Think back to the last New Year’s resolution you passionately captured in a notebook. Or, the last time you declared that you’d stop stuffing your fridge – and body – with fat. How did it go?
Jack is obsessed with self-improvement.
He follows the most prestigious gurus on the topic online.
He’s a regular library visitor.
He meditates daily.
He reads blogs. Watches videos. Purchases self-discipline courses. Takes notes. In addition, he’s an active participant in an online community of like-minded people where achieving greatness is enthusiastically discussed.
Last I heard, he’s the main organizer of a local meetup on the topic of “being your best self”.
Despite all of these efforts, he’s struggling.
He says he wants to work out. But some days he finds it almost impossible to get up from his couch and go to the gym.
He says he wants to prepare a green smoothie based on a recipe from a Tibetan YouTube creator. But some days, opting for a donut is just way easier – and cheaper.
He says he wants to be financially free. But regularly updating his Instagram with “inspiring” content requires frequent visits to the mall for new outfits, gadgets, and other accessories – after all, you need to showcase to others that you are winning in life even before you are actually winning in life.
Do you happen to know Jack?
I know a lot of Jacks. A lot of people that are exactly like Jack.
I also know that I often act just like Jack.
Why Do We Struggle With Self-Discipline?
We all wish we had more self-discipline. But we all struggle with controlling ourselves.
Why is that?
In short, we are constantly in situations where what we want to do and what we feel we should do are in conflict.
Temptations are part of life. But these days, temptations are everywhere.
It’s not just…
- Everything on the internet – ads, videos, comparing yourself with others, etc.
- Everywhere outside – stores, billboards, posters, etc.
- Everything inside – thoughts, stories, memories, etc.
But also everyone around you in general.
It’s hard not to want a slice of the delicious dessert in the office kitchen when everyone around you is armed with a spoon and sheer determination to corrupt his waistline.
It’s hard not to want a desk upgrade when all of your friends are sharing their new desk setups, mechanical keyboards, space-like headphones, and enough LED strips to overshadow even the biggest nightclubs in Ibiza.
It’s hard not to subscribe to Netflix and their flood of shows when every conversation you encounter is a heated debate about the latest plot twists – as if the fate of humanity hinges on the nuanced performances of fictional characters.
Self-control failures are a frequent and common occurrence of everyday life.
The main reason is our restless desire to feel good all the time.1
- We feel good when we eat sugar – even if we are not hungry.
- We feel good when we buy something – even if we don’t need it.
- We feel good when we are part of a group – even if the dynamics of the group are unsuited for our long-term plans.
Yet, this is just one reason. There are many sub-reasons. Many other self-discipline challenges that hold us prisoners to a bag of vices, slowly destroying our lives.
Below, I will lay out a few of the self-discipline challenges I’ve personally experienced. Thoughts, actions, routines, and forces that try to sabotage my progress.
Here are 7 forces that are holding you back. Or rather, forces that have pushed you into a pit hole of misery – not allowing you to exert self-discipline and progress in the world.
Let’s look at them one by one:
1. Present Habits
If you are used to smoking, even though it’s slowly evaporating your ability to breathe, you actually love the experience itself. Even more, you’ve tailored part of your life around this action:
- You hang around people who smoke.
- You have set specific times during the day were you suck the end of a flaming stick.
- You rely on smoking to cope with stress and challenging situations.
Escaping the pull of your present bad habits is extremely hard.
It feels like you are going against yourself. Against your personality.
After all, your present habits are things you’ve done for years. Things that influenced many of your decisions.2
Upsetting your status quo requires more than a desire for a more disciplined life. It requires slowly removing the traits that are hindering your progress.
2. Functional Friction
So, to improve your self-discipline, you just get a book on the topic and embed good daily habits in your life, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.
There are many barriers that are holding you back.
Some you see, others you don’t.
Here’s an example…
Say that you want to switch careers. You want to learn programming in order to escape your underpaying job as a cashier in the local store.
Being willing to learn and getting a course on the topic is not enough.
You also need to solve the following problems:
- When will you learn?
