Self-discipline is the ultimate life skill

Think motivation's what you need to reach your goals and be awesome? Nope. All you need is some kick-ass self-discipline. Let me explain why.

Motivational articles. 

Are you as addicted to them as I am? God, I love reading motivational articles. I could do it all day long, (and I sometimes do.)  It’s almost a miracle that I’m sitting here now, writing this, instead of browsing my favorite motivational blogs.

The neatest thing about motivational reading: it keeps me from actually having to do stuff. It keeps me chasing the thrill that just this next article will be the one that makes me close my browser window and get to work. Just one more article, and I'm ready to go.

Right? Sounds familiar?

(By the way, don’t worry. This is not a motivational article. It’s a disciplinary article. You may safely read on.)

If there’s something I’m an expert at, it’s being motivated. I can really pump myself up about doing something, feeling sooo ready to get going. I might even have a little go at it before I inevitably fall back into my regular ways. Wouldn’t want to overstrain myself, right? After all, being motivated uses up a lot of energy. Not much left over for doing stuff...

I’ve been there many times, over-motivated and over-planned, and I promise you: it’s highly overrated. Might even be dangerous. Why?

Because being motivated does not mean you’ll actually do anything to reach your goals. More often that not, it can even feel like a substitute for action. Being motivated lulls you into a false sense of “I can do this” that kind of satisfies your need to actually do it.

It’s just the same as with over-planning: you’ll read up about how to succeed with something, and you’ll get really excited and make a step-by-step, foolproof plan for yourself. Then you’ll feel so confident and so satisfied with your master plan that you’ll forget about kicking it into gear.

On the other end of the spectrum, passively waiting for inspiration kind of brings you further and further away from it. You’re sending a message to yourself that a) you need motivation in order to work, and b) motivation is not under your control. Therefor, you render yourself powerless. You are under the mercy of mood and circumstances.

The truth is, the less you care about inspiration, the more often inspiration will come to you. It’s like a karmic reward, if you believe in that stuff. And if you don’t, well then that makes you even more likely to prefer to succeed by your own devices and not some higher power’s.

Now that I’ve bashed so hard on motivation, I should probably add that it certainly doesn’t hurt to be motivated. And being able to motivate oneself is a valuable skill to have. Motivation is like the fuel in the engine that makes action easier and more fun. But unlike fuel, motivation is not necessary to create forward motion.

There’s really only one thing that brings you closer to any kind of result in life, and that’s action. (Click to tweet this.) And what makes you take action? Discipline.

Why self-discipline is the ultimate life skill

What if there was a pill you could take that gave you 100% self-discipline. That if you took it, you could make any promise to yourself and know that you would follow through, no matter what...

What would you use this pill for? Write an epic, 7 book fantasy saga? Work out every day and get insanely strong and fit? Finally clean out that storage room? Or just get a lot more stuff done at work? 

I’m going to make a bold statement that you may or may not agree with: Self-discipline is the one and only key to reaching your potential.

Not talent.

Not time or money.

Certainly not motivation or inspiration.

But self-discipline. The ability to make yourself do things you might not feel like doing. Or prevent yourself from doing what you most feel like doing, for the benefit of future success.

While motivation is about why you want to do something, self-discipline is what ultimately makes you do it.

Your motivation will fluctuate. You can never count on it to be there when you need it the most. Motivation is a friend who smiles at you one day, just to stab you in the back the other. That’s when self-discipline saves the day. Most people cringe when they hear the word discipline. It invokes images of leather whips, military base camps and uncomfortable yoga positions. Self-discipline is like Motivation’s evil twin that never gets any credit, when really, self-discipline is your best and most trusted friend.

Self-discipline builds confidence and trust. When you can set a goal for yourself and know that you will stick to the plan and reach it, that’s when you’re in full control of your life. You can trust yourself. Imagine what a wonderful feeling that is. It’s like you are your own genie in a bottle. Your wish is your command.

Yes, forcing yourself to do something might feel very uncomfortable. But it’s really the most uncomfortable just before you dive in. Every actor or singer with performance anxiety can assure this: the worst moments are right before entering the stage. Once you start doing your thing, the pain fades away. And the feeling afterwards is the ultimate reward.

Self-discipline is the pathway to a pleasure far greater than any status quo comfort. (Click to tweet this.)

Maybe you think that your being motivated or inspired will somehow create a better result? Sorry to shoot this down for you, but more often that not, that’s false.

Let’s face it: the result doesn’t give a fuck whether or not you’re motivated while you’re producing it. You might be in flow and having a blast, or you might be struggling to squeeze something out. This matters not to the result. I’ve heard countless creative professionals talk about how they sometimes have to really force stuff out and they almost throw it away, thinking it’s uninspired, half-assed crap, but it later turns out to be a huge hit.

You are not the final judge of your work. Other people are. Don’t let perfectionism get in the way of your progress.  

Why self-discipline feels so impossible  

Self-discipline is the ultimate example of something that is so unbelievably simple and at the same time completely impossible.

Have you ever heard a famous author reveal the secret to their success? “Putting my ass on the chair and doing the work.”

We hate to hear such a simple answer, because it somehow puts us on equal ground with these talented professionals. It suggests that we have a similar chance of succeeding, if we just put in the work. We’d rather be able to explain away our lack of progress on something other than our poor self-discipline. Something like lack of time, bad genes or an uncreative mind. We tend to not like being responsible or held accountable for our lives.

