What Is Self-Discipline? (Definition & Meaning)

If I am to make a retrospection of my goals for the last 20 years, I can clearly see that they didn’t change much – I still want to be fit, financially independent, and live in internal bliss. And while I always wanted these things, I wasn’t doing much to have them for a large part of my life.

I write about the importance of self-discipline and the benefits of self-discipline, but what is self-discipline?

After pondering on the topic for quite some time, I’ve concluded the following:

Self-discipline is the ability to exert effort despite temptations and lack of motivation.

When I look at my failed attempts to get to the things I seemingly always wanted. I spot two major issues in my past approach: lack of clearly defined purpose and lack of self-discipline.

It’s one thing to want financial independence, inner calmness, or whatever. It’s quite another to continuously strive towards having these things.

And let me tell you, during my 20s I only wanted the just-mentioned. I wasn’t doing much to have them.

  • I wanted the results without the effort.
  • I wanted the outcome without any input on my side.
  • I wanted to experience good sensations without understanding that there is a dose of bad sensations tied to them.

Quite naturally, I wasn’t getting anywhere.

Eventually, I realized the harsh truth – I was a lazy procrastinator who lacked discipline.

But my eventual change didn’t happen overnight. It took me years of inner battles between the lower self and the higher self. Years of hard work to find “the way” – the direction I wanted to embark on.

Yet, my journey started with one simple thing: Realizing what self-discipline means.

What Is The Definition of Self-Discipline?

Let’s look at the official definition:1

Self-discipline is the ability to control yourself and to make yourself work hard or behave in a particular way without needing anyone else to tell you what to do.

Regardless of what dictionary you will find describing the word self-discipline. They all revolve around the following:

Self-discipline is doing things you don’t feel like doing.

And while with the above we cover the definition of self-discipline. A more interesting concept to consider is what is the meaning of self-discipline.

These two seem similar, but they are quite different.

The true meaning of self-discipline is about the ability to control yourself. The ability to self-regulate – resist temptations and attempt tasks even when your motivation is low or non-existent.

For us, humans, the meaning revolving around the concept of self-discipline is about changing ourselves and our society in small and large ways.

In our age where there are more temptations than ever before, we desperately need this skill of ultimate perseverance to successfully follow the signal in a sea of noise.

In short, improving self-discipline is the surest way to a better life.

What Is Discipline In Life?

I’m thinking a lot about discipline in one’s life because it is so rare these days.

Modern life primes you to want quick results.

This craving for instant gratification is powered by how fast the world operates these days.

First, you see how others are having a joyful existence when you open social media. Then, while watching the success stories of others, you compare them with your current state. Since your current state is not as amazing as the state of the people online. You start to desire a better existence. When this inner longing arises, you begin to look for ways to make it happen. Unfortunately for you, but fortunately for businesses around the world. Happiness is a click away – or so it seems.

The more you lack discipline, the more you want quick fixes. You can’t wait six months to craft a decent physique – which involves regular gym visits. No, you want results fast – that’s why weight loss pills sell out so fast.

Self-discipline in life is a combination of rules and daily practices. But it’s also something else…

It’s about a lack of desire for quick solutions. The realization that good things take time.

I think about this every time I enter a store. Technically, I have the money to buy all the chocolate bars in the store. All the biscuits that promise to make my day sweeter. However, I don’t have the desire to do this.

When you have discipline in your life, it’s not only about having some sort of personal regime. But also lacking the desire for all the trivial things that (falsely) promise to make your life better. You understand that progress takes time. And you don’t try to escape doing the work, you love doing the work. You enjoy the process of self-improvement instead of trying to skip it.

What Does It Mean To Discipline Yourself?

A lot of people start projects with a full bar of enthusiasm, but life, hardships, and other people’s opinions get in the way.

I’ve talked with a bunch of people who have skills and ideas in abundance. But they don’t finish what they’ve started because they lack discipline.

I often think about how many people are just a few months away from their desired state but lack the self-discipline to stay on the course.

I see this in pretty much every life category: business, health, finances, relationships, etc.

People start a business but only after a couple of months – sometimes even a couple of weeks. They abandon the idea of creating their own mark in the business world.

Or, another common example is health. A person might start a diet, but only after a few weeks – sometimes even a couple of days. They have already given up on the goal of losing weight.

People love starting things – mostly because it gives you something to brag about, and it’s associated with our natural novelty-seeking tendency – but rarely finish them because it requires work, diligence, and willpower.

And what does it mean to be self-disciplined?

When you have discipline, the internal dialog about the tasks you do changes.

Before you attempt something, you start to ask yourself: “Is this thing going to have a compounding positive effect on my life or the opposite?”