- Where will you learn?
- How will you integrate your new skill into your daily life?
- How will you stay motivated over the long haul?
- How will you measure your progress?
- How will you handle setbacks and failures along the way?
- Who will support you on this learning journey?
These are easier if you are in your twenties, but when you have a full-time job and a family, things become rather complicated.
Probably you can find time to learn, but if your partner is unsupportive, you will feel discouraged.
Probably you have time and support from your closest people, but if you can’t handle the setbacks, you will feel crushed.
Reducing and removing these obstacles has a lot to do with the above-mentioned – your present habits.
For example, you need to replace watching shows with studying. You need to set your environment to suit your needs, etc.
To get moving, though, we first need to see the obstacles. Then, to find ways to reduce/remove these obstacles from our lives.3
3. Anxiety of The New
Despite all the obvious benefits of eating healthy, reading, and strengthening your current skills – while adding new ones. People remain clutched to their inferior lifestyle.
One big reason here is the growing anxiety coming along with every new thing you want to introduce in your life.
Sure, you want to learn programming. Say that you even found the time to study. However, as soon as you begin your very first lessons, you start to get anxious.
Then certain thoughts form in your head: “Can I learn all of these things? Can I make it work? Sure, programming seems trendy and the pay is OK, but it’s quite complicated and I am not really good with computers.”
Since the new desired behavior initially introduces a lot of complications. The force pulling you towards your previous inferior behavior only grows stronger.
It kind of looks like this:
- You are thrilled by the opportunities if you do this good behavior.
- You start to explore the new behavior.
- You begin noticing how complicated your life will become if you embed this new set of habits/actions.
- You construct a narrative in your head as a way to justify staying in your current situation – not changing anything.
For the above reason, everywhere online you will meet these two phrases: “start small” and “stay consistent”.
Indeed, switching from being the true maestro in the art of laziness
to being shockingly productive is hard. But since others have done it, there is a chance that you can do it, too.
4. The Unpopularity of The Disciplined Lifestyle
Mass media and society as a whole encourage being good at being bad.
We are psychologically drawn to the bad guys.4
People who rebel, don’t obey any rules, and are deeply flawed.
This makes a lot of sense, here’s why…
A person who wakes up early, blocks all distractions, and adheres to a strict diet, budget and workout regimen is not considered cool. He is considered boring – unexciting.
Conversely, a person who oversleeps, spends most of his days sharing his days on social media, and in general, a carefree soul fueled by impulse and spontaneity is someone who most people will find exciting to be around.
While the former doesn’t have a lot of new to say – after all, most of his days are the same.
The latter person has always something fresh to share – a cool story about his last trip or night out.
A recent study on the topic supports this. Society considers disciplined people as cold and machine-like. In contrast, we view people who are impulsive as more real and genuine.5
Even if you prefer a person with high self-control as your workout buddy. You would rather spend your nights out with others who tend to be impulsive.
All in all, our perception of being a disciplined person is often associated with a lot of social downsides.
5. Dealing With Lack of Motivation
It’s easy to get motivated to do something once.
It’s hard to stay motivated in order to do this thing consistently.
At the beginning of the year, millions of people are pumped up to crush the year and “unlock their greatness”.
What happens a month later?
Your carefully planned to-do list is traveling to the nearest dumpster because you are no longer feeling that excited to unlock anything.
This is sad because we let go of our deep longings simply because we don’t have enough drive to get up and get to action.
Personally, I think that lack of motivation is one of the greatest self-discipline challenges.6
When we set goals, we presume that we’ll have a never-ending stream of drive to work on the tasks daily. However, this is never the case.
Planning a project should involve considering how you will deal with a lack of motivation. Answering: “What will you do when you simply don’t want to do anything that day?”
Not feeling excited to tackle the challenges shouldn’t be an excuse. It should be a trigger to excite yourself.
6. Depleting Willpower
To better picture self-discipline, consider a battery. The battery of your phone, for example.
