I knew of a friend who was very adept at soccer, let’s call him Lucy. I could only dream of attaining his level. Besides his talents, Lucy loves playing and talking about soccer. He wouldn’t miss a game for the world. I couldn’t help but ask myself what it would require for him to make more of his skills.
He had the perfect blend of talent, passion, and ambition to reach higher levels. What was missing? A look into his routines was very telling: self-discipline was absent.
Sleeping late; skipping practices; bragging about his abilities; criticizing those who are less brilliant than him. Lucy was lacking the self-discipline to focus.
Of course, what we can achieve in life is unknown and unknowable until we’ve achieved them. But I can predict he would be much further if he were more disciplined.
My friend’s story highlights the belief that ambition, passion, and talents aren’t all we need to reach success.
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But, What Is Self-Discipline?
I define self-discipline as our ability to follow through with our plans until we reach our goals. Self-discipline involves prioritizing and making sacrifices over a sustained period.
Angela Duckworth defines self-discipline as “the effortful regulation of the self by the self.” Duckworth and Seligman also define self-discipline as “the ability to suppress prepotent responses in the service of a higher goal… and that such a choice is not automatic but requires conscious effort.”
Self-discipline means forgoing our favorite ball game, our weekend out, or that video game of ours to study for a major exam. Self-discipline is the ability to spend long hours reading, practicing, and consulting with a mentor to get our dream venture off the ground.
We can’t control whether we were born with perfect pitch, the right muscle structure, or a great capacity to jump. But we can decide to work relentlessly to reach a goal we’ve set our mind to. That is the power of self-discipline.
How Important Is Self-Discipline?
Having realized the hardships my single mother was going through every day to provide for our family, I decided I would get my schoolwork done without supervision.
Every day after school, I would finish all my assignments before I did anything else, even if this meant delaying watching a favorite TV show or a play date.
Back in the classroom, I would witness my classmates scrambling to get their homework done. Most would play so much the night before they would forget to complete their assignments. Those who didn’t turn in their assignments on time would have to spend the entire afternoon after class completing their schoolwork.
Spending extra time at school finishing work that they should have finished the previous day affects their playtime, grades, and peace of mind.
Regardless of occupation, talents, and age, developing the self-discipline to make plans, resist distractions, and stick to them until the end will increase our productivity, which, in turn, will boost our self-esteem and make us happier.
Remember the famous Aesop’s Fable: The Tortoise and the Hare? When the tortoise challenged the hare to a race, the hare didn’t doubt for a second he could lose.
He was so confident in his abilities to win the race that he stopped mid-race to ridicule the tortoise. As a result, the tortoise won because, unlike the hare, possessed the self-discipline to resist distractions and focus until the finish line.
Moral of the fable? Discipline is the single rule that applies equally to the swift and sluggish.
Self-Discipline and Ego Depletion
Daniel Kahneman, in his best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, gives a detailed peek into the workings of the mind using the analogy of two systems, one automatic (System 1) and one conscious (System 2). System 2 is closely related to self-discipline because, according to Daniel Kahneman, it’s the seat of will or self-control.
We know system 2 has limitations through a phenomenon called ego depletion. When we have spent a day focusing on a topic, we become “cognitively loaded” or “cognitively fatigued.” We’re more prone to temptations following a workday or after making a big decision.
Jeff Bezos is aware of this phenomenon. He claims he makes his big-bet decisions in the morning, and won’t get into any high-stake meetings until the next day.
What Does Science Say about Self-Discipline?
A groundbreaking research by Martin E. P. Seligman and Angela L. Duckworth among school children seems to hold the answer to this question.
In a longitudinal study of 140 school children, their self-discipline as measured by themselves, their parents, and teachers predicted final grades on standardized achievement scores and selection in a top school.
They replicated the study with a group of 164 eighth-graders, and they found that self-discipline accounted for more than IQ in school attendance, grades, and high school selection.
They concluded that a lack of self-discipline is a major reason students fall short of their intellectual capabilities. Do you see the contrast? Whether you have a high IQ or a low IQ, you need discipline.
How to Develop Self-Discipline?
Make Self-Discipline a Lifelong Habit
Do you know how you tie your shoelace? We are habit-driven individuals. Most of what we do every day is automatic. We get dressed, eat, and walk with no conscious awareness. That ability allows us to complete tasks much faster than we would if we had to attend to every detail of our actions.
However, we must not let our habits drive us. Our awareness of our habitual actions is the key to building good habits and eliminating destructive ones. We hear expressions like this; “she is so good at this, that it has become second nature.” If habits are our secondary nature, then what is our first?
With so many choices and so little time, the best weapon we have is our ability to concentrate. If you can’t focus, you will waste time and energy on unimportant tasks. A self-disciplined individual knows when it’s time to play games. They know when to hang out with friends. They recognize when to focus their energy on work.