In the pursuit of success, wellbeing, health and fulfilment, self-discipline can be seen as a foundational skill. It enables us to direct our life consciously towards our chosen goals, making the most of our abilities and opportunities. Discipline enables us to overcome the myriad temptations and distractions that life throws our way. Cultivating self-discipline is often easier said than done, given our natural inclination towards instant gratification.
However, I believe that we can also put too much emphasis on the concept of discipline.
In this longer article, I delve into the essence of self-discipline, exploring its psychological foundations, key components, practical applications, and effective strategies for development, all aimed at guiding you on your journey to personal and professional excellence. This article also explores the pros and cons of discipline, and what supports discipline to make success easier to achieve.
Introduction – My Personal Approach
I want to start this article by sharing my approach. I had a successful career which I stepped away from in 2015 so that I could do something more aligned with my deeper values. Since then, I have gone back to university and now continue to grow a successful coaching business. But I wouldn’t say that I am a particularly disciplined person. To me the word discipline implies rigidity, strictness, control, and a certain coldness. None of these things are particularly appealing to me. It’s therefore been important for me to develop approaches to success that don’t rely solely on the concept of self-discipline. The following are the key elements that help me be successful, to reach my goals, without the strictness of hard discipline.
I Understand My Why
Simon Sinek spoke to this when named his book, ‘start with why’. I find this one of the most powerful tools in my personal toolkit. That doesn’t mean that I am always thinking why. Having a mindset of knowing ‘my why’ helps give me a sense of purpose. By being connected to my why, I find I have a lot more intrinsic motivation to do the challenging things. I think of ‘understanding my why’ as making things matter.
I Focus on the Process
One of my favourite metaphors is the Olympic athlete. They dream of being on top of the podium in 4 years’ time and having the gold medal placed around their neck. This is very motivating, but if they only dream about it, they will never be able to win. Athletes need to create a training plan and stick to it, day in, day out. They need to focus on small and consistent steps. For me this encompasses building habits and having a simple but clear routine to follow. I believe this also means letting go of perfectionism. I put in the effort and work with the results that come.
I Have Clear Goals
Although this is similar to ‘understanding my why’, clear goals are more about including specifics about what to measure, how much and by when. I also celebrate all the small wins, which means not just having big goals, but recognising even the smallest goals each day. I think of having clear goals as making things real.
I Embrace Delayed Gratification
When I can recognise that I don’t want to do something because it will make me uncomfortable to begin with, I can promise myself a break, or comfort after doing the task (or working on the task for a set amount of time). I think this also helps me let go of procrastination.
I Practice Self-compassion
To me this means two things: A) Recognising when thing are tough for me, and making sure I support myself, and take care of myself, as well as getting on and doing the tough things; B) Balancing attachment to outcome with acceptance that despite my best efforts, things may not work out exactly as I hope or plan, and that is also okay – a kind of “it will all work out fine in the end” attitude. I believe this means also practicing self-care; if I am well enough resourced, well fed, well rested and in a good state of mind, I find that it’s much easier for to maintain a higher level of focus and to do the tough tasks.
I customise for success
This means I learn what works for me and use that to create tailored support systems for myself. For me this means:
Taking regular holidays or breaks
Knowing who gives me energy and who to spend time with
Eating the food that is most supportive for my energy and body
Getting to bed and getting up at the optimal times and having a good evening and morning routine
Doing the things I love to do
Knowing what to do when things are going badly; how to bounce back
Practicing QiGong, and exercising to feel energised and refreshed every day
The Psychological Foundations of Self-Discipline
At the heart of self-discipline lies a battle against our brain's evolutionary wiring, which favours immediate rewards over long-term gains. This instinct, crucial for the survival of our ancestors, now manifests as procrastination and distraction, hindering our ability to focus and exercise self-control in the face of modern-day challenges. By recognising and understanding this internal tug-of-war, we can navigate our way towards a more disciplined life, overcoming the lure of instant gratification in favour of achieving our long-term objectives. Of course, it was also important for our ancestors to develop discipline and long-term planning. So we know we have the capacity for it, the question is how do we build and support it?
