Self-discipline is as old as mankind.
The Stoics were big on not getting carried away by thoughts and feelings, and often called it the “discipline of assent”. The Buddhist monks treated it as the holy grail. The Bible tells us that the whole fall of humanity is due to a failure of self-control: someone traded eternity in the Garden of Eden for an apple.
A disciplined mind leads to happiness, and an undisciplined mind leads to suffering.The Dalai Lama
Self-discipline is one of my favorite topics, and the subject for my second book (published May 2021). This virtue is one of the superpowers of meditation practice, and is also essential for the third pillar of meditation (Transformation).
In this article, we will focus on the definition of self-discipline—the true meaning and power of this virtue—so that you can appreciate why it matters so much.
One Word, Many Virtues
In a nutshell, here is how I define this essential skill:
The definition above may look simple, but it is dense. Let’s now unpack its many layers.
“Live in accordance” means your capacity to choose what is in your best interest. It is choosing yourself, and respecting that choice. It’s acting in harmony with your goals, not your moods; your decisions, not your emotions; your aspirations, not your desires. It is to have the courage to sacrifice a lower bliss for a higher bliss.
Goals and values are the things you want to achieve. Examples: living more healthily, writing a book, stopping alcohol intake, meditating every morning, becoming a great guitar player, being the best mom you can be, building wealth, improving your skills, etc. It is playing the long game, letting go of the illusion of quick gains and overnight success.
Internal obstacles are things like procrastination, losing motivation, limiting beliefs, self-doubt, laziness, bad habits, etc.
External obstacles are things like distractions, instant gratification, failures and challenges in your way.
“Let that guide” means that self-discipline brings clarity to your life. It functions as a compass for every decision—a compass with the north of your choice.
“Until fruition”, and not “for as long as you feel like it”. Self-discipline doesn’t ask how you are feeling today. It asks, “How will you live today?” and “What choice is true to your true self?”
There are many aspects to this skill. Each of these aspects is normally considered a separate virtue, but they are all connected. If we look at self-discipline from the lens of what it does for you, we can see that it allows you to:
- Focus on what is most meaningful, despite distractions and shiny objects. Spend your time/energy on what adds value to your life. (Focus)
- Do what you need to do, regardless of how you feel in the moment, or the obstacles on your way. (Willpower)
- Stop yourself from doing what you know is not good for you, and coach yourself to do what is good for you. (Self-control)
- Bypass excuses, procrastination, fears, and doubts. Stay on track with your goals, even when motivation is not there. (Determination)
- Keep your promises to yourself (resolutions) and to others (commitments). (Integrity)
- Live up to your own values, standards, and rules. Match your thoughts and actions to the person you aspire to be. (Authenticity)
- Show up as your best self in your life, relationships, and work. (Generosity)
- Do what you know you need to do to get the results you want in the different areas of life. Focus on what you can control. (Responsibility)
- Live more purposefully, and less impulsively, by considering the long-term consequences of each choice you make. (Vision)
- Get back up each time you fall, knowing that you are in it for the long-term and will eventually make it. (Perseverance, Resilience)
- Stick to your plan even when things are not working out, and finish what you start. (Grit)
- Organize your life, thoughts and actions in the pursuit of meaningful goals. That makes you unified and whole. (Integration)
- Truly learn. The word discipline and the word disciple have the same root. (Growth)
- Not be swayed by the emotions and impulses in the moment. (Centeredness)
- Take your skills and knowledge to the next level, and grow as a person. (Excellence)
- Make decisions that your future self will thank you for. (Self-love)
- Take actions according to the person you aspired to become (future), not the person you were conditioned to be (past). (Alignment)
As it may be clear by now, self-discipline has an external aspect, and an internal aspect.
The external aspect is your ability to build and keep good habits, drop bad habits, and act in accordance with your goals.
