Self-Discipline: A Practical Guide
On How To Be More Disciplined
by Brian Roberts
“We are what we repeatedly do.”
Every morning was the same for me.
After making my way downstairs, I’d retrieve the same coffee cup from the same corner of the same kitchen cabinet, then fill it with the same espresso--four shots in total--which took a combined 125 seconds to brew, dispense and cool.
Then I’d sit in the same seat in the same corner of the same kitchen table before opening up my laptop to the same blank page and same blinking cursor.
Finally, I’d write.
After four hours, I’d stop. Whether I felt like writing or not didn’t matter. I did it anyway. I took this same approach to soliciting feedback on what I wrote. Every month I pitched editors I didn’t know at publications I dreamt of writing for.
I contacted an editor at Time on August 5, 2015. I was rejected seven times over seven months until I was issued a contract for my first story on February 7, 2016. Entrepreneur took just as long. So did Business Insider.
Others took considerably longer.
Take Inc Magazine, for instance. I first made contact with an editor there on June 15, 2015. It would be 651 days and 21 follow ups until I became a columnist. I celebrated that day. At Forbes, I first made contact with an editor on March 12, 2014. It would be 3 years, 2 months and 27 days until they issued me a contract. How many follow ups that took, I don’t know. How many rejections I fielded, I don’t care to remember. Despite those delays, despite those setbacks, I persevered. I persevered until I succeeded.
I succeeded because I was disciplined.
I had no friends or relatives working at any of those publications. I had no professional writing, editing or journalism experience or any formal education in any of those subjects. Just self-discipline.
And that’s the beauty of discipline.
Discipline doesn’t care about relationships, credentials or your education level. Discipline is the great equalizer. With enough of it you can close the distance between yourself and anything... or anyone.
We’re constantly in search of new ways to increase productivity.
We seek to do more through tips, tricks, hacks and apps. But the real key to productivity is inside us. It isn’t easy. Building a process is difficult. Sticking to the practice is difficult. We naturally seek out shortcuts and alternatives.
But if the goal is to make big, important things happen, there are no shortcuts or alternatives — just discipline.
“We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality,
it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.”
- Jesse Owens, 4x Olympic Gold Medalist
A unique human strength
Human beings are emotional beings. Like other animals, we’re driven by instinct, emotion, and reward — propelled by the so-called “reptile brain” to meet our needs now. Fortunately, humans also have a greater power at our disposal than most of our animal cousins, one that we’ve developed over the course of human history: the higher thinking and planning made possible by our prefrontal cortex. It’s this power that we leverage when we exercise discipline.
Humans are social by nature. And it’s that social, collaborative component of our evolutionary history that scientists believe led to the development of our frontal lobes — the largest (relatively speaking) in the animal kingdom. As hunters and foragers, collaborative and sharing behavior was critical to survival. Being willing to fit into the group and contribute to the its well-being provided an evolutionary advantage.
As Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney explain in their book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, “Willpower evolved because it was crucial for our ancestors to get along with the rest of the clan, and it’s still serving that purpose today. Inner discipline still leads to outer kindness.”
One of the earliest hunting strategies humans used together was persistence hunting. Our ancestors would track and pursue prey over great distances; prey that was faster and more agile. But, no matter the distance, we would stay the course. One hour. Two hours. Five hours. Days even. Eventually, the prey would collapse from exhaustion. The animals we hunted might have outrun us in the short term, but they couldn’t outlast us over the long haul.
And so humans evolved to be disciplined pursuers. The only thing that’s changed today is what we choose to pursue. Much like an ancient San bushmen pursuing a Kudu antelope through the deserts of South Africa, any target will collapse when pitted against a disciplined enough pursuer.
Discipline is not about the distance between you and your goal, but about persistent effort to close that distance — finding the will to continue on, gaining inch after inch long after motivation has lapsed.
This human ability to relentlessly pursue our goals can look very different today. We’re pursuing not only group goals like a shared meal, but personal goals like improved fitness and financial success. Our social evolution made personal development possible. Controlling our own behavior is critical for us to achieve our important goals and maintain good health.
