If you ever look at Jocko Willink and think, “Damn, I’ll never be as disciplined as him,” think again. Discipline and strengthening your resolve is a teachable skill. Here’s how you can cultivate discipline and execute your plan, day after day, and achieve results you would have never dreamed possible.
Why is Self-Discipline Important?
Let’s first go over why self-discipline and willpower are so important. Have you ever been tempted to do something for which you later felt guilty about? Of course you have. We all have. Moments like these are usually due to a lapse in judgment or lack of discipline.
Here’s the key: with strong self-discipline and willpower, you can do what you need to do in each moment, even if what you want to do differs. Self-discipline lets us grind it out with studying or work even when we don’t feel like it. We say no to distractions and temptations.
Self-discipline lets us say no to dessert. It lets us maintain a consistent exercise schedule and achieve our fitness goals. In short, it empowers us live our lives the way we ideally want to. This translates to stronger grades in school, more energy, improved moods, and looking and feeling better.
By being disciplined in various domains in your life, you’ll have increased freedom and reduced guilt to spend your leisure time in a more spontaneous and carefree way.
The Science of Self-Discipline
There are various theories on how discipline and willpower actually work. The Ego Depletion Model of Self-Control was most prominent, but in recent years, subsequent studies and meta-analyses have failed to provide supporting evidence. Debating the exact model and theory of self-discipline is not important. What does become important are two foundational principles.
First, understand that completely relying on self-discipline and willpower to behave in the way you want to behave is a futile effort. As humans, we aren’t as logical as we would like to believe. We are prone to emotional swings, and there are times when all of us may feel lazy or uninspired. Therefore, cultivating the proper systems that facilitate the outcomes you desire is paramount. The initial creation and implementation of the systems may take upfront discipline, but a properly executed system will reduce the need for additional willpower in the future. It doesn’t require discipline to schedule exercise in your day when you simply cycle to and from work. It doesn’t require discipline to eat healthy when you simply don’t keep junk food in the pantry. It doesn’t require discipline to avoid Facebook or Instagram if you keep your phone in another room while you study, or if you use tools like the Pomodoro Technique.
Second, understand this is a skill that you can cultivate. I certainly didn’t come out the womb with high degrees of self-discipline, and I doubt even Jocko Willink did. But over time, I practiced and honed my skills, such that I began to experience a positive feedback loop. I found that by exercising discipline, I was able to more readily achieve the results I desire, which inspired me to practice my discipline further, and so on.
Without self-discipline, you are letting your life be controlled by your emotions. And our emotions are terribly erratic, so it’s almost like letting your life be controlled by someone else entirely. There are two ways of approaching a task. You can say “I will wait until I feel like it, and then I will do it” or you can say “I will do it, and then I will begin to feel like it”. Which method do you think is more likely to actually get things done?
3 Steps to Cultivate Discipline
There are three simple steps to cultivate your self-discipline.
1 | Start Small
We each have lofty goals and aspirations. Maybe you want to be a neurosurgeon, or be a multimillionaire, or change the world with your new app idea. These are great, but these are not great starting points when cultivating discipline. Instead, start small.
For example, if your goal is to lose weight, do not start by saying you want to lose 1 pound of fat per week. Jumping in with ambitious goals is only setting yourself up for failure. Start smaller than that. First, eliminate sugary drinks and only drink water with meals. Once you have mastered that, eliminate the habit of eating dessert after dinner every night or substitute a serving of fruit instead. And so on and so forth.
By starting with smaller steps and celebrating smaller victories, you build momentum and confidence to continue moving forward.
2 | Practice Daily
Next, you must practice daily without excuse. If you followed step one, then you shouldn’t have any issue practicing your small tasks daily. In doing so, you are cultivating good habits. And we are, after all, creatures of habit.
The third year of medical school in the United States is considered one of the challenging years in your medical training. On certain surgical rotations, you go in before sunrise and get out after sunset. As a result, certain habits and priorities are harder to maintain. On days where I got out early, meaning before 8 PM, and had the luxury of asking myself whether or not I wanted to go to the gym, I forced myself to go. I figured a tired workout is better than no workout, and if I had the luxury of asking myself whether or not to go, that meant I already had my answer.
On many days I got out too late and there was no question that I could not go to the gym. Therefore it was paramount to capitalize on any opportunity, regardless of how tired I was, and go to the gym when possible. Lifting was a great form of stress relief, and it left me happier and healthier as a result.
3 | Ramp Up
After you have mastered the smaller tasks and built your confidence in your own self-discipline, it’s time to slowly ramp it up.
Going back to the weight loss example, let’s say you started walking daily for 20 minutes. Ramp it up to 30 minutes, then 40. At a certain point start jogging or cycling or doing HIIT. Keep challenging yourself incrementally. You don’t go from walking 20 minutes to running a marathon. But you can certainly get there in a stepwise manner.
Avoid These Mistakes
In your pursuit of cultivating self-discipline, be mindful of these common mistakes that can derail your progress.
1 | Don’t Make it Harder for Yourself
First, don’t make it more difficult than it already is. Understand how your environment shapes you. If you hang out with friends who rarely study and party frequently, guess what, you probably will find yourself partying more and studying less.
Pay attention to how even seemingly minor decisions can drastically shape your behavior. If you are in the habit of leaving your phone on your desk while you study, I guarantee you’ll pick it up mindlessly and check it more frequently than if you had kept it on the charger in another room. Even worse, don’t keep your phone by your bed while you wind down and get ready for sleep.
2 | Don’t Fall for “Do What You Love”
Skeptics undervalue the importance of discipline and say, “Do what you love. None of this should have to feel like work.” The truth is, no matter what you do, there will be things you enjoy and things you do not. You must accept the parts you do not enjoy as part of the experience. I do not like filing taxes or dealing with legal documents, but I still love creating and running my own businesses. As a student, I didn’t like studying certain subjects, but I enjoyed learning and working hard to become the best surgeon I could be.
The key is to grow to love the process. I love reconstructive plastic surgery. I love education and empowering students through these MedSchoolInsiders posts. I love healthcare innovation. I love sports cars and racing at the track. But each of these pursuits also has drawbacks — parts that I do not love. And that’s where discipline comes into play. With discipline, I was able to endure the challenging times as a premed in college, or in medical school, and even in surgical residency.
Being exhausted and memorizing biochemical pathways on a Friday night isn’t fun, but the sense of accomplishment, learning vast amounts of information, applying that knowledge, helping patients, and seeing myself improve was immensely rewarding. Medical education and training in the U.S. is far from perfect, but I still grew to love the process despite its shortcomings.
To love the process, you must appreciate the craftsmanship of your work. Focus on developing skills and mastery, and you will be rewarded. Autonomy, creativity, impact, and recognition add value to one’s pursuits — but you aren’t entitled to this, you have to earn it.
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Let us know in the comments below how you practice your self-discipline. If you don’t feel very self-disciplined now, identify one habit you will begin today and let us know in the comments!