How To Approach Learning Self-Discipline

Who cares about learning self-discipline when there’s an endless scroll of mind-numbing content to drown in, right? Frankly, I’m amazed you’ve found your way here. What, there are no more videos to watch? Did YouTube decide to take a nap? Ok, ok, no more messing around. Since you are already here, I might as well tell you a bit about self-discipline.

One of the reasons why we tend not to exert self-control comes down to a powerful background idea whose full destructive force we may not even be aware of. That is, the belief that others will judge us harshly when we steer away from the social norms.

Allow me to elaborate…

We continue to share random occurrences happening in our days, endlessly browse online catalogs, and stitch our pants to our couches for a simple reason…

Somewhere in our minds, the notion has been lodged that we need to act like everybody else.

  • How many followers do you have?
  • What TV shows are you watching?
  • What have you bought recently?

Most of us would have an immediate answer to these questions.

To have to admit that you are uninterested in these things – usually what happens when you adopt self-control – is a marker of hallmark nerdiness.

Who would prefer to lock himself in a library all by himself when you can experience the glamour of virtual connections?

The answer?

Not that many people.

In this modern age of incessant stimulation, we consider embracing a life of placid stillness to be social suicide.

But since you ended up here intending to learn more about self-control, you get it. You realize the importance of patience. The need to plan your day. The advantages of resisting immediate pleasures and delaying gratification.

Yet, despite knowing the benefits of self-discipline. You’re probably clueless on how to start. On how to approach adding a dose of order in your unordered life.

Before we proceed, there is something I want to tell you. Something I need to tell you. This is not one of those articles where I’ll try to camouflage the act of becoming a more disciplined person as something you can achieve in “5 easy steps” or by “greasing your forehead with mystical unguent, crafted by enlightened souls living atop a summit.”

No, when it comes down to discipline, we need to be clear: learning about self-discipline and being a disciplined person are two different topics.

While you can understand the basics of persistence and willpower, mastery comes from years of trial and error.

You can have a library of knowledge on self-discipline, but unless you do something with the knowledge, you will keep hoarding virtual awards that don’t make any sense long term – e.g., likes and followers.

Now, after this short disclaimer, let’s learn more about the topic of self-discipline – what it is, how to get it, and what it takes to build discipline in this messy world.

Before that though, I want to begin with the following:

Why Do I Struggle With Self-Discipline?

Achieving self-discipline status is a momentous part of living a better life. We all know that. But why do we keep struggling with persistence and can’t stick to a particular regime?

There are various reasons:

  • We run out of energy.
  • We have a hard time ditching the bad habits that define us.
  • We convince ourselves that we can’t follow rules.
  • We can’t imagine going against the socially accepted behaviors – e.g., quitting social media, unsubscribing from Netflix (gosh!), the addictive allure of online shopping, etc.
  • We start with overly optimistic goals that are unsustainable.

These are just some of the reasons.

The biggest problem, I think, is our inability to successfully resolve conflicts between short-term desires (e.g., eating delicious food) and long-term wants (e.g., being healthy and fit).

Saying no to a cake covered with chocolate is not hard per se. The hard part is that you have to continuously resist temptations throughout your day.

The rate of distractions is so vast that our minds are in a constant state of conflict – i.e., “Should I do this that will give me pleasure right now or wait for the bigger reward down the road?”

Declining something tempting one time is kind of easy, doing it X times a day… mmm, not so much.

How Is Self-Discipline Learned?

What do you think is the typical way to learn about self-discipline?

You go to the library with a list of the best books on self-discipline. Then, you go home, lock the door, and don’t go out until you know the basic principles of summoning willpower in your life.

Of course not.

Here’s how I learned about the existence and the need to have self-discipline:

One day, I woke up with a severe headache. No, I wasn’t sick. I was hungover from last night. Though I was in my own bed, I was missing a lot of things… no memories, no cash, no logical explanation for the inflatable unicorn standing beside me.