Thanks to discipline, we can make decisions and bring plans to life, control our impulses and even accomplish the seemingly impossible. Endurance artist David Blaine may be a current king of discipline, training himself to accomplish superhuman physical feats like prolonged submersion under water, fasting, and confinement. How does he do it? “It’s repetition and practice,” he says.
Discipline enables us to subjugate our immediate preferences in order to achieve a long-term goal or behave in alignment with deeply-held values. Our human brains are designed perfectly for our higher functions — our higher selves — to moderate our instincts and emotions. Before we delve deeper into the science, let’s clarify exactly what we mean by “discipline.”
“Discipline is remembering what you want.”
- David Campbell, Founder of Saks Fifth Avenue
What is discipline?
Discipline is the self-imposed control over your own behavior for the purpose of attaining an objective. That objective may be immediate, short-term, long-term, or even ongoing. Discipline is about training yourself to behave in a way that aligns with your bigger goals.
The need for discipline is often paramount when there are conflicting goals and objectives. You crave a cookie, but your deeper long-term goal is to eat less sugar. You’re exhausted and grumpy, but you have a meeting with a client. Discipline is the ongoing, deliberate decision to be governed by your objectives instead instead of your impulses. It’s choosing to act in the best interest of your future self.
Discipline is structure. It is control and order. It is doing what you know must be done. It is refusing to be governed by impulses, desires, temptations, and sometimes even instinct. Discipline is taking control of your future.
Discipline isn’t exactly the same as self-control or willpower, though they are closely related. Who holds the authority and values at play? In discipline, your internal values and autonomous authority connect to your external behaviors. More than that, discipline is better understood and executed not as control or restriction from, but persistence and dedication to. As we’ll see in more detail later, discipline is sustained dedication and consistent action over time.
In “The Willpower Instinct,” Kelly McGonigal offers three critical components: will power, the positive actions you will take; won’t power, those behaviors you’ll replace or avoid; and want power, the connection to your deep desires and needs — your “why.” Discipline’s focus on persistence over the long term demands that you tap into your intrinsic motivators and pay close attention to this “why.”
Your success or failure as a disciplinarian in pursuit of an objective will be predicated on four factors:
1. The clarity of your objective.
2. Your commitment to the underlying “why.”
3. Your ability to resist distractions.
4. Your ability to cope with suffering.
The size of your objective is immaterial. What matters more is clarity. A target you can’t see is a target you can’t pursue, which in turn is a target you will miss 100 percent of the time. Specificity, then, is the first and most important component of cultivating self-discipline. How can you commit to something you can’t define?
Elise Keith of Lucid Meetings offers a simple but potent amendment to David Campbell’s quote, one that underscores the importance of finding our “why”: “Discipline is simply remembering what you really want.”
What do you really want?
The Science of Self-Discipline
“The moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level
of ability as opposed to resilience and hard work, we will be brittle in the face of adversity.”
- Joshua Waitzkin, International Chess Master
In psychology and neuroscience, discipline is often described and studied as “self-regulation.” As we discussed earlier, discipline is where the prefrontal cortex — our center of higher-level thinking — attempts to balance the conflicting demands and motivations of being human.
Self-regulation includes planning complex cognitive behaviors, making decisions, and moderating our social behavior. It may not be surprising, then, that 2014 research published in the Journal of Personality found that the level of a person’s discipline positively predicts happiness and is a strong predictor of well-being and life satisfaction.
The study also found that participants who demonstrated discipline derived additional enjoyment from each positive gain, no matter the size. Each little step forward, each victory, feeds your soul. Meanwhile, the less-disciplined participants tended to focus more on preventive behaviors and avoiding losses, rather than taking positive steps forward. Less discipline means more reactivity — and less intentionality.
An important insight of the study was the discovery that a significant source of participants’ discipline-linked happiness was their ability to “manage goal conflict.” Baumeister and Vohs may have described it best when discussing the social aspect of self-regulation: “this is a matter of pursuing enlightened self-interest over immediate or myopic self-interest.”
When immediate and long-term goals collide, the ability to exercise discipline and choose “enlightened self-interest” — that is, the well-being of our future and social selves — can truly make us happy.
