How can I build discipline?
April 3, 2014 3:26 PM   Subscribe

Discipline seems to be a fundamental trait: if you have it, you can have the self-control (and delayed gratification) to improve your health, work, and other parts of your life that seem to rely on having discipline. So how does one go about developing and improving discipline?
posted by markbao to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 132 users marked this as a favorite
After 25 years of horrendous procrastination, I found that developing discipline is impossible. On the other hand, you can very much start a habit doing some thing X daily. And you can add another thing Y whenever you feel comfortable with X. And you keep forcing yourself to do very specific things consistently. And over time, you realize that these things you're avoiding really aren't that hard, and it's trivial to add other items to your routine.

That's really the secret, in my estimation. Make dedicated work a routine, not a character trait.
posted by bfranklin at 3:39 PM on April 3, 2014 [31 favorites]

Discipline is nebulous. Habit, as was mentioned above, is a little more concrete and easier to work with.

Start here and here.
posted by 517 at 3:44 PM on April 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Agree with bfranklin, and also tell yourself repeatedly what a good job you're doing when you do something "right." Make sure to reward yourself appropriately so that your mind thinks of your self-control as being one step toward a prize.
posted by janey47 at 3:45 PM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think I'm plagiarizing Aristotle here, but discipline is a descriptor, not a characteristic that someone just magically has. As bfranklin correctly said, if you get into the habit of "tricking" yourself into working consistently, you will appear from outside to be "disciplined."
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:54 PM on April 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

I am not disciplined at all, but I hide it very well. Something that really helps me a lot, although YMMV, is to put myself in a position where I'm following orders. For instance, when there's some task I really don't feel like doing, I use a pomodoro timer to force myself to work 25 minutes without distraction, then take 5-10 minutes to relax and goof off. (Ironically, people interpret my using such a timer as evidence of my being disciplined, when I feel the exact opposite...) When I'm running, I set my watch to beep at particular intervals and force myself to run until I hear that damn beep. Also, making a written/digital to-do list helps because I get some gratification from checking the boxes and seeing it shrink. Basically, I treat myself like a five-year-old.
posted by karbonokapi at 3:57 PM on April 3, 2014 [13 favorites]

I believed all of my life that I lacked discipline, and I beat myself up for it. Turns out I don't lack discipline, I have ADD. All of that is to say that it's not necessarily a "fundamental trait," and doggedly believing that it is can inhibit its development.

For me, exhibiting discipline means Getting Shit Done. To enable myself to Get Shit Done, I either a) put it on a list, or b) make it routine.
posted by mudpuppie at 4:06 PM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Discipline and self-control are related. There have been studies that show self-control is finite. It may vary by person, and it may not be something you can develop. But you can take advantage of certain aspects of self-control.

For example, better to schedule a task in the morning, when you have the most self-control, than after a full day, when you've had to deplete that supply.

If you have to do your task at the end of the day, be aware of other things you may be wasting your self-control on earlier in the day.
posted by Borborygmus at 4:12 PM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have done a ton of reading on discipline and related subjects over the past few years. The first commenter is wrong that it cannot be developed. I know. I've developed it. That's not to say that everyone can do it, of course, but it is possible.

For me, the key to discipline is intrinsic motivation. That is, pursuing activities that I'm naturally motivated to accomplish without any sort of outside pressure. "But wait!" you might be saying. "Then all I'd ever want to do is screw, play Flappy Bird, and eat ice cream." Well, those things are nice, but turns out they don't actually provide any sort of long-term fulfillment. Instead, pursuing intrinsic goals (that term again) that are challenging (but not too challenging) and meaningful make me (and other people) happier than hedonism.

If you find that you lack discipline, it may be because you're not being "true to yourself". That's a sucky phrase, I know, but I don't know how else to do it. If you're doing things because they're expected of you -- because you have to do them -- then you'll likely never be disciplined. There's no internal motivation to do these things. (You can, however, change your attitude, but that's a tangent.)

