Michael Jordan is widely considered the greatest basketball player of all time. In his 15 seasons in the NBA, Jordan won six NBA titles and was named league MVP five times. In 1999, ESPN named Jordan the "Top North American Athlete of the 20th Century."
Tim Grover was Michael Jordan’s personal trainer. During their years together, Grover had the unique opportunity to see what made Jordan so successful. While he was blessed with remarkable talent and generational athleticism, Grover believed Jordan's strict discipline and daily routine is what set him apart from his peers:
“MJ had the most disciplined game-day routine I’ve ever seen,” Grover said in his book W1nning. “He planned and organized every detail of his day, from the time of his workout to the car he drove to the arena. He put his clothes on in a specific order, organized the game tickets for his family and friends, ate at the same time every day … everything had purpose and discipline.”
“Why was routine so important to him? Because the games themselves were so unpredictable. And controlling the unpredictable was his specialty. His routine allowed him the mental freedom and clarity to focus on one thing: the complexity of the game, and managing every variable that stood between himself and a win.”
“So, Michael Jordan was super disciplined and followed a precise routine,” you may be thinking. “What does that have to do with me?”
Many parallels can be drawn between the contests played on the NBA hardwood and the jobs we complete as school leaders. Basketball games - much like school days - are unpredictable. Similar to how basketball teams must change their game plan as a result of foul trouble to a key player or the hot shooting of the other team, school leaders must change their game plan due to the behavior incident of a student or the effects of severe weather.
Discipline allows leaders to stay focused in the midst of the “daily whirlwind” that defines school leadership. In schools, it's easy to get caught up in external factors affecting the workday. Whether those incidents are as minor as a staff member not showing up to work or as major as dealing with the COVID pandemic, leaders are counted on to steer the ship when the waters get choppy.
But what does discipline look like in the work setting? As was discussed in Learning Curve, effective leaders identify high-leverage activities that can be executed on a daily basis - regardless of how crazy the day gets.
On The Group Project Podcast I interviewed Melissa Barlow. Barlow is a high school principal just outside of Oklahoma City and was named the 2020 Oklahoma High School Principal of the Year. With more than 2,600 students and nearly 200 staff members, Barlow leads one of the largest schools in Oklahoma.
Given the number of people Barlow is responsible for on a daily basis, one might assume her day resembles a game of Whack-A-Mole at Chuck E. Cheese. However, Barlow was quick to identify discipline and routine as key factors helping her stay focused in the midst of chaos:
“The day can get away from you. It’s crazy!" Barlow said. "As administrators, you’re going to get pulled in a million different directions. For me, it’s about scheduling and knowing that what’s on my calendar is important. There are times when things come up such as student discipline or a parent showing up to talk to you ... but it’s really important that I prioritize meeting with staff."
"I do a lot of touch-base meetings," Barlow continued. "I really believe that it's important to get those meetings on your calendar. All those meetings are pre-planned in the summer. After I greet the kids in the morning and the bell rings for first hour, I'm looking at my schedule for the day. A lot of my time is spent meeting with staff and building relationships."
"What gets scheduled gets done."
Whereas Barlow prioritizes “touch-base” meetings with staff, others may identify different daily actions that have the greatest impact on school outcomes. Whether the focus is classroom walkthroughs, student relationships, or academic interventions is irrelevant; what’s important is that leaders are disciplined about executing those activities regardless of what the day might bring.
“But being disciplined is soooo boring,” some people may be thinking. “Who wants to do the same routine every day?”
Certainly, society has programmed us to believe that self-discipline is lame:
“You always eat so healthy … live a little!”
“You’re going to bed at 9? It’s the weekend!”
“Do you really need to workout every day?”
“Why are you saving for a car? Get a loan!”
“Don’t you ever take a day off from work?”
Whereas social norms tell us that it’s “cool” to live by the seat of our pants, research indicates that discipline and success are interconnected. Not only do people who prioritize discipline and routine generate more income, have healthier bodies, experience less anxiety, and attain personal goals … they are more likely to enjoy happier lives.
“Happiness?” you may be wondering. “Following a daily routine does not sound like fun.”
Certainly, discipline and happiness seem to be two contradicting concepts. Discipline feels like “hard work” while happiness is associated with “not working.” Whereas the absence of work may result in momentary gratification, replacing self-discipline with self-indulgence ultimately results in negative feelings.