Self-discipline is built on a foundation of self-control, consistency, sustained focus, and willpower. Self-control involves reigning in impulses to ensure actions are in line with long-term goals, a task made easier through mindfulness and visible reminders of our aspirations. Consistency, often presented as the bedrock of success, is achieved through daily efforts and steadfast adherence to routines. This ensures progress even when motivation ebbs. Willpower, much like a muscle, can be depleted but also strengthened through regular challenges that require discipline, thereby enhancing our self-discipline capabilities over time.
Key Components of Self-Discipline
Self-Control: This is about reigning in our impulses to ensure our actions align with long-term objectives. Techniques such as mindfulness and setting clear, visible reminders of our goals can bolster our self-control.
Consistency: Success is the product of daily efforts. Establishing and adhering to routines ensures that we make incremental progress towards our goals, even when motivation wanes.
Willpower: Often likened to a muscle, willpower can be exhausted but also strengthened over time. Regularly challenging ourselves with small tasks that require self-discipline can enhance our willpower.
Commitment: A strong dedication to your goals and values. It involves sticking to your plans despite challenges.
Self-Control: The ability to resist temptations and distractions that deviate from your goals.
Persistence: Continuing to move forward even when faced with setbacks or failures. It's about resilience and not giving up.
Emotional Regulation: The ability to manage and respond to your emotional experiences in a way that enables you to keep focused on completing the task.
Why Self-Discipline is Important
Achieving Goals: Self-discipline is the driving force behind goal setting and goal achievement. It enables you to stay focused on your objectives, manage your time effectively, and persist through challenges and setbacks. Whether it's personal aspirations like fitness goals or professional ambitions like career advancement, self-discipline helps you maintain the course until you reach your targets.
Maintaining Productivity: In both personal and professional contexts, self-discipline helps combat procrastination and distraction, two major barriers to productivity. By cultivating self-discipline, you're better equipped to prioritize tasks, manage your time wisely, and complete your work efficiently, leading to higher productivity levels.
Enhancing Self-Control: Self-discipline is fundamentally about exercising self-control over your impulses, desires, and emotions. It allows you to make decisions that are in your best interest in the long term, rather than giving in to immediate gratification that may have negative consequences.
Building Habits and Routines: Successful habit formation relies heavily on self-discipline. Whether you're trying to establish a new fitness regimen, a study routine, or any other positive habit, self-discipline helps you stick to your plan until the action becomes a natural part of your daily life.
Improving Mental Health: Self-discipline contributes to mental well-being by reducing stress and anxiety that often come from feeling overwhelmed or out of control. By managing your responsibilities and commitments effectively, you create a more balanced and less stressful life.
Developing Resilience: Life inevitably involves facing obstacles and setbacks. Self-discipline fosters resilience, empowering you to bounce back from failures and continue pursuing your goals with determination.
Enhancing Personal Responsibility: Cultivating self-discipline increases your sense of personal responsibility. It encourages you to take ownership of your actions and their outcomes, leading to a more empowered and accountable approach to life.
Achieving Personal Growth: Self-discipline pushes you to challenge yourself, step out of your comfort zone, and pursue continuous improvement. It's a key ingredient in the process of learning new skills, mastering challenges, and growing as an individual.
At the most basic level, I see self-discipline as the ability to choose how we act, respond, and think in each moment. I like to think of each moment as a choice point. We can either satisfy our immediate desire for comfort and safety, or we can choose the less comfortable options that move us towards what we want in our life. I see this as choosing our future self over our present self; making this choice enough of the time to move towards our goals.
Potential Downsides of Self-Discipline:
While self-discipline is undeniably valuable, it's important to strike a balance and integrate it with other strategies and supports. This holistic approach not only aids in achieving your goals but also ensures that the journey is sustainable and enriching. Balancing discipline with flexibility, self-care, and external support systems can lead to a more well-rounded and fulfilling path to success.
Risk of Burnout: Over-reliance on self-discipline without adequate rest or self-care can lead to burnout. Constantly pushing oneself to meet high standards without breaks can be mentally and physically draining.
Diminished Creativity: Excessive focus on discipline and structure might stifle creativity. Spontaneity and freedom are also important for creative thinking and problem-solving.
Rigidity: A highly disciplined approach can sometimes lead to rigidity, making it difficult to adapt to unexpected changes or opportunities that require a flexible response.
