Developing Self-Discipline: A Comprehensive Guide
There are plenty of misconceptions about discipline. The word alone might conjure images of unforgiving high school teachers or being told off by people of authority.
Self-discipline, then, might appear heartless or harsh, a way of relentlessly pushing yourself or keeping yourself in line. However, to practice self discipline, and to find ways to improve your self discipline over time, can be a vital part of achieving your goals and living a life of purpose. From this perspective, building self discipline is a quality most people should want to cultivate in themselves.
Improving on your own: Self discipline today
At times, self-discipline can feel like an impossible task, while a lack of self-discipline can become a reason to be overly self-critical. If you’re lacking in self-discipline, start by accepting where you’re at. Allow the frustration to be a catalyst for change, and know that self-discipline is a skill that can be learned. Here, we’ll explain how.
We’ll provide you with an overview of the nature of self-discipline, along with practical tips to start integrating healthy habits into your day-to-day life. We’ll explore a few myths that can keep you stuck, as well as a few tweaks that will help you build momentum and belief in your ability to be self-disciplined.
What is self-discipline?
Let’s start by defining exactly what self-discipline is, and the difference between it and self-control. Although they’re very similar, there is a difference. The definitions provided by the American Psychological Association are:
Self-discipline: “resolute adherence to a regimen or course of action in order to achieve one’s goals.”
Self-control: “the ability to be in command of one’s behavior (overt, covert, emotional, or physical) and to restrain or inhibit one’s impulses. In circumstances in which short-term gain is pitted against long-term greater gain, self-control is the ability to opt for the long-term outcome. Choosing the short-term outcome is called impulsiveness.”
Another way of phrasing this is that self-control is the opposite of acting on impulse. It’s a form of restraint that arises in situations where there is a temptation. Examine your own life, and you’ll find that there are any number of examples where this could apply. Think about your exercise habits, your addiction to junk food, your ability to stay focused and stay motivated, and the type of decision making skills you have.
Do you have the power to stop a bad habit, and encourage good habits? A lack of self-discipline is acting in a way that prioritizes short-term pleasure over long-term gain. Self-discipline is the commitment to making these behaviors and habits part of your toolkit.
Why is self-discipline important?
Any meaningful goal requires some element of struggle or short-term sacrifice to attain. This includes daily activities and life milestones.
For example, imagine you get hungry. You have all the ingredients in your fridge to make a healthy, nourishing meal. An effort is required to prepare and cook the food, but the result is a delicious meal at the fraction of the cost of eating out. Not only do you save money, but you add healthy eating habits to your life, a great thing for your mind and your body.
Another example: You decide you’d like to wake up early on weekends and start a new hobby. Self-discipline is required to turn down opportunities to go out late partying the evening before, it’s required to make sure you wake up on time, and it’s required to turn away from the million tiny distractions along every step of the way.
Self discipline is important because it can apply to any part of your life. Want to quit smoking? Limit your online shopping? Learning how to be more disciplined and remove temptations is one of the most important things you can do.
The power of self control
Finding ways to improve your self-discipline is increasingly important because we’re living in an age where we’re conditioned for instant gratification. We’re able to order almost any product online for next-day delivery, stream any film, TV show, or song immediately, even contact someone on the other side of the world in seconds.
While there are benefits to this streamless convenience, there are downsides when it comes to self-control. “The need for round-the-clock connection not only makes people more impatient, it also robs them of time for quiet reflection or deeper, more critical thinking,” Ronald Alsop writes for Bucknell University. “They tend to want constant stimulation, have less impulse control and get distracted more easily.”
Unsurprisingly, a study from last year has demonstrated a link between smartphone usage and impulsive behavior. “Our findings provide further evidence that smartphone use and impulsive decision-making go hand in hand and that engagement with these devices needs to be critically examined by researchers to guide prudent behavior,” the authors wrote.
