two magnolia blossoms open in soft sunlight

How to Build Self-Discipline: Why Awareness and Intrinsic Motivation Are Key

Can you do what needs to be done? Here are strategies to try.

It's almost 9pm on Halloween. The college campus is overrun with costume parties, and I have a standing invite to join friends to watch some Halloween-themed movie as well. But I'm not going to join them. Instead, I'm headed to bed.

Not only is it Halloween, but it's also the night before The Big One, the kickoff event for our 2008-2009 fencing season. Smith is hosting. That means a 4am wakeup and a long bus ride to Northampton. Even though the fall invitational isn't an event that counts toward our NCAA stats, I'm not going to discount it—any tournament ought to be taken seriously. Fencing well means sleep, not parties.

teenage jacqueline standing on a fencing strip, mask off, waiting for a bout
Teenage me before a bout at a fencing competition.

Unfortunately, I didn't fence as well that day as I would have liked. At least I knew it wasn't because of a lack of sleep! As my first fencing coach used to explain, there's two parts to success. There's effort—all the practice you do, all your preparation, what you eat, everything you personally have control over. Then there's luck. That's everything else. Do what you can and don't worry about luck.

I put in the effort. I didn't get the results I wanted. Disappointing, sure, but I'd done what I could.

Putting in the effort toward a goal—whether you're trying to win a sports competition, write a book, or keep your New Year's resolutions—comes down to discipline. Self-discipline is the key to effort.

What is self-discipline?

Self-discipline is the ability to do what needs to be done. The ability to control your feelings and actions, overcome weaknesses, pursue what's right, work hard regardless of the situation, develop good habits, and finish what you start. Self-discipline is about acting without needing someone or something external to motivate you to act. It's about focus, perseverance, practice, endurance, restraint, and grit.

I hear people complain about not having the discipline to get up early, quit the bad habit, or start the personal project. Self-discipline is some magical quality that people have, or have not, and if you're one of the estimated 74% of American adults who make New Year's resolutions every year, then you better be one of the people who has it. Because keeping those resolutions is about the effort you put in. Because sure, some people set their goals too high and others set goals they have no intention of keeping, but yours are achievable, if only you were motivated enough, if only you had the discipline…

Why don't we talk about how to develop self-discipline?

It's not magical. Like all virtues, like most character traits, self-discipline can be developed, practiced and improved.

I've been thinking about this topic lately—it's part of what prompted me to read The Self-Driven Child and Drive. I want my children to develop self-discipline. I'd rather them be intrinsically motivated. How can I help them along?

Self-discipline is not the same as achieving goals

If you search for articles about developing self-discipline, you're likely to find listicles with 10 Powerful Overly General and Unhelpful Ways To Be Self-Disciplined that tell you to look in the mirror and repeat your goals to yourself every morning, and that explain why you need to know your weaknesses, why you ought to try to being diligent this time around, and of course, forgive yourself if you're not as disciplined as you want to be.

None of that is helpful. None of that is about developing self-discipline—instead, it's about self-worth and confidence, and how to accomplish long-term goals. They're not identical. You don't develop self-discipline by having greater self-worth or by achieving your goals.

You develop self-discipline by developing greater self-awareness and improving or shifting your motivation. Let's dive into each in turn.

Awareness as a component of self-discipline

I stood behind the waist-high curtained barrier under bright conference-room lights, holding my breath as I watched Doris Willette—who later went on to join the US Olympic Women's Fencing Team—advance on her opponent and lunge. Her blade flicked out. There was a metallic clash. Then a loud "beeeep!" as a touch was made. Both lights were on: red meant Doris had hit; green meant her opponent had, too. The referee called the right-of-way and awarded the point to Doris's opponent.

This was one of the top 4 bouts. If Doris won, she'd advance to the gold medal bout. I was already out; I'd lost my last direct elimination bout and now I was on the sidelines, learning what I could from observing the more advanced competitors. I watched Doris lose another touch.

Then I heard her coach shout from the side of the strip: "Doris, you're reacting." She nodded. I could see her consciously refocus, go back on guard, ready to fight for the next touch. Ready to act, not react. Because that's what her coach had meant: she wasn't in control. She wasn't leading the action.

I don't remember whether she won the bout or not. I do remember her coach's advice.

Self-discipline is about control. Self-discipline is about leading the action, not merely reacting.

Control—acting—requires awareness. Awareness of yourself, your emotions, your goals, your situation, your environment. The other fencer. The ways you habitually react: parrying when you should retreat, retreating when you should counterattack, attacking when you should pause. Awareness gives you the space to choose the more skillful action.

If you're ever encountered mindfulness meditation, you may be familiar with the concept. Mindfulness practices help you practice awareness and attention (here's an example of research on the topic). One aim is to help you find the space between thoughts, so you have the space to reject your reflex reaction and choose a more skillful action—thus giving you more emotional control and behavioral control.

One way to develop self-discipline is to work on your awareness, whether through mindfulness practices or some alternative. With my children, since they're young, one thing we do is work on regulating our emotions: recognizing them, talking about them, modeling and practicing skillful ways to manage them (some good tips here).

Practicing discomfort to build discipline

A related exercise for developing self-discipline is to practice self-denial or discomfort training, both of which are about building virtue through practice. Both involve noticing that you want something to be different about your situation—you want more of a dessert, you want to scratch an itch, you want to be warmer or colder—and then deliberately not acting to change your situation. Instead, you persist through the discomfort, building discipline as a side effect.

