4 Self-Discipline Tricks I Learned From the Marathon


For most of my life, I’ve been a competitive distance runner. I’ve run more than 100 miles in a week, competed at several distances, and trained through all kinds of terrible weather. I think you could say that discipline comes easily to me. If I really decide to do something, I will do it (possibly at all costs). But to be honest, I haven’t always been successful at applying that level of discipline in all areas of my life; I’ll work logistical wonders to get my run in, but procrastinate for weeks when it comes to taking care of business in other areas. That said, distance running has taught me more than a few things about self-discipline, some of which I’ve used to grind my way through other tough situations. As we approach the New Year, many of you may be making resolutions. Whether you’re looking to get in shape, get out of debt, or tackle some other challenge, here are some tips I hope will help you see those goals through. (See also: Trade in New Year's Resolutions for Achieving Life Goals)

1. Don’t Leave Room for Excuses

When I head out for a morning run, my door bursts open at 7:45 a.m., and I’m in full stride before I even hit the street. Rather than stand at my window and wage an internal battle about whether it’s too hot/cold/icy/wet to get out there like I’ve planned, I’ve gotten into the habit of running down the stairs and rights through the front door — before the weather can change my mind.

If you give yourself the time to make excuses, you’ll probably come up with some pretty good ones. But if you let too many of these win over too often, your goals will soon fall by the wayside. If you have a goal you want to achieve, try to remove as much room for excuses as possible. Want to save more money? Set up automatic withdrawals from your checking account on payday. Looking to get out of debt? Find out what often makes you cave to temptation, then work on keeping yourself out of those situations. That old expression about excuses says that we all have them. It’s true, but that doesn’t mean they’re a good source of advice.

2. It’s Not As Bad as You Think It Is

I live in a northern Canadian city, which typically means very cold winters. And yes, I still run. But what I’ve noticed over the years is that even on the days when the snow is swirling outside my window and the air is so cold and clear you can hardly breathe it in — the days when I dread going out and worry about frozen eyelashes and frost-bitten toes — when I do get out there, it’s never as bad as I imagined. And I’ve noticed the same thing when I’ve had to give a presentation at work or do something else that takes me out of my comfort zone — my dread of the situation far surpasses it in reality. As it turns out, my imagination takes a mundane situation and turns it into a monster, and that often makes me procrastinate, make excuses, and generally avoid what is actually a much smaller trial than I anticipated.

3. Set Yourself Up for Success

I often write goals down — and even stick them up on the fridge. Moving my goal from the comfortable privacy of my mind out into the open for my friends and family to see makes it real — and makes me accountable. That goal becomes more than just something I’m thinking about; it’s something I’m actively working on.

First, however, you have to settle on a goal that you can actually achieve. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be ambitious, but you should be realistic — and recognize that you can always move toward a bigger goal in the future. If you want to get out of debt this year, for example, take a look at how much debt you can realistically pay down in 2012 and how you will make it happen. Then, post a note to yourself in a visible place, and mark down your progress as you go. If your debt is bigger than your net income, you’re not going to be paying it off before the year is out. Rather than set yourself up for failure, choose a goal you can realistically achieve. Once you get there, you can always set a new one to take you the rest of the way.

4. Provide an Escape Hatch

If you’ve ever run a marathon, you might be familiar with the “one more mile” trick. It comes in handy for met at around the 20-mile mark, when I often feel like sitting down on the curb, throwing up my hands, crossing my arms, and perhaps indulging in some pouting about how the whole marathon thing is just too hard. That’s when I make a bargain with myself. I will run one more mile — and not a step more. In other words, I break down what seems like an insurmountable task into manageable pieces. And, bit by bit, I coax myself to the finish line.

Next time you’re overwhelmed with a big task or goal, break off a tiny part of it and work on just that. Chances are, once you finish, you’ll be game for more.

Training for Discipline

I think self-discipline is a muscle; flex it regularly, and it’s likely to get a whole lot stronger. This doesn’t mean you’ll always succeed at what you set out to do, but taking the first steps in the right direction is often the hardest part. After that, it’s all about putting one foot in front of the other.

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Meg Favreau's picture

I'm kinda training for a half marathon right now (I say "kinda" because I haven't actually signed up for it yet), and just having a goal and a training schedule that I have to keep is huge for me. Normally I can't get myself to exercise on weekends (unless I'm doing something like a hike with a friend), but now, since it's the only time I can get my weekly long run in, I have to do it.

Tara Struyk's picture

Awesome! The great thing about a marathon is that it's big and scary enough to keep most people on track - even on weekends:-)

Guest's picture

Never ran a marathon, but I learned that big goals are completed in small chunks. How to eat an Elephant, bite by bite.

I love the energy behind this article, it's really something. Hoaxing yourself, priceless. I remember doing that one with studying. I am wondering why I stopped doing it lately.

Everything goes when you fuel it with passion. Finishing the marathon is one of those things that you need to pull as much passion as possible.

Because there is a similarity between life and a marathon. And we need to push, until all that pain from pushing hard turns into pleasure of success, once we cross that finish line.