Mastering the Art of Self Discipline

Discipline is freedom. 

Now you may not agree with that statement, and you wouldn’t be alone. For many of us discipline has become a “dirty” word associated with the absence of freedom.

Yet the exact opposite is true.

As Stephen Covey writes, “the undisciplined are slaves to moods, appetites and passions”, and in the longer term, the undisciplined lack the freedom that comes with having particular skills and abilities developed through self-control.

Now, self-discipline is the ability to get yourself to take action regardless of your emotional state. In other words, it involves acting according to what you think instead of how you feel in the moment. It is self-discipline that drives you to:

  • Go to the gym when all you want to do is lie on the couch and watch TV
  • Wake up early to pray or to go for a run
  • Say “no” when tempted to break your diet
  • Only check your email a few of times a day

It involves sacrificing the pleasure and thrill of the “now” for the benefit or pleasure of the “later”.

Short-term pain for long-term gain.

Self-discipline is critical for leadership, for lifestyle, for health – for everything. And in my mind, in a day and age where we are constantly bombarded with distractions like social media, and where the pace of life is ever-increasing, I think self-discipline is becoming one of the most important distinguishing characteristics between those who stand out as leaders, and those who are simply swept away by the flow of the ordinary.

The good news though, for those of us who struggle with self-discipline, is that it can be developed. Here are three thoughts that can help.

1) Self-discipline is a Muscle – You’ve Got to Work It!

Just as everyone has different muscular strength, we all possess different levels of self-discipline. Everyone has some – if you can hold your breath a few seconds, you have some self-discipline. But not everyone has developed their discipline to the same degree.

Just as it takes muscle to build muscle, it takes self-discipline to build self-discipline. You see, when you weight train, you lift weights that are just within your ability to lift. You push your muscles until they fail, and then you rest. This is called “progressive training”, and it’s the same when developing your self-discipline.

You have to start with weights/challenges that are within your current ability to lift but which are near your limit. And once you succeed, you increase the challenge. If you keep working out with the same weights, you won’t get any stronger. Similarly, if you fail to challenge yourself in life, you won’t gain any more self-discipline.

I think many people make the mistake of trying to push themselves too hard too fast when trying to build self-discipline. If you try to transform your entire life overnight by setting dozens of new goals for yourself and the expect yourself to follow through consistently starting the very next day, you’re almost certain to fail. This is like a person going to the gym for the first time ever and packing 120kgs on the bench-press. You will only look and feel stupid.

Know your limits, start small, and build your self-discipline muscles progressively.

2) Self-discipline Takes Courage

Did you notice the sweat dripping from the man in the picture at the start of this blog? Make no mistake, self-discipline is often extremely difficult. Moods, appetites and passions can be powerful forces to go up against. Therefore self-discipline is highly dependent on courage. Don’t pretend something is easy for you to do when it is in fact very difficult and/ or painful. Instead, find the courage to face this pain and difficulty. As you begin to accumulate small private victories, your self-confidence will grow and the courage that underpins self-discipline will come more naturally.

3) Self-discipline Moves from External to Internal.

To develop self-discipline, we need input from others, especially at the start…

For over 20 years I trained as a gymnast and through all those years I had only 3 coaches. These coaches pushed me beyond myself and beyond what I thought was in me. Even though there were times when I hated them and wanted to just give up, I am so grateful for their amazing persistence and determination that helped me to achieve what I achieved.

Through blood-sweat-and-tears, and spending 30+ hours a week together in the gym, an incredible, almost father-son bond was formed with my coaches, and I always felt like I had someone in my corner who wanted me to succeed just as much as I did.

The truth is self-discipline doesn’t come naturally to any of us. We have to learn it, and most times we need people who can hold us accountable and help us along the way.

That’s why I’m a huge fan of getting a personal trainer, or joining some sort of class with an instructor. If you are a runner, then join a club like Regents. To have others around you spurring you on can make all the difference, and it becomes a platform to develop the habits of self-discipline.

So remember, discipline is freedom. As Nido Qubein said, “The price of discipline is always less than the pain of regret”. 

 Start mastering the art of self-discipline today and I guarantee it will change your life.

Inspiration for this blog came from a variety of sources, but credit must be given to Steve Pavlina and his insightful blog.

61 Replies to “Mastering the Art of Self Discipline”

  1. dunno… I am confused with this discipline. in some aspects I am an example of discipline (and example to other people and sort of role model) but in some other things, that people don’t know about, I am really bad and I have bad conscious… and I cannot discipline myself. and I am really frustrated. I am muslim and I also believe in God and I am afraid of His punishment and feel as a hypocrite … dunno … easier said than done


  2. Hey Tom! Reading you has been very revealing… I haven´t managed to discipline myself on getting up early and going to bed early… some other things have been left out too… But I´m taking all of your advice on discipline as well as the 16 steps to live an easier life. Thanks!


  3. Wow I´ve been batling with myself trying to accomplish so many goals at the same time this is such a great post especially the part about working on it, because it doesn´t just happen overnight which is the problem with the fast paceed life we are in now… It´s always about instant results the easiest and quickest way. Starting my “training” today. 😀


  4. oh man this is definitely a HUGE weakness for me. Though I’ve been good with not going on facebook and not posting on twitter/ tumblr/ livejournal until I finish a project, I still find myself spending a lot of time wasted on the internet and favoriting & bookmarking things for when I let myself go on again. *sigh* I should probably cut off all access though since I haven’t made much progress… damn you for puncturing my denial! haha

    but seriously, this was an awesome article. I really want to reblog this but I don’t see such a button on here but maybe there is a way and I can’t figure it out cuz I’m a noob, but that wouldn’t add much to your traffic if I just reblogged the whole thing so I’ll just do an excerpt hehe.