There’s good news and bad news. I’m a bad news first type of person — we live in a culture that primes us to seek instant gratification. Our environment is rich with elements that don’t promote self-discipline. The good news? A little self-awareness goes a long way. And when you know what’s holding you back, you get a better idea of how to move forwards.
Two types of self-discipline: Compassionate and militant
A misconception with discipline is that it’s extreme. What comes to mind might be the 4AM wakeups, cold showers, and hyper-productivity for successful people. I’ve been there, and although I enjoyed it for a period of time, eventually I felt the negative impact and decided to find a healthier approach to self-discipline.
It turns out that, like many areas in life, self-discipline is a practice of balance.
During a session with my coach, it surfaced that my approach to self-discipline was unforgiving. I was using the label of self-discipline as a way of pushing myself excessively — discipline had become a form of perfectionism. In that session, my coach asked me to personify the part of my psyche responsible for discipline.
What came to mind was the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. My approach to self-discipline was self-critical. I was pushing myself to succeed. I discovered that this militant approach was developed as a coping mechanism from when I had depression; I knew I needed to become super disciplined to set up healthy habits, such as giving up alcohol, meditating regularly, and eating well.
Eventually, I realized this approach was creating high levels of stress. Then I had a huge insight: my self-discipline was lacking compassion. What if I could be self-disciplined with compassion? I started to view discipline as compassion for my future self.
This shift in perspective encourages self-discipline in a more relaxed approach. The discipline to exercise or eat well, for example, can be undertaken with a sense of joy, knowing your future self will reap the rewards. Keeping your future self in mind allows you to find the motivation to have the required to carry out activities and make the active decisions that prioritize long-term gain over short-term comfort.
Two perspectives: Moving away and moving towards
Building upon the above perspective shift, it’s worth exploring the polarities of self-discipline. Typically, the motivation for setting goals comes in two forms: moving away from something undesired, or moving towards something desired.
The foundation of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is to connect deeply to values and to focus on moving towards who you want to be, and how you want to act.
So often in life, we act in order to move away from unwanted emotions. This creates a passive, reactive way of living. We feel restless or bored, so we pick up our phone, watch Netflix, or browse social media. We wish to avoid feelings of anxiety or stress, so we do all we can to avoid conflict or difficult conversations, at the expense of our needs.
This is where values play an important role in living the life you truly want. If you value productivity, for example, you can connect to this value when looking to wake up early, or say no to some opportunities in order to pursue your goals. Having fewer distractions and creating more time for achievements is a way to accomplish your to-do list.
This shift is deeply rewarding, because it influences each and every decision you make. Every choice becomes a purposeful act in aligning with values. The discipline to connect in this way then leads to freedom.
To practice self-discipline is to gain freedom
Self-discipline and freedom seem like contradictory terms. If you’re disciplined, aren’t you lacking in spontaneity, and choosing structure and focus ahead of freedom?
In the words of Leonardo da Vinci: “You will never have a greater or lesser dominion than that over yourself…the height of a man’s success is gauged by his self-mastery; the depth of his failure by his self-abandonment.”
It’s safe to say da Vinci knew a thing or two about discipline, as a renowned polymath who created incessantly in a multitude of fields. Self-mastery requires many things, including awareness and inquiry. But self-discipline is the will to choose to honor oneself and your goals.
Life can easily feel chaotic and out of control. Yet gaining self-mastery through discipline is one way of gaining a sense of empowerment over life. For example, having the discipline to set boundaries or create a new habit leads to living in alignment with what feels authentic. Discipline with your time means more space to prioritize what’s meaningful. That’s where freedom lies.
Former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink clearly agrees — his book, Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual, is a bestseller. “While Discipline and Freedom seem like they sit on opposite sides of the spectrum, they are actually very connected. Freedom is what everyone wants — to be able to act and live with freedom. But the only way to get to a place of freedom is through discipline,” he told Forbes.