Another obvious reason for our lack of self-discipline lies in our very nature. Human beings are easily controlled by feelings and urges. We prefer short-term rewards over long-term benefits. When we’re in a certain mood, we have a really hard time even imagining being in another mood, much less forcing ourself out of it.

And we are comfort addicts, always seeking to maximize pleasure and minimize discomfort. So in a lot of ways, we are programmed to not have much self-discipline, lest it serves to save our asses from immediate danger.

This could be both discouraging, as well as a little comforting. If you’re sitting there right now, pissed off at yourself for not taking enough action in your life, know that there is nothing wrong with you and you are not alone.

I know you’re probably hoping for more help than that, and I’m going to try my best to provide it.  

...and what to do about it

I don’t think there are any universal hacks to create discipline. Each time I think I’ve found one, when I try it again and it doesn’t work, I get really disappointed. And some of what works well for me won’t neccessarily work for you.

That said, I’m going to share some things that I’ve found to persistently work for me:

1. Skip the excuses

You can go a long way just by not swallowing your own bullshit. Don’t kid yourself into believing that motivation will somehow appear magically if you just wait long enough. Or that you miss certain pieces of the puzzle in order to proceed. Or that you don't have the time. You already have everything you need to take action. You have the same amount of hours in a day as everyone else and your priorities dictate what to do with that time. You could choose to prioritize differently.

Face it: you’re just lazy. You don’t want it bad enough (at least not today). Is that so bad? If it is, then do something about it.

2. Stop treating yourself with silk gloves

Life is not supposed to be fun all the time, that would take all the fun out of the fun times. With no exertion, there can be no relief. With no challenge, there can be no reward. Learn to love the relief, the reward and the wonderful feeling of empowerment that comes afterwards. Learn to love the whip.

3. Use physical exercise or endurance as a conductor of self-discipline within other areas

This has been scientifically proven to boost general willpower, (source: The Willpower Instinct), and it actually does work for me. I’m generally more productive and eat healthier after a hard workout.

Another quite extreme but even more effective physical challenge you can try is Cold Shower Therapy. Read about it here, and in the book The Flinch. I’ve only tried it a few times, because I’m a wuss, but holy shit that stuff’s potent. Life changing even.

4. Don’t aim for greatness or epic proportions, just start

Don’t tell yourself you’re gonna complete an entire chapter of your book, or even an entire page. Just sit down, look at the text and add in a few words. Don’t tell yourself you’re gonna run 10km. Run for 5 minutes.

Just do something, anything, and don’t worry about the quality of the results.

5. Every once in a while, don’t fight it

Allow yourself to be lazy, miserable and embarrassingly unproductive.

I would say this is probably more beneficial to your self-discipline than trying to motivate yourself. Why? Because it gives you a break from the struggle and the stress of never feeling productive enough, and by really indulging in laziness and unambitiousness, you could drive yourself so restless and frustrated that you’ll inevitably get yourself together. This has worked for me many times.

6. One last thing I’ve found to help is just hearing or reading about other people struggling with self-discipline

It helps to know that even the most productive, ambitious and successful people struggle with self-discipline. We are not alone in our helplessness. And we all have the same capacity to get our shit together and get to work. Quite often, what’s helped me do that is reading an article by someone who doesn’t try to motivate me into action, but just shares their own struggles with self-discipline.

So here you go: This is the first post I’ve written for this blog in several weeks. I’ve been feeling so embarrassed and frustrated with myself for not taking the time to write, and the more frustrated I’ve felt, the more impossible it’s been to publish anything. I've been paralyzed by my own fear of not living up to my own standards, and not being good enough. I ended up following advice nr. 6 above and guess what, today I just sat down to write a few paragraphs and ended up completing a whole post.

It wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as a cold shower, and now, afterwards, I feel surprisingly intact. It didn’t even take that long. I think we often enlarge tasks in our head as a way of rationalizing why we should’t do them right away. That’s why advice nr. 5 is so important. You can actually trick yourself into being productive. Self-discipline is also self-persuasion.

I hope that reading this article has given you something of value. And if not I, then perhaps one of these brilliant authors can...

These are the 5 most motivating (pun intended) books I’ve read on the subject of willpower, self-control and discipline:

And now, my beloved reader: go forth and be so unbelievably badass, superheroes will weep with jealousy.

“Only the disciplined are truly free. The undisciplined are slaves to moods, appetites and passions.” - Stephen Covey  


  1. Is ironic how this post, wonderful as it is, is a kind of motivation to be self-disciplined.

  2. Great Article - thank you!

  3. So happy you liked it! Thanks for the comment. <3

  4. This article is useful and presents great advice. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  5. Write on! Nice job of describing the power of self-discipline without trashing motivation. They each have their place and their value. The problem comes when a person mistakes one for the other. I like how you explored the value of each while emphasizing your main point, i.e. the value of self discipline. Another book you might appreciate, "Shut up and Write," by Judy Bridges. For all those people who always say they want to write but don't, and also echoing your point, that there is no substitute for simply sitting down and starting. To get anywhere, on anything, the rule is, "You Have To Start."

  6. Closing my browser right now.
    I´ve been a while trying to get this rpglifestyle on tracks, and came across this blog.
    I let you know when levelup a few skills!
    Thanks for the quests!