The Different Types of Self-Discipline (And Why They Matter)

Depending on your perspective, you will consider self-discipline as either the most boring activity on the planet. Or, as a productivity system that can – as self-proclaimed online experts on YouTube love to say – help you unlock your potential.

Regardless of how you feel about discipline. The truth remains unshakable:

Self-discipline is an essential component for balancing your physical and mental health. It’s the key ingredient for reaching your goals in life.

Unless you are gifted or exceptionally rich (I’m neither), you need self-discipline in your life. You need it because there is no shortcut to creating and maintaining a good life.

Yet, there are still plenty of people who don’t quite understand what is self-discipline and the importance of self-discipline. How vital this meta-skill is for living a good life and how, when obtained, can lead a person to new heights.

But even if you do get that you can’t properly function in our chaotic life without discipline. There’s probably something you don’t know about the topic yet. That is, there are several types of self-discipline.

In this article, as the title suggests, we’ll look at the different types of self-discipline and why it’s essential to know about them.

Let’s dive in…

Why There Are Different Types of Self-Discipline?

Isn’t discipline a single component that simply means that you push spontaneity on the side? Then, you adhere to a metronomic monotony of repetitive tasks?

Well, yes. But there is more to that.

While you can subscribe to a lifestyle where your day-to-day looks like a never-ending loop of sameness. The notion that self-discipline is simply an unvarying set of tasks is not complete.

Sure, you can have personal discipline in terms of getting up in pitch black, preparing a kale smoothie, and plunging into an ice bath. However, if you go completely chaotic when life throws a curveball – something unforeseen happens, like, going to a restaurant that doesn’t serve your homemade pasta. If you are unable to control yourself in these unpredictable moments, there won’t be much use for your predictable routine.

All of this means that to have a good life, it’s not enough to be self-disciplined in one area of your life. The goal should to be become self-disciplined in all areas.

That’s where understanding the different types of self-discipline becomes a must.

The Three Types of Self-Discipline

According to author and psychiatrist Phil Stutz – who became widely popular with the release of the Netflix documentary called Stutz – there are three types of self-discipline.1

While you probably don’t have them all. According to Phil Stutz, they can all be cultivated with the right approach.

Let’s look at them one by one:

1. Structural Discipline

Structural-Discipline
Structural discipline is about creating structure in your day – a plan – that helps you get ahead.

Structural discipline is creating a certain type of order in your day and adhering to that order. It’s basically what we imagine when we hear the word self-discipline.

For example, you came across a book that permanently changed your world view and now you wish to become a writer yourself. Using structural discipline, you craft a daily plan that involves a certain stack of behaviors that not only steer you closer to publishing a book. But also helps you maintain your identity as a person who writes.2

Broadly speaking, structural discipline typically involves setting up a daily schedule that gets you closer to the life you want to live.

And, another interesting thing is that structural discipline is powered by our conscious decision-making.

This is important.

This means that you need to actually sit down and come up with a plan for the day. You can’t expect that you will magically start to do tasks related to your aspirations. No, you have to figure that out for yourself – figure out what exact tasks you need to perform. Plus, you need to not give up when your initial plan sucks. Actually, your first structure will probably suck – a lot.

Let me show you why…

Commonly, we get super optimistic when we wish to adopt new good habits in our lives. We buy gym memberships and hire a trainer to help us transform our bodies. While initially this might work. We all know what happens when motivation fades – we dial the gym customer support asking for a refund because we realized that a workout actually involves regular physical exercises.

So, don’t get surprised when your daily plan doesn’t meet your initial expectations. Simply adjust your schedule until you find the best possible version – e.g., in the context of workouts, you can probably start with home exercises till you get used to this way of living.

2. Reactive Discipline

Reactive-Discipline
Reactive discipline is about properly responding to unexpected situations – i.e., remain calm and don’t freak out.

Reactive discipline is your ability to control your thoughts and actions when unforeseen situations happen that you don’t have direct control over.

For example, you go to an afternoon barbecue where the majority of the meals are all dishes you’ve successfully avoided for the past six months. But instead of pouncing on the first set of burgers like a ravenous beast in the throes of a gastronomic frenzy. You choose to fill your plate with greens – the set of meals almost everyone is avoiding.

