How to Develop Self-discipline: A Guide to Freedom

how to develop self discipline

 

Self-discipline is boring. It’s a trait that, ironically, seems to require constant change; thus, self-discipline can also be difficult. It can tire you, make you loathe yourself, and trigger some unwanted and unneeded mental gymnastics.

It might not be worth any ounce of your being…

That was just a quick disclaimer before you decide to read this long post and later think you just wasted your time.

If you think self-discipline is all rainbows and unicorns, as if it were as easy as looking for motivation in the regular places, then I urge you to stop reading this right now—you might be better off reading those motivational posts. Self-discipline simply might not be for you. If you’re that kind of person, thanks for having reached this point, and goodbye.

Otherwise, even if you’re not so sure, I still want you to stop for a moment and think about it, anyway.

rainbow unicorn cage

Still here?

Great, then.

My quick disclaimer above is very true for many people. However, self-discipline can be described differently by different people. In other words, there’s not a standard “definition” of self-discipline.

Also, before going to the “how-to’s” of self-discipline, I’ll be discussing a somewhat long background on the topic. Apparently there are debates around it, and it happens to be one of my favorite topics around this time.

It’s been changing my life for the better. It’s the reason I get things done. And even though it doesn’t get much traction with most of productivity-wannabes, self-discipline sure hell works.

You can do a quick Google search on the how-to’s but I strongly believe you won’t fully understand them, let alone implement them, if you don’t understand what self-discipline is all about. Heck, I’d even wager some of the popular advice aren’t true at all!

Now that that’s clear, and you’re still here, let’s get this over with…

I have long struggled with self-discipline. I am an introspective kind of guy—I would be quiet, unless I really need to talk, allow all my thoughts to run in my head, and finally decide to just get on with my convenient life.

But many times having these reflective episodes take away a huge and important thing: taking action.

Those times made me realize I needed self-discipline—to get things done regardless of how I think or feel. Having different thoughts and feelings can happen on a regular basis, anyway.

I’ve found two main reasons for self-discipline.

First, I need self-discipline to plow through my daily tasks, including activities I do on weekends. To meet deadlines, without compromising the work’s quality. And to constantly be reminded that work is just a part of life like eating or taking a bath or sleeping.

Second, I need self-discipline to stop doing the things that compromise my future—and the present—things that overall affect my happiness, character, and all the other things I need to be at my best.

In other words, self-discipline makes me aware of the things I don’t need, even if they present themselves otherwise.

What Self-discipline Is and Why You Need It

Self-discipline can have many definitions. Today it is widely interchangeable with the words willpower, self-control, or even self-regulation.

However, it has been discussed since forever. For example, Plato said we need self-control in our constant struggle with desire and rationality; we can achieve our ideal selves this way. Freud also said self-control is the essence of a civilized life.

Like my own reasons, self-discipline can be defined as marshaling your own willpower in an attempt to do things generally regarded as desirable, and to use that same willpower to prevent yourself from doing the undesirable.

Take note that for self-discipline to be effective, the marshaling should be done by you—you are intrinsically driven—don’t search from the outside, like your parents or boss.

Another way to look at it is that you don’t want to develop self-discipline “just because you have to.” You have to reconcile with yourself and really understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, even when it seems pointless sometimes.

Because that’s precisely what self-discipline is. You decide to go to great lengths to accomplish something, and delay gratification in exchange for a lifelong goal.

But the end-goal is less important—the real goal here is the commitment to the art of self-discipline—even just for the sake of it.

That kind of internalization has been shown to provide results across different areas such as academics, sports, romantic love, generosity, political involvement, and religion—better than when the motivation is extrinsic.

Self-discipline doesn’t concern only doing and avoiding things—it’s also about learning. It can be defined in terms of many other concepts such as self-organization, mobilization, commitment, concentration, control of impulse, self-motivation, and the ability to face and overcome stress.

You can look at self-discipline as the whole package. I’d argue that this can be the sole trait you can develop to become exactly who you want to be, do what you want to do, and go where you want to go.