How to develop self-discipline
Hopefully, by now, you have a clearer understanding of self-discipline. You understand its benefits and the way to integrate it for long-term success. Maybe you’re even feeling motivated and enthused for making a significant shift towards achieving goals you never felt possible. Now, let’s move onto practical steps you can apply to develop self-discipline:
Start by exploring why self-discipline is important
Something brought you here, right now, to read this article on self-discipline. Why? The first step is to acknowledge the wish to develop self-discipline. The next step is to find the underlying motivation.
You might feel that you’re not meeting goals you wish to achieve, you might feel you’re acting impulsively in ways that are detrimental to your physical or mental health. Either way, start by clearly acknowledging the wish to develop self-discipline.
Frame this wish positively and tune into the emotion
Returning to my earlier experience with militant self-discipline, the driving force was moving away from unhelpful habits. But it was done so with an undercurrent of frustration, guilt, and even fear.
While the desire to move away from certain behaviors can be a catalyst to change, developing long-term self-discipline requires a positive framework and emotions. In other words — find something you feel excited for, and tap into that energy.
For example, you might exercise to lose weight or to move away from poor health. But what if you could connect with a feeling of excitement and enthusiasm towards being healthy? What activities could you then do? How would your life benefit?
Connect to your values
Finding something to connect to, something to get enthused by, is supported by having clarity around your values. As mentioned above, this helps to withstand short-term discomfort for long-term fulfillment — some feat for a culture that promotes instant gratification!
Values aren’t rigid, fixed labels. They’re ever-evolving networks of meaning. For example, I used to think I exercised because I valued health. But recently, I realized this value was an umbrella term. What I also value are commitment, consistency, dedication, and resilience.
Visualise long-term rewards
A vision of where you’d like to be acts as a North Star. Rather than move away from what you don’t want, it allows you to be pulled towards what you do. This is extra important when it comes to self-discipline, as it acts as a reminder that the perceived sacrifices or short-term losses are working towards something greater.
Some questions to consider: how would your life change if you were more self-disciplined? What do you see yourself achieving? What type of person will you be? Really bring these images to life. Imagine yourself stepping into the shoes of this future vision of you.
Tilt the odds in your favor
If your cupboard is filled with high-sugar snacks, it’s going to be harder to be self-disciplined with food. If your phone is on your desk, illuminating and buzzing with each notification, it’s going to be hard to remain disciplined enough to enter flow and perform deep work. The point is: there are ways to make self-discipline easier by removing obstacles.
This theory is backed up by behavioral psychology. Kurt Lewin, one of the pioneers in the field, provided a framework known as force field analysis. All situations, Lewin proposed, have two forces: helping forces and hindering forces. The former helps support goals, the latter blocks goals and gets in the way.
Through his research, Lewin discovered removing barriers was most effective. So consider: what barriers are getting in the way of self-discipline? For example, if you want to establish a morning routine, you’ll have to refine your evenings by going to sleep earlier. If you stay up watching Netflix, move all your digital devices outside of the bedroom! And, in the morning, wait until your routine is complete to turn on your phone.
Reframe the behaviors you’re looking to avoid or encourage
The marshmallow test is one of psychology’s most well-known tests. Conducted in the 60s and 70s by Walter Mischel, the experiment involved telling children that they could eat one marshmallow placed in front of them, or two later, if they were patient and waited. The children who resisted the temptation displayed lots of positive outcomes later in life.
Mischel found that a common trait in those with resistance was to mentally “cooling” the “hot” aspects of the temptation. Creating mental distance — for example, imagining the marshmallow as a cloud — leads to greater resilience. “If we have the skills to allow us to make discriminations about when we do or don’t do something, when we do or don’t drink something, and when we do and when we don’t wait for something, we are no longer victims of our desires,” Mischel told the New Yorker.
Habits, habits, habits
The above point leads us nicely into this step — building healthy habits. The more ingrained certain behaviors become, the easier they are to stick to, and eventually, they become second nature. By being conscious about your habits, and making sure they align with your goals helps to internalize self-discipline.
