Did you notice in the opening quote from the bible that Paul is telling us that a spirit of discipline or self-control is something God gave you. You can work on all the things above and it will help, but don’t forget to ask God to fill you with his Holy Spirit to keep the flesh in check and your spirit faithful.
Blessing to you as you seek greater faithfulness to God in all things.

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6 Responses to "Self discipline exercises"

  1. Great post! There is so much here that applies to me. For the past year, I have mostly struggled with keeping the sabbath. And it’s starting to show because I am worn out and cranky, and no closer to completing that to-do list even with the extra day of work. I think if I had time to reflect on what’s really important in life, I could eliminate several things on that to-do list without lifting more than a pencil. :-)

  2. Sorry. I meant my “joyful offering list.”

  3. Kathleen says:

    Great piece John! Truth in every line. I had this same kind of conversation just yesterday with a clergy friend who’s at wits end [once again] but who readily admits her spiritual disciplines are not what they should be. It sounds all too familiar! God speed in your good work.

  4. Jim Morgan says:

    Great article. Thanks so much for taking the time to write and post.

  5. […] for you? Often times the defining difference is self-discipline. Almost 2 years ago I wrote an article on self-discipline exercises and it still remains one of the most frequently visited posts on my blog. I guess lots of people […]

  6. SK3 says:


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