Discipline: The Missing Link Between Mediocrity And Mastery
Discipline. Ouch. Few words elicit such mixed emotions.
While some of you are already getting mildly turned on by the proverbial whip I may be about to crack, others are desperately trying to remember the safe word.
For most of us, discipline represents an unfair battle. Pitted against our dutiful adult self is an often petulant inner child. The former is willing to hold its nose and drink the bitter medicine while the latter kicks and screams until getting its hands on a Capri Sun.
But although the inner child often has the tactical advantage, the adult self has the strategic edge. At least as long as the adult is willing to embrace the short-term effort, discomfort and sacrifice to achieve long-term gains.
Below, I’ll explain some terminology around discipline, self-control and willpower. I’ll discuss a few common myths and misunderstandings about self-mastery, along with seven clear steps for becoming more disciplined.
Discipline vs self-control
We all crave to be successful – whatever your definition of success looks like. We want to be recognised as wonderful humans to be around. We also wish to excel at what we do and contribute big time – whether in our relationships or at work.
However, to reach that level of excellence, we're often required to consistently do things that take us past the edge of our comfort. This ongoing discomfort can get tiring and downright paralysing, which is why we often get tempted to follow the path of least resistance. Instead of doing the right things, we procrastinate. We give into short-term gratification or postpone endlessly.
When that happens, we often experience a cognitive dissonance between wanting to be successful on the one hand and knowing we're not actually doing what we need to be doing to be successful on the other. That dissonance can trap people for years. Some never escape it and doom themselves to a life of joyless malcontentment.
The only way out of that trap is to exercise persistent self-discipline.
Internet entrepreneur and podcast host Tom Bilyeu defines discipline as "The unrelenting willingness to push through pain, boredom, distraction, fear and insecurity, as well as the willingness to be decisive in the face of massive uncertainty and inadequacy."
Discipline requires intentionally choosing to better yourself, despite the many distractions, bad odds, or discomfort.
But when resolving that cognitive dissonance, it's crucial to distinguish discipline from self-control. There's a subtle difference. Self-control is about saying no to temptation and unresourceful behaviours. Self-discipline is about saying yes to those actions that move you closer to your goal. Self-control delays gratification and stops you from giving in to temptation; discipline pushes you towards taking action, regardless of how you feel.
For example, discipline gets you out of the house at 6.30am for your morning run; self-control stopped you from binge-watching Netflix the night before.
Blowing hot and cold
Accepting that discipline is about doing the right things, and self-control is about avoiding the bad stuff. Where does willpower then come into play?
Willpower is like self-control on steroids. It's what we draw on when our self-control is no longer available in the quantities we need. Indeed, when our urge to procrastinate is just too overwhelming, or when the temptation to indulge in unhealthy behaviours is powerful, willpower is what will get us through that.
That sudden burst of focused energy allows you to ignore unwanted thoughts, feelings, or impulses. Indeed, willpower helps us override what is known in psychology as our 'hot' emotional system with our 'cool' cognitive system.
This hot system refers to the impulses and urges that get us to act on our desires. When the hot system takes control, we tend to give in to instant gratification, act rashly, and don't think about the potential long-term impacts of our choices.
On the other hand, the cool system is the rational and thoughtful part of our psyche. It helps us to consider the consequences of our actions, distracts us from our urges, and allows us to find more appropriate ways to deal with our desires.
While my own steaming hot system nearly drowned me in a YouTube spiral of Friends bloopers and a bag of Chilly Cheese Nachos during the writing of this section, it was my cold system that got me to wash off those Dorito fingers by reminding me I have a firm deadline.
This ability to self-regulate – to exercise control over our hot and cold system – is crucial for leading a productive, healthy life. After all, if we can't control our urges and impulses, we'll never be able to stick to our goals or make lasting changes in our lives.
So, in summary, self-discipline is about saying yes to what moves us closer to our goals, and self-control is about saying no to temptation. Willpower is the energy that helps us choose discipline and/or self-control in the moment by overriding our hot system with our cool system.
The myth of ego depletion?
A persistent factoid says our willpower gradually depletes as the day goes on.
This idea sees willpower as a limited resource that becomes unavailable to us once we exhaust it – something that's often referred to as ego depletion. According to this theory, it's easy enough to say no to a doughnut early in the morning, but you'll probably gobble down that Krispy goodness come 7 pm and your boss has given your hell all day.
Recent research suggests this idea is a little outdated. In fact, our willpower isn't as limited as we once thought. As per Nir Eyal's well-researched Harvard Business Review piece, ego depletion appears much less potent than previously thought. Some research concludes that it might not exist at all.
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck (better known for her research on fixed and growth mindsets) did a study that only observed signs of ego depletion in participants who believed their willpower was finite. Those other test subjects who did not see willpower as a limited resource showed zero signs of willpower depletion.
Believing that willpower is in short supply appears to have a nocebo effect when it comes to actual ego depletion. In other words, if you convince yourself that by 7 pm you have no willpower left, what's the point even in resisting them?
Michael Inzlicht, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, suggests that, rather than looking at willpower as fuel in a tank that runs out after particular usage, we simply look at it as an emotion – one we can manage and train like any other.
And just like you can never 'run out' of anger, fear or joy, the same applies to willpower. You can never really run out of it. We can generate willpower and discipline simply by altering our internal or external environment.
Here are a few excellent ways to do that.
Making discipline and self-control part of your identity
As I explained above, building discipline and self-control become a lot easier when you start viewing willpower as an emotion rather than a limited fuel.
Just like we can't get rid of emotions like anger or fear, we also can't get rid of temptation or urges. But what we can do is learn how to manage those so they have less power over us.
