The arrival of a new year usually prompts people to make resolutions. While the new year can signify a new beginning, it will not fulfill your resolutions and change your habits unless you do.
And that’s where self-discipline comes in. The word tends to get a bad rap due to the connotations of discipline, which often makes us think of harsh rules and punishments. However, self-discipline is less about punishing yourself and more about putting in the work to achieve your goals and dreams. Self-discipline is what gets you through the day when motivation is nowhere to be found and actually keeps you happy in the process.
In this article, I’ll take a look at the benefits of self-discipline, as well as some tips that will help you put in the work even when it feels like the last thing you want to do right now.
What is self-discipline?
Self-discipline – sometimes also known as self-control or conscientiousness – is the ability to resist temptation and regulate your behavior. It has less to do with punishing yourself for real or perceived failures and more with making sure you stay on track to meet your goals.
Self-discipline is also a great substitute for motivation. While it’s great to be motivated, motivation is also fleeting and prone to change. You may usually enjoy working out, but there will be low-motivation days when you’d much rather stay on the couch. On those days, it’s self-discipline that will get you off the couch and into the gym, not motivation.
It’s self-discipline that allows us to trudge through the less pleasant parts of something that will benefit us in the future. Self-control is what helps us study for an exam when there’s Netflix to watch and focus on work when there are coworkers to gossip with.
This sentiment is reflected in one of my favorite quotes of all time, from novelist Peter S. Beagle:
There’s a phrase, sitzfleisch, which means just plain sitting on your ass and getting it done. Just showing up for work. My uncle Raphael was a painter, and he used to say, “If the muse is late for work, start without her”.Peter S. Beagle
3 benefits of self-discipline
Not only is self-discipline a good substitute for motivation, it also boasts many other benefits, including (but certainly not limited to):
1. It promotes (academic) success
Whether you’re in high school or doing your Ph.D., self-discipline is often an important predictor of success in academic settings.
For example, a 2005 study found that self-discipline had a stronger effect on academic performance than IQ. As the authors put it:
…a major reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential: their failure to exercise self-discipline.
Self-discipline is especially important when it comes to online learning, as anyone with a half-finished Coursera course or Skillshare masterclass can attest. I have no shame in admitting that the only online courses I have ever finished have been for work, meaning that I had some external motivation to keep me going. While I may approach an online data science course with great enthusiasm, the interest usually wanes somewhere around the second homework assignment.
Science says so, too: a 2005 article reports that self-discipline and motivation are the only predictors of success in an online psychology course, and a 2016 study found that self-discipline is a key indicator in successfully meeting learning outcomes and preventing drop-out in e-learning.
A 2020 article also provides evidence that self-discipline helped students adapt more quickly to an online learning environment during the pandemic.
Academic success can lead to success later on, too, and self-discipline definitely plays a role. Along with grit – the ability to stay focused on one goal and work towards it through thick and thin – self-control helps us resist temptations and stay focused on the road to success, as reported in a 2016 article.
2. It makes you healthier
A 2009 study reports that people who are more conscientious also make healthier choices: it was found that self-discipline is associated with lower consumption of high-fat snacks and more fruit.
Furthermore, more conscientious people exercised more on days when they experienced stressors, using exercise as a stress relief. In the interest of balance, it should also be noted that people with higher self-discipline also had a higher caffeine intake, and conscientious smokers tended to smoke more on stressful days.
According to a 2011 study, lower self-control is related to unhealthy coping mechanisms, which in turn causes worse health outcomes.
When people try to cope with health problems and daily stressors by avoiding them, the problems tend to only worsen over time. People with higher self-discipline usually deal with problems as they arise, which promotes better health outcomes.
3. It makes you happier
Reading the previous points may make it seem like self-discipline makes you a stickler to the rules. You’re healthy and high achieving, but does self-discipline make you happy?
Yes it does! A 2013 study found that self‐control positively contributes to happiness through avoiding and dealing with motivational conflict.
This means that when faced with a decision between momentary satisfaction and greater delayed gratification, people with higher self-discipline choose the latter and are happier for it. They stay focused on their values and avoid chasing every momentary high that they encounter.
This implies that self-discipline helps you find the balance between short-term and long-term happiness. While focusing on long-term happiness may be hard and draining sometimes, it’s a vital part of sustainable happiness.
5 ways to be more self-disciplined
With such benefits to reap, everyone would like a little more self-discipline. Paradoxically, developing self-discipline also takes some self-discipline. Think of this as an investment: you put in money to make money, only if investing is largely a guessing game, developing self-discipline doesn’t have to be.
1. Take care of your needs
It’s often hardest to be self-disciplined when our basic needs are unfulfilled, and that’s completely understandable. When you’re hungry and tired, your priorities are getting food and rest, not self-actualization and fulfillment.
Taking care of your basic needs can sometimes require some self-discipline, for example, going to bed at a reasonable time when there are still episodes of your favorite show to watch. But generally, being well-rested, fed and taking a physical movement break every now and then should help you be more self-disciplined.
2. Set clear and actionable goals
It’s easier to be disciplined if you know what you’re doing it for. Whether it’s a long-term goal of finishing your studies or a short-term goal of cleaning out your closet, define your goal clearly and make sure it’s measurable – how do you know that you have reached your goal?
The SMART rule of setting goals can help you here. Make sure that your goals are:
- Time bound
This rule tends to work better for long-term goals, but you can try it out on short-term goals as well.
3. Develop healthy habits
One of the simplest ways to develop self-discipline is to develop healthy habits. While it’s hard at first, eventually, the force of habit will do the work for you and you don’t need that much conscious self-discipline. For example, if you’re used to brushing your teeth every morning and night, you don’t have to force yourself to do it – you just do it.
A good way to start with a new habit is to tie it to an existing one. For example, if you want to take up journaling and you’re used to eating breakfast every morning, start writing during breakfast. Or, if you want to improve your flexibility and are used to watching the news every night, stretch while watching.
Other helpful tools are different habit trackers. There are numerous apps dedicated to this specifically, or you can go for the tried and true method of drawing crosses on your calendar for every day you successfully engaged in your new habit.
If you’re looking for new habits, here is an article about the best habits for your mental health.
4. Timing is everything
Make yourself a timetable and try to stick to it. Plan your day – including breaks and rest periods – and follow your plan.
Start by setting yourself a time for going to bed and getting up and go from there. Plan your lunch break and when you’re going to move your body – remember, fulfilling your basic needs is important.
Sticking to your timetable is also a kind of habit – once you have a working plan, you’ll get used to it and before you know it, your habits will be doing the work for you.
5. Be kind to yourself
This may sound counterintuitive, but as we have established, self-discipline is not about punishing yourself.
Even the most self-disciplined people have lapses and days when they don’t achieve quite as much. Self-discipline doesn’t mean that you never fail, it means that you get up after you do.
Beating yourself up over mistakes and failures doesn’t make you disciplined, it just makes you mean towards yourself. Helpful self-discipline can only arise from a place of kindness, forgiveness and openness: accept that you made a mistake, learn your lessons and move on. Allow yourself to be a human and mess up sometimes.
💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I’ve condensed the information of 100’s of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇
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It’s easy to make resolutions and promises, but following and achieving them is often a different story. That’s where self-discipline comes in: it’s the thing that will get you through the tough times when motivation is nowhere to be found – and it makes you happier and more successful, too! Like all good things, developing self-discipline can be hard at first, but don’t let it deter you – it only gets easier with time. So why not make a habit out of self-discipline?
What do you think? Are you ready to become happier and more productive by training your self-discipline? Want to share a story on how your self-discipline has led to something positive? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments below!