The internal aspect is that which makes the external aspect possible: self-mastery. It’s our ability to harmonize the different elements of our internal world—our thoughts, emotions, impulses and goals. It means that you have the power to choose which of the conflicting voices inside of you gets to run the show. Without this we have no control over ourselves or our lives.
Self-Discipline as Personal Power
David Eagleman, the author of Incognito – The Secret Lives of the Brain, argues that our behavior is simply the result of the many battles between short-term and long-term desires in our brain. If that is the case, then self-discipline is your ability to choose the part of you that should win the battles that matter.
Self-discipline is your core personal power. It’s the source of all other powers.
Every time you exercise this power, you strengthen it. And you have the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing your best. Do this day after day, expressing the best there is in you, and you live with the peace of mind of having no regrets—no “what ifs” or “should have beens” roaming around your brain.
On the other hand, every time you say no to your goals, you leak part of your power. This happens whenever you lose sight of what is important to you, and get carried away by the distractions and temptations of instant gratification.
It happens whenever you say, “I don’t feel like it” or “I’ll start next week” or “let me make an exception just this time” or “this doesn’t really count”.
You are fooling yourself.
And every time you do that, you’re giving away part of your soul, and feeling powerless. The day soon comes when you begin to feel that your decisions don’t matter anymore—since they are not respected even by you. This can easily lead to feelings of victimhood, depression, and regret.
Instead, honor your personal power. Cultivate it. Exercise it wisely.
Self-discipline is a form of self-regulation, self-control or self-mastery—it is the benevolent exercise of power within yourself. Like a good king/queen leading the country to a happier, desired future.
This exercise of personal power (self-discipline) is good for you. It leads to happiness, not repression.
Research shows that people with better self-control eat more healthily, exercise more, sleep better, drink less alcohol, smoke fewer cigarettes, achieve higher grades at university, have more peaceful relationships, are more financially secure, and enjoy stronger physical and mental health. They have higher self-esteem, better interpersonal skills, and more optimal emotional responses. (1, 2, 3, 4)
Honoring and cultivating your personal power also results in you being more satisfied with yourself, more confident in your capacity, and more influential in society. A person with strong self-discipline exudes a natural sense of authority, respect, and trust.
If we don’t have that then we cannot stand out; we must fit in. Or, in the words of the thinker who is known to deliver his philosophy with a hammer: “He who cannot command himself must obey.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
Consider the different aspects of your personality as citizens living inside your kingdom. Each with different desires, fears, and agendas. There are conflicting interests for sure. Then ask yourself: What does your kingdom look like? Are most citizens harmoniously working towards a mutual goal, or are they fighting themselves? Is there a wise and benevolent ruler sitting on the throne, or a clueless buffoon?
Self-Discipline as Personal Harmony
A gentler way to look at self-discipline is to see it as a way of harmonizing yourself and creating positive rhythm in your life. Rhythm is a form of discipline and order: it is things happening always the same way, orderly and reliable.
Rhythm is all around us.
Our body has its own rhythms, such as the circadian rhythm. We can think of it as the routine of the body, its natural self-discipline. When the body rhythms are respected and maintained, we experience physical health, vitality and well-being. Break them, and you start facing all sorts of problems.
Music is rhythm. Every note, every pause needs to be exactly in the correct place—not one second before, not one second later. Otherwise there is no harmony. It’s a very strict discipline; if you break it, there is chaos. It doesn’t sound good, and it won’t get any replays.
Beauty is also rhythm—a form of visual discipline that values harmony, symmetry and balanced movement. There is even discipline and form shaping the creative flow of ideas in a poem; without it, it’s expressiveness and power is diminished.
Discipline already exists in many things around us. In driving, it ensures safety. In medicine, it ensures health and saves lives. In programming, it ensures an app or website that works and doesn’t make you pull your hair out.
Consider for a moment that the different aspects of your personality—with its different desires, fears, and agendas—are instruments in an orchestra. Then ask yourself: What does your music sound like? Are all instruments harmoniously coordinated to create a masterpiece, or is your life out of tune?
