Learning Self-Discipline

many years, I have had the privilege of knowing the renowned classical
guitarist Christopher Parkening. By the time he was thirty, he had
become a master of his instrument. But such mastery did not come easily
or cheaply. While other children played and participated in sports, he
spent several hours a day practicing the guitar. The result of that
self-disciplined commitment is proficiency on his instrument that few
can match.

Self-discipline is important in any endeavor of life.
It's best defined as the ability to regulate one’s conduct by principle
and sound judgment, rather than by impulse, desire, or social custom.
Biblically, self-discipline may be summarized in one word: obedience.
To exercise self-discipline is to avoid evil by staying within the
bounds of God’s law.

I'm grateful for my parents, coaches,
professors, and the others who helped me develop self-discipline in my
own life. People who have the ability to concentrate, focus on their
goals, and consistently stay within their priorities tend to succeed.
Whether in academics, the arts, or athletics, success generally comes
to the self-disciplined.

Since self-discipline is so important,
how do you develop it? How can parents help their children develop it?
Here are some practical tips that I've found helpful:

Start with small things. Clean
your room at home or your desk at work. Train yourself to put things
where they belong when they are out of place. Make the old adage "A
place for everything and everything in its place" your motto. After
you've cleaned your room or desk, extend that discipline of neatness to
the rest of your house and workplace. Get yourself to the point where
orderliness matters. Learn how to keep your environment clean and clear
so you can function without a myriad of distractions. Such neatness
will further develop self-discipline by forcing you to make decisions
about what is important and what is not.

self-discipline in the little things of life prepares the way for big
successes. On the other hand, those who are undisciplined in small
matters will likely be undisciplined in more important issues. In the
words of Solomon, it is the little foxes that ruin the vineyards (Song
of Sol. 2:15). And when it comes to a person's integrity and
credibility, there are no small issues.

A famous rhyme, based
on the defeat of King Richard III of England at the battle of Bosworth
Field in 1485, illustrates the importance of concentrating on small
For want of a nail, a shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe, a horse was lost,
For want of a horse, a battle was lost,
For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost,
And all for want of a horseshoe nail.

Get yourself organized.
Make a schedule, however detailed or general you are comfortable with,
and stick to it. Have a to-do list of things you need to accomplish.
Using a daily planning book or a personal information manager program
on your computer would be helpful. But get organized, even if all you
do is jot down appointments and to-do items on a piece of scrap paper.
The simple reality is that if you don't control your time, everything
(and everyone) else will.

Don't constantly seek to be entertained.
When you have free time, do things that are productive instead of
merely entertaining. Read a good book, listen to classical music, take
a walk, or have a conversation with someone. In other words, learn to
entertain yourself with things that are challenging, stimulating, and
creative. Things that are of no value except to entertain you make a
very small contribution to your well-being.

Be on time. If
you're supposed to be somewhere at a specific time, be there on time.
The apostle Paul listed proper use of time as a mark of true spiritual
wisdom: "Be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise,
making the most of your time, because the days are evil" (Eph.
5:15-16). Being punctual marks a life that is organized. It reveals a
person whose desires, activities, and responsibilities are under
control. Being on time also acknowledges the importance of other people
and the value of their time.

Keep your word. "Undertake
not what you cannot perform," a young George Washington exhorted
himself, "but be careful to keep your promise." If you say you're going
to do something, do it—when you said you would do it and how you said
you would do it. When you make commitments, see them through. That
calls for the discipline to properly evaluate whether you have the time
and capability to do something. And once you’ve made the commitment,
self-discipline will enable you to keep it.

Do the most difficult tasks first. Most
people do just the opposite, spending their time doing the easier, low
priority tasks. But when they run out of time (and energy), the
difficult, high-priority tasks are left undone.

Finish what you start. Some people's lives are a sad litany of unfinished projects. In the words of poet John Greenleaf Whittier,
For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: "It might have been!"

If you start something, finish it. Therein lies an important key to developing self-discipline.

Accept correction. Correction
helps you develop self-discipline by showing you what you need to
avoid. Thus, it should not be rejected, but accepted gladly. Solomon
wrote "Listen to counsel and accept discipline, that you may be wise
the rest of your days" (Prov. 19:20); and "He whose ear listens to the
life giving reproof will dwell among the wise. He who neglects
discipline despises himself, but he who listens to reproof acquires
understanding" (Prov. 15:31-32).

Practice self-denial. Learn
to say no to your feelings and impulses. Occasionally deny yourself
pleasures that are perfectly legitimate for you to enjoy. Skip dessert
after a meal. Drink a glass of iced tea instead of having that banana
split that you love. Don't eat that doughnut that caught your eye.
Refraining from those things will remind your body who is in charge.

Welcome responsibility.
Volunteer to do things that need to be done. That will force you to
have your life organized enough to have the time for such projects.

practical suggestions may not seem to involve any deep spiritual
principles. Yet you cannot split your life into the secular and the
spiritual. Instead you must live every aspect of your life to the glory
of God (1 Cor. 10:31). And self-discipline cultivated in the seemingly
mundane things of life will spill over into the spiritual realm.

Adapted from The Pillars of Christian Character by John MacArthur. © 1998 by John F MacArthur, Jr. Used by permission.