However, there are a few debates surrounding it. For starters, research shows that self-discipline should be encouraged from a young age—and properly. Society—of which families and schools are a huge part—tremendously influences kids’ self-discipline. Thus, these families and schools become responsible, too. But more on that later.

One of the most popular perceptions on self-discipline today is that it’s like a muscle—overuse it and you exhaust it, but it gets stronger if used consistently.

Some researchers counter this premise, however. Self-control can’t be compared with muscles, because there’s a lot more involved here: incentives, individual perceptions of task difficulty, personal beliefs about willpower, feedback on task performance, and changes in mood.

Self-control doesn’t get depleted, they say; it’s only a matter of our own choosing whether we want to keep exerting self-control or not anymore.

It’s also a matter of shifting perceptions. For example, you know regular exercise is good for you (self-control pushes you to get up, change outfit, pick up bag, and go), but your attention could shift to an immediate reward, like the comfort of your couch with Netflix on.

Another popular study talks about the overshadowing strength of self-discipline over IQ in predicting academic performance among adolescents. The study might prove controversial—until perhaps someone challenges the limitations it presents.

Similarly, and more importantly, leaders also need self-discipline—they should develop leadership styles in such a way that they inspire and intellectually challenge their followers, instead of being abusive and micromanaging.

Leaders with low self-control have been found to have:

  • increased unethical/deviant behavior
  • decreased prosocial behavior
  • reduced job performance
  • negative leadership styles

As you can see, self-discipline is also for the common good, not only for yourself.

Interestingly, we can seem to enhance self-control in a biochemical level.

Studies emerge to attempt to reinforce the energy model of self-control. When self-control is depleted, you can take in—or even just gargle—some sugary solution.

Researchers have found that sugar, a simple carbohydrate, can either fuel or motivate self-control. The mouth has the capacity to tell the brain to do the right thing—even without swallowing the solution.

Reasons You’re Undisciplined

Like most things in life, the earlier self-discipline is learned, the better. In other words, kids should learn it as soon as possible.

Let’s start from home. Tough love seems an important factor for one’s self-discipline. The combination of warmth and discipline helps kids develop crucial qualities they’ll need in life like self-control, empathy and determination.

Unfortunately society could teach them discipline the wrong way—one that’s highly external. This “external discipline” may be found at home right off the bat, but kids are further exposed to another unit that generally tends to be authoritarian: the school.

Childhood—which you also went through—could be a phase in which many of the things you’ve learned, especially your values, you only find out later are simply wrong.

Now I’m not saying the then elderly were to blame, nor I’m suggesting you have to look for someone else to blame for your learned lack of self-discipline. But it seems it’s been a problem of culture that “discipline” has accidentally built an ugly reputation, one that is mostly about punishment.

Let’s dig deeper.

School authorities raise kids in such a way that these kids must follow rules.

Back in my day (which wasn’t too long ago), we would pray, stand up to greet a teacher that entered the room, and most exciting of all, lay our hands on the table to have them whipped for the overall misbehavior of the class.

Rules would’ve been fine, if only I fully understood why they existed.

There’s a huge difference between the notion of having to follow them because there’s a bit of understanding on the reason to do so, and following them just because a moody teacher wanted us to. Inconsistency can set this world on fire.

In effect, pupils in this kind of system tend to become passively compliant to rules. This behavior can hurt them especially in this era of technology, with which engagement, initiative, and creativity are highly valued, which also happen to be hallmarks of an internally disciplined person. This is partly why I believe self-discipline trumps IQ or talent over the long haul.

We can also examine how schools are generally structured. Schools are a great reflection of the values of society as a whole. Youngsters come to schools devoid of a high level of concern for others because by and large, society simply tends to be ego-centered.

Meanwhile teachers follow the other-oriented culture of schools, meaning they generally work in a fashion that’s of service to others. But this culture poses a threat to the capabilities of these teachers in terms of fostering their own personal development—which largely includes self-discipline, of which they could be a model for students.