Self-discipline is the maestro. Make sure she/he is the one running the show.
Self-Discipline in Your Brain
One useful model to understand how we operate in the world is the triune brain model, developed by the neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean. He proposes that there are three layers in our brain.
The oldest part of the brain is the Reptilian Brain, also known as the primal brain or lizard brain. It’s mostly concerned with threats and survival, and it responds to the environment based on fear and aggression. Most of the times when we respond impulsively in our modern life, and later regret the consequences, we are operating from this primitive brain.
When Sarah panics when she needs to speak in public, or when Mark gets irritated by a rude comment from his son and lashes out, it is the primal brain that is running the show. Unless you really need to tap into this brain for your physical survival, living from the reptilian consciousness usually leads to regret.
The second layer is the Limbic System, also known as “mammalian brain” or “emotional brain”. It is responsible for our emotions, coordination of movement, likes and dislikes, pleasure and pain. When we forget about our resolutions and instead go for the instant gratification of eating that cookie, this is the part of the brain that is speaking the loudest.
When Andrew finds hard to say no to drinking soda, or can’t stop aimlessly browsing the internet or social media, it is this layer of the brain that is running the show. The same is true for Sarah, who wants to start running outdoors three times a week but is held back by shame, since she worries that people will negatively judge her for being somewhat overweight.
The third layer, is the Neocortex, or rational brain. It is responsible for language, planning, self-regulation, awareness, rational thinking and decision-making, among other things. This is the most evolved and newest part of the brain—it’s often what we consider to be the noblest part of us.
Self-discipline, willpower and self-awareness are all functions of the rational brain, the prefrontal cortex (part of the Neocortex).
It is this part of your brain that can differentiate between conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, consider future consequences of current activities, work toward a chosen goal, and control your emotions and impulses. In our orchestra metaphor, the prefrontal cortex is the master conductor—the maestro.
The practice of self-discipline, therefore, is an exercise in human evolution. It is consciously developing our rational brain, so that it is no longer overpowered by the reptilian brain and the emotional brain. It is really about outgrowing our inner reptile, our animal nature, and functioning more as a fully mature human being. Or at least having the option to do so, for the things that truly matter for us.
All the practices of meditation help you strengthen your prefrontal cortex and keep it online more often. It’s not about killing the inner reptile or the mammal; they are valuable parts of ourselves. It’s only about making sure that they know their place, and are following the maestro.
Summary & Next Steps
Self-discipline contains, in itself, many virtues. Things like focus, willpower, determination, integrity, vision, resilience, alignment, optimism and excellence. I’ve summarized it thus:
Self-discipline is your ability to live in accordance with your higher goals and values moment after moment, overcoming internal and external obstacles. It is your power to commit to what is meaningful to you, and let that guide the way you think, the choices you make, and the actions you take—until you bring your goal to fruition.
It has an external aspect (habits and routine), and an internal aspect (self-mastery).
It can be seen as your core personal power (the king/queen), that needs to be cultivated and exercised. And it can also be seen as personal harmony (the maestro), the art of coordinating all the elements in your life to create a masterpiece.
Finally, we explored self-discipline as a function of the most evolved part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex. The practice of this skill, then, is an exercise in outgrowing the more impulsive parts of our nature so that we have real freedom and agency in our lives.
The rewards of this virtue are endless. And it’s something you can develop—you don’t need to be born with it. Once you do, it’s all about exercising it wisely.
Wisely because, just like any form of power, self-discipline is value-neutral. It can be used for “good” or for “bad”. Just like language can be used to express deep ideas, declare love, or start a war, self-discipline is simply the power to make things happen. Choosing the right goals to pursue is not in the domain of discipline but in that of wisdom (a topic for another essay).
To learn more about this topic, check out my new book, Mindful Self-Discipline.
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