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I have a discipline problem.


Motivation is doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done when we want to do it.

Discipline is doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done when we don’t want to do it.

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Womp Womp

More specifically I didn’t practice Spanish.

The motivation to do it was there. I was excited about learning a new language. I made the affirmation but then I didn’t do it. My interest waned, I found other ways to spend my time. There is no excuse, I simply didn’t prioritize it over facilitating ALC Everett, doing side jobs, working on art projects, playing ukulele, reading books, playing video games, sleeping, etc.

I try not to beat myself up over these things. Much, if not all, of that list is important. I do have the discipline to keep up with those projects. I just didn’t make the time for Spanish in my life. 

This waining of interest happens all the time around me. It’s clear, especially when you have data to back it up. Check out this graph of codecademy.com lessons completed by me and some students from the Everett school:

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See a pattern? On the left is our start, when we set the intention to do classes, everyone was excited and we wanted to jam on this. We dedicated ourselves to completing lessons. As we move on the lessons get a bit more challenging and we find other ways to spend out time. We find distractions.

Even as I write this Facebook is dinging at me and other ideas are popping into my head, ideas the pull me away from blogging.

Then there are three peeks on the slope. The first at week 5 was when we got started on ixa.net, the school’s first web project. Then again at week 9 and finally week 12.

All three of these times reignited the motivation to learn more about code because we were using code in some way.

Here’s another graph to illustrate my point:

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This line represents the number of Google search queries for the word “exercise”. I bet you can guess the the pattern:

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New Years resolution! People make an intention (based on the rolling over of the Gregorian calendar) to exercise, they go to google, do the research, get all motivated, then…

So how do we find discipline and sustain our intentions?

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Maybe we just need a more reasonable pace. Could it be that we are burning our selves out with the initial rush of excitement for a project?

Perhaps it’s lack of structure. There wasn’t a support behind the intention – no plan – we had the motivation but didn’t construct the discipline.

Reflecting on our goals and intentions more often might be a key to building that structure.

Slow and steady win the race, right? source

Part of the support probably comes from having people remind you of your commitment.

In the Agile Learning Center I think coaches can fill this role. Hold the record of intentions and remind the student of those intentions.

For other members of the community we have to support each other. That’s one of the reasons I posted my goals publicly, I wanted people to know so I knew that they knew and that I ran the risk of looking like a chowder head if I didn’t follow through.

What do you do to build discipline?

How can a school help promote that?


  1. Abram says:

    This is an excellent post, as usual, Drew. You are the envy of all aspiring ALF bloggers.

    I admit that I easily fall for this same trap and that it seems somewhat universal as a problem (Mandarin requires soooo much time). I think that this should be a forum topic, not just a blog post FYI.

    I recall that in my performance studies days the buzz was on calling your work a ‘practice’. That is, something that you would return to on a regular basis and that the rewards of this practice would be seen in various ‘fruit’ or ‘pieces’. This suggests that practicing at the times you’ve committed to even when you don’t want to do it is the key.

    I tend to think that there is this finite resource we all have called: willpower. It’s really good at short bursts of concentrated activity or commitment, but if it doesn’t have any stamina. You use it all up in a few weeks (if you make it that long!). Also, given that it is a finite resource (renewable) the more things that you have that require willpower, the sooner that Netflix binge is likely to creep in. You need to be developing HABITS that support the practice. It’s almost like the willpower is primarily there to help us make course corrections on the HABITS that we set up for ourselves.

    My suggestion for a school: explore and track the HABITS that people have and review these, making course corrections to one or two at a time. [The concept of limiting your ‘WIP’ (work in progress) is as essential here as it is with a kanban.]

    Example – I found that using my willpower to make a hot breakfast every morning (habit) had a few support hurdles that meant that I needed much more willpower to do it. First, I found that needed to do all of the thinking beforehand – I limited breakfast to a single meal I would repeat each day. Second, I noticed that another habit was getting in the way – staying up late on my laptop meant my body wanted to sleep in most days. Third, I discovered that I had to plan out my shopping for the whole week and choose a day to restock.

    Someone could have said to me: in order for you to have energy to get through the day you should eat a bigger breakfast. To do that you will need to choose a single meal to make things easier, you will also have to stop staying up so late and you will need to go shopping on the same day every week with a planned out shopping list or none of it will work. My response would have been willpower paralysis. That sounds like a whole of stuff that I DON’T WANT to do.

    The trick was that I had a clear, simple, goal. Everything else is correcting in order to support that goal. Now it’s a habit, so sometimes if I slip on the other support habits I am pretty quick to re-adjust.

  2. NancyT says:

    Thanks for posting this Drew! I read this and began chuckling to myself – I have also been determined to learn Spanish, but have completely dropped it in December. It started with Thanksgiving break and then I just didn’t pick it back up. Our whole language club tanked at school in December.

    At first I was frustrated by this, but then I picked up Yaacov Hecht’s Democratic Education and started re-reading about pluralistic education and simply remembered and recognized that we all wax and wane in our interests in cycles. Some things end up going dormant for awhile as a part of our learning and growing – but it’s still there and accessible when we are ready for it.

    What I really like about Kanbans is that it gives us daily visual feedback on what things we are getting to each week. I like looking at my done column to notice what things I am disciplined in doing, and then just noticing without judgement what other times I’ve dropped doing daily. I think it’s important to reflect honestly and just notice when you need a break or when you are ready to dive deeply into something again. I see in myself and in many children that deep dives into learning happen and there are obsessive qualities to what is desired to learn, and then they go dormant for a bit. So many people feel like they always have to have “balance” but don’t analyze their learning trends in longer yearly cycles to notice that they are learning and don’t need to have regular daily balance, but end up having a more stretched out version of balance.

    I highly suggest check out Democratic Education and what Hecht writes and observes about pluralistic learning and these cycles. He has created around 300 democratic schools in Israel, serving around 7K children. I feel like his observations on this are credible and valid!

    That said, I think many times it’s simply relationships and people that keep us disciplined. I do many tasks (as I’m sure you do) that I’m not motivated to do but do anyway regularly because of the fact that I know others rely on me. The people I serve in my community are really important to me and that drives me to keep up and make sure I’m on top of particular items for running the school an communicating what’s going on to parents.

    There is also the importance of having a great relationship with yourself! I think the beauty of ALC’s is that students have time to understand themselves and their passions and interests. When a person knows themselves, they will honor the commitments for what’s truly important for them. I think it’s important to use Kanbans to notice what we are doing rather than focusing on what we aren’t – then we will notice what things we are really good at and are making time for. That information can help us decide where our strengths are and how to use those to powerfully achieve our goals.

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