It’s more complicated than you might imagine, though. The beginner teacher learns that to be effective, one must be perceived as being effective. This then encourages them to deny existing problems—problem-finding behaviors get undervalued.

Like students, teachers would fulfill their requirements. They’re just following rules, even at the expense of tackling other issues just as important, for the sake of conforming to the professional culture.

The ragbag of obedience, other-directedness, busyness, aloneness, and personal nonassertiveness indigenous to school culture doesn’t reflect what it truly means to have an internal locus of control.

Another thing to consider is that traits such as self-discipline may not be deliberately taught to clueless kids. Instead, emphasis is much more given to the likes of sciences, math, or reading.

Kids take out what they take in. They can’t learn what they’re not taught. And when discipline is taught, it’s usually done with a punitive approach rather than that of optimism, intentionality, respect, and trust.

Being undisciplined, then, is not solely your fault.

We’re also in a highly and digitally distracted age. Life has never been this convenient—contrast that with when the archaic man needed the discipline to protect his family and survive.

So don’t be too hard on yourself. If it’s culture, then so be it.

But from this point forward, you already know this. You know the undisciplined culture is normal, and being disciplined simply is not. As I said earlier, it might be boring, but self-discipline is what will take you to places.

Miserable or Happy?

One of the reasons self-discipline doesn’t get much traction is that it simply may suck.

Looking for motivation is another story—you sure might feel better after reading or listening to it, or having an epiphany, but the truth is that—and you might not like this—motivation is just a feeling. And feelings very seldom, if at all, get you from Point A to Point “Hell yeah!”

Because if “motivation” can get you there, then anybody who “feels” it must be living the life of their dreams already. You following me? Accomplishing things does not need “motivation.”

That’s the reason why debates (again) started around the issue of whether self-discipline makes one miserable or not. It’s interesting to dive into such views: you wouldn’t do work you hate now, would you?

Jack Block, for example, followed 100 toddlers for three decades. Sure, a lack of self-control does have some negative effects, but too much of it, Block found, can cause misery, too. People become compulsive and joyless.

According to this theory, a disciplined student that would do homework right after it’s given may be lauded for such a behavior, but it’s also possible that they’re just trying to avoid the anxiety that comes if they don’t do it. And the drive is primarily motivated by the high scores.

This has led to a couple of paradoxes.

First, people would seem to “exercise their free will” by choosing to accomplish tasks, even if those tasks make them emotionally uncomfortable. They become unfree at all, psychologically speaking.

Second is what psychologists call disinhibition, in which an initially super-disciplined person, or student, later find themselves suddenly out of control. The obedient kid becomes a “rebel,” the nonsmoker makes a-pack-a-day a habit, and the conservative engages in reckless sex.

This is when emotions and the mind don’t agree with each other anymore. The recently-hot topic on “grit” also received criticisms: no one must keep persisting if it doesn’t make sense anymore.

On the other hand, let’s look at why self-discipline can make one “happy.”

Disciplined people are not as deprived as you might think. The premise is that they avoid creating situations in which their goals might conflict with each other. When done well, they won’t sweat exerting self-control because there won’t be a need in the first place. Attaining this kind of internal harmony lowers their negative affect, and this is how they become happier.

Therefore, in the grand scheme of things, self-discipline doesn’t make you happier by experiencing more of those euphoric sensations. Instead, self-discipline helps you keep yourself from getting in situations you’d feel like shit. Does that make sense?

I think many people don’t take this perspective. They simply allow instances to hurt them even when they can avoid them. Vigilance then is necessary.

Let’s take an example: You form ideals about how you attack your work in a day. You establish these ideals because you know such work is important to you. So you decide to protect everything involved with it—your focus, your health, your time.

Following your ideals would then mean you wouldn’t lower your standards because doing so will only compromise the work. Therefore you may need to get yourself a pair of noise-canceling headphones, do some physical exercise, and avoid office gossip if you want to protect your focus, your health, and your time.