The same study described several elements of successful self-regulation: standards (identifying specific behavior changes and goals to pursue), monitoring (assessing your behavior and making progress), willpower (managing the “self-regulatory strength” of your brain muscle, which can be depleted and restored), and motivation (both to achieve the goal and to exercise discipline). In this discipline equation, stronger elements can compensate for weaker ones; for the best chance of success, identify factors within your control and take steps to maximize them.
Managing the elements of this equation is key to successful discipline, and science has provided a couple of tools that will help you build your discipline.
You can increase your “self-regulatory capacity” by getting enough rest and ensuring that your energy-hungry brain is fresh and well-nourished (low glucose levels result in ego depletion and lack of self-control). Controlled breathing exercises (four to six breaths per minute, or 10-15 seconds per breath) has been shown to activate the prefrontal cortex and move the body from stress to self-control mode.
It is also worth noting that discipline builds discipline. As Kelly McGonigal explains, “over the last decade, neuroscientists have discovered that, like an eager student, the brain is remarkably responsive to experience. Ask your brain to do math every day, and it gets better at math. Ask your brain to worry, and it gets better at worrying.
Ask your brain to concentrate, and it gets better at concentrating. Not only does your brain find these things easier, but it actually remodels itself based on what you ask it to do.”
What are you consistently and intentionally asking your brain to do?
Self-Discipline In Action
“In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they
won was over themselves... self-discipline with all of them came first.”
- Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States
Don’t break the chain
Jerry Seinfeld is easily one of the most successful comics of all time. Now a cultural icon, he started his career as a lowly stand-up comic. How does a regular guy perfect his craft and build the momentum to excel in his field? Discipline.
A young comic approached Seinfeld one day backstage at a comedy club. It was still the early days of his pioneering show, and Seinfeld still regularly performed onstage. The young comic asked Seinfeld for his one piece of advice for a new comic.
His advice was powerful in its simplicity.
Seinfeld told the new comic to get a big one-year wall calendar and hang it where he’d see it all the time. Next, get a big red marker. He explained to the aspiring comic that for each day he completed his daily writing task, he should cross off the day with a big red X. After only a few days, a powerful visual chain would develop.
“Your only job next is not to break the chain.”
For Seinfeld, being a great comic meant writing great jokes. And writing great jokes could only come with practice and consistency. That there’s no magic to this kind of excellence. Lofty goals are less helpful than consistent daily action.
The daily steps had to be simple but meaningful. Reading about comedy writing won’t get you closer to your goal. Only effective practice — writing actual jokes — makes a real difference.
A daily goal like this also had to be clear and achievable. Can you say, Yes, I did this today?
What consistent actions can get you closer to your goals?
Self-discipline beats all else
Let’s travel back to Roman Britain. You’re the Roman general Suetonius, and you’re charged with beating down an indigenous rebellion. The rebels have already decimated two towns, including what would eventually become the London we know today. Other generals have refused to fight, perhaps because they see how vastly outnumbered they’d be. Legend will say the barbarian rebels, led by the charismatic Queen Boudica, totaled 80,000 fighters to your 10,000. Have you any hope of success?
You just might. You have the discipline of the Roman military on your side.
The Roman military was (and is) renowned for its highly organized command and control structure and for its relentless and demanding training. Everything about the Roman military was designed to provide its units with the skills, experience, and discipline to win in any fight. It was a philosophy that would enable Rome to rule a great empire.
From the time soldiers first entered service, the training was relentless. They started with the basics: marching skills.
Recruits practiced formations and marching at a basic “military pace” of 20 Roman miles (18.4 of today’s miles) in five hours. They would progress to the more aggressive “full pace” of 24 Roman miles (22 of today’s miles) in five hours, fully loaded with 45 pounds of equipment.
The demanding physical conditioning also included gymnastics and swimming. Weapons training, meanwhile, included defensive fighting in formation, attack with distance weapons, and one-on-one sparring. Every day they drilled, obeying commands and practicing battle formations.
Every aspect of life in the Roman military followed this discipline; camps were constructed systematically, no matter how long (or short) the legion planned to stay. Everything was standardized and regimented, from setup to breakdown. Every element was deliberate and intentionally trained and practiced.
