Self-discipline is one of my main focuses on this blog. It’s rare for me to post an article that doesn’t at least mention self-discipline in some form, but somehow I’ve never written a comprehensive post about what self-discipline means and how to become more disciplined.
Now, I definitely can’t do the whole topic justice in one post, but today I want to explore some of the basics: what it is, how it improves your life, why self-discipline is important, and how to start building it.
What is self-discipline?
To kick this off, the dictionary definition of self-discipline (according to Google) is:
“The ability to control one's feelings and overcome one's weaknesses; the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it.”
But you didn’t come here for a dictionary definition, did you? I didn’t think so.
Yes, self-discipline means that you do the things that you know are right or beneficial, even if they’re difficult. But what does that really mean? What does that actually look like?
People often associate self-discipline with diet and exercise, but it goes beyond that. Yes, staying active and eating clean in our current culture takes discipline, but being a self-disciplined person goes way beyond that.
When you build self-discipline, you’ll find it reaching into all areas of your life: your career, your relationships, your goals, your attitude, your self-talk, your mindset. Self-discipline becomes a part of who you are and impacts every single decision that you make each day. Disciplined people start to prioritize their future selves out of habit.
Discipline means having the ability to hold back those damaging words that you want to say during a disagreement. It’s being honest with yourself, looking at your weaknesses and assessing them so that you can improve. It’s sticking to commitments that you’ve made, both to other people and to yourself.
Self-discipline is a skill!
I cannot tell you the number of times that people have said things like, “I wish I could do what you do,” or “I wish I was as disciplined as you are,” to me, and it frustrates me every single time.
I know that it’s easy to tell ourselves that we aren’t capable of the things that other people accomplish. When we decide that we just aren’t capable of working out five times per week or starting a business or building a happy and stable relationship, we give ourselves an out.
By deciding that disciplined people are somehow different from you, you have what seems like a valid excuse for why you haven’t done all of those things that disciplined people do. You’ve convinced yourself that you just aren’t capable of it so it’s okay that you haven’t done it.
But that’s not true.
You are capable.
You are stronger than you realize.
And I know this because I know that self-discipline is a skill. I haven’t always been a disciplined person. I, too, have spent 14 hours a day sleeping, eaten whatever I felt like eating, procrastinated on my homework until the absolute last second, and gone months without getting any real physical activity.
Then, I decided to build self-discipline. And just like building any other skill, it took practice. I made mistakes, I faced setbacks, I struggled, and sometimes I fell off the wagon—in fact, I still do all of these things. Discipline is a skill that I am still building because—just like any other skill—there is always more to learn. You can always continue to improve.
You can become a disciplined person.
If you’re reading this blog, I’m sure there are a lot of things that you want to do, but you haven’t done them yet, and you likely aren’t working toward them consistently, or even at all.
You might want to start a business, go to school, improve your grades, get in better shape, learn to play an instrument, work on your mental health, write a book, etc. You have things in mind that you would like to do.
These things haven’t happened for one reason: lack of self-discipline.
Self-discipline is the skill that lets you build every other skill.
When you build self-discipline, you become the kind of person who does all of those things that you’ve always wanted to do.
A little later in this article, I’ll give you some advice on how to start building self-discipline, but for now, sit with everything I’ve just said. Start to consider that you are much more similar to me than you might realize. You are 100% capable of the things that you want to do and the only thing standing in your way is a lack of discipline. You can build that discipline.
How does self-discipline improve my life?
You already know that eating healthy, starting your homework early, going to bed on time, exercising regularly, managing your time, and meditating will improve your life. But as most people already know, doing all of these things, and doing them regularly, is difficult.
If you try to rely on motivation to do these things, you’re never going to do them because most of the time, most people don’t feel like doing these things.
You’d rather do what’s easy and enjoyable. You’d rather sleep in, eat fatty, sugary foods, and have a lazy, fun, easy life.
