The Discipline of Joy

Image: “It’s a whole great big fun thing” by Tomi Ungerer/Artvee

If you’re one of the millions of self-employed, you might know this saying all too well: When you work for yourself your boss is probably an asshole. Susan Piver writes at The Open Heart Project, which I found via Oliver Burkeman’s The Imperfectionist:

I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to force myself to do things. Really good things. Things that are important to me. Things like meditating, journaling, going to the gym, and so on. I set schedules over and over. (I will rise at 5. Meditate, 530-630. Journal 630-730. Breakfast 8-9, and so on.) I fail way more than I succeed, which makes me really, really upset. I get angrier and angrier at myself, curse my lack of discipline, shame myself for watching Battlestar Galactica (again) instead of writing, delve into my psychology hoping to unearth the seeds of self-sabotage. It spirals out of control until I either give in to lying on the couch or somehow manage to squeeze out a day of discipline according to schedule, whereupon I exhale a half-sigh of relief and immediately begin bullying myself to repeat this tomorrow.


Yesterday, I finally realized that this method would never, ever work. I was shocked. But it never, ever has. I’ve been after myself on this score for, what, like ten years? Had it ever worked once in that time, I asked myself. No! I said immediately.

Long story short, Piver made a decision not to focus on scheduling her day, but instead on what she actually wanted to do at each moment of the day. She concludes:

So I didn’t schedule myself at all. Instead, I asked myself: what do I feel like doing? What would be fun for me? Write? OK. What is fun about writing? Oh, it’s so cool when it just starts to flow and plus I really enjoy thinking about things like dharma and love and creativity simply for the sake of doing so. So start there. When you’re done, ask yourself what would be fun to do next.

Which I did. And you know what? I did all the things I yell at myself to do. My day looked pretty much exactly like my days do when I succeed in being “disciplined.” Only this time, it seemed effortless. I had such a light heart.

So, yes, discipline is critical, just like all the teachers say. And there is definitely stuff that needs doing that is just never going to be fun like paying bills and cleaning the cat box. But I suggest that instead of being disciplined about hating on yourself to get things done, try being disciplined about remaining close to what brings you joy. It takes a lot of courage, actually.

Perhaps it’s the case that Piver would be more of what Shishir Mehrotra calls a “doer,” than a “piler.” Still, it’s worth emphasizing Piver’s insight. In her words: staying disciplined about remaining close to what brings you joy. It’s these words that keep me thinking as I write this all too late at night, trying to keep my writing commitments amidst the rest of my work life. I’m not harsh on myself to get things done though, forcing myself to write and then rushing to get to sleep; I’m enjoying it and allowing myself to have fun. Like Big Mike told me for my book, about how he paints during his lunch hour, it’s a pleasure—the best part of the day. That’s part of the discipline; the mental gymnastics involved in not allowing time or income pressure to take the joy out of your art, craft, or hobby.

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