Updated: Apr 27, 2022
Learn more about how to develop this skill and how to use it to achieve your goals.
Self-discipline keeps you from eating too many chips when you’re on a diet and it keeps you from buying things you don’t need. Self-discipline is broadly defined as conscious control that is oriented towards successful outcomes by overcoming obstacles or impediments (Zimmerman & Kitsantas, 2014). One of the scientists at the forefront of self-control research, Angela Duckworth, defines it as “the ability to suppress prepotent responses in the service of a higher goal… and such a choice is not automatic but rather requires conscious effort” (Duckworth & Seligman, 2006, p. 199).
There is a famous saying by Lao Tzu that says: “Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” This valuable insight taps into what self-discipline is about—it’s about getting control over your thoughts and behaviors and making them work for you, in professional and personal situations.
In studies, researchers have found that self-regulation (which is similar to self-discipline) predicts not only academic outcomes but also which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005). In addition, children who have the highest levels of self-discipline in preschool and primary school were more likely to have fewer health problems, less problematic substance use, and were better in terms of personal finances.
Examples of Self-Discipline
Self-discipline includes many processes, such as planning, self-monitoring, and sustained effort (de la Fuente et al., 2020). Here are some examples and their benefits:
Healthy habits. Having the self-discipline to get enough sleep, eat nutritious food, and avoid bad habits, such as smoking, has benefits for your mental and physical health.
Work. Self-discipline is important for work and career because it keeps you focused on reaching your goals, whether they are big or small.
Money management. Making wise financial decisions includes being self-disciplined with money.
Emotion regulation. When you learn self-discipline, you make an effort to express your emotions in healthy ways and learn how to cope with stressful situations or disappointments.
Time management. Learning how to manage your time wisely can have positive benefits for your personal and professional life.
How to Develop Self-Discipline
Self-discipline is a skill and anyone can improve it. But it will take practice and will require you to be patient and kind to yourself. Here are some ways you could start developing self-discipline:
Be aware. Every day you make decisions about how you live: what to eat, when to go to bed, or whether you should send that passive-aggressive text. We can avoid temptations or give in to them. For example, people often say that you should not go grocery shopping on an empty stomach. Why? Because you are more likely to buy less nutritious foods, snacks, or other high-calorie foods (Tal & Wansick, 2013). You could practice self-discipline by not buying junk food when you’re hungry, or you could practice it by not even going to the store when you’re hungry. The goal is to be aware of what works for you and implement those strategies regularly to create positive changes in your life.
Figure out your “Why.” Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, highlights that “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how.'" When you find your “why,” or the reason why you want to do something, you can remind yourself of these reasons when things get difficult. This helps us sustain self-discipline even under duress.
Develop a plan. If you don’t know where you’re going, it might be easier to get sidetracked. If this sounds like you, you can create an outline of clear action steps you plan to take on a daily or weekly basis until you reach your goal. Whether you want to increase good habits and reduce bad habits or learn a new skill, creating a clear plan will help you achieve success.
Start small. The famous quote says: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one single step.” Now that you have a plan, take a step. Start small. Don’t try to do everything in one week, as this can lead you to feel overwhelmed and might even cause you to abandon your plan.
Remove temptations. Removing temptations can significantly impact the likelihood that you’ll reach a successful outcome. In psychology, there is a theory called “ego depletion,” which highlights that willpower is a limited resource, and we only have a finite “reservoir” of mental resources to resist temptations. Every day, you use your willpower to resist temptations until the “reservoir” runs out (Baumeister et al., 1998). For example, if you’re resisting drinking three cups of coffee before lunch and then you stop yourself from getting mad at a coworker, and then you hold back from eating pre-dinner cookies, by the time the day is over, you might have fewer resources to resist other temptations. So, you might want to remove temptations around the house if you’d like to increase good habits and set yourself up for success.
Try time-blocking. The Pomodoro technique, very popular among busy students, says that you should break up your work time like this: work uninterrupted for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break—each of these is a Pomodoro. After four Pomodoros, you can take a longer break of 20 minutes. This technique works because the session is long enough to get some work done, but not too long that you feel overwhelmed.
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de la Fuente, J., Paoloni, P., Kauffman, D., Yilmaz Soylu, M., Sander, P., & Zapata, L. (2020). Big Five, Self-Regulation, and Coping Strategies as Predictors of Achievement Emotions in Undergraduate Students. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(10), 3602.
Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological science, 16(12), 939-944.
Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. (2006). Self-discipline gives girls the edge: gender in self-discipline, grades, and achievement test scores. Journal of educational psychology, 98(1), 198.
Tal, A., & Wansink, B. (2013). Fattening fasting: hungry grocery shoppers buy more calories, not more food. JAMA internal medicine, 173(12), 1146-1148.
Zimmerman, B. J., and Kitsantas, A. (2014). Comparing Students' Self-Discipline and Self-Regulation Measures and Their Prediction of Academic Achievement. Contemp. Educ. Psychol. 39 (2), 145–155.