How to Learn Discipline

Discipline is a soft skill that enables you to do what has to be done when you don’t want to do it.

The prevailing wisdom is that some people are disciplined, and some people are not. The reality is that discipline is an aspect of your character than can be learned, not a genetic trait that can only be inherited.

There are two analogies are helpful when learning to be disciplined:

  • Discipline is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets.
  • Discipline is a limited resource: if you use it for other people, you will have none left for yourself.

The “muscle” of discipline is strengthened whenever you exert the effort to do something you don’t want to do. For example, the first day of trying to establish a new habit will be challenging, but after a few weeks, it will be much easier, and after several months it will seem effortless. Furthermore, as you learn the mental toughness needed to be disciplined in one aspect of your life, that toughness is transferable to other aspects of your life. Like training a muscle, when learning to be disciplined, start with something small that is easily achievable, and then gradually work your way up to greater feats of discipline. 

Discipline being a limited resource is caused by the mental strain needed to force yourself to do something. Our brain does not have an infinite capacity for stress, and once that capacity is reached, we will find it impossible to exert more discipline. The typical way this is manifested is using all of your discipline for your job, leaving no discipline left to take care of yourself. 

For example, if you hate your job, it will require immense amounts of discipline to make yourself wake up, get dressed, and commute to your job every day. Throughout the day, it will take even more discipline to simply do your job. At the end of the day, if you want to take care of yourself by starting to establish a gym routine, you will have no discipline left to expend and will end up skipping the gym. This phenomenon also predicts that if you go to the gym before work, you will not run the risk of your job using up all of your discipline by the end of the day, leaving nothing for the gym. 

While discipline is a limited resource, there are approaches you can use to limit the amount of discipline you need to expend:

  1. The easier something is to do, the less discipline you need to do it.
  2. The higher the temptation to do something you shouldn’t, the more discipline you will need to not do it.
  3. Less discipline is needed when adding a new task to an already established, disciplined routine.

With these approaches in mind, the problem of establishing a healthier lifestyle can be made to require less discipline as follows:

  • To make it easier to get to the gym, avoid having to drive by building a home gym.
  • To avoid eating unhealthy foods while at home, throw-out all of the foods in your house that are unhealthy.
  • If you are already in the habit of waking up and taking a shower in the morning, adding to the routine of waking up, going to your home gym, and then taking a shower gives your new routine an already-established structure.

When learning to be disciplined, the key will be making small incremental steps towards developing a disciplined habit. Do not make a grand resolution to take on something that requires a gargantuan amount of discipline to start. Instead, find a small area where you can apply more discipline and gradually build upon that. Progress will be slow, but over time many small applications of discipline will add up to you being a more disciplined person. 

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