But that lazy, fun, easy life is only fun at first. Soon, you’ll start to face consequences. You’ll be tired all the time. You’ll see others reaching their goals and realize you haven’t accomplished anything in months. Your mental and physical health nose-dive.
What started out as fun and easy soon becomes miserable.
Those things that disciplined people do—exercising, planning, goal setting, thinking ahead—those things benefit your future self. And one day, you’re going to be your future self. The actions that you take now directly impact the life that you will get to live one day.
So how does self-discipline improve your life? Well, if you have the discipline now to save money, eat clean, exercise, work toward a career that you love, build healthy relationships, and create systems and routines that benefit you and your mental and physical health, one day, all of those things will pay off.
One day, you will be happy and healthy. You’ll be in a positive place living a life that you enjoy waking up to.
And I know this because I’ve done it. I’ve been putting in the work for long enough that I’m living and enjoying a life that I built intentionally. And I’m continuing to put in work that will improve my life so that it only goes up from here.
Self-discipline directly translates to living a life that you love. Self-discipline brings stable, long-term happiness.
Why is self-discipline important?
This is something that I’ve touched on before and is probably fairly apparent already from the previous section of this post. Self-discipline is important because motivation is fleeting and unreliable.
To get where you want to go, you need to complete a set of tasks, and either you want to do those tasks or you don’t. I doubt anybody would argue that those statements are untrue.
If you want to do those tasks, that’s motivation. In those moments, it’s easy to find the time and energy to do what needs to be done.
If you don’t want to do those tasks, and you’re trying to rely on motivation to get them done, the chance that those tasks will ever be completed is low. You likely know from experience that it’s hard to drum up motivation when you need it.
Discipline, on the other hand, is reliable. When you have self-discipline, it doesn’t matter if you want to put in the work. Disciplined people do what needs to be done regardless of how they’re feeling.
Many of us fall into the habit of doing what’s easy rather than doing what needs to be done. When you have discipline, you can do what needs to be done. When you can do what needs to be done, you reach your goals. If your goals are important to you, then self-discipline should be as well.
How to build self-discipline
Self-discipline is an odd beast to tackle. It’s simple, yet it’s not. And because it isn’t something that you can build outside of the context of your everyday life, becoming more disciplined inherently involves changing your life.
Begin by figuring out a direction. Start considering what actions that you currently do that you’d like to quit and what things that you don’t currently do that you’d like to do habitually.
Realize that building discipline is necessary to change your life and that the act of building discipline is what changes your life. The two things are inseparable. If you aren’t ready to change your life and don’t have a direction you want to go, you aren’t in a place to start becoming more disciplined.
Recommended Reading: The 5-4-3-2-1 Method for Setting and Getting to Your Goals
Self-discipline doesn’t look the same for everyone, and it doesn’t look the same day-to-day. What gets you moving one day might not work the next. Learn and grow with it so that you build an arsenal of strategies to use when you need them, and don’t beat yourself up if you have a bad day or five. It’s normal to struggle sometimes.
At its core, self-discipline means taking action.
Your aim throughout this process is to practice quickly making the decision that you know is right and then acting on that decision.
Rather than debating whether or not to go to the gym, then eventually deciding two hours later that it’s the right choice, then sitting on the couch for another 45 minutes before putting on your sneakers, discipline means deciding to go to the gym the moment it crosses your mind and then heading out the door.
That is your eventual goal. That is what you’re working toward. Some days, you’ll have no problem doing that. Other days, it will be a battle. The more you practice deciding quickly and taking prompt action, the better you’ll get at it. This is how you build discipline.
Let’s be clear: if you aren’t acting, you are not building discipline. Reading this blog post is a decent first step, but if your actions don’t change because of it, you have made exactly zero progress in the self-discipline department.
Practice taking action.