This can be a useful practice because it gives you simple, concrete steps: notice a desire and don't act on it—do the opposite. (Remember, simple does not necessarily mean easy!)

This practice is also a lot like classic mindfulness. You notice your desires; there's space; you reject your first impulse to act on them; you let them go. The ability to persist through discomfort or deny yourself something is about being aware of your desire to act and stepping back enough to see other options, like not acting.

Shifting your motivation

What about more complex situations? Self-discipline is not only about persisting through discomfort. Mindfulness and awareness can create space for action, but they may not necessarily lead to skillful action.

This is where motivation comes in. My use of the word motivation is based more in psychological literature than in colloquial use: motivation is what drives you to act. There are different motivations, some external (I want to get paid, I want good grades), some internal (it gives me joy, it builds up a relationship, it contributes to something I value). You don't act without motivation; you don't act skillfully without "right" motivation—motivation to reject impulses, to work hard, to have control, and so on.

How do you develop "right" motivation?

Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have studied motivation for a long time. In one of their early studies, they found that people who were intrinsically motivated to solve puzzles—i.e., people who worked hard at solving puzzles because they wanted to work hard at solving puzzles—persisted longer at solving puzzles than people who were given external rewards (e.g., cash) for solving puzzles. To an outside observer, the intrinsically motivated people probably looked like they had more discipline. Did they?

Does it matter?

Doing things we're intrinsically motivated to do—especially if they're things other people have difficulty with, such as getting up early or exercising regularly—can make it look like we have a lot of self-discipline.

This is a clue. If you can build up your intrinsic motivation to do the things that will help you accomplish your goals, then you won't need as much discipline to accomplish your goals—because you'll already be motivated to do the things you need to do to accomplish them!

How do we build up intrinsic motivation? There are two steps.

Building intrinsic motivation

First, as William Stixrud and Ned Johnson argued in The Self-Driven Child, you must practice having intrinsic motivation: do things that you're intrinsically motivated to do, be in flow, have the reward be that sense of deep engagement, hard work, and challenge. This builds up your intrinsic motivation to do more things as a result.

Second, learn to manipulate your motivation. Part of this is about awareness. As Qiaochu Yuan tweeted recently, to generate motivation, you need to be aware of where you are and where you want to be. Awareness of that gap can produce both motivation and action: you want to close the gap. You act to close the gap.

Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan developed Self-determination theory, which argues that people are intrinsically motivated to pursue three psychological needs: competence (excellence, mastery), autonomy (doing things by one's own choice), and relatedness (social connection with others).

If you can connect your goals and daily activities—the things you think you need self-discipline to accomplish—with those three needs or with other long-term goals you have, you'll be well on your way to having intrinsic motivation to accomplish your goals.

For example, I have the goal of writing a book. Fortunately, I'm intrinsically motivated to write: I like writing. But a whole book is a big goal. So I break a big book goal into tiny, more manageable chunks: a little bit of writing each day. But even so, I don't always want to write what I'm supposed to be writing. So I reframe. I remind myself of my goal of getting better at writing, and how practicing is how I improve (tying into competence). I remind myself that I do want to write the book—I chose to write it (tying into autonomy)—in large part because I think it will help other people (which ties into relatedness). I remind myself of past experiences of flow while writing—being in a writing groove—and how I can get there in a short time if I just buckle in and get started. And I also remind myself of potential negative consequences of not writing now—I don't like the stress of last-minute work. If I procrastinate on writing now, I'll have to do way more of it later, which will definitely be worse. Writing a little bit today will make the book closer to done. Working a little bit is totally doable. And, I remember, once I have finished my little bit for the day, I can move on to other things.

This example also highlights a few other tools you can use to shift your motivation. First, talk to yourself. Many people have an internal monologue; make yours useful. Explain to yourself why the activity is important to you and why it helps you achieve your long-term goals. Decrease the psychological distance between now and someday in the future by connecting your small steps today with your imagined future.

Second, break large goals into smaller, achievable pieces. Maybe you can't run five miles this morning, but could you walk for ten minutes? Maybe you can't fix your entire diet today, but could you eat one vegetable? Maybe you can't write an entire book today, but could you write 200 words? Maybe you can't organize your entire house, but could you find five things to put away or throw out right now? If your long-term goal is your goal, then you do want to get there… and taking a little action today can help you get there.

Third, make the activities feel like play. Peter Gray has argued that we develop self-discipline through play—through activities that bring us into flow, from opting in to activities with systems of rules, and from practicing imposing rules on ourselves for the sake of continuing the activity. This relates to James Carse's idea of finite versus infinite games, which I mentioned in my review of Designing Your Life. In a finite game, you play by the rules in order to win. In an infinite game, you play with the rules in order to keep playing. Play is an infinite game: it stays fun and rewarding so long as you follow the self-imposed rules of play, so you're intrinsically motivated to follow those rules so you get to keep playing, giving you practice being intrinsically motivated to follow self-imposed directions. Which is basically self-discipline.

The self discipline tools

Two keys to building self-discipline are awareness and motivation. By developing better awareness and using the space awareness gives you skillfully, by building intrinsic motivation and aligning your actions with your goals, you will build discipline.

If you are stuck wondering why you're not accomplishing goals you think you have—starting a new exercise regime, writing a book, working on a major project—perhaps it's time to reevaluate whether those goals are actually your goals. You need self-awareness here, too. If those really are your goals, what little action can you take today to remind yourself that you do want to accomplish them? Shift your motivation. Build discipline.

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We're Jacqueline and Randy, a blogging duo with backgrounds in tech, robots, art, and writing, now raising our family in northern Idaho.

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