Self-Discipline tips the balance in your favour

by Paul Goodchild on February 6, 2011

Bruce Lee Statue - master of self-discipline

Bruce Lee: A shining example of self-discipline if ever there was one [image credit]

Self-discipline – it will make or break you.

It’s what separates the wheat from the chaff.  It doesn’t matter the choices you make, as long as you stick to your guns and do whatever’s in your power to bring about your ultimate goals.

Without it, you stagnate.  You can have the grandest dreams in the world, or the simplest.  But if you don’t have the balls to marry to it and do what it takes to realise it, it’s never going to happen.

The alternative is a path of doubt and questioning, which can lead you to lose direction, motivation, confidence, self-esteem and focus in all areas of your life.  I’m aware of this right now as I’m coming out the other side of a 4~5 month slump.

Self-discipline keeps you moving towards your goals.  Its enemy is self-doubt.

Doubt and the Danger of Negatively Questioning Your Choices

A temporary lack of direction makes you question your choices with an implied negative response.  I.e. You wonder why you’ve done what you’ve done, implying all the while that you perhaps you shouldn’t have done it.

Not good.

Picture the scene.  It’s a beautiful evening and I’m on a first-date (okay okay. me? … on a date.  I know it’s a little far-fetched, but let your inner fairy magic you off to Never Never Land for a moment.  And don’t pretend you don’t have an inner fairy.  We’ve all got one, right?  Right?)

Her: “This is a lovely place.  Thank you for inviting me.  So eh, what do you do?”

Me: “I’m not working on anything right now.  Sometimes I write a blog, and in the past I travelled and volunteered, and worked in IT.”

“So… you’re not working at the moment?”

“That’s right… More wine?”

“Sure.  How’d you get here tonight?”

“I took the train in.”

“Don’t you have your own car?”

“Well, er, no, I don’t.  I’m on the insurance of my dad’s car though.”

“Your dad’s car?  Hah!  Next you’ll tell me you live with your parents or something!”  *giggle*

“Er… yea… I do.”

*giggling stops*

“Oh. What age are you again?

“I’m 31.”


“More wine?”

So right now, I’m 31, I live with my parents, I don’t have a job, and I don’t have my own car.

When I put it like this, comparing myself with the social norm of work-3-cars-marriage-house-babies, the brain chatter goes into melt-down mode…

I’m not married yet!  I don’t even have a girlfriend.  I need to find a girl.  Get married.  Then I wont be alone any more.  I gotta buy a house too.  Then we’ll have kids.  But I don’t want kids yet, I want to travel.  I gotta find a chick that wants to travel.  How do I do that?  I want to travel now.  Does my nose look big on a side profile?  While I’m here though, I’ll get a car so I can drive into town and meet people.  Meet women.  Girls want a man who has a car at least.  But I’m not planning to stick around anyway!  So what am I doing here now then?  Did I make a mistake quitting my job and leaving Japan?  But how will I earn money if I travel all the time?  What about my volunteer/NGO aspirations?  Have I sold myself out?  Did I mention I want to travel?  My nose does look big! Oooh, they’re looking for IT staff there.  Hmmm, a job.  Perhaps I should just settle down;  for a while.  I can move on any time.  I can quit the job any time I like.  Just one more job.  It’ll be my last, I promise!

And soon I’m starting to sound like a crack addict.

Striking the Balance between Evaluating and Questioning

I touched upon losing motivation a little while back.  I was torn between wanting to run/do/start my own business and travelling/volunteering.  But I couldn’t decide where to focus, so I did neither, and stagnated.


It’s no problem to review what you’ve done and pick out lessons you can learn.  Discovering how you might improve or what you can take out of the experiences is key to growth after all.

But doubting yourself and your decisions, regretting the actions you’ve taken based on the consequences and the circumstances you find yourself in, will hold you back from your goals.

This is true for the future also.  Doubting yourself before you even make decisions marries you to inaction.  This gradually erodes your self-confidence and ultimately your ability to assert your true self in your own life.

Better to practice making decisions and sucking up the consequences even if they turn out to be disastrous.  Making poorly judged decisions is better than making none at all.

Self-discipline will make or break you

And it turns out, I’m a bit shit at self-discipline.

I used to be better, but even when I look back with honest appraisal, I’ve always been terrible at it – unless I’ve been highly leveraged and motivation comes easily.