Right after unplugging your mini computer from the charger. The device is at full capacity. For hours, you can frantically switch between apps to write, learn, or simply waste a bunch of time on social media – as most people do.
However, assuming that you’ve literally spent your entire day in an endless texting marathon and surfing the grand tapestry of the virtual world. A couple of hours later, your battery is nearing the end of its lifecycle. It needs a recharge.
Our willpower works in a similar fashion.
At the beginning of the day, we are better at dealing with temptations. We can say no to a dessert or fend off incoming notifications inviting us to surrender to endless communication over the newest trend – at least if you’re willing to block those urges.
However, as the day unfolds. Our capacity to say no to things drastically decreases. We get tired and thus easier to manipulate. The dessert you said no to in the morning is now impossible to resist. The notifications about the newest things happening in the world are hard to ignore.
If you think about your day, you will probably see this trend.
You are diligent in the morning but you get sloppy with your decisions near the evening.
Understanding our depleting self-control abilities is vital for planning our days.
7. Not Knowing (or Forgetting) Your Why
Think about these desires for a moment:
- Why do you want to lose weight?
- Why do you want to learn programming?
- Why do you want to become a disciplined person?
The main goal is never to learn programming.
The end goal is to escape your dead-end job and have financial security.
The end goal is something long-term. Something lasting.
Learning programming today is hard when you have a bunch of tasks to do. But when you remind yourself that you are doing it to find meaningful and rewarding work, it becomes easier to find time.
Staying in touch with why you want to do something is hard.
The soul-sucking monotony of our daily existence is a skilled assassin – slaying our ability to see the bigger picture.
We fail to exercise self-control because we are too focused on the tasks.
Sure, technically speaking, the task is to sit on your desk to learn. Or, to visit the gym. But the end goal is to be/become a lifelong learner and a healthy person.
And what does a person who considers himself a lifelong learner do? That’s right, he learns daily.
It sounds like a mind trick, but it’s more about choosing your lifestyle.
You choose to be a person who reads books and learns from others, not a person who mindlessly scrolls through the curated highlights of others.
And why do you choose this?
Because you’ve identified your values and the main reasons behind your desire to change.
Some Closing Thoughts
The main goal of the above list of self-discipline challenges is to prepare you. To add to your arsenal, so you can be better equipped when finally ready to move forward – disengage from soul-sucking behaviors and embrace more beneficial ones.
But despite ranting endlessly about how challenging it is to apply self-discipline. Using willpower does become natural the more you stick to it.
Yes, it never becomes effortless to start running at 06:00 AM in the morning. But the more you do it, the more you strengthen your self-discipline muscles. You build up a routine that acts like a counterforce – allowing you to better deflect dark forces trying to crush your progress.
Building your self-discipline muscles takes time, persistence, determination, open-mindedness, and a supportive environment.
But most of all, it requires the ability to keep going despite the challenges, setbacks, and seemingly little progress.
“We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.” Peter Hollins
Add to your self-discipline toolset by reading the following:
- My course on self-discipline: Beyond Discipline
- Self-Discipline Problems: The Unexpected Challenges of Disciplined Living
- Personal Discipline: What Is It and How To Create One
- Level Up With Self-Discipline Training
- 7 Popular Self-Discipline Quotes Explained
- I Have No Self-Control – What Should I Do?
- Self-Discipline Exercises for a Happy Life
- How To Improve Self-Discipline (by Exploring Our Emotions)
Dare To Act:
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- This desire of ours is heavily related to the time inconsistency problem.
- I share a more intimate story in relation to the concept of being unable to let go of your bad habits. You can check it out here.
- The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday is a great book discussing how to deal with hardship.
- Siegel, J.Z., Mathys, C., Rutledge, R.B. et al. Beliefs about bad people are volatile. Nat Hum Behav 2, 750–756 (2018). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0425-1
- Lapka, S.P. et al. ‘Determined yet dehumanized: People higher in self-control are seen as more robotic’, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 14(2), pp. 117–129. Available at: doi:10.1177/19485506221093109
- I have been aware of this fact ever since I realized the difference between motivation and discipline.