My desire to enjoy the moment and succumb to the pleasures offered by society brought me to a sinful path. A path of overindulgence and overconsumption.

I knew that alcohol had a grip on me. But at that point, I didn’t realize how strong it was.

The truly sad part was that this wasn’t a single occurrence. Waking up without a clue how I got home was a regularly happening.

At this point, learning about self-discipline wasn’t optional, it was necessary if I wanted to climb out of the self-inflicted misery I’ve created for myself.

But where do you start?

The topic of self-discipline is so vast. There are conflicting statements from various people saying different things. Trying to listen to everyone typically ends up with you doing nothing because it all sounds too complicated.

Surely I was feeling the same way. There was – and still is – so much to learn on the topic of self-control that I quickly became overwhelmed.

It took me years to create and then refine a daily system that works for me. A system that allows me to keep making progress.

But instead of telling you all there is to learn about self-discipline. I want to share a couple of key principles that will get you started.

What Are The Key Principles of Self-Discipline?

Self-discipline is a core characteristic if one wants to successfully reach his goals, maintain a healthy lifestyle, enhance his performance, and divorce the hard-earned title of snooze button master.

However, people start desiring to learn about self-discipline for one simple reason: lack of control.

You might not recognize it at this point, but surely a lack of control motivates you to learn more about the topic.

Why?

Well, because when you can’t resist the impulses, you give up control.

  • Instead of exercising, you end up on your phone playing video games.
  • Instead of choosing a fresh salad, you stuff your body with chips and burritos.
  • Instead of saving for retirement, you are crowding your online cart with more stuff you don’t actually need.

The inconsistency created between what you want to do and what you actually do becomes apparent at some point. And thank God this happens. Otherwise, you will continue to live inside the matrix, unable to command your actions.

Having said that, there are a couple of key principles that are worth learning about in relation to self-discipline:

1. Self-Regulation

We often use the terms self-discipline, self-regulation, and self-control interchangeably. However, these aim to represent different things.

If self-discipline is the broad term describing the ability to control your actions. Self-regulation and self-control can be viewed as distinct processes that allow you to attain a sage-like state of mind and an envious zest towards perfection.1

First, let’s look at self-regulation.

We say we are “self-regulated” when we take specific steps to move ourselves closer to a desired end state – e.g., a goal or a standard of living.

Self-regulation includes a variety of activities:

  1. Deciding which goals to pursue – assuming you have more than one.
  2. Making plans on how to pursue these goals.
  3. Taking action on the created plans.
  4. Scheduling and prioritizing.
  5. Plus, it might seem strange, but also abandoning certain goals.

Here’s an example from my life:

A daily goal of mine is to wake up at 5 a.m. to exercise and write. In this case, the act of self-regulation involves preparing my desk before going to bed, going to bed at a reasonable hour, actually waking up in the morning and getting out of bed. Plus, occasionally, abandoning the writing part of my daily routine if I have something urgent to do on that particular day.

self-regulation-in-relation-to-self-discipline
The dotted lines represent the desired path we hope to follow. However, the real world often pushes us outside our pre-set direction. In these situations, we need to self-regulate. That is, steer ourselves back to the trail leading us towards the goal we wish to accomplish.

Here is the moment I have to mention that self-regulation involves not only regulating behavior but also thoughts and emotions.

A lot of times, I don’t want to go to bed at 10 p.m. I want to stay at the party. I want to have a drink. I want to smoke a cigarette. All of these desires stem from emotions – I want to feel good and/or continue to feel good.

The ability to alter my thoughts and emotions for the greater good – go to bed on time, preferably sober, so I can wake up on time the next day. It’s also a form of self-regulation. As you can sense, a big part, actually.