By not having the familiar structure of, say…

work 9~5, come home, greet my wife/girlfriend, play with kids, have an argument, brush my teeth, have make-up sex, sleep, get up at an ungodly hour of the morning to go to a job I can barely stand, tolerate the office politics, try to get ahead, come home, greet my wife…

… it forces upon you the responsibility getting things done.  Your routine is not determined by any external schedule.  It’s up to you.

It’s all you.

So how to keep to the script; to maintain some semblance of self-discipline?

How to improve your self-discipline

There is no over-night fix for this.

Whatever you read, whatever you believe, this isn’t going to go away on it’s own, or without sustained perseverance on your part.

Take what I write below and apply it relative to your situation.  Not everything will be appropriate, and not everything will be your style.

  • Sleep more.  Go to bed early and get up early.  I know I am far better off when I do this, but can I do it consistently?  Not a chance.  I like to sit up late doing bugger-all, but I want to get up early and get stuff done.  Don’t make the mistake of setting your alarm clock for 9am when you’re used to dragging yourself out of bed for midday.  It isn’t gonna happen.  Instead, adopt a gradual plan, say over 2 months, for change.  Instead, start off by setting your alarm for about 15minutes earlier than when you normally get up.  11:45am rather than midday.  Do that for a few days and drop down a bit further.  Give yourself 1~2 months to bring yourself to your target time.  This provides the energy and clarity.
  • Take a moment to paint the big picture for yourself.  If you don’t know where you’re going or what you want, you wont know what is important to get there.  This provides the motivation and awareness.
  • Before you sit down to work for the day, stop.  Take 5 minutes to make a quick note of what you want to get done.  It’s easy.  I notice every day I don’t do this, I spend the whole morning doing nothing of any import.  My focus during the day is terrible too – I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing and I’m distracted far too easily.  This provides the focus.

I’m sure there’s a lot more exercises you can do to gain focus and pump up your motivation.  Find what works for you.

In summary, the keys to self-discipline and getting the important things done is.

  • energy and clarity
  • motivation and awareness
  • focus

How you find a way to gain each of these is up to you.  Without them you’ll be trying to beat yourself into shape, but forever battling against an unseen force.

Better to be led by the carrot, not the stick.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

CP February 11, 2011 at 14:42

Self-discipline has always been an art that degrades over time, from the moment we start to crawl to when we somewhat ironically grow up. We identify our teachers from the nursery to the first time we sit state exams, constanly learning the rudimentary skills through disciplining practice. That same ideal continues up to a certain threshold point whereby we decide that enough is enough and we don’t want to achieve any more, we have noticed the pattern, the trend. We’re comfortable, we abbreviate cuz we shld.

It is interesting that you decided to close the piece with the carrot/stick adage when most Western societies operate in a social welfare system that shuns both characteristics. The demand for the in-favour Government to spank bottoms into industry has been reduced greatly over time, yet they continue to supply enough incentive for us Hoi Polloi to be listless and uninspiring, which really is a true mark of control. We are the masters of our own destinies, we march to the beat of our own drum. Sitting there and just accepting it is no longer a solution.

I really like the fact you selected such a flawed character as Bruce Lee to highlight self-discipline. Success and happiness generally comes at a cost whether in personal or profession circumstances, while having a high level in both could be regarded as ‘punching above your weight’. Where did Bruce go wrong? Did he?
Going for it full-on without taking your head out of the sand once in a while could bring about undesired goals and unfulfilled expectations. As a note to self, Do get yourself out of your comfort zone, know your exit strategy and be confident enough to realign your attitude when needs be.


Paul Goodchild February 14, 2011 at 11:55

Hey dude, thanks for the comment.

Taking the carrot/stick first, yea, perhaps it is shunned by Western societies with respect to governmental controls, but I believe it is a valid analogy for self motivation. Given that, as you say (and I agree), we are the masters of our own destinies, we must get leverage on ourselves sufficiently in order to not be listless. The (welfare) states offers a huge amount of incentive to be uninspired and unless we take control, we are doomed to mediocrity. The carrot is the leverage we get on ourselves… our motivation. Keeping the prize in mind, and keeping the discipline enough to get there is the key to attaining that which we seek/want.

Unfortunately self-discipline does degrade over time, but only because we allow it. It doesn’t have to.

Success and happiness – two very subjective terms in and of themselves. In fact, attaining a given level of success would imply a certain degree of happiness. Regardless of what I’ve achieved in terms of success, without happiness I haven’t been successful. And I don’t feel that the distinction between personal and professional needs to be quite as marked as its traditionally taken to be.

Word. 🙂


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