The #1 piece of advice I wish I’d received when I was a stubborn mid-school student fighting for approval is this: Forget about trying to satisfy others with good grades and decent behavior; focus on your own personal long-term objectives.
I wish someone older and wiser had told me: Throw that unattainable goal involving pleasing others right into the trash and give priority to these two:
One, think long and hard about what type of life you want for yourself.
And two, concentrate all of your efforts on making that life actually happen, careless of what everybody else thinks.
Since we are born, we are brainwashed into thinking that we should obey a set of externally imposed rules. The promise is that by following this bundle of norms, we’ll win in life – get a job, have a big house, drive a brand-new car, and (the recent addition) get an average amount of likes on your social media profile.
Problem is, being disciplined will only get you to a certain point in life. From there, you need self-discipline to go further and reach a place of inner fulfillment.
Although I sometimes use the words discipline and self-discipline interchangeably in my articles on the topic of self-control. Discipline is not the same thing as self-discipline.
In this installment, we are comparing discipline vs. self-discipline.
I’ll present to you why being only disciplined can ruin your life, while being self-disciplined can get you what you want.
Discipline vs. Self-Discipline, What’s The Difference?
The core idea of the term discipline is to create an obedient society.
From the outset, this might seem like something disturbingly wicked. But when you think about it, it’s not that bad.
After all, imagine what will happen if everyone is doing whatever he/she desires? We won’t even have the option to cross the street that leads to school, work, etc.
The world will look like a scene in an apocalyptic movie, where each person is navigating a grim reality, isolated in their own struggle for survival.
In order for society to flourish, we need some sort of rules and standards in the world.
So, to define discipline, we can say that… Discipline refers to the practice of training oneself and others to follow a set of rules, standards, and behavioral guidelines. To encourage adherence to these rules and regulations, being a disciplined person often involves some sort of rewards and punishments.
Conversely, if we look at self-discipline, we can conclude this generalization: Self-discipline stands for the individual’s ability to control his own actions voluntarily. Self-discipline involves setting personal goals and taking actions that align with one’s long-term objectives – even in the absence of external enforcement or supervision.1
To make it even simpler, we can say the following to differentiate discipline and self-discipline: Discipline is externally administered (other-imposed) while self-discipline is internally administered (self-imposed).
These two form two radically different kinds of behavior.
While the aim of the disciplined person is to obey the rules set by society – which are often good, but never the best for the particular individual. Self-discipline focuses on setting personal goals and having the ability to pursue these intentions, no matter the internal dialog happening in the person’s head.
I hope it becomes a bit clearer which of the two is better.
Well, it’s definitely self-discipline.
Why is Self-Discipline Better Than Imposed Discipline?
A disciplined person will tell you to get up early, so you can take your kids to school and then go to work on time.
A self-disciplined person will tell you to get up earlier, so you can have enough time for your personal project, and then drive your kids and yourself to where you all should be.
Not that there is something inherently wrong with being disciplined, but there are a couple of pain points that are worth mentioning:
- External guidance: A disciplined person relies heavily on external guidance – rules, regulations, and authority figures. A disciplined person will follow a certain routine because that’s the norm, or because he/she will fear consequences for not doing so.
- Short-term focus: Since disciplined people are primarily driven by following rules and/or obeying someone. They’ll prioritize making the boss happy rather than making the project great in the long term – e.g., delivering the project on time but with compromised quality.
- Lack of intrinsic motivation: When you are solely disciplined, your main aim in life is to get the reward. You don’t quite enjoy the process of doing the work. You do what you have to do to get what you were told you should want. This not only creates a gloomy day-to-day life absent of passion. But it also leads to pursuing unworthy projects.
- Compliance instead of fulfillment: Discipline leads to emptiness and a lack of higher purpose. You become subjected to the wants and needs of outside forces. You comply with all the societal rules, but never bother to create your own set of rules that can help you go further in life.
