Most major problems in one’s life center on the failure of self-discipline. That’s right, your lack of willpower leads to stuff like: compulsive spending, impulsive behavior, underachievement in your personal projects, procrastination at work, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy lifestyle, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, and a lot of other self-sabotaging habits. But the main activity in relation to building discipline is far different from what you imagine. Let me explain…
Most of the resources that talk about how to be a disciplined person approach the subject in the wrong way.
There’s a widespread belief that self-discipline means being able to choose and do something difficult when there are easier alternatives that can be done.
By making today a little less impulsively pleasurable. You make tomorrow a little more secure and productive. That’s always difficult.
But the underlying idea of the articles I’ve found in the world’s online library – a.k.a. the Internet. Is that building discipline is a solvable problem.
Well, that’s not true.
You can never become self-disciplined – as if you reach a specific place where you hold the holy grail of progress. You can only maintain self-discipline.
Like hunger and the need for humans to rest. Developing self-discipline requires ongoing maintenance. It’s just a sort of endless cost you have to pay in order to have a healthy body and an above-zero bank balance.
In this post, we look at building discipline and how to be a disciplined person as unsolvable problems. As tasks you can never truly achieve. Yet, all of this, without discouraging you from trying – and backed by science.
What Is a Self-Disciplined Person Like?
First off, let’s address this: What makes a disciplined person?
In short, developing discipline means doing the things you said you are going to do despite resistance and temptations.
I know. It’s an overused cliché.
But it is true.
Still, I’ve come to another description for a person who is full of willpower: A proactive observer.
Allow me to elaborate…
In order to become good at something – being disciplined included. You need to simply become aware of – in this case – our impulsiveness.
So, to eliminate the lack of self-control. You first need to recognize it.
The chaotic and materialistic society has a way of pushing us toward acting irrationally. But once you are able to see how your self-destructive behavior patterns are ruining your life, you do your best to not repeat these actions.
Based on the above, my definition of a disciplined person is this: someone who is able to spot what unlocks his impulsiveness and then take proactive measures to counteract it.
Why Do I Lack Discipline?
There are a lot of reasons that can keep you chained to a lifestyle of chaos and spontaneity.
A couple of common factors are:
- Novelty-seeking behavior: Predictability? Boring! You crave adrenaline and constant surprises. According to psychologies, novelty seeking is a personality trait associated with exploratory activity in response to impulsive decision-making. Simply put, you are never able to pursue your goals because new goals constantly arise from your busy subconsciousness.
- Commitment allergic: People who are allergic to commitment feel chained and emotionally pressured when there is a predetermined schedule in place. They prefer to enjoy the freedom that comes from having no plans and no obligations.
- Shiny objects syndrome: Refreshing social media and making sure notifications are turned on for all of your devices – smartphone, smart bracelet, smartwatch, smart refrigerator, and even your smart vacuum cleaner – is a must for someone who thrives in chaos.
With self-discipline comes great responsibility. But in the current age, discipline and sticking to schedules seems too restrictive and emotionally blunt.
There are too many fun things to do, right?
Personally, my understanding is that people lack discipline because they are often unaware of their list of bad habits.
They set goals to do certain types of tasks that can improve their condition – e.g., exercise. But they never set goals to stop doing certain current tasks that are worsening their condition – e.g., eating junk food.
For example, everyone knows about the approach orientation type of goal setting. In this situation, you say things like, “I want to eat healthier foods; I want to exercise; I want to enter a relationship.”
However, another rarely used but extremely useful concept is avoidance orientation goal setting. In this case, you say stuff like, “I want to avoid eating unhealthy foods; I want to stop being so lazy; I want to stop being lonely and isolated.”1
The reason these two frames are important to consider in relation to developing discipline is the complexity of the topic.
You can never succeed at self-discipline if you only set approach-oriented goals. You also need the other type of goals – avoidance orientation.
Here’s a quick example from my personal life…
In order to maintain this blog, my body, and my mind sharp. I get up early – really early. I get up at 04:50 a.m.
But if the goal was simply, “I want to get up early.” This wouldn’t have worked.
My goal also includes the following: “I want to avoid having a round belly and an abandoned site that never gets updated.”
When framed this way. My aim is not the seemingly blunt statement of getting up early. What drives me is fear – fear of mediocrity.
Or, in conclusion, a person can lack self-discipline because he is unaware of the consequences that can occur when he fails to act appropriately.
How Do I Train Myself To Be Disciplined?
The dictionary rule for being a disciplined person is to solely focus on rules and goals. My rule is to focus on identity.
Not necessarily focus on: What you have to do. But more importantly, try to answer: Who do you want to be?
That’s needed because the building blocks of discipline, habits, and a lifestyle full of joy are not (only) rules. It’s identity.
When you conclude that you want to be a certain person – form an identity. You rarely feel tempted to act outside your character because the pain of acting against your formed personality is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure you can potentially gain.
This brings us to the available ways to build self-discipline:
What Are The 5 Ways to Build Self-Discipline?
1. Loss Aversion
The first “way” to improve self-discipline is by using a well-known cognitive bias called loss aversion.
