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15. Self Discipline

When we have done what we need to on the inside, the outworking will come about automatically.
Goethe (18/19c German writer and statesman)

Self-discipline or self-regulation refers to our ability to control and direct our own faculties (if these terms do not sit well with you, think of ‘will power’ instead; there is some evidence that this can make a difference[i]). Self-discipline has many benefits but is not very popular nowadays – mostly because it is misunderstood. So, let’s start with why self-discipline is important and what it is, and then we will turn to how to develop it.

Why self-discipline matters

Many cringe when self-discipline is mentioned because they imagine something rigid that restricts their freedom. Yet, as the famous philosopher Aristotle, among others, realised a long time ago, a lack of self-discipline and self-control does not increase freedom or make you more spontaneous. Quite the opposite, it makes you vulnerable to being enslaved by your urges, affects, instant desires, habits, addictions or obsessions. This creates insecurity and anxiety because you feel that you are not in charge of your life and it can be self-destructive.

On the other hand, self- regulation enables you to act upon long-term goals and values (instead of being compelled to follow your urges) and in this way, in fact, increases your freedom, choice and control. Consider this for a moment: are you really free if you are controlled by your immediate impulses? ‘Ok’, you may say, ‘but self-discipline is boring!’ It may feel so at the beginning, but in the long run self- discipline is more fun than self-indulgence. Football players have far more fun than couch potatoes who watch football on the TV. And to play football well, you need self-discipline. Of course, this does not apply only to football. It may be easier to stick a ready- made dish in a microwave oven, but cooking a nice meal (which requires some self-discipline) is more fun and ultimately more satisfying. If still not convinced, this is perhaps because you have in mind the wrong type of discipline.

Two types of self-discipline

Top-down self-discipline is mainly concerned with outcomes. It operates through ordering and imposing, using imperatives such as ‘must (not)’ or ‘should (not)’. This type of self-regulation can bring rapid results, but it prevents integration. In effect, you split yourself into the one who orders and the other that obeys, which creates inner conflict. This is why such control needs constant monitoring, akin to having a policeman in your head, and may have adverse effects (e.g. rebelling against your own orders). It also requires a lot of effort and suppresses spontaneity. The most common method that this sort of discipline uses is reinforcement (punishment and reward). Moderate negative reinforcement can indeed achieve some results in preventing, but not in stimulating (e.g. forcing yourself to do something by a threat of punishment will probably make you like it even less). Rewards also have limited value. Research shows that it is much better to develop intrinsic motivation (that derives from enjoying an activity, feeling good, or believing that the activity is worthwhile). So, it is better to use top-down self-discipline sparingly, only when necessary.

Collaborative self-regulation is not just about immediate outcomes but personal development. Essentially, the aim is to get yourself to a point when you say to yourself ‘I (don’t) want’ or ‘I (don’t) need’ rather than ‘I should (not)’ or ‘I must (not)’. Instead of using orders and prohibitions, this is achieved by explaining to yourself why something is important and considering long-term consequences and goals. You recognise and acknowledge various aspects of yourself that are pulling you in different directions and create a dialogue and cooperation between them. In other words, you try to create harmony and minimise an internal conflict. As your actions are voluntary rather than forced, such a collaborative self-regulation doesn’t limit your freedom. This does not mean allowing irresponsibility, but building confidence and trust in yourself – being your own friend rather than policeman. Developing this sort of discipline may need time and attention, but it requires less effort and is more flexible and enjoyable.

Developing self-discipline

The following can help us develop self-discipline:

  • Rules: making a decision to follow some rules can be useful because they simplify your choices. For example, if you make a rule to brush your teeth first thing in the morning, when you wake up you don’t need to think about what to do first – you already know. However, if too rigid, self-rules can be limiting and boring, can hamper spontaneity, as well as decrease enthusiasm and motivation. So, a few rules for simple common-sense activities may be good, but they need to be combined with other ways of developing self-regulation.
  • Self-belief: thinking about yourself as ‘weak-willed’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is much better to imagine having strong will and the advantages that it would bring.
  • Practice: nobody is born with self-discipline – it is built, so claiming ‘I am weak-willed’ is only an excuse. Self-discipline is like a muscle – the more you exercise, the stronger it gets. As with other exercises, this requires some effort, but it will enable you to take charge of your life. While the challenges for physical exercise are physical (e.g. gravitation in case of lifting, or the air and ground resistance in case of running), the challenge for self-regulation is inertia, following immediate impulses. Thus, whenever you resist inertia you exercise self- regulation. We all already do this on a daily basis (e.g. you don’t relieve yourself as soon as you feel an urge to do so, but you go to the toilet), and we can all do more in this respect.
  • Inspiration: research shows that will-power can be contagious. So, being in the company of somebody with good self-control, as well as reading or watching something inspiring, can help.
  • Pairing likes and wants: link what you like and what you are good at, with what you want. For example, if you want to learn something, link curiosity (rather than boredom) to studying and you will not only enjoy studying more but also be better at it.
  • Self-checks: if you are about to (not) do something that you may regret later, ask yourself: ‘is (not) doing this worth breaking my promise to myself and sacrificing my future?’

Consistency and tricks of the mind

One of the worst things that parents can do to their children is to be inconsistent (‘no sweets… ok, have one.’). One of the worst things we can do to ourselves is to be inconsistent. Consistency simply means not contradicting yourself, which greatly supports self-discipline. You may deliberate and negotiate beforehand, but once a decision about what you want or don’t want to do is made, just remember and stick to it in tempting situations. Avoid an urge to argue with yourself when in the thick of the moment! Your emotions and desires have a bag of tricks that is hard to beat.

Outsmarting yourself

Our immediate drives use various ways to try to take over and trick us into doing what we don’t want. These are some examples:

  • ‘What the hell!’ (Good, if you wish to be a loser.)
  • ‘I will have just one…’ (Can you really stop after ‘just one’?)
  • ‘I will do it / stop doing it tomorrow.’ (Why would tomorrow be better/easier than today?)
  • ‘What’s the point?’ (To feel in charge, if nothing else.)
  • ‘I am just going to… first.’ (Why? Is that what is really most important, right now?)
  • ‘I can’t help it!’ (Of course you can, nobody or nothing stops you, but a part of yourself – what the rest of you wants?)
  • ‘I need it!’ (Is this true? Are you sure nothing else can help?)

 If these thoughts come to your mind in tempting situations recognise what they are, just tricks, and follow your decision (if necessary, you can reconsider it later). This is easier if you formulate your decision and its reasons clearly and simply, without ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ (‘I don’t want to drink tonight because I want to be in good form tomorrow, full stop.’) This is not to say that you always have to be inflexible. Occasionally, there might be good reasons to change your mind, but before doing so at least stop for a moment and ask yourself: ‘is there anything that I haven’t thought of already that justifies going against my own decision?’ Then, you will be free to do what you really want.


[i] McGonigal, K. (2011) ‘The Magic Word that Helps Kids In School’ Psychology Today (online) www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-willpower/201112/the-magic-word-helps-kids-in-school



PWBC (Personal Well Being Centre)
United Kingdom


PWBC (Personal Well Being Centre)
United Kingdom