Like I say, I've been reading and thinking on these ideas for five years or more. There are three books I'd recommend if you're interested in reading more about these ideas: The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. The latter dives into Libertarian political ideas, but you can ignore those and still get a lot out of the book regarding personal independence. Peck's book is a classic; if its spiritual themes don't apply to you, you can still get tons from it about love, procrastination, and personal responsibility. And Flow? Well, that book is amazing. It's about "optimal experience", about choosing how to you respond to the world around you, including finding ways to be naturally disciplined.

Borborygmus has a good point: Time management and discipline and willpower are all closely intertwined. Learning how your particular mind works (and why) is a great first step toward becoming disciplined, productive, and happy.

Seriously: Check out those three books I suggested. They're excellent starting points. The Road Less Traveled might be the best choice for a beginner. Read it slowly. Take notes. Discuss it with friends and family. Hash it out in your mind. I'll bet you'll learn a lot from it...
posted by jdroth at 4:23 PM on April 3, 2014 [22 favorites]

Best answer: I have probably some form of ADD or ADHD or something that prohibits full functionality of this; however, I have learned to be disciplined. I disagree with the conventional wisdom here that discipline isn't a learnable behavior and that you can only learn habit. Discipline is a strategic life skill - meaning that it is more the ability to conceptually apply habit and rigor to accomplish goals and tasks that you do not have all the necessary skills to complete. In other words, discipline is the fine art of working outside your comfort zone and learning to succeed. Wanting to be able to do that is admirable. Then there is the formal definition of discipline

Discipline: the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.

That's the formal definition from Google - I'm a little less into the punishment end of things, but there is merit into holding yourself accountable. So 'punishment' and 'disobedience' are going to be loose concepts for our purposes. There's definitely some concurrence on the training aspect of things.

Fist step is to commit to making things manageable. That doesn't mean saying yes and trying to do everything, that means evaluating what you can do realistically and learning to say no.

#1. Slow down. Slow down your responses. Slow down your time lines. Slow down your commitments. Pair things back.
#2. Look at your personal strengths and weaknesses. See what you think you are good at as well as things that you know you aren't good at. Look at your tasks and identify which skills these tasks need. Figure out if your tasks are ones that you've actually got the skills for, or whether you are disadvantaged by your skill set. Now plan out what you can actually feasibly handle. Plan out timelines, commitments and your schedule schedule. Start broadly, and flesh in the details of assignments and projects as you have time to focus.

The next part is to really identify a set of skills - be they time management, or how fast you run, or self control - that you want to improve.
#3. Look at the skills that you don't have or the ones that you need to use every day. Try to evaluate whether it is better to double down on the skills you have, or whether or not you want to train up a skill that you don't have. So frequently businesses focus on things that they don't do well and race to mediocrity rather than continually building their strengths and hire to fill the void. What I'm saying is - figure out if you are better as a specialist disciplined in a few things, or if you are better as a generalist, bringing in some new skills.
#4. Figure out your carrot and your stick. Spending 30 minutes on the treadmill and rewarding yourself with a half gallon is antithetical to a goal of disciplined weight loss. When I coach my son's soccer team one of the tricks we would do for people was to ask them to do better than they did before (but also extend the time they had to complete the task). The goal is to train the desire for success and then focus on cutting back the time later.
#5. Leave enough time to write complete posts. I'm going to throw in the towel here. I've got enough discipline to get my kids into bed now and stop writing on metafilter. Unfortunately I don't have enough discipline to complete this post; however, there should be at least a few bits that you should be able to use to get yourself started.

