Self-Discipline – Why It’s Important & How to Master Self-Control

Self-discipline and willpower are two of the greatest secrets in unlocking your full potential. In this day an age, it is becoming more and more difficult to maintain self-discipline. I’ll show you the importance of self-discipline and how to cultivate it.  

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 feel guilty about? Moments like these are usually due to a lapse in judgement and/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 without temptation or laziness getting in the way. Self-discipline lets us grind it out with studying or work even when we don’t feel like it. It lets us say no to extra 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.  

The Science of Discipline

There are a few theories on how discipline and willpower actually work. The most prominent is the Ego Depletion Model of Self-Control. This states that the brain is like a muscle, with a limited supply of strength that can be depleted. No one is disciplined 100% of the time – we all have lapses. These lapses occur when our discipline muscle is fatigued. Various studies have demonstrated that certain types of mental exertion can compromise subsequent acts of discipline. The studies generally go like this: There are two groups of subjects. One group does an activity or exercise that requires high self-control. The other group does an activity requiring very little discipline. Both groups are then subjected to a separate self-control challenge. The group that performed the demanding challenge first later performs poorly. Conversely, the group that did not exhaust their willpower reserves demonstrate better self-discipline. What does this all exactly mean? For us mere mortals, it says that we do not have infinite reserves of self-discipline and will-power. So while it is important to cultivate and develop your self-discipline, understand that there is also a proper way to harness it. More on that shortly. Now without discipline, you are letting your life be controlled by your emotions. Which is essentially like letting your life be controlled by someone else. 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?  

How to Cultivate Discipline

There are three simple steps to cultivate and develop your self-discipline.  

1. Start Small

There are many grand ideas and lofty goals that we each have. The key to working towards them is to start small. For example, if your goal is lose weight, do not start by saying you want to lose 1 pound of fat per week. Jumping in with ambitious and lofty 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 out with smaller steps and celebrating these small victories, you build momentum and confidence to continue moving forward.

2. Practice Daily

By starting small, you should have no problem practicing your discipline daily. In doing so, you are building good habits. And we are, after all, creatures of habit. No excuses. Make it happen. The third year of medical school in the United States is considered the most demanding year. On many 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 and had the luxury of asking myself whether or not I wanted to go to the gym, I forced myself to go. I decided that 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 no 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. Let’s go 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 intervals. Keep challenging yourself incrementally. You don’t go from walking 20 minutes to running a marathon. But you can certainly get there in a step wise manner. Quick disclaimer: this is just an example – obviously figure out what works best for you and speak to a professional before doing starting any rigorous physical activity.  

Other Tips & Common Misconceptions

1. Make it Easier for Your Future Self

As I said earlier, your willpower reserves are limited, so make it easier on your future self by planning ahead and putting yourself in situations that make it easier to achieve your goals or stick to your habits. It’s easy to avoid junk food and drink only water when you’re  not starving or dehydrated. The times you are most likely to fail are when you do not have healthy alternatives and you are left with the choice of either eating junk food. Similarly, if you do not buy ice cream or candy and keep it in the house, it will be much easier for you to refrain from eating sweets when you get the late night munchies.

2. Build the Appropriate Systems

At the end of the day, we are human and our emotions and impulses hold great weight in our behaviors. Therefore, incentivize yourself with Rewards and discourage undesirable behavior with Consequences. I personally love dark chocolate and I would reward myself for going to the gym by having a bit of dark chocolate post workout. I know others who use apps or services that charge them money if they miss a workout or fail to wake up by a certain time. These systems will vary by person, so figure out what works best for you.

3. The Misconception of Doing What You Love

One of the most misunderstood concepts I hear over and over again is to do what you love. We have all heard the quote by Marc Anthony “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”. There is great merit in this quote, but no matter what you do – there will be things you enjoy and things you do not. People often get turned off by the parts they don’t enjoy and give up on the whole idea. They key is to grow to love the process. I love reconstructive plastic surgery. I love education and empowering students through these YouTube videos. 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 have been able to stick with the premed years in college, 4 years of medical school, and now residency. I have endured the tough times, the less fun times, and that has allowed me to grow to love the process the further I move along. 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 is immensely rewarding. Sure there are things I would change about medical education in the U.S. (and healthcare as a whole), but I have grown to love the process. So how can you grow to love YOUR process? This deserves a video on its own, but in short, 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.

Final Thoughts

One of my friends is currently in her intern year, which is the first year of residency after you graduate medical school. She has set a goal to always take the stairs over the elevator. On some days she has climbed more than 100 flights of stairs! That isn’t only great for cultivating self-discipline, but it’s great exercise that helps maintain and improve her physical fitness as well as improve her mood and energy levels.   Let us know in the comments below how you practice discipline daily. If you don’t feel very self-disciplined now, identify one habit you will begin today and let us know in the comments.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Nice article!

  2. Great,
    No pain no gain, when I wrote my paper in Psychology of the brain, I wrote about expanding. This is what you call, Ramp It Up. -great video!

  3. Addendum,
    No pain no gain
    Does not work in the long run…

  4. Wow, really good article! Thank you!

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