    Definitely a needed wake-up call for me. I never thought of self-discipline as a sort of freedom but it really is. You can do so much more with your life versus giving into every whim of your mind and body. And oh, this is such a nitpick, but there’s a typo under the third fact: To develop self-disciple. It should be discipline. Nothing major really, just thought someone of your caliber would want to alter it correctly. 🙂

    Thank you for posting! I really enjoy reading your blog! I’m so glad you got freshly pressed 😀


  5. Thanks for writing this post, Tom. Self discipline is my single biggest challenge and weakness, and I agree with you that it is a skill that can be practiced. I also think that a personal trainer can be a good advice.

    Lately I’ve started to think about passion a little bit differently, though. Now I try not to think of it as something negative, like in your quote: “the undisciplined are slaves to moods, appetites and passions”. Rather, I try to think of ways to “re-align” my moods and passions with what I need to do. For example, if I need to study a boring subject, I’ve concluded that I need to look for points of view that make the topic interesting, rather than to pull myself through the pages through sheer will. That way, I hope, passion can become something positive rather than a negative force that has to be subdued through will and discipline. My line of thinking is like this: “The most successful people — are they successful because they are extraordinarly self-disciplined and skilled at suppressing their passions, or because their discipline and passions align and pull in the same direction?”

    I *think* the answer is the latter, but the trick is to do such a realignment well. Do you have any ideas?


    1. Wow! What a great comment and insightful thoughts. I think I would have to agree. Passion and discipline go hand in hand and give us the motivation and drive to do the things we don’t always want to do. In order to get where we’re going. Thanks for reading.


  6. Gosh, a fellow Christian! I found this on the wordpress home and I’m surprised the reponses are positive [I think]… I suppose it’s not illegal to put Christian stuff on the internet(yet). 😉 It’s encouraging to see another person in pursuit of wisdom. God bless!


  7. Great post Tom! At first I was bummed when I read that “self-discipline is freedom”. But after reading your post, I changed my view on self-discipline. I honestly have not been self-disciplined and that’s partly due to excuses I make, and also partly due to complications in life that hit me so hard that I forget about self-discipline…

    Now that I have a better idea of what self-discipline can do, I’m going to be more courageous and stop lazying around. =) Thanks for the inspiration, Tom!! And God Bless! =)


  8. Hey Tom, I am from India and I have been trying to self-discipline myself several times, but often failed. Now after reading your above article, I have regained inspiration and motivation to work on maintaining self-discipline.

    Keep posting ‘motivating’ articles…

    all the best!!!


  9. Posted this article on Facebook. Especially like this:” I think self-discipline is becoming one of the most important distinguishing characteristics between those who stand out as leaders, and those who are simply swept away by the flow of the ordinary” I’ve started/stopped many worthwhile pursuits. Thanks for the inspiration to stick with it, and avoid “the pain of regret”. =]


  10. Thanks for this, I’m working on exactly the same thing now. Over the last 2 years I’ve learnt to plan fairly well, but there are still a few days in a month when I just cannot keep up with the tempo I’ve given myself. I guess my self-discipline exercise will involve scheduling time for a complete rest. I love taking a walk in the park, at any weather. Nothing refreshes you better than a simple walk, with purpose no other but refocusing your mind and inner energies.

    My main blog is


  11. Awesome article Tom, you have a wonderful way of getting a message across that inspires action by giving sound advice that is simple to understand. Radical. ;o)


  12. Great insightful article. I am constantly battling with my self discipline. I think that for many people it is a struggle, and while it is important to strive for better self discipline, it is also important not to hold onto the guilt we sometimes attach to our failings… I think this guilt is often what prevents us from trying again. For me perseverance and patience are key to achieving self discipline.


  13. Discipline is freedom. It’s funny how the smallest things make things make sense. I mean, as a college student who’s only moderately successful and sort of frustrated at a lack of real progress, this clicked. (As did the bit about having someone to push you. I wish I did! It’s not about dodging self-motivation so much as it is having someone outside the effort to navigate you through when it’s rough.)

    So–thank you.

    (Eep. Only to remember this!)


  14. This most certainly was an excellent read. One of my goals this year in 2012 was to become more disciplined. It is correct we as people do many things based on mood. We can justify anything. I can easily justify going to McDonald’s on the run, instead of preparing good healthy food ahead of time. It is a constant battle, but I am working on become better at discipline.


  15. I cant thank you enough for putting up such an awesome post. I am probably going to write up a shorter version of this blog in my bedroom and read & follow it for as long as it takes to make it my habit. Will cross borders to treat you the day i accomplish this habit 🙂 Thanks a lot again Tom!


    1. Very inspiring is something I’m trying to work on discipline for discipline and at first I didn’t agree with the quote but then I did. I see what is trying to prove that by discipline you really find freedom. Hopefully I will become a master at this.


  16. Reblogged this on The Waddling Penguin =) and commented:
    Great thoughts! =) This article came at the perfect timing! I was feeling quite overwhelmed learning a lot of things (am a generalist at heart), especially lack of self-discipline and am equally bad at prioritising! Thanks for the insightful article Tom! =) BTW great layout, has been a regular reader since a couple of years back, strayed away 2-3 years back! A lot have changed! Layout has made it easier for people like me (with short attention span) to follow through the article! =) Congrats on being freshly pressed and thanks again for sharing!


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