Anything you want to do outside of work, you’ll make time for them, too, and just the same, you’ll need self-discipline to make them happen.

The point is that you don’t allow for such conflicts. It truly is a cause of misery.

However, if we go back to the misery-happiness tension, we’ll find that there isn’t too much tension after all. Both sides of the argument agree on one thing: moderation.

There’s a time for everything. And if you want to be miserable, be my guest and stick to your extremely disciplined self at all times. Thank me later.

Likewise, you can’t be “happy” all the time. (Yes, the meaning of “happy” is up to you.) You can have fun or “get a life,” but don’t stop yourself from being in the flow whenever you do work that matters.

Develop the internal discipline and enjoy the work that time even stops. Don’t look for outside motivation; look for what is true to you. Trying to match your internal and external motivation will only disappoint you—studies have found that these two kinds of motivation tend to be inversely related.

We can then throw out the window the question, “Does self-discipline make you miserable of happy?” It becomes irrelevant. But you already know the answer to that.

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Some Things You Might Not Hear About

When I hear the word self-discipline, immediately comes to my mind is a picture of a man in a nice suit carrying a briefcase and going to some nice place because apparently he’s figured it all out. He’s killing it.

Maybe that’s your idea of a disciplined person, too, but there are a lot of untold stories that don’t necessarily reflect those that make it to pop culture.

For example, this article talks about the timely challenges faced by people that undoubtedly are exemplars of self-control. We see self-control all in all with a lack of social, historical and political perspective.

These people are nurses, caregivers, teachers—or any of those whose jobs are in the public service sector, with many of them having to leave their families or countries, to get by.

They are the people who answer your calls whenever you have a complaint on pretty much anything. They are the farmers that harvest real food in a time of processed food. They are the ones you don’t hear about every day.

If you need a model of self-discipline, you can easily pick any of them—it’s not necessarily that “successful guy in suit” that comes to my mind.

They harness that side of them that bears their patience, perseverance, and self-control in challenging conditions, which basically is just a regular work day to them.

I can’t imagine being a preschool teacher. I was there, on my nephew’s first day of class. The teacher would pick up the toys strewn about. Yes, it was the first day, and all the guardians were there, but still, I saw in her an example of someone with great resolve to do her job well, just move, and still manage to put up a smile when she talked to us. I still hear good stories about her. Other teachers say she really is a keeper.

Another example is the everyday racism black women in the US face in the workplace. Sure, there’s a movement against such pathetic discrimination, but we can’t deny that there are still humans who simply think they are above other humans.

Imagine what these black women go through on a daily basis—but also how they manage to hold their head high, provide for their families, and remain good people no matter what happens in their environment.

There are other similar stories; you should focus on the incredible character of these people.

There’s also the case for loss, trauma, violence, and poverty. This is something I thought I should just leave out here because it doesn’t sound as interesting as the others. But they are worth mentioning because they could be the reason why you find it generally hard to develop self-discipline.

Research has found that loss, trauma and violence can be a huge cause of impulsiveness and out-of-control behaviors.

If you’ve experienced those as a kid, you deserve to know they could be contributing to your struggle with living the life you want, and my hope is that you can find ways to deal with those ghosts from now on.

You have to know where you came from. By knowing these things you can further know yourself and be able to look for the best solutions.

On the other hand, people in poverty are said to live in the permanent now. Because they don’t have the luxury of money, they also lose the luxury of time. Self-control doesn’t really make sense in this case—forgoing one’s immediate gratification means nothing, and isn’t always the right choice.

How to Develop Self-discipline

I know that was a long intro before this how-to section, but that’s only because I strongly believe you really should understand how self-discipline works.

Self-discipline is not something you do only for a day or a month or a year—it must be a part of your character. The social problems we’re facing only help prove that self-discipline works no matter who or where you are.

The concepts of self-discipline apply to everybody, except of course for those who don’t want to improve their lives.