- Limited horizon: That’s – I think – the worst thing about being disciplined. You never bother to create a plan for the life you want to live – and stop pursuing the life everyone else is telling you should pursue. People who rely solely on what’s approved by society have problems with thinking outside the status quo.
After highlighting what’s wrong with discipline, let’s see what’s right with self-discipline:
- Internal guidance: When you are self-disciplined, you don’t wait for others to tell you what to do. You have your own routine that you’ve tailored based on your personal core values and long-term objectives.
- Long-term perspective: Self-disciplined individuals tend to think long-term. They realize that a meaningful project will require sustained efforts and focus.
- Intrinsic motivation: An intrinsically motivated person will tackle tasks not because he has to, but because he wants to. Self-disciplined people are intrinsically motivated and engage in behaviors because they genuinely enjoy what they do.
- Adaptability: While disciplined people are usually roped to the status quo and resistant to change, self-disciplined people embrace change. They are adaptive thinkers and pivot when necessary to explore new opportunities.
- Personal responsibility: Personal responsibility means taking full ownership of your successes and failures. When you are self-disciplined, you recognize that you have complete control over your actions, choices, and behaviors.
Are You Self-Disciplined or Just Disciplined?
Let’s talk about… you.
Are you self-disciplined or just disciplined?
Before you pause and think about how your behavior relates to discipline and self-discipline. I want to share my own personal observations about society in general.
If you haven’t noticed. Most people aren’t self-disciplined. Hell, they are not even disciplined.
The general population is just getting by.
How do I know this?
Even though I believe that saying “just look around” will prove my point. I’ll share a couple of statistics to back my statement and make it more trustworthy.
Note that the points I’m about to share might initially seem unrelated, but later we’ll connect the dots.
Here’s why I think that most – not all – people are undisciplined:
- Paycheck to paycheck: Statistics vary, but between 55 percent to 63 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.2 In the UK, the stats are a bit better – a third of UK workers (36%) are living month-to-month without any spare cash for emergencies.3
- 1% rule of the internet: In our internet culture, the 1% rule means that 1% of the population actively creates content, while the other 99% only consumes content.4
- 8 social media accounts on average: On average, people worldwide manage 8.4 social media accounts.5 These numbers are slightly lower for Americans – 7.1 accounts per person. But higher for people living in India – the average there being 11.5 accounts. But that’s not the only interesting statistic… The average person globally spends a significant portion of his day – about 145 minutes – on social media. So much for time being precious, right?
To put all of the above into perspective, more than half of the people worldwide are not only barely getting by financially. But instead of doing something with their time to create a more stable life, they are essentially wasting it consuming short-form videos – apparently the most adored type of content.
Why is a huge portion of the world in this idle state?
Well, first, because using social media is now part of the so-called societal norms – yes, seemingly everyone is doing it. And second, it’s far easier to complain about your financial situation rather than doing something about it.
Let’s return to you…
Do you consider yourself disciplined or self-disciplined?
While it’s needed for all of us to follow a certain set of rules imposed by others – the list can be quite big but imagine the need to follow the driving regulations. No one is going to tell you much if you are not self-disciplined.
That’s quite an interesting phenomenon.
People can sue you for crossing at a red light. But no one is going to bother discussing with you your bad habits unless you do some sort of damage that interferes with the approved societal norms.
For instance, as long as I am only destroying my life with prolonged binge-watching sessions of Netflix shows while drinking gallons of vodka alone in my apartment. No one will care – well, probably my closest friends will, at least if I haven’t alienated them with my behavior. But as soon as my behavior starts to threaten others, it suddenly becomes a huge problem.
Your lack of self-discipline remains unnoticed by others, as opposed to your lack of discipline.
While for the latter you will be publicly shamed and sentenced, for the former you are the only one who can do something about it.
Here is where it gets paradoxical.
People who lack self-discipline can’t see that they lack it because they are in a denial state. After all, we are all trying to protect ourselves from the discomfort of acknowledging our own problems.