2. Self-Control

Self-control can be described as the effortful suppression of impulses trying to steer us away from our long-term plans. Plus, the ability to bypass sabotaging thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Based on the above, the main focus of self-control is dealing with the conflict that arises between actions that lead to immediate rewards and actions with larger yet delayed rewards.

self-control-in-relation-to-self-discipline
When there is a conflicting situation – e.g., you need to decide between exercising, which aligns with your goal to be a healthy person, and watching funny cat videos – things usually happen really fast. In just a couple of seconds, you can shift from wanting to put on your gym clothes to slouching on your couch for the rest of the evening. That’s why self-control is effortful – you need to apply willpower to do the right thing.

I can easily demonstrate what exactly is self-control by simply saying this: A person is exerting self-control when he successfully resists the pull towards behavior granting immediate sensation in favor of the larger later reward.

In these situations, your response to a conflicting situation puts you on a different path. Choosing to resist the temptation will get you closer to your desired persona. Conversely, if you decide to do the immediately gratifying activity, you will drift away from the desired end-state.

The interesting part here is this: How do you know when a particular situation is a conflicting one?

Sure, things like eating a salad versus eating a donut are quite obvious – you know which one is better for you in the long run. However, there are many instances where you are unaware that you should activate the self-control system. Thus, you start regressing instead of continuing to progress.

Here’s where cognitive control enters the scene:

3. Cognitive Control

Cognitive control can be characterized as the allocation of attention in the service of goal-directed behavior.2

Let’s unpack this…

Say that you receive a message in the middle of a learning session. You’ve allocated an hour to learn a new skill, but your phone buzzes. At this point, your automatic response will be to check your phone, which, however, can lead to a long doomscrolling session. At this exact moment, cognitive control kicks in and tells you that you’ve allocated this specific hour for learning, the message can wait.

Plainly, cognitive control is like a spotlight in your brain that allows you to identify conflicting situations that are trying to steer you away from your desired path.

cognitive-control-in-relation-to-self-discipline
Cognitive control allows you to spot conflicting situations – in advance or as they arise. Thus, once you catch yourself misbehaving – or see the possibility of you wandering away from the desired course – you can act accordingly.

You might be thinking, “Isn’t cognitive control the same as self-control?”

Not exactly.

Self-control is responsible for dealing with conflicting situations – i.e., choosing the salad instead of the big fat cake. While cognitive control is in charge of spotting these conflicting situations.

Often times, we act on autopilot. We cruise through our days doing things without really thinking about them. While this autopilot mode is helpful in certain situations – e.g., brushing our teeth, driving to work, doing simple chores. It can be quite dangerous for our long-term plans – e.g., constantly checking our phone instead of doing the task at hand.

Cognitive control help us catch ourselves when we are mind-wandering and not doing the things we should be doing, so we can correct ourselves.


To recap, the key principles worth knowing in relation to self-discipline are these three:

  1. Self-regulation is responsible for the overall strategy to act in accordance with your desired personality.
  2. Self-control is the skill to handle conflicting situations.
  3. Cognitive control is the ability to spot the conflicting situations.

This sounds cool and all, but how can we put all of this into action?

How I can apply what I’ve learned about self-discipline?

There is a huge difference between what you learn and what you do.

You can spend months, years even, drowning in the endless pool of content suggesting change but remain unchanged.

Over the years, I’ve realized that learning is useless unless you do something with what you’ve learned.

So, to start using what we’ve discovered about self-discipline. I’m going to propose a model that can be used for personal self-regulation.

It’s based on the concept of cybernetic control.3

Cybernetic control is basically when a closed system regulates itself using feedback loops.

It’s observed both in living organisms and machines, and it’s one of the most important devices for survival.

To imagine this better, think of the body’s heating and cooling system or a controller that maintains a constant temperature in a room.

In both of these cases, there is something monitoring the thing/environment and when it detects straying away from the pre-set standards, triggers a certain action.

In the case of an organism, this is either sweating when too hot or shivering when too cold. In the case of a controller connected to an air conditioner, hot or cold is adjusted based on the temperature of the room.

So, how can we use this model in relation to self-discipline?