Basically, reactive discipline means having the self-control to successfully deal with external events.

The important part here is that reactive discipline is mostly governed by our subconscious mind.

If you are not mentally strong. And if you subconsciously want to enter an eating frenzy. If we continue with the example from above, you will use the barbecue invitation as an excuse to overeat with delicious burgers.

Although it’s hard to reconfigure your subconscious mind. If your reactive discipline is in good shape. You will successfully avoid turning your life upside down when your subconsciousness is trying to sabotage your progress.

This can happen in a lot of different ways.

Here’s another example:

Deep down, you want others to see you as this cool dude who always looks amazing. To reach this celebrity-like status, you can use most of your savings to get a brand-new SUV that you can’t really afford. But instead of going down the sinking sands of debt. When reactive discipline is in place, you steer towards other activities. You realize that while others might admire you if you possess nice things. Achieving happiness is not at all about how others feel about you. But about how you feel about yourself.

3. Expansive Discipline

Expansive-Discipline
Expansive discipline is about having an unexpiring ambition that helps you continuously push beyond your comfort zone.

Expansive discipline is about constantly moving forward in life. You know, the “get out of your comfort zone” kind of mantra.

Surely you can achieve a lot if you just repeat the routine you created a couple of years ago. But you can achieve a lot more if you frequently update your daily system – adjust it based on the changes happening outside and inside of you.

For example, a couple of years ago, around the time when I started this site. My routine involved reading for around 2 hours per day and writing for an extra 2 hours. Luckily, I was able to afford the luxury of immersing myself into books and writing for that long because I ditched most of the distractions in my life – shopping, social media, the trivial rat race for who has the best things, etc.3 However, things drastically changed when my son was born. My new daily routine involved the well-known by parents’ cycle of changing diapers while ensuring that the baby is well-fed and well-rested. In this period, reading for over 20 minutes seemed like a mirage – not to mention reading for 2 hours. While I probably could have pulled it off, my wife gave me the looks when I was holding something different than our baby for more than 5 minutes. So, what did I do? Well, to find time for reading and writing, I started waking up early in the morning – first at 06:00 a.m., and then at 05:00 a.m.

Of course, there are countless other examples.

The point here is to understand that expansive discipline is the growth component in relation to discipline.

After all, you can’t expect to keep doing the same thing and have different results.

As you can’t grow your muscles if you keep lifting the same weights. You can’t upgrade your thinking if you keep reading the same type of books.

So, the third type of self-discipline is the willingness to upgrade your current daily cycle – again and again.

Are There Other Types of Self-Discipline?

If you are able to regularly get up in the morning and work out even when your body is practically dragging itself back to bed, you have to thank self-discipline for that.

The compound effects steaming from repeatedly doing a set of tasks are unmatched.

Yet, despite the self-discipline types mentioned above. Self-discipline remains a complex trait that involves even more areas.

Having said that, we can further disassemble the subject, which will help us identify a couple of extra dimensions of self-discipline:

  • Emotional Self-Discipline: This type of self-discipline involves regulating your emotions effectively. Emotional self-discipline includes the ability to stay calm under pressure, control anger, and handle stress in a constructive way. Studies have shown that emotional self-discipline is linked to better mental health and interpersonal relationships.4
  • Cognitive self-discipline: Cognitive self-discipline is about your ability to better manage your thoughts, focus, and attention. When cognitive self-discipline is high, you concentrate deeper and faster, resist distractions, and activate critical thinking. In a way, this type of self-discipline is the ability to remain focused on a particular activity even when there are distractions around. Cognitive self-discipline is essential for problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Impulse control: Impulse control is the ability to resist immediate gratification in favor of long-term rewards. The other word for that is delayed gratification. When you practice delayed gratification, you are better able to make choices that will unlock bigger rewards down the road – instead of the smaller rewards available right now that are only masked as helpful. Governing your impulses is proven to be a worthy candidate for one of the best skills a person can possess.5
  • Digital self-discipline: Given how integrated technology is in our daily lives. This type of self-discipline involves your ability to restrain yourself from submerging into the depths of the virtual world without an escape plan. Even the most well-intended person can spend hours online doing nothing productive. In the modern world, the branch of digital self-discipline is about properly managing screen time. Plus, maintaining a healthy balance between online and offline activities.
  • Financial self-discipline: This type of self-discipline involves wise management of your finances – i.e., budgeting, saving, investing, and avoiding unnecessary debt. People who have proper financial self-discipline are better equipped to achieve their financial goals, secure their future, and basically worry less about money – because one always worries about money.
  • Environmental self-discipline: Environmental self-discipline primarily includes properly arranging your physical environment to minimize distractions and create the best conditions for optimal work and/or study. When you are aware of how the environment can impact your progress, you arrange your workspace, remove clutter, and eliminate sources of interruption.
  • Behavioral self-discipline: Behavioral self-discipline is controlling your actions and behaviors. It involves setting and adhering to goals, managing time effectively, and avoiding procrastination. Basically, it means doing activities that better position you for having an exceptional life.

As you will probably note, these extra types of self-discipline are like sub-categories of the first three – structural discipline, reactive discipline, and expansive discipline.

As you will also probably note, you don’t need to optimize specifically for digital self-discipline, for example. If your self-discipline skills are good in general, not using social media will be common sense for you.

The reason I think it’s helpful to break self-discipline into these extra types is because it allows us to see how else we can govern our actions.

Some people create blissful morning routines after watching some online celebrity talking about what they do after brushing their teeth in the morning. Yet, they spend the rest of their day buried in the online world, trying to get a dose of sensation by uncontrollably consuming short-form videos.

To be a disciplined person, you need to be disciplined in all areas – not just one. Well, at least, if you expect to create a well-balanced way of living.

Some Closing Thoughts

While there are plenty of self-discipline benefits.

The main advantage of knowing the types of discipline is that you often stop and think before you act.

For instance, when your phone buzzes while you are in the middle of a writing session. You don’t automatically reach out for your phone – a reaction that will surely disturb your flow. Instead, you have a quick conversation in your head that goes something like this…

Phone buzzes…

  • Irrational self: “I should check the phone. Probably the queen is inviting me for a cup of tea.”
  • Self-disciplined rational self: “This is probably notification about a bill. I should check that later. Get back to work.”

With the above types of self-discipline, my hope is that you will better handle unexpected situations.

When something unplanned happens that wants to steer you away from your desired way of living. With this new knowledge in your arsenal handbag, you can simply reach out and find the self-discipline type that will help you handle the situation in the best possible way.

So, knowing what you know now. Think about these:

In what areas of your life are you perfectly disciplined?

In what areas of your life are you still undisciplined?

How can you strengthen your positions?

“Self-discipline is often disguised as short-term pain, which often leads to long-term gains. The mistake many of us make is the need and want for short-term gains (immediate gratification), which often leads to long-term pain.” Charles F. Glassman


Add to your self-discipline toolset by reading the following:

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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.


Footnotes:

  1. Meggsauer (2023) Building self-discipline by age 27 is crucial, says psychiatrist from the Netflix doc ‘Stutz’: 3 ways to do it, CNBC. Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2023/01/14/psychiatrist-from-netflix-doc-stutz-how-to-build-self-discipline.html
  2. A related concept that helps you maintain a certain self-image is the idea of identity-based habits – check it out.
  3. Here are two articles in relation to these topics: On buying things we don’t need; On living a life without social media.
  4. Fattah, H. A. A., Sallam, G. K., Hendy, A. S., Abozeid, A., & Rodenhurst, N. (2023). The Beneficial Effects of Emotional Intelligence Training for Critical Care Nurses on Job Burnout: A Quasi-Experimental Study. Iranian journal of nursing and midwifery research, 28(3), 300–304. Available at: https://doi.org/10.4103/ijnmr.Ijnmr_345_20
  5. Spieser, L. et al. (2015) Controlling your impulses: Electrical stimulation of the human supplementary motor complex prevents impulsive errors, Journal of Neuroscience. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2009.07.004
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