So, the only way to adopt self-discipline is by personal reflection and self-acceptance.
Reaching Both Discipline and Self-Discipline
Discipline is not entirely to be avoided.
As mentioned, we can’t create an adequate place to live if we are not all following certain rules – throwing our garbage, helping each other, being respectful individuals, etc.
Yet, as you will often hear from people who have achieved a lot – the way to start improving the world is to start improving yourself.
But here’s the catch, the way to start improving yourself is to first become aware that you need improvement.
If you think that your life is close to perfect, you will never bother changing your bad habits with good ones or start treating others better.
And how do you become self-aware?
If you are here and reading, chances are that you are already mindful about your own actions. You can see that you need to make adjustments in some areas of your life.
But in general, becoming aware that you need help usually happens in some dramatic event – you get ill, you lose a friend, you get divorced, you get laid off.
All these unpleasant events offer the chance to review our lives and spot what ills we were doing so we can correct them.
When you become aware that your life is not perfect – nor that it will ever be perfect. You enroll in the continuous journey of self-improvement – i.e., the 1% better every day kind of mentality.
The main component of self-awareness is that it involves the process of comparing yourself to certain standards.
Here standards is key.
If you set the bar for yourself low, don’t get surprised when you don’t get that much out of life.
But this doesn’t mean that you should set the bar unrealistically high. If you do, you will go to the other spectrum – feeling mentally crushed by the amount of work that is required to reach this seemingly unattainable goal.
Like everything else in life, balance is a crucial ingredient.
When you are self-aware and self-disciplined, you have the ability to compete with yourself. To focus on being slightly better than yourself the next day.
This continuous, internal competition fosters a growth mindset that propels you forward. You become not only your own coach but also your greatest motivator.
The most interesting part of being self-aware is the following realization: The most formidable adversary you’ll ever face is not external forces or circumstances – it’s the person you see in the mirror each morning.
Some Closing Thoughts
Discipline is a vague term that can mean anything. And that’s the trouble.
When we get ahead in life – a.k.a. get older – we are routinely dealing with too much work. Things like going to work, grocery shopping, taking care of our kids, and cooking, are just part of the tasks that require our attention.
On top of it all, we need to behave. To follow the norms set by society in order to preserve peace and keep others liking the pictures we share online.
After all of these tasks, we barely have enough willpower to apply self-discipline in order to focus on our personal projects.
If your only line of defense against lack of self-discipline is “having a plan”, note that this is always insufficient.
So how do you improve your life despite it all?
You become self-aware.
Once you are aware that your life needs to change. Your self-improvement journey can begin.
See, when we compare discipline vs. self-discipline, it’s not about one or the other. As mentioned, we kind of need both.
But when you have self-awareness, you understand the dosage. The right balance between discipline and self-discipline.
If you enjoyed the above and you are looking for ways to set your own rules – and stop obeying societal norms that are only hurting you. I have something for you…
In my course Beyond Discipline, I discuss in great length how a person can successfully instill the right amount of willpower in this chaotic and undisciplined age. At the end of the course – among other things – you’ll be able to create a personal code of conduct that helps you focus on your own values and norms. You’re welcome.
Do yourself a favor:
Join Going Further: A 13-day email series on how to keep progressing in a world tirelessly pushing toward regression. Great for people who feel stuck in the endless loop of not doing.
- For more about the definition of self-discipline, check my post: What Is Self-Discipline? (Definition & Meaning)
- Steele, J. Living Paycheck To Paycheck Statistics, Bankrate. Available at: https://www.bankrate.com/finance/credit-cards/living-paycheck-to-paycheck-statistics/
- A third of UK workers are living payday to payday. WTW. Available at: https://www.wtwco.com/en-gb/news/2022/06/a-third-of-uk-workers-are-living-payday-to-payday
- 1% rule. Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1%25_rule
- Social Network Usage & Growth Statistics: How Many People Use Social Media in 2023? Backlinko.com. Available at: https://backlinko.com/social-media-users