Consider what habits you can look to cultivate to support your goals. This includes habits that remove barriers and those that make the attainment of your goals easier. These don’t have to be significant. As James Clear says in Atomic Habits: “All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision.”
Even seemingly small habits, such as getting your running outfit ready and waiting the evening before a morning run, or placing your alarm clock over the other side of the room to make sure you get out of bed on time, pay off big-time in the long-term.
Consciously work on delayed gratification
The marshmallow test is a nice metaphor for the value of delaying gratification. In the experiment, the reward was double the amount of marshmallows. In life, there are many “double marshmallow” rewards that follow delayed gratification (bare with me). The ability to delay rewards can’t be understated — a recent study published in the journal Frontier in psychology found delayed gratification to be one of the most important indicators of success.
This is developed like a muscle. Keep strengthening your ability to delay gratification, and you’ll find that it becomes second nature. To start with, though, consciously make the decision to work on this. Don’t go all-out from the beginning — if you find yourself eating chocolate daily, see if you can move to every other day, and work up from there.
Or try starting with one activity. A few years ago, I decided to join an old-school video rental store. I was practicing delayed gratification, and I wanted to experiment with the difference between this approach and browsing Netflix. I’d choose an evening to watch a film, then travel to the store, spend time browsing the aisles, pick one film on Blu-Ray, travel back, and make a ritual out of the process.
Admittedly, this confused some of my friends. But the whole process was worth it! By being mindful of each step and fully committing to one movie, I enjoyed the experience so much more than randomly choosing a film at the click of a button.
Keep compassion in mind
Even a self-discipline regime requires a healthy dose of compassion and some well-deserved time off. This isn’t about being super strict, 24/7, but getting the balance right so you feel good about your ability to stick to goals and overcome short-term pleasure for long-term fulfillment. Trying to be disciplined all the time is likely to lead to burnout, so remember to take breaks.
Above all else, always keep one eye on the vision you’re working towards, and the “future you” who will benefit from those actions. As an additional step, I like to acknowledge my past self when I receive the benefits of hard work I’ve put into the past.
It can be as simple as enjoying leftovers from a meal you cooked the evening before. The aim is to build a feedback loop, where you look forward to helping yourself and thank yourself for doing so.
Perhaps the biggest area of compassion, though, is when it comes to lapses in discipline. For me this was the biggest indicator I needed to ramp up my self-compassion — each time I’d “fail” in being disciplined, I’d be overly harsh on myself.
So remember, you’re only human. And if you slip up, forgive yourself, and get back into your routine as quickly as you can.
Take time off to indulge
In psychology, ego depletion is the term given to the phenomena where willpower decreases over time. In other words, willpower comes from a place of limited resources. Part of having compassion on the path of developing self-discipline is to understand that there is space for time away from self-discipline. This is a practice to integrate into your regime. You can view it as a “cheat day,” though it doesn’t have to be exclusively related to food.
That means if you’re dieting and exercising, enjoy the occasional treat or break from the gym. If you’re studying, find time for play. Self-discipline doesn’t have to come at the cost of fun! But you’ll find, over the long term, if you’re able to increase your self-discipline, you’ll be able to enjoy the times you enjoy even more.
Have you been strict with your media consumption? Indulge in a binge-watching session! Been exercising and eating well? Take a session off the gym and enjoy a takeaway. Even Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the world’s most elite athletes, enjoys pizza as a guilty pleasure!
In a world of increasing comfort and instant gratification, a lack of self-discipline is becoming the norm. But you’re not here for that, are you? In order to work towards meaningful goals, a healthy degree of self-discipline is required. The aim isn’t to become super militant or unforgiving towards yourself, but to introduce more self-serving habits and behaviors.
The beauty of self-discipline is that it’s reinforcing. Once you begin to prioritize long-term goals, the sense of fulfillment in itself will act as a reminder of why you made those small short-term sacrifices. That, in turn, will increase the intrinsic motivation towards having self-control.
As these behaviors become habitual, self-discipline will become your second nature, giving you a renewed sense of purpose and a sense of freedom.