As mentioned in the book Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, loss aversion is our tendency to prefer avoiding losses over the potential gains we might get.
And the way we can use this to our advantage is to trick our brains into thinking that we are losing something if we are not following our own path. Not acting in accordance with our identity.
Or, in other words, you can create bad consequences for yourself if you fail to stick to your routine.
For example, if you want to exercise daily. You can give a friend $100 and tell him that he can keep the money if you miss a workout.
Another “easier” way to use loss aversion to your advantage is to imagine the potential losses. Simply sit down with a notebook and write down what will happen if you don’t exercise. If you don’t eat well. If you don’t move your body.
Well, not only will you not look good, but you also won’t feel good.
Visualizing the negative outcomes can provide a powerful incentive to remain disciplined.
2. Love Yourself
Since your body is a vessel that carries your consciousness. And your brain is your consciousness. It makes sense to nurture these things.
A rule of thumb that we can apply here is answering this question: “Would you do/give that to your child?”
It’s strange how differently we treat our children – and children in general – and how we treat ourselves.
You won’t see – thank God – parents nudging their kids to smoke and drink. But as soon as you have the right to drive, it’s suddenly OK to light your cigarette using liqueur as a flamethrower, play video games until 1 a.m., and numb your senses with enough drugs to inebriate a small tribe of Vikings.
Well, why is that?
If it feels hard to quit a nasty habit that is slowly destroying your future state. Ask yourself, “Would I want my child to do that?”
As parents, we are overly protective. We approach our kids with love and attention – or at least I hope most of us do. Sadly, we seldom feel the same love towards ourselves.
But self-love is extremely important for our personal growth – even if it feels narcissistic.
I will even argue that keeping your health in good condition is associated with your ability to be a good parent. After all, if you don’t value your body and don’t treat yourself well. This will lead to nasty consequences that your kids need to handle eventually. However, why burden them with your failings to maintain a good body – and life in general?
Reframing self-discipline as loving yourself makes it easier to follow your plan.
Exercising no longer feels that hard. It feels like an act of self-love and respect for yourself as a person to prolong the things you enjoy doing.
And to this point, I also want to add the following: You can get away with treating your body and mind poorly when you’re young. But once you hit middle age – have kids, work, and obligations – things are less forgiving.
Don’t wait for something to happen to start nurturing your being. Begin today.
3. Eliminate Friction
Something as simple as not knowing where your gym clothes are can butcher your progress.
Eliminating friction in relation to building discipline is about removing steps between you and your desired behavior.
For instance, if your morning routine involves going for a run. It will be better to prepare your running clothes before you go to bed.
After all, you don’t want to get up in the morning and spend half an hour looking for your second sock. This will probably discourage you from ever going outside your home.
Personally, I have my own “eliminating friction” routine for my morning routine.
Before hitting the sack, I prepare my writing station, my mat, and my coffee machine. This way, when my alarm goes off in the morning. I don’t need to search endlessly for my pen – something that can convince me to go back to bed.
4. Create Systems
The debate around systems vs goals is quite intensive. You don’t need to know all the details to understand this concept. You only need to get this: consistent processes and habits lead to continuous improvement and growth.
So, in relation to improving self-discipline, you need to have different systems for the different activities you do.
This also involves having systems for the systems.
Let me explain…
The above routine I mentioned – that I prepare my writing station before I go to bed. This is my preparation system. Once I am up, I have my morning system – call it a morning routine if you wish.
Once I am done with brushing my teeth, working out, and preparing a coffee, I have my writing system – where I follow a certain framework to craft articles (such as this one).
But here’s the important stuff: These systems are not set in stone. Just because I decided I would only wear black clothes doesn’t mean that I will never update my perspective.
Currently, my all-black wardrobe is not going anywhere. But who knows, I might update my views if clothes infused with nanotechnology and powered by solar energy become a thing.
And how do you create systems?
The way systems help is that they make things easy to start.
For example, writing a 4,000-word blog post may feel scary. But gathering notes and starting with one sentence feels doable.
5. Make it Sustainable
Researchers conducting scientific experiments discovered something that might seem obvious. Basically, we all begin our days with a certain amount of willpower. And as you progress through the day, you deplete those resources. Eventually, around the end of the day – sometimes sooner – willpower is completely exhausted.
But when this happens – when you have zero willpower. This doesn’t mean that you collapse and hibernate. Not at all! It means that you lose your capacity to apply reason when you make decisions.
A study published in the journal “Appetite” found that bad habits, including alcohol consumption and overeating, are most commonly observed during the evening and nighttime.2
Another study found that stressful situations increase the likelihood of seeking short-term relief through activities like smoking, drinking, or overeating.3
It boils down to this: You have a finite amount of willpower that is used for all sorts of tasks.
You might think that you have one vault of energy specifically for exercising and another one for learning. But that’s not the case. There is only one reservoir of self-discipline available.
And the most important thing is the following…
When you exert self-control in one area, such as resisting temptations or making adult-like decisions. Your ability to exercise self-control over other tasks also decreases.