As was previously discussed (see page…), one of the biggest mistakes people make is predicting how “downtime” makes them feel. When asked what the perfect Saturday looks like, at one time all of us have responded, “I just want to lay on the couch, watch my favorite shows, eat a bunch of snacks ... and do nothing!”
While the thought of binging YouTube videos and crushing some Krispy Kreme donuts sounds amazing … have you ever noticed your mood at the end of these days? Whereas most people believe a day free from discipline and routine will make them feel peaceful, cheerful, and rejuvenated, most people end up feeling agitated, grumpy, and sluggish.
Another example is vacation. When planning trips, the question of whether or not to continue daily routines (workouts, sleep times, eating habits, etc.) often comes up. Whereas sleeping in and being a beach bum all day sounds tempting (pina coladas are my vice!), ambitious individuals often report feeling agitated and anxious when routines are completely abandoned.
That’s not to say we don’t need time to relax and rejuvenate. All humans have a limited “cognitive bandwidth," meaning that our brains can only handle so much work each day. At some point, we must give our minds a rest by completing activities that recharge our batteries.
However, the next time you abandon all routine and discipline for a day, reflect on your levels of happiness; you might be surprised how the “perfect day” really makes you feel.
Several chapters of my second book were edited while vacationing in Cancun.
Discipline and routine are proven to positively impact many aspects of life. In addition to professional practice, they are key ingredients to physical fitness, dieting, personal growth, relationships, personal finance, hobbies, and other life endeavors.
While discipline and routine are simple concepts, they are difficult to execute. Here are five ideas to consider:
Remove Temptations: Self-discipline is often easiest by following an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality. Removing distraction is crucial for implementing discipline and routine into your daily schedule. Want to read a book but can't stop looking at your phone? Turn off the phone. Want to lose a few pounds but can't stop eating Hot Cheetos? Stop buying junk food. Want to move on from an ex but can't stop looking at their photos? Block them on social media. Want to save money but can't stop making Amazon purchases? Cancel your Prime membership.
Wake Up Call: When we were kids, we loved weekends. Why? We got to stay up late and sleep in! Unfortunately, adults wanting to add more discipline to their life will want to resist their inner child by establishing a routine where they consistently go to bed and wake up at the same times ... even on the weekends. As we age, our bodies struggle to adjust to major shifts in sleep schedules. Even slight changes - such as staying up an hour later than usual - can affect memory, alertness, and immune systems for days.
Celebrate: Even the most-disciplined people must build in celebrations to salvage their mental health. For the longest time, I was ultra-methodical around fitness and dieting; I lifted weights every day and ate healthy at every meal. Although I was jacked ... I wasn't happy. I have learned to build in mini-celebrations - no lifting Fridays and cheat meal Saturdays - to give my mind a much-needed break. "Those don't sound like celebrations," you may be thinking. Incidentally, people who prioritize discipline find great pleasure in activities that others consider commonplace.
Say No: When days are organized around round top priorities, it becomes easier to say “no” to requests that may take us away from those goals. Similar to Melissa Barlow's story earlier in the chapter, I also prioritize meeting with staff throughout the week. For each direct reports (usually around ten employees), I hold a 30-minute 1:1 meeting at set times throughout the week. Because those meetings are already on the calendar, it becomes much easier to say "no" to other, less-important requests that come my way.
You’re Crazy: People who embrace a routine-based lifestyle must understand they will be labeled as "boring" and criticized by their peers. As was mentioned earlier, those who practice self-discipline are in the minority and are oftentimes ridiculed by others in our instant-gratification culture. So, when you eat salad instead of ordering Dominos with your colleagues - or go to bed early as opposed to throwing down a few Busch Lights (or White Claws) with your friends - be prepared to be mocked by others.
In 1991, Gatorade launched the “Be Like Mike” advertisement campaign. In these television commercials, children of various ages were shown imitating Michael Jordan’s most recognizable basketball moves. For readers alive during the MJ era, you can probably recall the "Like Mike, if I could be like Mike" jingle in your head.
Ironically – three decades later - I've come to realize the deeper meaning to this memorable marketing campaign.
Whereas I used to mimic Jordan's moves on the court (with tongue out, obviously), I now find that his mindset off the court is what I most want to imitate.
If you liked this article, you'll love my book Learning Curve!
Learning Curve is 360 pages and PACKED with useful ideas on leadership, education, and personal growth.