The last part is really putting it to practice, then reevaluating and rewarding yourself.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:26 PM on April 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

I just did a little online course on discipline/procrastination. It was good and has already started helping me. Here's the cliff notes:

1. Finishing things is a skill, not a trait. Don't call yourself "naturally lazy" or whatever, you internalize all that talk and you can teach yourself to be disciplined.
2. Deliberate planning. Slow down, make plans, think strategically. Use 30 minutes now to save hours later. Have a to-do later list.
3. Habit formation. Don’t depend on willpower and “manning up”, build habits that stick. This is stuff as in Charles Duhigg's book that has been written up everywhere. Cue -> routine -> reward.
4. Deep focus. Train yourself to improve your focus and eliminate distraction. You can start by setting a timer to focus on something for as little as 2 minutes and build from there.
5. Plan for failure. You will have illnesses, delays, bad approaches, etc. Have a system of review where you sit down every week or month as appropriate and decide what isn't working and adjust from there, or just decide the task is wrong for you. It's not so much "failure" as "feedback".
posted by jamesonandwater at 5:53 PM on April 3, 2014 [10 favorites]

If your situation is related to motivation, you might want to check out the book Drive which I haven't read but have heard is good.
posted by Dansaman at 7:28 PM on April 3, 2014

Nanukthedog: discipline is the fine art of working outside your comfort zone and learning to succeed

For me I've found my lack of discipline/procrastination stems from avoiding tasks which intimidate me or I find unpleasant or I think I'm going to fail at. Discipline, for me, is about practicing doing these things anyway. A book that has helped me think about the roots of my procrastination and actively work to counteract counterproductive impulses is The Tools. I'm not much for woo-woo self-help books but I like the concept of simple, concrete tools to use in moments when I know I'm not doing my best. I find the The Reversal of Desire and Jeopardy chapters are the ones most useful for practicing discipline. Co-author Phil Stutz was on Marc Maron's WTF podcast and did a really thoughtful interview, if you want a sneak peek of the ideas behind the book.
posted by dahliachewswell at 8:18 PM on April 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

You have to put yourself in a position to succeed and you have to learn to figure out what's actually important to you.

For example, my top priorities right now are 1. Paying job 2. Finishing school 3. Gym and 4. Writing. People often ask how I have time to do ALL that. Well, the answer is, that's all I do. You will make time for things that are important to you. Those 4 are all I can cram in my schedule, so that's what I do every day even if it means I don't see the latest episode of Game of Thrones or go out during the week or whatever. I have a friend that complains she never has time for her art when she has a full-time job and no kids, no nearby family, and no obligations, but when I look on her Facebook, she's dicking around with games or she's out at a bar drinking or she's doing this or that. Which is all fine, but if it's important to you, you'll find a way to do it even if it means sacrificing more-immediately rewarding things.

As for putting yourself in a position to succeed, let me use the gym as an example. A lot of people go all WOOHA I AM JOINING THE GYM AND I AM GOING TO BE SWOLE FOREVER so they sign up to whatever gym they drive by and they go for like 3 hours a day for a week and they EXERCISE ALL THE THINGS then they get hurt or burn out or discover it's a pain in the ass to get to the gym they signed up for and a week later they're guiltily avoiding thinking about it but they pay for a full year because ONE DAY MAN ONE DAY. I mean that's pretty much your average gym's business model and those of us using it from March through December thank them for their contributions.

When I was starting out, my goal was simply to arrive at the gym. I picked one directly on my drive home. Like, there was a stoplight in front of it so I literally had no excuse not to make a right turn into the parking lot. I would bring my gym bag packed with my workout clothes because if I went home there was a very high chance I'd "just sit down for a minute" then three hours later "It'd be too late now, maybe tomorrow." Instead of having a super-regimented routine, I'd just let myself do whatever I felt like doing, but that got boring quickly so I started poking around and got a routine but I was already in the habit by that point so, well, time passes and now I go to a gym that's far away and kind of a pain in the ass to get to but has really nice facilities. And I can get over that hurdle now because AFTER WORK GO DIRECTLY TO GYM is in my programming, y'see.