So how do you become disciplined?

Get up when you fall.

This is the very essence of self-discipline. As there’s no single definition of self-discipline, its concept can be abstract—it can be a trial-and-error thing; it can simply mean the perseverance to keep going.

However, one thing’s for sure: in your quest for real and permanent change, you’ll sometimes go back to your old ways.

You slept until 7:30 A.M. instead of 6:00 A.M.? Maybe sleep earlier and try again tomorrow. You indulged in those cookies and ended it with ice cream? Redeem yourself next time.

Self-discipline is not about the goal, but about your attitude and behavior in reaching the goal—any goal, in fact.

You can see it quite easily. Someone decides to follow a diet program, gets slim in a couple of months, but returns to her figure in just as long.

It also applies to character. A person presents a nice demeanor but only for his “public” image—when he’s with “important” people, but he doesn’t have the “discipline of character” when he talks to the waiter, or to anyone that he thinks doesn’t help the image.

These people are oriented to a goal, not to becoming the person that deserves the goal.

Remove temptations. Avoid enablers.

Some researchers want to abolish the term “self-control” altogether—there’s no such thing, they say. And more people tend to support this view.

For example, there’s an observation that people who “have high self-control” in fact don’t really use it—they simply avoid getting caught in situations in which they have to use it in the first place.

Moreover, people who accept the challenge of self-control not only do not meet goals, but also get exhausted from trying.

If there’s only one takeaway from this post, it’s that you should change your environment, if you can, so that the need for self-control is removed from the get-go. Or you can use the “if-then” method—make plans, so you keep a temptation from even reaching your senses.

The problem is how we’ve gotten accustomed to the notion that self-control is all about effortful restraint—this is only one way of looking at it, and unfortunately one in which we are guaranteed to lose.

So look for those temptations. Look for your weaknesses, your hot triggers. Use tools if you have to. It’s okay to admit you turn powerless when confronted by these hot triggers.

Perhaps the self-control craze partly started with people’s (mis)interpretation of the famous “marshmallow test” led by Walter Mischel.

Because Mischel himself admitted that such causal relationships were not at all clear: what worked might not be because the kids had a good sense of “self-denial and grim determination,” but because they had the initiative and creativity to distract themselves—a skill that can be attributed to plain old intelligence.

Mischel even said postponing gratification may or may not be a good decision in any situation.

Similarly, you should also start avoiding enablers. This could be tricky, because the people you love to hang out with could also be encouraging your self-defeating behavior.

It can be more pervasive than it sounds. Maybe you hang out with lazy people who always complain, for example. But even though—by circumstances—they are the only people you can be with, minimize the time you spend with them, and know there are others like you who want to grow; you just haven’t met them yet.

Your health. Always your health.

All the advice you learn may mean nothing if:

  • you don’t eat real healthy foods
  • you don’t sleep for at least seven hours a day
  • you don’t do physical exercise
  • you don’t meditate (optional, but highly recommended)

I’m guessing you already know the importance of these things. In order to enjoy the challenges and rewards of self-discipline, you have to develop your health on a physiological level. You simply can’t achieve your goals if you don’t take care of your health.

In this sense, mind and body become one. Working out six days a week won’t cut it if you mostly sleep for only four hours. Likewise, you may be hurting yourself if you just sit in front of the computer for 12 hours, even though you maintain the habits of meditating and reading.

Poor self-discipline is also an effect of poor health management. Think of it as a prerequisite; if you feel you’re “out of your zone” already, maybe you were just giving your health a lower priority.

Let your social emotions guide you.

Pride, gratitude and compassion are social emotions that can keep you from the unnecessary use of self-control. Pride here does not mean the deadly sin of unreasonable self-esteem, but your satisfaction with the skills you have.

Cultivating these emotions makes living a life of discipline easier not because they squash your desires of the moment, but they make you value your future more.

From an evolutionary point of view, this makes sense. All our hunting skills or analytical skills would mean nothing if we only served ourselves.

