The Misconception Of Self Discipline

It’s one of the most prevalent myths of our culture: self-discipline.” (Leo Babauta)

“A person making a checklist in a notebook” by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

There is this pervasive idea that the successful person is the “disciplined person” who leads a “disciplined life.”

It’s a lie.

The truth is we don’t need any more discipline than we already have. We just need to direct and manage it a little better.

Contrary to what most people believe, success is not a marathon of disciplined action. Achievement doesn’t require you to be a full-time disciplined person where your every action is trained and where control is the solution to every situation. Success is actually a short race — a sprint fueled by discipline just long enough for habit to kick in and take over.

When we know something that needs to be done but isn’t currently getting done, we often say, “I just need more discipline.” Actually, we need the habit of doing it. And we need just enough discipline to build the habit.

In any discussion about success, the words “discipline” and “habit” ultimately intersect. Though separate in meaning, they powerfully connect to form the foundation for achievement — regularly working at something until it regularly works for you. When you discipline yourself, you’re essentially training yourself to act in a specific way. Stay with this long enough and it becomes routine — in other words, a habit. So when you see people who look like “disciplined” people, what you’re really seeing is people who’ve trained a handful of habits into their lives. This makes them seem “disciplined” when actually they’re not. No one is.

And who would want to be, anyway? The very thought of having your every behavior molded and maintained by training seems frighteningly impossible on one hand and utterly boring on the other. Most people ultimately reach this conclusion but, seeing no alternative, redouble their efforts at the impossible or quietly quit. Frustration shows up and resignation eventually sets in.

You don’t need to be a disciplined person to be successful. In fact, you can become successful with less discipline than you think, for one simple reason: success is about doing the right thing, not about doing everything right.

The trick to success is to choose the right habit and bring just enough discipline to establish it. That’s it. That’s all the discipline you need. As this habit becomes part of your life, you’ll start looking like a disciplined person, but you won’t be one. What you will be is someone who has something regularly working for you because you regularly worked on it. You’ll be a person who used selected discipline to build a powerful habit.

66 Days To The Sweet Spot

Discipline and habit. Honestly, most people never really want to talk about these. And who can blame them? I don’t either. The images these words conjure in our heads are of something hard and unpleasant. Just reading the words is exhausting.

But there’s good news. The right discipline goes a long way, and habits are hard only in the beginning. Over time, the habit you’re after becomes easier and easier to sustain. It’s true. Habits require much less energy and effort to maintain than to begin. Put up with the discipline long enough to turn it into a habit, and the journey feels different. Lock in one habit so it becomes part of your life, and you can effectively ride the routine with less wear and tear on yourself. The hard stuff becomes habit, and habit makes the hard stuff easy.

So, how long do you have to maintain discipline? Researchers at the University College of London have the answer. In 2009, they asked the question: How long does it take to establish a new habit? They were looking for the moment when a new behavior becomes automatic or ingrained. The point of “automaticity” came when participants were 95% through the power curve and the effort needed to sustain it was about as low as it would get. They asked students to take on exercise and diet goals for a period of time and monitor their progress. The results suggest that it takes an average of 66 days to acquire a new habit.

The full range was 18 to 254 days, but the 66 days represented a sweet spot — with easier behaviors taking fewer days on average and tough ones taking longer. Self-help circles tend to preach that it takes 21 days to make a change, but modem science doesn’t back that up. It takes time to develop the right habit, so don’t give up too soon. Decide what the right one is, then give yourself all the time you need and apply all the discipline you can summon to develop it.

Australian researchers Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng have even found some evidence of a halo effect around habit creation. In their studies, students who successfully acquired one positive habit reported less stress; less impulsive spending; better dietary habits; decreased alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine consumption; fewer hours watching TV; and even fewer dirty dishes. Sustain the discipline long enough on one habit, and not only does it become easier, but so do other things as well. It’s why those with the right habits seem to do better than others. They’re doing the most important thing regularly and, as a result, everything else is easier.

Big Ideas

  1. Don’t be a disciplined person. Be a person of powerful habits and use selected discipline to develop them.
  2. Build one habit at a time. Success is sequential, not simultaneous. No one actually has the discipline to acquire more than one powerful new habit at a time. Super-successful people aren’t superhuman at all; they’ve just used selected discipline to develop a few significant habits. One at a time. Over time.
  3. Give each habit enough time. Stick with the discipline long enough for it to become routine. Habits, on average, take 66 days to form. Once a habit is solidly established, you can either build on that habit or, if appropriate, build another one.

If you are what you repeatedly do, then achievement isn’t an action you take but a habit you forge into your life. You don’t have to seek out success. Harness the power of selected discipline to build the right habit, and extraordinary results will find you.

Writer. Autodidact. Competitive Soccer Player.

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