About a year-and-a-half ago, I started running. Not for a marathon or to lose weight or from a shady organization that believed I knew too much, or anything like that. Mainly, it was due to my reasoning that, if I ever wanted to be in a position to run a couple quick miles at a stretch without exaggerated suffering, it was an ability best cultivated now, in my reputed prime of life, rather than after some thirty or forty years spent engaging in as little physical activity as I could get away with. So I started frequenting the track at the local gym, and firing up the new-to-us treadmill we got used from an uncle; I’ve even been known to run a few blocks outside, if the weather’s nice enough.
And because I’m not always completely oblivious to life’s little parallels, I have made the observation that running and writing are in this alike: For best results, both demand “controlled behavior resulting from [training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement]; self-control” – that is, definitions 1 and 2 of “discipline”.
When you begin running regularly after not having run regularly, the first while is slow, painful going. I actually spent the first several weeks worth of Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays working my way up from power-walking with occasional brief sprints to a slow-but-steady jog. I was whipped at the end of the mile. I was sore for days. There was not nearly enough fun inherent in this activity to balance its high level of discomfort.
Writing isn’t always fun, either. Oh, it’s got its moments. I love the excitement of developing a new story’s concept, and those days when the words are flying fast and easy and full of awesomeness are bliss. But there are inevitably days where I just won’t feel like writing – or I’ll feel like it, but whoever’s in charge of letting the words flow called in sick and left me hanging. On those days, the blank pages are the mile, and I feel like I’m moving at a newbie runner crawl, and I’m left feeling mentally exhausted and emotionally sore and questioning the point of it all.
What is the point? Nobody’s making me do either of these things, run or write. If I skip a week or fudge a day, I won’t get fired. I won’t have my laptop repossessed. I don’t have a medical condition where it’s run or die, my call. The only one making me do these things is me; and if I don’t do it, no one will.
That’s where discipline comes in: The ability to just do it. I have to determine for myself whether I’m going to run or not. And once I’ve made the decision, it’s up to me to follow through. Every pounding step on the track or treadmill is a fresh opportunity to say, “Okay, that’s enough, see you next time.” Every “next time” is a new chance to turn this time down, or put it off until a little later (*cough* procrastination *cough*).
I won’t kid you: There have been plenty of times where days or weeks went by, and I didn’t bother to run. (Today may end up being one such day. Time will tell.) And in the short term, I would have little to no regret. But the thing about running is, it’s not like a video game where you can just pause it, go off for as long as you like, and jump right back in, sans harm or foul. Running doesn’t save your progress. Your legs and lungs and heart will have to relearn how to get in the zone; and the longer the hiatus, the longer it’ll take to get back where you were and start raising the bar again.
And then there’s writing – the video game you left sitting for months, and you’re suddenly back in the middle of a battle on Level 22 and you’re like, “Oh, heck, which button is which, again?” You’re not starting from square one, but your mental muscles are stiff and out of practice.
Practice, definition 2d: “The condition of being skilled through repeated exercise.” Running and writing aren’t exams easily crammed for. It’s about building up skill and endurance bit by bit, day for day, with some measure of consistency. That requires discipline, and that’s how you acquire discipline.
So the next time you don’t feel like doing what you want to, or don’t want to do what you need to, do yourself a favor: Do it anyway. It’ll make it just that little bit easier when you’ve gotta do it all over again.