It’s in the giving, more than receiving, through the social bonds we form that we find meaning. Paradoxically, by giving we reap rewards, even many times over, down the line.

Self-discipline isn’t only great for yourself. It also contributes to the common good. It becomes a product of the expression of your social self and thus your intentions to help others.

It becomes a chain, in essence. Studies have shown that gratitude not only directly increases self-control, but also pushes people to help those in need of assistance, make financial decisions that are fair for all parties, and show loyalty to those who have also helped them.

Pride makes them more willing to wait for future rewards, take on leadership roles, and work longer and harder in solving a problem.

Compassion, I would say, fuels the two.

Furthermore, feeling pride or compassion can increase your perseverance by 30 percent. Gratitude and compassion have been linked to better academic performance, a greater willingness to eat healthy and commit to physical exercise, and lower levels of consumerism, impulsivity, and tobacco and alcohol use.

If exerting self-control exhausts you, these social emotions heal. They slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and feelings of anxiety and depression.

You can also inspire others with the changes you’re committing to. Likewise, being social allows you to meet other amazing people you can imitate or be inspired by.

In fact, self-control, or lack thereof, is contagious. In the comfortable society of the undisciplined, choosing your models become essential. You’ll be on your way, but you have to be careful, too—you’ll start drawing the ungoverned in. Research has found that people who lack a certain trait tend to get attracted to those who have it.

This only reinforces the idea that you should carefully build your network and look for your support groups. We can all be masters of our craft, constantly honing our skills over a lifetime, but we cannot discount the fact that we are social beings. We need the support of each other.

Today—with the internet—you can find people who have similar interests or convictions or experiences like yours. You don’t have to wait for them; you can look for them now. And you’re not limited to a locality.

Feelings? Screw them.

I don’t mean to violate you but yeah, screw your feelings.

Emotions and feelings are different.

Emotions are much stronger, and they only get stronger if you cultivate them—or in the words of ancient wisdom, if you give your “assent” to them. The three social emotions I just talked about become a part of you only if you train to instill them in your system.

Feelings, on the other hand, are broader than emotions. If I asked you what the saddest moment of your life was, or the happiest, you’ll remember the feeling you had—and then somewhat feel it again. But of course it will go away.

That kind of feeling can happen a lot in your day. Some jerk cuts you off at the highway. You’re late at work because you had to go back home to get something you forgot. Or your partner isn’t in the mood and somehow they manage to let it out on you.

These instances, however, can happen to anyone, but you can keep those feelings from getting to your nerves, because you’re a rational being.

Compare those feelings with, say, pride, gratitude and compassion, or love, empathy, and forgiveness—these are much stronger and bigger that you should be more mindful of them, because they form the good—by any standards of “good” you choose to use.

You can choose to value the primal emotions over the trivial, silly and temporal feelings you catch in the regular places with the regular people.

And as I said above, these emotions will keep you going. If some fool tries to drag you down, come up with a solution fast, and continue with your day. Don’t let anything stop you, not even your fleeting feelings.

If you’ve grown dependent on your feelings to get things done, you’ll find it hard to get disciplined at first. But that’s a good thing. Real change isn’t supposed to be easy. The only way to get rid of this dependence—or popularly known as motivation—is to develop self-discipline.

Focus on the good emotions. Let them override the momentary feelings. You’ll be free.

cutter smile

Build healthy habits.

If you haven’t noticed yet, I arranged this guide in a somewhat ordered fashion: according to their importance. I’m a strong believer of the following sequence:

Physical > Mental/Emotional > Action

In other words, you can’t excel at Action if you don’t take care of your physical, and then your mental and emotional health—consistently. Remember that if you’re aiming for self-discipline, you’re aiming for the commitment, more than the end-goals.

Anyway, we’re now on the habits part, the action part.

About 40 percent of everything you do is habits. If you’re mindful about your activities (with which meditation can help immensely), you can say 40 percent of your “daily thoughts” are also of habits, which you can then translate to the 40 percent of your waking hours. So if you’re awake for 16 hours, then around six hours of that are of habits.