The round table of smart dudes – i.e., psychologists – labeled this phenomenon ego depletion.
Why is this important?
Here are two simple examples that surely apply to you…
First, let’s say that your fridge is full of junk food. If you are trying to lose weight, you will expend most of your self-control resources trying to resist the urge to indulge in unhealthy foods that are within arm’s reach. So, you won’t have enough energy left to exert self-control in your desire to exercise.
Secondly, let’s take a look at your phone – the extension of your personality. If your phone is constantly bombarding you with notifications. You will deplete your energy simply by trying to check them all – or avoid checking them.
Where am I going with this?
Trying to become a disciplined person can exhaust you.
It’s difficult to maintain order in a chaotic world full of temptations.
But commonly, it’s not that we don’t have the capacity to change. The problem is that we self-sabotage. We set traps around us that exhaust our willpower.
As soon as you wake up, there are cues that are pulling you in different directions, draining your ability to apply reason.
So, this step is about creating a suitable environment that supports your desire for a disciplined way of life.
Remove as many temptations as possible. Eliminate unnecessary distractions.
Plus, make sure you don’t exhaust yourself. If by noon you have already gone to the gym, worked, read 20 pages from a book, and eaten only half a boiled egg. Don’t be surprised if, by the afternoon, you are craving chocolate chip cookies with donuts as a side dish.
Sure, one self-discipline benefit is that when you devote yourself to a lifestyle of rule-following. You increase the capacity of your willpower. Yet again, it’s of high importance to monitor yourself and not try to push too hard and burn out.
How Do I Force Myself To Not Be Lazy?
If, after reading all of the above, you are thinking, “Nah, that’s not possible. I am simply too lazy. How can people even keep a lifestyle of discipline, while I can’t force myself to go to the gym once?”
The secret ingredient for a self-disciplined way of living is to focus on one project at a time.
If you are just getting started – sort to say. You’ll have a higher chance of success if you set only one initial self-improvement goal.
For example, if you want to fix your health by quitting smoking, eating healthy food, and going to the gym. Start with only one thing.
“When people have to make a big change in their lives, their efforts are undermined if they are trying to make other changes as well. People who are trying to quit smoking, for example, will have their best shot at succeeding if they aren’t changing other behaviors at the same time.” Roy Baumeister
Even if you want to change a list of things in your life. Don’t do everything at once!
Start with one thing – something that’s a top priority.
No one has enough willpower to quit smoking and regularly visit the gym.
But if you first tackle the smoking problem and only then focus on improving your body. You will have a better chance of eventually succeeding at both.
Some Closing Thoughts
I hope that you finally see it.
You are able to spot that self-discipline – and the lack of self-discipline. Is commonly the bottleneck in a person’s well-being and mental state.
Additionally, I hope you will realize that the reason you feel like shit. It’s because you are treating yourself like shit.
Sure, there are certain circumstances that are always outside our control – things that influence our state. But there are also a ton of circumstances that are well within our control.
How to be a disciplined person is about recognizing the things you can control from the pile of things you can’t control. Once you see them, start fixing them one by one.
There will be moments when you think that you are not doing enough self-improvement. But keep in mind this: you have one supply of willpower that gets exhausted during the day. If you try to do too many things all at once. You will reduce your capacity to do all of them.
Here I will quote once again from the book Willpower:
“For most of us, though, the problem is not a lack of goals but rather too many of them.” Roy F. Baumeister
Building discipline is not this giant one thing you do. Self-discipline is a lifelong battle. We are basically climbing a mountain with no top.
Staying on course and preserving your energy are the essential steps. When repeated regularly, you will feel a little better with each day.
So, chose one small thing to tackle this week and add one more the next – i.e., habit stack.
Also, if you’re struggling with these sorts of issues, I’ve created a whole course on discipline that you might find useful in getting your shit together.
Bon voyage and good luck to all of you!
Add to your self-discipline toolset by reading the following:
- Why Is Discipline Important? (And What Happens Without It)
- Self-Discipline Examples That Don’t Suck
- Developing Self-Discipline In The Age Of Distraction
- The Different Types of Self-Discipline (And Why They Matter)
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.
- Wang, W. et al. (2021) ‘When learning goal orientation leads to learning from failure: The roles of negative emotion coping orientation and positive grieving’, Frontiers in Psychology, 12. Available at: doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.608256.
- Berg C, Lappas G, Wolk A, Strandhagen E, Toren K, Rosengren A, et al. Eating patterns and portion size associated with obesity in a Swedish population. Appetite. 2009;52:21–26. Available at: doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2008.07.008
- Bush, N.J. et al. (2022) ‘Stress mediates the association between pain and alcohol use in college students’, Journal of Pain Research, Volume 15, pp. 757–766. Available at: doi:10.2147/jpr.s351837
- Baumeister, R.F. and Tierney, J. (2012) Willpower: Why self-control is the secret of success. New York: Penguin Press.
- Baumeister RF Heatherton TF Tice DM. Losing Control : How and Why People Fail at Self-Regulation. San Diego: Academic Press; 1994. Available at: https://worldcat.org/en/title/30594010