Or to flip around the putting yourself in a position to succeed thing: People ask me how I lost as much weight as I have. Well, I don't keep crap food in the house. Like the only thing even remotely snacky I have is a box of Cheerios. I know so many people that complain they can't lose weight but have a pantry full of junk food and they get all toughlove/angsty about BUT I GOTTA HAVE DISCIPLINE. Well the truth is, I don't have that, so I just don't buy crap. Sometimes it's about picking your battles and saving your willpower for what's important.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:29 PM on April 3, 2014 [12 favorites]

Seconding jdroth's recommendation for what The Road Less Travelled has to say about discipline.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 10:58 PM on April 3, 2014

Work with your character. Look, it's all very well to be like, "I'm going to go for a jog/ wake up on time/ eat more vegetables IF IT KILLS ME" but that's not going to last for very long and you're putting yourself in a position where you're at odds with your lizard brain or your inner child, and sooner or later that inner child is going to have a tantrum and then you'll be back to where you started. And it's no way to live, to be constantly fighting with yourself.

I am an innately pleasure-seeking person. So, everytime I have successfully ingrained a new good habit in myself, it has been as a result of finding the pleasurable outcome (which is not necessarily always the key outcome) of that activity. So, I used to go to bed at 2-2.30am on weeknights because I'd be busy dicking around on the internet, but now I go to bed earlier because I love my bedtime routine of reading some chicklit in bed. I used to eat a lot of junk, but now I eat tons of vegetables because I've found ways of preparing them that are easy and delicious and more importantly, they make me feel great because I poop better (sorry for the TMI - thank god I don't know anyone here in person). However, this trick has its limitations: I still haven't mastered an exercise routine long-term, because I haven't found a corresponding pleasurable outcome - the endorphins don't do it for me. But at least now, I don't need to think about getting 8 hours of sleep a night, or getting in loads of fresh veggies - it has become a habit, which as previous posters have pointed out, is just discipline without the strict and pleasureless connotations of that word.

Some of us are not drill sergeants in how we relate to ourselves. Work with the kind of person you are and what your own personal drivers are. That will make it easier to instill new habits in yourself.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:41 AM on April 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think the trick with learning discipline and self-control is to practice, and the practice should be hard but not too hard. The same way you would with, say, running or lifting weights. Like, it's very common for someone to decide "I'm going to start running!" and then they go run as hard as they can for an hour and then they feel like shit and possibly injure themselves. The same thing happens when you say "I'm going to get my shit together!" and you spend a whole weekend dumping out boxes in the attic or whatever.

So start small. Get one thing done. Do five minutes of exercise. Make a phone call you've been putting off, or even just plan out a script for what you're going to say on that phone call you've been putting off.
posted by mskyle at 7:29 AM on April 4, 2014

You have to put yourself in a position to succeed and you have to learn to figure out what's actually important to you.

I think this is useful. I am very disciplined. I have similar mantras which are

- set yourself up to succeed
- figure out what is really motivating you (and what will motivate you)
- realize that your priorities are reflected in what you do, see if they're accurate
- try to be realistic about who you are
- be kind to yourself and spend zero time ruminating over your non-accomplishments
- realizing that making changes means changing your lifestyle, usually not just doing one things differently. Think about how to realistically approach that.

So for me this means establishing habits and sort of piling things up together. I like coffee in the morning, A LOT. So I made a deal with me that there's no coffee until I brush my teeth. I have no idea why I dislike brushing my teeth, it's stupid. But this works and it's a small thing. I like cough drops. I put one in my pocket and when I've done thing thing I need to do (bring the recycling out to the car) cough drop time! I am my own Shamu, in some ways.

I put all my awesome soap and shampoo at the gym and if I need a shower, I have to go there to use it all. I have only crappy soap/shampoo at home. A lot of it is being honest about your priorities with yourself and with other people. If I leave my stuff til the last minute and then tell my friends "Oh I'd love to hang out but you know, DEADLINES" that is basically me valuing my procrastination habit more than social interaction. And maybe that's accurate and maybe it's not, but it's a real thing that I can objectively assess. If I don't like that about myself, I should fix it. It may be helpful to have a friend give you some realistic assessments because sometimes other people can see things in you that you don't and could give you advice. You may not KNOW you're constantly complaining about not being able to do a certain thing (something that's doable: feed the birds, clean the catbox, return your library books, go to the dentist) but your friends may.
posted by jessamyn at 8:28 AM on April 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

posted by lalochezia at 9:11 AM on April 4, 2014

Self discipline is the only kind worth having, and there is nothing more to it than a collection of consciously acquired habits. In fact discipline is itself best acquired as a kind of overarching habit, because that way it becomes something you never have to force - you end up just kind of doing it. And the way to make that happen, as for any habit, is to pay some attention to it as you practise it. Knowing what to do is necessary, but not enough by itself - the doing is the thing.