Okay, maybe I’m taking the “40 percent” figure to the extremes, but we can agree on one fact: Habits are a huge part of your life and your future hugely depends on which habits you create or give up (or overpower, at the least).

The good news, however, is that habits are automatic. When you do something automatic, self-control becomes useless. You just do it. And the most essential things to you, you can also transform into habits.

Take a look:

  • Wake up at 5:30 AM
  • Work out / Exercise
  • Meditate
  • Do meaningful work for long undisturbed blocks of time
  • Pick up preschooler at school
  • Play with preschooler outdoors
  • Journal
  • Go out with family or friends on weekend
  • Get in touch with people you haven’t seen in a while

Majority of these things are troublesome for the undisciplined. Without a desperate need to do them, they won’t be done. But if you consider them important and meaningful to you, you’ll want to do them, and you’ll make time for them.

That’s an important note I’d like to stress again: Self-discipline comes from within, not necessarily because your circumstances call for it. It’s because you want to follow a direction, not simply reacting to outside forces.

At first you may only be reacting, as if you don’t have much of a choice. But when you realize the power of self-discipline, you’ll see you don’t need to wait for anyone or anything to live the life you want. No matter what happens beyond your control, the discipline stays with you and you go on anyway.

Avoid overwhelming yourself by starting with an easier habit or goal. For example, don’t work on waking up at 5:30 A.M. and working out at the same time. If it takes you a couple of months to make waking up a habit, then so what? But make sure the habit is established, before creating another one.

Slowly, with better habits, and deeper self-knowledge, you can now paint the bigger picture: how to structure your whole day. You’ll find that you might need to schedule even the “mindless” activities. You start setting your priorities—you see what’s important, urgent, and a waste of time.

All of these you can turn into habits. Don’t be surprised if after having accomplished much for the day (if you look through the eyes of your old self), you still have some energy left that you find it hard to sleep! You can do that much without really stressing yourself out.

Do you now see its power?

“Am I not going to be an uptight nerd, though?” you may ask. It brings us to the next point.

You can’t be disciplined all the time. You need breaks.

I see breaks in two ways.

First is that we need breaks because we simply can’t work or stay in disciplined mode anymore. There can be a bunch of variations to this:

  • Pomodoro technique
  • 10 A.M. break
  • 2 P.M. nap
  • deep breathing when your head starts spinning or you feel you’re having a slight fever already
  • working only until Thursday

These are the genuinely needed breaks for your sanity’s sake.

The second is like the first, but this time you treat yourself for a job well done, discipline-wise. This could mean taking a vacation, cheat day, or waking up without setting the alarm.

Note that you do the latter not because you’re choosing to despise self-control for a day, but because you’re rewarding yourself for your efforts, for your commitment.

Just prepare yourself to face the disciplined world after this kind of reward-breaks. Going for a one-week vacation, say, can break your flow.

I get wary of this, not in the hypocritical “Hey look at me I’m a discipline god” kind of way, but there’s struggle with a “break hangover” that lasts for a few days, which can really stress me out.

If you’ve been really undisciplined, “partying hard” might be a bit too much for the otherwise. But you’ll notice a difference; you might start wondering whether this kind of “intense” breaks are still worth it. This means you’re changing.

In any case, be mindful of your thoughts and feelings even during breaks. Upon reflection, assess the changes you’re going through and try some ideas that come up.

Do you enjoy what you do?

Disciplined people simply enjoy things the undisciplined don’t—running, lifting, reading, drinking water, or eating broccoli.

You have to clearly identify your interests that help you grow as a human. The problem with these interests, though, is that most of the time, they control the mind, rather than the opposite.

This gets more interesting when you include the social aspects I previously discussed.

Do you enjoy your work? Do you enjoy raising a family? Do you enjoy being a leader in your circles?

Your identity shines when you share it with other people. Fueled by social emotions, you largely think about what you can give, not only about what you can get.