To begin with, I need to add the four key elements for the cybernetic control feedback loop to function. These are:

cybernetic-control-model-in-relation-to-self-discipline
The most important part of the cybernetic control model is the monitoring system. As the name suggests, the system monitors. What? Plainly, it compares your current state with your desired state. If what you’re currently doing doesn’t align with the desired concept of progress, the corrective system kicks in and modifies your behavior to fit the sought-after standard.
  1. Goal or a standard;
  2. Input about the current state in relation to the goal/standard.
  3. System that monitors for discrepancies between the current state and the desired state – a.k.a., self-awareness.
  4. System that acts when there are discrepancies between the current state and the desired state

Let’s give an example to make this more concrete in your head.

So, imagine that you’ve decided to be a healthier person from now on. I won’t go into details about what you should do as a newly inspired well-being enthusiast, but I believe you get the idea.

After dinner, you almost automatically open the fridge and start preparing a bowl of ice-cream for both yourself and your partner. Why? Well, for years, you’ve been doing this after every dinner. The degenerating habit is still alive in your system – it doesn’t disappear by simply setting a goal to lose weight.

So, while you are carefully arranging a sweet escape from your daily worries, you get slapped by your conflict monitoring system, which is there to evaluate whether your current behavior matches your goals.

Obviously, a discrepancy is detected – “You should abstain from frozen desserts!”, the rational part of the brain says. Thus, you alter your plans. Instead of drowning your sorrows in icy mountains born from the union of milk. You decide to take a detour down the path of healthier options – a fruit salad or nothing at all.

Now you probably wonder, “Why do I continue to stuff my body with fat even after deciding to be a nutrition-conscious individual?”

While having a feedback loop is essential for self-monitoring. There is one miracle cure that can help you say “No, thanks” to momentary sensations and allow you to move closer to your desired lifestyle. It’s… wait for it… controlling your environment.

Just as confidently as you can envision what will happen if you hit an egg with a hammer. You can also probably see what will happen if you add toxic food options in your fridge. Well, you will eat them. Or at least want to eat them – something equally bad.

When you are surrounded by temptations, you will constantly end up in conflict situations. Situations that try to steer you away from your path.

In sum, what I want to say is that, besides being mindful of the cybernetic model of self-regulation. Also be mindful of your surroundings. Fire “things” – objects, thoughts, and people – that are not in line with your long-term goals and hire more things that are in accordance with your desired state.

Some Closing Thoughts

A lot of people want to learn more about the topic of self-discipline. This is great. Bravo! However, this is only part of the big puzzle.

Once you know the basics, it’s better to focus on implementing what you’ve learned based on your specific day-to-day life.

Many people dream of living a more disciplined life, but do little to escape the plague of their degenerating daily routine.

So, if you are still here and reading, do something with the content you’ve just consumed.

Sit for a moment and think about the type of life you are living now and the type of life you want to live.

Yet, note the following…

The principles I’ve proposed above should provide a good starting point. However, they are guidelines, not iron rules, starting points, not destinations.

Try different things. Keep what works and throw away what doesn’t.

Self-discipline is not about doing a lot of things. It’s about doing the right things.

“What you need is a mental filtering system based on a scale of priorities and your long-term goals.” Robert Greene


While I’m skeptical that humans can completely divorce mediocrity. I do believe we can significantly improve our condition if we embed good habits and set personal systems. If you’re eager to enhance in these areas, check out my course on self-discipline: Beyond Discipline.

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Footnotes:

  1. Inzlicht, M. et al. (2021) ‘Integrating models of self-regulation’, Annual Review of Psychology, 72(1), pp. 319–345. Available at: doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-061020-105721.
  2. Dixon, M.L. (2015) ‘Cognitive control, emotional value, and the lateral prefrontal cortex’, Frontiers in Psychology, 6. Available at: doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00758.
  3. Carver, Charles S., and Michael F. Scheier, ‘ Cybernetic Control Processes and the Self-Regulation of Behavior’, in Richard M. Ryan (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation, Oxford Library of Psychology. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195399820.013.0003
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