Negative Self-Perception: Failure to meet one’s own strict standards of discipline can lead to feelings of guilt, inadequacy, or low self-esteem, particularly if there's too much emphasis on self-control and not enough on self-compassion.
Overemphasis on Outcomes: Focusing too much on disciplined behaviour directed at specific outcomes can sometimes overshadow the importance of the process and learning journey, potentially leading to a lesser appreciation of the experiences gained along the way.
Recognising and addressing common obstacles such as procrastination and lack of motivation are critical steps in cultivating self-discipline. Strategies such as setting smaller, interim goals, seeking inspiration from our deeper motivations, and practising mindfulness can help us navigate these challenges successfully.
A Softer Approach
The concept of "soft self-discipline" is an interesting and modern take on traditional views of discipline. It acknowledges that the rigid, harsh approach traditionally associated with self-discipline may not be effective or healthy for everyone. Instead, soft self-discipline focuses on:
Gentleness with Oneself: Recognising that setbacks are part of the journey and treating oneself with kindness and understanding, rather than harsh self-criticism.
Flexibility: Being adaptable in one’s methods and willing to adjust goals and routines as needed, rather than sticking rigidly to a plan that may not be working.
Mindfulness and Self-Awareness: Paying attention to one’s needs, emotions, and responses, and using this awareness to guide disciplined actions in a more compassionate way.
Positive Motivation: Encouraging oneself with positive reinforcement and rewards, instead of using negative consequences or punishment as a motivator.
Intrinsic Motivation: Focusing on internal desires and values as the driving force behind disciplined actions, rather than external pressures or expectations. For me this is the most important factor. I link intrinsic motivation to a sense of purpose, which I find fundamental for any real success.
Soft self-discipline is a more holistic and sustainable approach. It integrates the principles of self-care and personal well-being with the traditional benefits of discipline, such as focus, productivity, and goal attainment. This approach can lead to a healthier relationship with oneself and one’s goals, reducing the risk of burnout and increasing long-term success and happiness.
Diligence vs. Discipline
Diligence and discipline, while closely related and often used interchangeably, emphasize slightly different aspects of personal development and effort. I believe diligence is about the effort and persistence applied to work or tasks, discipline is more about the control and regulation necessary to stay on track with those tasks or broader goals, regardless of challenges or temptations.
Diligence is often described as the persistent and hardworking effort in pursuit of a goal or task. It implies a steady, earnest, and energetic effort and is usually associated with the meticulousness and thoroughness of one’s work. Diligence focuses on the perseverance and effort needed to complete tasks effectively and efficiently, often over long periods.
Discipline, on the other hand, involves self-control and the ability to regulate oneself to follow certain rules, guidelines, or systems, often in the face of temptation or distraction. It's the practice of training oneself to act in accordance with specific standards, and it requires the self-regulation to maintain focus on long-term goals over immediate gratification. Discipline can be applied to thoughts, actions, and emotions, and is foundational in developing habits that lead to the achievement of personal or professional objectives.
While diligence and discipline are both important for achieving success, they highlight different aspects of the effort. The idea of soft self-discipline provides a nuanced understanding of how discipline can be applied in a way that is both effective and nurturing, emphasising flexibility, gentleness, and a focus on intrinsic motivation.
Mastering self-discipline is not merely about imposing strict rules upon ourselves but about nurturing a balanced, flexible, and mindful approach towards personal and professional growth. This article has traversed the psychological underpinnings of self-discipline, highlighting its significance in achieving goals, enhancing productivity, and fostering personal development. Yet, it also acknowledges the potential pitfalls of over-reliance on discipline, advocating for a softer, more sustainable approach that incorporates self-care, intrinsic motivation, and adaptability.
Self-discipline isn't a fixed trait that you either have or don't have; it's a skill that can be developed over time. Understanding this can transform how we approach self-improvement, making it more accessible and achievable for everyone. This empowers individuals to start seeing self-control as something they can strengthen through practice and patience.
By understanding that self-discipline is a skill to be developed rather than an innate trait, we open ourselves to a journey of continuous learning and improvement. The strategies and insights shared herein invite us to consider discipline not as a constraint but as a supportive framework for our aspirations, enabling us to navigate the challenges of life with resilience and grace. Let us embrace this balanced path, where diligence meets discipline, and where our endeavours lead not just to success, but to a deeper sense of satisfaction and well-being.