So when it came time to battle the native Britons, general Suetonius ordered his Roman soldiers to take up a strategic position that would leverage the battle discipline and fighting tactics they had practiced for so long. In what would come to be known as the Battle of Watling Street, the Romans decimated the vast tribe, reassuring the emperor back in Rome and cementing Roman rule in southern Britain.
In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, it was Roman discipline that made all the difference. They trained relentlessly each day, obeyed orders with speed and precision, and used their knowledge to engineer a confrontation where their tactics would dominate.
What battle will discipline prepare you to fight?
Building Your Own Self-Discipline
“People always said I had a natural swing. They thought I wasn’t a hard worker. But when I was young, I’d play and practice all day, then practice more at night by my car’s headlights. My hands bled. Nobody worked harder at golf.”
- Sam Snead, Winner of a 82 PGA Tournaments
In the 1980s, University of Chicago education professor Benjamin Bloom studied 120 top performers — the consummate elite across a variety of fields, from chess and medicine to sports and music. His findings refuted several popular notions: nobody is born a natural; genetics aren’t a predictor of success; and IQ doesn’t correlate with success, either. It was a stunning rebuke to commonly held ideas about excellence.
In fact, the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance — a 900-page compilation of studies like Bloom’s, first published in 2006 — determined that the sole factor responsible for whether one becomes an expert or not is the quantity and quality of their practice.
Expertise, it turns out, is a choice. It’s a choice to engage in intense, deliberate practice and exercise discipline about the quality and quantity of that practice. Mediocrity is a choice then, too. It’s a choice to not work intensely, to not practice deliberately and not exercise discipline.
Excellence is up to you.
Expert performance is “the end result of individuals' prolonged efforts to improve performance while negotiating motivational and external constraints,” according to the authors of a 1993 study entitled “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.”
An individual's ability to develop extreme proficiency came from their ability to be disciplined in pursuit of improvement. Just as important was their ability to persist in the face of low motivation, conflicting priorities, and pressures from the outside world.
Discipline isn’t the same as blind repetition — true discipline demands regular, deliberate practice, with the explicit goal of improving performance. Imagine if Suetonius’ soldiers had simply repeated the same combat moves over and over again. Instead, they held one-on-one challenges and strategy exercises.
Being deliberate means that you design specific tasks to overcome your weaknesses. You monitor your progress, looking for ways to improve. You provide yourself the physical and mental resources to do your best.
Being deliberate and disciplined takes time, energy, and sometimes money. Whether you’re learning, training, or practicing, there’s a cost — and rewards can feel few and far between. It’s during these times — when immediate rewards are scarce and the exertion of deliberate practice drains you — that it’s important to remember you’re taking steps to close the distance between you and your goal. Each step is critical, and each is a victory.
No matter how slow your progress may feel in the moment, it is progress. Embrace your deliberate practice and celebrate it as an essential part of ultimate victory.
No one likes to feel discomfort. It’s right there in the name! But discomfort is an unexpectedly critical ingredient in building discipline. If you want to thrive, you can’t push it away — you have to listen to it.
You have to learn from it. You have to embrace it.
Discomfort is a powerful indicator that something is wrong in your life. Just like physical pain tells you that your body is being damaged emotional and mental discomfort tell you that something is amiss. It’s a cry for attention, one that you have to heed.
We bump up against many sources — and many types — of discomfort in daily life. Too-tight clothes, an overdrawn bank account, gasps for breath as you climb a flight of stairs, jealousy of others’ success, stress over an upcoming project — discomfort is everywhere! The key is to sit with it and ask what the discomfort is telling you.
Are your eating habits destructive? Do you need to be making more money or managing your finances better? Are you out of shape? Out of touch with your professional goals? Unsure about next steps? When you find yourself uncomfortable, get curious and figure out what goals are calling out for your attention.
In his examination of willpower and leadership, Tom Karp discovered that discomfort and fear must be felt. “Trying to avoid such unwanted feelings may lead to self-destructive behavior — it is in many cases better to give oneself permission to feel it.” Discipline requires you learn to embrace your discomfort — you can’t fix a problem that you’re too afraid to acknowledge. Tell yourself that you’re done hiding and distracting yourself.