I spent years looking for ways to acquire self-discipline as a thing-in-itself, so that it would be available to me as a tool I could use to make the process of doing useful things easier. Never happened, and I now believe that approach to be exactly backwards. Self-discipline is a trait that emerges over the course of acquiring other habits, as long as you keep half an eye on that goal while you're doing that. It's a kind of meta-habit.

I also find that habit formation is best done one habit at a time; that way they stick. Downside is that this process takes bloody months for each one, but that's still a better result than spending years failing to acquire six habits at once.

If you haven't played with conscious habit formation, start today with something relatively small and easy. Pick one specific thing you do that's been giving you the shits for years, and change just that one thing. Constantly losing your house keys? Fit a key hook by the front door, and acquire the habit of hanging them on that with the same hand that's just twisted them in the lock to let you in. Sick of a massive Jenga tower of dry dishes dominating the dish rack and staring reproachfully at you every time you walk through your kitchen? Acquire the habit of putting away two dry things for each wet thing you add to the rack. Anything along these lines is a good place to start.

At first it will feel weird and unnatural and you will rapidly encounter your inner four-year-old who will threaten to melt down if you make it Do That Stupid Thing Just One More time, and that is the time to remind yourself that although this particular habit isn't going to make much of a difference in your life in and of itself, what you're actually doing right here right now is mindfully practising a proven habit formation habit in order to learn how to do discipline, and that the only way this fiddly stupid time wasting action is going to become habitual and therefore automatic and ignorable and easy and actually slightly beneficial is if you do just push past your inner tantrum monster every! single! time! and just fucking do this thing. Again. And again. And again.

And then one day you'll find you actually have to fight with yourself a little to stop yourself doing it, at which point you now have a shiny new habit and can get on with acquiring the next one.

And after doing that for a few years and acquiring a couple of dozen useful habits, you will look back at the last few years and you will be amazed at how disciplined you look from there.
posted by flabdablet at 11:05 AM on April 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've also been trying to develop discipline in my life. The small gains I've made in this area are due to realizing, like mentioned somewhere above, that the motivation needs to come from inside. You need to figure out why the tasks are important to you, why they align with your personal core values. E.g. I like to learn so I that can have better conversations with others, therefore I am more eager to finish reading a certain book. Or, I want to enjoy the design process more so I'll do Photoshop tutorials because I'll become more fluid with the skills involved.

For me, once I key into my personal values and connect it to a task, an onerous task becomes neutral, if not downright enjoyable.

Also, related to all of this is just becoming more willing to get started by breaking things down into manageable chunks. E.g. I'll just work on this for 10 minutes. This + keying into core values=more disciplined productivity for me.

Good luck!
posted by oceanview at 3:26 PM on April 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think about the military, which is sort of notorious for discipline, and think about how they basically arrange life for the soldiers so they don't have to do anything *else* but what they're expected to. I think it's related to the idea that will power is finite, and if you have a zillion things to force yourself to do, it will be much harder than if someone else is taking care of housing, laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning, etc, and all you have to do is study really hard and earn good grades, or whatever.

So I think you have to arrange your life to make everything else as easy as possible, and then you will have the bandwidth for what you want to be 'disciplined' about. How possible that is depends on the resources you have access to. So what else is new... In a compromise situation (which they all are really) it might mean just letting some things go and accepting that focusing on what you're focusing might mean giving up on things that might otherwise be important to you.
posted by Salamandrous at 11:29 AM on April 7, 2014

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