Self-discipline is a requirement for achieving any long-term goal.
The good news is that it’s not something you’re born with—it’s a skill you can develop. Read on to find out what self-discipline is, why it’s important and how you can develop it within yourself.
If you’re looking for a self-discipline definition, the American Psychological Association is a good place to start. The APA offers two definitions for self-discipline:
“1. the control of one’s impulses and desires, forgoing immediate satisfaction in favor of long-term goals.
2. resolute adherence to a regimen or course of action in order to achieve one's goals.”
However, a few words will come up frequently in the discussion of self-discipline, and they often get confused. Here are the APA definitions of each:
While each term has a nuanced definition, they are often used interchangeably and are so interrelated that they’re hard to distinguish between. Bottom line: They all have to do with controlling your actions, but self-discipline takes it a step further by calling out that the point of controlling your actions is to reach long-term goals.
According to social psychologist Roy Baumeister, there are four components of self-regulation:
A self-disciplined person is someone who consistently chooses the actions, routines and habits that will help them reach an important long-term goal, instead of regularly falling prey to instant gratification.
Some examples of a self-disciplined person include:
As you can see from the above examples, self-discipline comes in many forms, but at its core, it is all about delaying instant gratification in favor of a longer-term goal.
When we’re failing to reach our goals or falling into the same bad habits, it’s easy for us to think that we just don’t have what it takes to be self-disciplined. Even the term “self-disciplined person” implies that some people are born with innate self-control while others are not. This is not true, as we’ll see in the research below. Anyone can become self-disciplined.
Without self-discipline, every long-term goal you hold dear will be sabotaged by fleeting desires for instant gratification. And if that’s not enough, scientific research has found even more benefits:
For years, the psychology community has viewed willpower as a finite resource. This is thanks in part to social psychologist Roy Baumeister’s self-regulation theory, the concept of ego depletion and the scores of research papers supporting both.
Basically, ego depletion states that the more you use willpower, the less of it you have. Perhaps you’ve experienced something like it: You spend all week being “good” about your diet and avoiding carbs and sugar that by the time the weekend hits, you indulge in all the sweets you can get your hands on.
But the latest research has called ego depletion into question. In 2014, Evan Carter published a review in Frontiers in Psychology that found that previous studies about ego depletion were tainted with publication bias.
The more recent view of willpower is that it isn’t something you can run out of. For example, in a series of three experiments, Stanford University professor Carol Dweck and colleagues found that willpower is more about mindset: If you believe your willpower is exhaustible, you'll lose steam. But if you believe willpower is abundant, you'll keep going. These findings were published in the scientific journal PNAS.
So what role should willpower play in your quest for self-discipline? Perhaps psychology researchers Michael Inzlicht and Malte Friese said it best in their April 2021 open peer commentary published in Cambridge University Press entitled “Willpower is overrated”: “Research makes clear that the best way to reach one's goal is not to resist temptations but to avoid temptations before they arrive; it further suggests that willpower is fragile and not to be relied on.”
Before you can build discipline, you first need to take stock of your current state of self-control. Where are you excelling, and where do you need support?
Reflect on the urges and desires you struggle with and want to resist. Take notice of the behaviors you want to extinguish that arise from these desires. Once you have this self-awareness, you can begin to build your self-discipline.
If you struggle with this step, don’t fret. After all, it is tough for you to see your own blind spots. Consider working with a coach experienced in helping clients build self-discipline. Coaches are pros at asking the right questions that get to the core of the matter and uncover blind spots.
It doesn’t matter how much self-discipline you have if you’re exerting yourself on a goal you don’t really care about. If you find that you’re constantly partaking in behaviors that are contrary to a long-term goal, ask yourself if you really want that long-term goal after all. More importantly, ask yourself why you want that long-term goal. You might realize that you don’t.
For example, let’s say you have a goal of buying a house in five years. To reach this goal, you know that you must save for a down payment, and to do that, you need to seriously cut back on spending. However, on the way to this goal, you find that you constantly fall short of your savings targets; you spend on things you truly value though, such as traveling to new places and learning about different cultures.