In many ways, you have to look for a purpose. Your interests or passions can only take you so far. But your purpose will show you the whole package. It will connect the dots until you know exactly what you must do.

Your purpose doesn’t need to be “fun” all the time, but sticking to something you know is for you will help you enjoy anything that accomplishes it.

Forgive yourself. Recover vigilantly and effectively.

If you commit yourself to discipline, chances are some of your efforts will backfire—especially that you’re not yet used to them.

You might be setting the bar too high that frustration is inevitable, and then suddenly you’re reverting to your old ways and later join the many people that don’t “believe” in self-discipline.

For example, I like structuring my day—I have developed a daily routine, including habits that begin right after I wake up. However, the schedule becomes harder to follow come Thursday or Friday—by this part of the week I start to feel tired, even though I get enough sleep. My body seems to tell me that around this time I should give myself some slack.

It took a while before I accepted that this might just be part of who I am—genetically tired on Thursdays. Thus I needed to make plans for such a genetic phenomenon. I simply can’t think straight when I’m tired. Lighter work must be scheduled on Thursdays, I thought.

I might make up postponed work on Saturdays. I can try other things, and they’ll still be subject to change, like trial and error.

Imagine what I used to think about myself before finally accepting this genetic feature of mine. Unpleasant self-talk would commence. I would even compare myself to ultra-workers. I would be hard on myself for being “lazy.” I would start blaming who or what.

I wasn’t accepting who I am.

Similar things might happen to you. You may need to rethink your priorities. You may need to restructure your day according to whether you’re an owl or a lark to begin with. You might be introverted, which is why even though you want to blend in, you’d rather hang out with only one or two persons.

And of course mistakes and blunders will happen. After you develop a bit of self-discipline, you might tend to take on more risks because an enterprise won’t matter as much as how you tackle the enterprise.

Thus you might frequently find yourself facing changes because of this attitude. Making mistakes become quite normal.

Get up when you fall, but always take some time to reflect upon what happened. Always keep your eyes open and remain mindful.

In a way, you’ve already forgiven your old self the moment you decided to change. What else is hard this time if you’re simply doing what’s right?

How to Develop Self-Discipline: Do It Anyway

There is no other way. If you want to become a master of something, you’re going to have to do it anyway. Of course it will be hard, but you’ll do it.

Even if you put it off for a couple of years, you might find that, still, nothing will have changed—if you want it, you’ll have to work hard for it…or at least at the early stages.

Sometimes talking about a life purpose can only go so far. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing—it’s about how you’re faring. Whether you’ve found your dream job or not, the principles of self-discipline will hold.

Perhaps you’re being blinded by the work itself, forgetting that you can use your skills with any other kind of work just the same. Also true with the boredom, the routine, or the smartass that doesn’t ever know a better use of their time.

But right now you’re learning.

Whatever it is that’s holding you back, self-discipline isn’t just about excellence in executing your life duties.

Self-discipline is also about your soul—the calmness and internal harmony. Starting self-discipline is like starting a new life, and this life is now in your hands—not in someone else’s, as you might have reckoned before.

So give it a shot. Too much time may have been wasted. You might be wishing you’ve known all about this back then, even before the internet.

But everything was once a seed. Foolishness, uncontrolled behavior and vices were once seeds—they have only grown into massive trees now impossible to cut down.

Likewise, you can plant your own seed of self-discipline. Let it flourish into a monolith—not only because you need it, but also because you want it. Let it help you turn into the person you want to be. You’ve had enough.

Like the undisciplined beast you’ve become, work slowly. It’s not that hard if you work at your pace. And then later, ask yourself whether discipline really is that hard after all. Everything takes time; time has molded you.

But you make a decision. It will eventually show you what’s true to you.

(Image Credits: Aaron Thomas, Lamiasnightmare, Micaela Parente, David Siglin)

I hope you’ll enjoy the disciplined life! Please share this post especially if you found it helpful. Thanks!

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