Here are some great practical tips for managing your internal and external world to a point where self-discipline and self-control become second nature.
I've borrowed a few bits from Tom Bilyeu, who I quoted earlier and offers some excellent advice on building discipline in his Impact Theory University.
1. Optimise your mind and body
As we saw earlier, unless you believe the opposite, the time of the day has little or no impact on your willpower levels. Tiredness, on the other hand, certainly does. To quote the legendary American Football coach Vince Lombardi: "Fatigue makes cowards of the soul".
If you want more discipline and self-control, you really need to look after your body and energy levels. Prioritise and optimise your sleep above everything else. Even one bad night's sleep can cause you to quit early or recede into the background. Just imagine the compound effect on your discipline due to feeling chronically tired.
A regular meditation and/or mindfulness practice will help you become more aware of your thoughts and actions, making it less likely that you'll act on impulse. Likewise, exercise and whole foods are also crucial for maintaining a healthy body and brain. Exercise releases endorphins that have mood-boosting and stress-reducing effects, while eating nutritious foods helps improve cognitive function and energy levels.
So, if you want to be more disciplined and in control, ensure you start taking care of your body more.
2. Build internal credibility
Suppose you want to resolve the cognitive dissonance between wanting to be successful on the one hand and being too lazy to do the things successful people do on the other. In that case, you need to start by building internal credibility and self-respect.
Unless you start to believe that you're the kind of person who does what they say they were going to do, you'll never feel like you can respect yourself.
Begin building that credibility by setting a small goal that matters to you. Something you're excited about. It could be spending fifteen minutes stretching right after your wake-up pee or spending five mins at the end of the work day to plan for the next day. Whatever goal you choose, make sure you believe you can actually stick to it.
The next step is achieving that goal and doing precisely what you agreed to. Simple.
Don't waiver; instead, repeat this step until it becomes a habit. Only once you feel it has become a frictionless and enjoyable part of your routine can you go to the next step, which is to expand that initial goal into something a little more challenging.
This process allows you to build congruence: your words start to match your actions. As you'll see in 6), without this congruence, you'll forever doubt yourself and procrastinate.
3. Make your environment more favourable
One of the best ways to regulate yourself is to set your environment up so that it helps you do more of the right things and less of the wrong things. You do that by removing any triggers or distractions that might make it difficult for you to follow through on your intentions.
Say you're trying to eat healthier. Making your environment more favourable means you'll want to avoid keeping junk food around the house. If you're going to develop that early morning stretching routine, put your mat out and decide which stretches you'll do the night before. Or, if you have trouble working with people around, find a quiet place to focus.
By eliminating obstacles and making it easier to stick to your goals, you're more likely to develop the discipline you need to succeed. Social scientist Jon Elster referred to these techniques as pre-commitment devices. We pre-commit ourselves to a particular course of action to ensure our future actions align with our current preferences.
4. Aim for things you care deeply about
To achieve any goal in life, you need some discipline, self-regulation and willpower. One common reason why many of us don't achieve as much is that many of our supposed goals were never truly ours.
It's incredibly easy to get caught up in someone else's dream and lose sight of our own. This often starts when we're young and haven't entirely developed a strong core sense of self. But even once youth is no longer an excuse, most of us still allow others to dictate our goals.
Get into the habit of checking in with yourself about why you agreed to certain things. Find out if those things align with your goals and values. Start building that strong core sense of self by defining who you are and the things that feel important to you.
The psychological energy boost and excitement you get from working towards something personally meaningful are often enough to get to persist once the going gets tough.
Also, working towards someone else's goal often becomes more manageable once you have a clear sense of self. After all, you'll be able to frame it in a way so that it serves your dreams too.
5. Build discipline into your self-identity
Ever since you became self-aware, you've been constructing your own identity. Identity formation is a never-ending process for which we rely heavily on feedback from ourselves and others.
The trouble is that we constantly feed ourselves with rather unhelpful messages. "I'm not a morning person". "I'm crap at being organised". "I'm the biggest chocoholic on this side of the equator". Whatever you allow yourself to repeat often enough is exactly what you will become. The unhelpful messages and negative beliefs you're feeding yourself become part of who you are.
So, develop different identity statements: "I am the kind of person who goes to the gym three times a week." Or: "I'm always willing to learn new things". Or: "I'm the kind of person who does what they say they're going to do". By combining this step with the evidence and credibility you've built through step 2, you're resolving that internal conflict and dissonance.
6. Trap yourself with congruence
To be truly successful, your thoughts, emotions, and actions all need to be in alignment. This psychological congruence will help you stay focused and motivated. Indeed, you believe in what you're doing and why you're doing it, and that belief gives you the strength to keep going towards that goal.
Unfortunately, when it comes to discipline, many of us operate on the principle of "do as I say, not as I do." We expect others to follow through on their commitments, but we don't always follow through on their own.
There's a simple way to hold yourself accountable: tell other people about your goals. When you do this, you create another pre-commitment device like in step 3. You're making it more difficult or painful for yourself to back out of your goal because you’re less likely to want to disappoint others than disappoint yourself.
Discipline – the Cinderella among life skills
Your ability and willingness to self-regulate are vital life skills. Indeed, the adult self’s ability to push past discomfort often distinguishes those who are successful in life from those who never quite live up to their potential.
Your willingness to build more discipline may tip the balance between success and failure, self-confidence and self-loathing. Greater discipline can propel you from a life of mediocrity towards one of self-mastery.
To achieve that state of mind, you need to resolve the dissonance between wanting to achieve the goal on the one hand and not wanting to do the things required to achieve that goal. This requires cultivating a mindset that accepts willpower never ‘runs out’ and an identity that thrives on congruency.