Discomfort can also be a positive signal that you’re fixing a problem. Doing things differently can mean creating friction, creating discomfort. Training yourself to cook for yourself can be challenging compared to stopping by the drive-through.
Working out while you watch tv can seem unpleasant compared to lounging on the sofa.
It can be frustrating to learn something new, to try and fail and repeat. And if you’re doing deliberate practice right, you’re not letting yourself get too comfortable. You’re challenging and pushing yourself. You will be uncomfortable.
Take heart! This kind of discomfort calls for celebration. Take it as acknowledgment of the work you’re doing and the discipline you’re exercising. It’s not the end of the world; it’s a signal that you’re taking the steps you need to be taking.
See this progress and realize that you can embrace and grow from your discomfort. You’ll be even more eager to enter the fray again the next day, and the next day, and the day after that. You’re doing something powerful that few others do. It’s only a matter of time until your discomfort transforms itself into delight at having reached your goal.
Develop a routine
Routines are the bedrock on which you build discipline. With routines, you pave the way for consistent, deliberate practice. All you have to do is get started.
Starting now, dedicate one hour per day to the highest-impact task on your list. Not sure what that might be? Listen to your discomfort. What’s making you the most uncomfortable in your life right now?
Now consider: what would it look like to spend one hour a day addressing that issue? How would you spend that time? Visualize it, and describe to yourself how it fits into your day. How will you know it’s time to start? Where will you be? What do you need in your environment?
Author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss understand that routines and systems support disciplined practice: “I value self-discipline, but creating systems that make it next to impossible to misbehave is more reliable than self-control.” What systems will support your unwavering focus and deliberate practice? In many cases, turning off your phone (or at least muting notifications) is step one.
It is up to you to make your routine a priority. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in my life, what’s in my inbox, or who’s calling me. Writing is a priority. So it gets done. Period. If I have an unmovable morning commitment, I do my writing later in the day. You must prioritize yourself — no one else will.
As you build your routine, consider how you’ll set the scene. For me, making an espresso is a simple, brainless ritual to start my writing routine and get in the proper mindset. You’re training yourself to do this specific task with bursts of intense focus, so help yourself put on that focus each day.
In the beginning it’s important to practice self-discipline, but don’t kill yourself. Remember, it’s not a sprint. Discipline is about deliberately and consistently working toward your goal. If anything, it’s an ultramarathon. Your ultimate success won’t be measured by — or even visible in — the short term.
With that in mind, start when you plan and stop when you’re done. When you’re in your practice, be fully present. Use a kitchen timer or digital assistant instead of a phone you’ll keep checking. And when your time is up, stop. Even if you feel like you can go on, let yourself be done. Acknowledge your success for the day and channel your eagerness towards picking up with the next day’s session.
Remember, when discomfort finds you — and it will — embrace it. Listen to it. Check in with yourself and your ultimate why. And acknowledge to yourself that, visible or not, progress is still progress. By the time you’re able to recognize it with your own eyes, you’ll have gone further than you expected.
- Bunting, Tony. “Battle of Watling Street.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 5 Sept. 2017, www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Watling-Street.
- Baumeister, Roy F, and John Tierney. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin Books, 2012.
- Baumeister, Roy F and Kathleen D Vohs. “Self‐Regulation, Ego Depletion, and Motivation,” Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 1(1):115-128, 2007.
- Ericsson, K Anders et al. “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” Psychological Review. 100(3): 363-406, 1993.
- Heatherton, Todd F and Dylan D Wagner. “Cognitive neuroscience of self-regulation failure.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 15 (3): 132-139, 2011.
- Hofmann, W, et al. “Yes, but Are They Happy? Effects of Trait Self-Control on Affective Well-Being and Life Satisfaction.” Journal of Personality., 82(4):265-77, 2014.
- Karp, Tom. “Is willpower important in acts of leadership?” Leadership. 11 (1): 20-35, 2015.
- Lieberman, Daniel E, et al. “The Evolution of Endurance Running and the Tyranny of Ethnography.” Journal of Human Evolution, vol. 53, no. 4, 2007.
- McGonigal, Kelly. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. New York: Avery, 2012.
© 2021 Brian J. Roberts