Practice doing small actions even when you don’t want to do them. This is probably the best way that I know of to build discipline. You don’t want to hang your coat up when you come home? Too bad. Do it. Don’t think about it, just do it.
You don’t want to do the dishes? Too bad. Do it.
You don’t want to write that paper? Too bad. Get started.
I know that it sounds harsh, but when you start with small steps and work up to bigger tasks, it becomes easier to act despite your feelings. Practice ignoring your desire to avoid action.
Now, I’ll soften that blow a bit. Yes, “just do it” is the ideal. Acting quickly based on what you know is right is the aim, but that isn’t always possible. Sometimes it’s a bit of an internal battle, and that’s okay. There are some strategies that you can use to act when you don’t feel like it. After all, the goal is action. Getting there with a little help is better than not getting there at all.
I wish I could scream this from the rooftops. I wish I could scream it and scream it and scream it until my lungs give out.
The bigger the task is that you don’t want to do, the more you won’t want to do it. The smaller you can make it, the easier it will be to do.
Your goal is action. A smaller action than you intended is always better than no action at all. There is no shame in scaling back a bit so that you have an easier time getting moving. Doing one pushup is better than doing zero of the ten you intended to do. Washing three dishes is better than not cleaning the entire kitchen, even if that was your original goal.
On a broader scale, don’t attempt to overhaul your entire life overnight. I have a whole blog post about this. Focus your efforts on one area at a time. You’ll be much less likely to burn out, you’ll see faster results, and you’ll be much more successful in the long run.
Find Your Why
I’ve talked about this about 10,000 times before so just in case you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll just link you to the post about it.
I do want to note, though, that it’s okay if your Why stems from wanting to leave a negative situation rather than wanting to reach a positive one. I often frame Whys in terms of positive things—the goals that you’ll reach, for example—without acknowledging that my first Why was that I wanted to improve a bad situation.
I was trying to build a better life after a rough break up, largely out of spite and a little sadness. Though I now focus my Whys on the good things that I will reach because of my actions, it is valid to build discipline that is motivated by a desire to leave a bad situation. In fact, wanting to leave a bad place in life is a pretty common reason for people to want to build self-discipline.
Practice calling yourself out on your excuses
Most of the “reasons” that we give for why we didn’t do something are invalid. On the surface, they may seem fine and they’re enough to placate our brains and prevent us from feeling guilty, but they don’t stand up to further inspection.
Start taking time to assess your excuses. Remind yourself that you really want to see results. You really want to start making progress. Does your excuse truly prevent you from doing what you need to do? Is there any way that you could create a backup plan?
Next time you find yourself making an excuse, write it down. Then write three reasons why you want to do the thing you’re trying to avoid and three things that you could do instead, even if you don’t accomplish your primary goal.
For example, if you decide you can’t go for a run because it’s raining, list three reasons why you want to exercise, and then create a list of three things that you could do instead of going for a run, like doing yoga or going for a run on a treadmill. You’ll train yourself to reconsider your excuses and realize that just because you can’t accomplish your original goal doesn’t mean you can’t many any progress at all.
Monitor your feelings
As I’ve said before, self-discipline means doing what needs to be done, even if you don’t feel like it. Most of the time, “I don’t feel like it,” and “I don’t want to,” are not valid reasons not to do something that needs to be done. Learn to shut them down.
But that isn’t to say that you should totally ignore your feelings. They’re there for a reason. Notice them—meditation can help—and respond appropriately. Often, we may not feel like doing something that’s good for us even though that thing will actually make us feel better. Self-discipline often means getting uncomfortable and knowing that the discomfort is worth it.
Self-discipline is a tricky beast. It gives you what you need to be consistent, which gets you to where you want to be. It takes practice and patience, but it will improve your life in the long run.
Discipline means being willing to choose long-term gains over immediate success. When you think long-term, the whole process starts to become easier and make more sense. Practice becoming friends with your future self, and before long, you’ll start seeing the results of your self-discipline paying off.