How discipline can change the universe

It is much easier to be disciplined at work when the context is favourable.

In fact, one of the secrets to getting stuff done is to create a favourable context:

  • find out the best time of day for you;

  • turn off distractions;

  • set up accountability in a way that works for you.

All of these help you to be disciplined.

There is a huge body of research about this.

One of my favourites is Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies, about four different ways people respond to obligations depending on whether they are internally- or externally-derived.

For more information on this, email me at for a free pdf summary of why it matters to you in your career.

But actually, the really difficult bit is to be disciplined at work when the context ISN’T favourable.

One woman epitomises this to me: Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is the astrophysicist who discovered pulsars (spinning stars made of neutrons).

She tells an amazing story of being alone in the lab in the middle of the night, her feet so cold that they were aching, and realising that the “scruff” in the data was actually regular and indicated a new type of star.

And she achieved this despite the most unfavourable context.

It started at university.

Jocelyn was the only woman in her Cambridge college to study physics.

At that time there was a “tradition” that whenever a woman entered a lecture hall, all the men present, “stamped and whistled and called and banged the desk”.

This happened in every lecture for two years…

And then when Jocelyn was working as a researcher, she helped build the radio telescope she used for her discovery (saying she got really good with a sledgehammer in the process); she analysed the data that the telescope produced; and she was the one who made the final discovery, and drew the ground-breaking conclusion.

But, given it was the 70s, lowly researchers weren’t credited in academic discoveries.

So it was her (male) supervisor and his colleagues that received the Nobel Prize for Physics.

But Jocelyn Bell Burnell showed her discipline, and persevered in her field.

And she got to the top: she became President of the Royal Astronomical Society, and the first female President of the Institute of Physics.

Not only that, but, 44 years after her discovery, she was publicly rewarded for her work on pulsars, by being granted the prestigious science “Breakthrough” Prize.

And not only that, but Jocelyn has donated the whole $3m prize to create a fund to help women and underrepresented minority students to become physics researchers.

As she said, “For me being a role model was important, just to show there are women doing science, enjoying it, and being good at it”.

So Jocelyn Bell Burnell not only achieved the highest levels in her career; but she also wanted to make a positive impact on women in physics.

And with her new fund, she has done that as well.

An inspirational woman.

And she would never been able to have that success without her discipline in the face of such a discouraging unfavourable context.

So do you have the clarity of purpose, and dedication to it, shown by Jocelyn Bell Burnell?

Do you have the tenacity, perseverance and resilience necessary for success?

Things to do and consider

  1. How can you make your context more favourable to you being disciplined at work? What habits, structures or forms of accountability can you set up to help you?

  2. And what can you change that discourages you being disciplined? For example, can you avoid looking at your email for the first two hours of the day so that you get the important, not urgent stuff done?

For help with developing discipline, or to find out more about how to apply Gretchen Rubin's Four Tendencies in your career, email me on