4 Reasons Why Discipline Trumps Productivity

I've always admired doctors, especially those who deal with trauma. They never know what situations they will encounter. The only thing they can count is when a trauma patient arrives, they must be focused, clear-headed, and determined to achieve one goal—stabilize the patient.

A trauma physician isn’t there to address systemic, chronic issues. They aren’t there to address psychological challenges. And they aren’t there to make selective improvements of any kind. A trauma physician exists to keep the patient alive.

Even if you’ve never experienced a trauma situation before, you’ve likely seen one of those medical reality TV shows. The ambulance arrives, the paramedics roll the patient in reading off stats to the doctor, and the hospital staff is preparing for whatever treatment the doctor might deem necessary. The doctor has seconds to determine the course of action, and his or her assessment and resulting actions will have a significant impact on whether the patient lives or not.

At that moment, emotions are running high. There are a number of distractions, opinions, and ideas swirling around. But only one thing matters in that moment, what does the doctor want to do? More important, what will stabilize the patient?

Now that is a stressful situation.


Few people will ever know what it’s like to be a trauma doctor. And I pray that you never have to experience what it’s like to be a trauma patient. There is, however, something important you can learn as you reflect on what determines success in those critical moments—focus.

Leadership requires focus, too. While all leadership experiences are different, one shared experience that is true is there exists an infinite number of competing realities in life that have the potential to detract you from your goal, objective, or intention.

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: The goal is to keep the main thing the main thing. That was good advice in communications theory, and it’s good advice in leadership. The number of initiatives, projects, and priorities that flood your inbox, calendar, and mind only increase as your leadership platform expands. That means you must be vigilant in keeping the main thing, the main thing in every meeting, every commitment, and every day.

What makes a trauma doctor excel is the discipline he or she develops during their training that helps them close out any distractions and focus on the most critical pieces of information to quickly arrive at a course of action. What will make you successful and productive as a leader is not mastery of the productivity conversation but the discipline to stay the course no matter what comes your way?


I get it. In a culture that values individual expression over everything, discipline often gets rejected as an outdated concept. Some perceive discipline to mean that I must conform to your expectations. For a soldier, that is true. But that’s not the type of discipline I’m talking about. I’m talking about the type of discipline that keeps you moving in the same direction until the objective is achieved.

I would suggest discipline is what leads to endurance. And the true test of leadership doesn’t come in the short game. Leaders must have the discipline to stay in the game longer than anyone else to ensure the mission is accomplished. The only way you can do that is by disciplining your mind and body to ensure you stay on task.

There is a difference between discipline and productivity. Productivity is a set of actions you take to prioritize your day, tasks, and goals. Discipline is the commitment to stay focused on the initiatives you set out to achieve from the very beginning. You can be productive and not be disciplined. But you can’t be disciplined and not be productive. This is why discipline must be part of your formula for leadership success.

Let me give you four reasons why discipline trumps productivity

1.     Discipline is a commitment to a specific outcome. Productivity is a set of actions, but those actions don’t necessarily drive your direction.

2.     Discipline is a contextualized process defined by your intended outcome. Productivity, without context, is just busy-ness.

3.     Discipline aligns your decisions with your actions. Productivity only works for you when your behavior and words match.

4.     Discipline reveals the clarity you have about what you believe is most important. Productivity can keep you from moving forward if you aren’t sure where you want to go.


I know it sounds strange to suggest at this point that thinking–what most perceive to be a passive activity–is worthy of a mention in a conversation about discipline and productivity. Nevertheless, what you think impacts what you believe, and what you believe influences your actions. So, if you have a productivity problem, the root is most likely a discipline problem that originates in your thinking.

If you’re clear in your thinking, then you’ll know the areas and things about which you have or need discipline. And if you’re disciplined, then you’ll understand how to apply the principles and practices of productivity to ensure you effectively and efficiently deliver on your commitments, goals, and outcomes. This is true whether you are a trauma doctor in the ER or a recent college graduate just getting started.

Your thinking is driven by your why; your level of discipline is driven by your what; your level of productivity is driven by your how. If you're out of balance, you will be ineffective. If you're balanced, you will be unstoppable.

REFLECT: Are you disciplined about how you approach life? What about your leadership? Are you busy being productive, or are you disciplined about delivering on your commitments and outcomes? What needs to change in your thinking to change your level of discipline and your application of what it means to be productive?