Instead of denigrating yourself for not having “enough self-discipline,” reevaluate your long-term goal of owning a home. You might find it’s not what you want at all. Maybe you just felt pressured into it because that’s what society tells you is respectable, and all your friends are homeowners. Maybe your true goal is to save up money for long-term travel.
By reevaluating your goals, you might find that you don’t have a self-discipline problem at all—you were just setting the wrong goals.
And by choosing objectives that have real meaning and value to you, you’ll stay motivated to choose the long-term good over the short-term pleasure.
Emotions are important signals that we should acknowledge, but putting them in the driver’s seat often results in lapses in self-discipline. Think of how many times you were stressed out and binge-watched your fave Netflix show to numb the feelings.
Emotional regulation involves becoming aware of emotions, and instead of reacting to them or pushing them down, acknowledging and accepting their presence and then choosing healthy ways to manage what you’re feeling. This is closely related to emotional intelligence.
So let’s say you’re trying to cut back on your screen time. If you found out your vacation request got denied at work, for example, instead of turning to another episode of Breaking Bad, you might go for a walk with a friend and vent your frustration. This attempt at emotional regulation prevents your feelings from overriding your willpower, thus thwarting your long-term goal of reduced media consumption. It’s not healthy to ignore your feelings; you can acknowledge them without allowing them to wreck your dreams.
Remember the conflicting research about willpower we discussed above? Instead of trying to summon your willpower (which appears to be fickle anyway), set up your life in such a way that you don’t need to rely on it. How?
The latest research has found that people who are especially self-disciplined don’t have more willpower than you or me—they just avoid having to use it.
“People who are good at self-control … seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place,” psychologist Brian Galla explained in a Vox interview. “And structuring your life is a skill. People who do the same activity, like running or meditating, at the same time each day have an easier time accomplishing their goals, he says — not because of their willpower, but because the routine makes it easier.”
Want to cut back on your junk food consumption? Don’t keep potato chips, candy bars and sodas in the house. Want to decrease your screen time? Hide your iPhone in a drawer during the workday. Want to get into the habit of running every morning? Keep your alarm clock across the room and your running shoes right next to it.
In other words, if you want to get better at forgoing instant gratification in a world brimming with temptations, make it easy for you to make the right choices. This leads us to the next thing that self-controlled people have: good habits.
Habits are behaviors so ingrained in our brains that we don’t even have to think about them. This lack of choosing is ideal because it means it has nothing to do with willpower—it’s merely force of habit.
A habit, as Atomic Habits author James Clear describes it, is a four-part process:
Knowing this process, you can see how bad habits form. For example, if you want to quit caffeine because it makes you feel jittery, first look at what’s actually happening:
But this same process works for good habits too. So, in the above example, instead of saying you want to stop drinking coffee, which is an ingrained habit, you can replace coffee with something else. For example, to satisfy the urge to drink something hot in the morning, you can replace coffee with herbal tea. And to satisfy your need to feel awake, you can go for a 10-minute walk around the block.
As you can see, self-discipline doesn’t have to be all about restriction and control. You don’t have to eliminate your urge for a warm drink and boost of energy in the morning. You can simply replace it with something that aligns with your long-term goals of feeling calmer and more awake.
And if you want to form entirely new habits, you now know the recipe: cue, craving, response, reward. You need to begin with finding cues that will trigger your intended behavior; again, this is so you don’t even have to think about it.
Want to read more often? Place a book on your pillow so you pick it up automatically when you head to bed. Want to remember to take your supplements? Take them every morning with your cup of tea. By doing these things, good habits become ingrained and make self-discipline a no-brainer.
As the research shows, self-discipline isn’t a gift reserved for the strong but a skill that anyone can learn. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It requires practice, emotional regulation, good habits, removing temptations as much as possible and having support when you need it.
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