Here are a few outcomes when you start to answer this question in your head:

  • You start to avoid eating junk food not because it’s not tasty, but because it will lead to negative health consequences over time.
  • You start to invest money not because it’s fun – surely getting a new item is much more amusing in the immediate moment. But because investing can have a positive effect on your financial well-being.
  • You exercise daily, not because it’s easy. But because skipping exercise in favor of short-term leisure activities can have negative consequences for your long-term health.

To be a disciplined person means to embrace meaningful struggles.

After all, it’s always a struggle to do the things you don’t feel like doing. But despite how you feel, you do them regardless because you realize their importance in your life.

What Can One Do To Discipline Oneself?

We now know what is self-discipline.

But how can one discipline himself?

The short answer is the following: Start with changing one habitual behavior.

For instance, monitor your posture for two weeks. Every time you think about your posture, try to stand up straight or sit up straight.

I know it might sound crazy that this will help improve your self-discipline, but behavior scientists have proven this to be a willpower-strengthening exercise.

To figure out how a person can best add self-discipline into his life, the Baumeister’s lab conducted a thorough experiment with students about willpower.2 They created 3 different groups – assigning them different willpower exercises for a period of 2 weeks:

  • Group 1: Group one had to monitor and adjust their posture.
  • Group 2: Group two had to record what they ate – only record it, without instructions to change their diet.
  • Group 3: Group three was instructed to cheer themselves up when they were feeling down.

The researchers thought that the third group would be the one with enhanced willpower at the end of the experiment. However, it turned out that their favorite strategy didn’t do any help.

Unexpectedly, the best result came from the group working on their posture. Yes, the annoying old advice – “Sit up straight!” – seems to be extremely useful.

During and even after the experiment, the students from group one started to perform better at tasks that had nothing to do with posture. Eventually, researchers realized that overriding your bad habitual behaviors with good ones leads to quite literally self-improvement.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. You notice how you are slouching, thus, you correct yourself. Then, since your alertness is ON, you start to notice other things in your life that are faulty.

It’s like a loop that starts with awareness.

A loop that aims to represents that self-discipline starts with awareness: You need to be aware of bad behavior in order to correct it.
Self-discipline starts with awareness. Awareness allows you to spot your faulty behaviors. Only once you start seeing what you do wrong, you can do right.

The researchers from the experiment eventually concluded one extra thing: There’s nothing magical about sitting up straight. You can pick another simple nasty habit and tell yourself to correct it for the next couple of weeks. As mentioned above, the key is to concentrate on changing a habitual behavior.

Another training from the experiment I believe we can all benefit from is changing our speech habits. Since how we talk is deeply ingrained in our existence, it requires effort to modify the words we use. To try this, start speaking only in complete sentences and using the right words. For example, instead of using “yeah”, “yup”, and “nah”, use “yes” and “no”. Also, avoid the nasty taboo words – yes, the F-bombs.

The value of having rules in relation to how you speak is heavily related to impulse control. When you monitor your words of choice and correct your grammar in your head, you resist the impulse of saying them. This technique can improve your willpower and be a good warm-up for tackling bigger challenges – like quitting drinking and sticking to a diet.

Some Closing Thoughts

If you end up here reading about what is self-discipline, chances are, you don’t have enough self-discipline.

Well, if we speak honestly, we all lack it.

It’s impossible to be disciplined in all areas of life. After all, if this was true, we wouldn’t call ourselves humans, we’d call ourselves robots.

Our emotions are what keeps us clunched to a bad behavior. But these same emotions are what make us lovable people who have passions and interests.

The goal with self-discipline is not to kill the emotions and turn yourself into a robotized human who is stripped of any feelings. It’s to create some sort of order in the chaotic life we live in.

After delivering the essence of self-discipline, I hope you now have a better understanding of the topic. Plus, spot what needs changing in your life.

One word of advice for the end…

Self-discipline for the sake of calling yourself a disciplined person is useless.

Before you start thinking about how to add willpower to your life. Think about what type of person you want to be and what you are willing to trade to become that person.

“What looks like talent is often self-discipline. Self-discipline allows you to excel in areas where you initially had zero skills.” Ivaylo Durmonski


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

Trouble Saying No to Temptations?

Join Farview: A newsletter fostering long-term thinking in a world driven by impatience. Trusted by over 4,300 thinkers, Farview is a concise, thoughtfully organized newsletter helping you handle the self-sabotaging thoughts trying to corrupt you.


Footnotes:

  1. Self-discipline definition and meaning | Collins English dictionary. Available at: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/self-discipline
  2. Muraven, M., Baumeister, R. F., & Tice, D. M. (1999). Longitudinal improvement of self-regulation through practice: building self-control strength through repeated exercise. The Journal of social psychology, 139(4), 446–457. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224549909598404
Share with others: