What is Discipline, Why Do We Need It, and Why Is It Difficult to Practice?

Photo by Jeremy Lapak on Unsplash

The calls to practice more discipline are not novel; in fact, it’s quite oversold. And despite this fact, most of us still struggle to be disciplined.

When we’re younger, discipline is sold to us as hardwork now for later rewards, delayed gratification, etc. As we get older, however, and especially when we start navigating the world of self-development (i.e. self-help), being disciplined is associated with greater mastery of our mind over our body.

It’s easy to understand why being more disciplined can pose a challenge for the majority of us. It’s one of those concepts that we buy unquestionably, just because it sounds like something we should be doing, like sending our children to camp during the summer, or putting up the Christmas tree as soon as Thanksgiving is around the corner.

Perhaps, we might be better equipped to practice discipline if we step back, break it down, and understand what it really means.

What is discipline?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines discipline as follows:

a: control gained by enforcing obedience or order

b: orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior


The above definition provides a surface level explanation of what discipline really means. However, these points can be vague to the average person.

Let’s break each point down.

  • Control gained by enforcing obedience or order — When you’re attempting to incorporate a new behavior into your life, your internal dialogue and your emotions are wired to act contrary to that new behavior, and thus, being disciplined means trying to ‘control’ this internal dialogue and your emotions to follow a new order. For example, deciding to stop drinking a can of Pepsi everyday with your lunch though you’ve been doing this for years.
  • Orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior — In order to exercise this control and incorporate this new behavior into your life, you create a set of rules for yourself — a pattern — that will make it easier for you to transform your old patterns of actions into new ones aligned with your desired behavior. In the case of reducing your consumption of Pepsi, you begin skipping the soda aisle at the supermarket, create a meal plan that excludes any drinks besides water, or even replace Pepsi with tea.
  • Self-control — As soon as our old patterns of behavior begin to resurface (as they surely will) self-control becomes a tool to reel back from the thoughts associated with the old behavior, or if you fall off the bandwagon, you push yourself to have the mental fortitude and begin incorporating the new behavior anew, instead of falling back into the old one.

Why do we need discipline?

It can be easy to just assume that we need to be more disciplined in our life. But why is it necessary that we enforce obedience and order within ourselves through an orderly and prescribed conduct and pattern of behavior?

I can think of two reasons:

  1. We want to achieve goals that make us feel good. On the other side of discipline is the prize. That prize can be varied depending on your desires and what fulfills you. For some, it can mean a specific weight, for others, a larger salary, and for the next person, it might mean reading 20 books per year on his subject of preference in order to become a master in his field. The point is, without discipline, we would not be able to attain specific results or material wants, both small and large, that we believe will fulfill us.
  2. We want to master our bodies. Beyond the possession of a result or material want, there is something inside of us that gets extreme personal satisfaction from self-discipline. Eventually, you become as excited by he fact that you are going to the gym everyday (the behavior), as you will be with the results you are getting by going to the gym (the reward). In fact, many motivational and self-help gurus insist that the fulfillment of the journey towards the achievement of the goal brings much more fulfillment than the actual result.

Why is it difficult to practice discipline?

Now that we have a better idea of what discipline is, and we understand why it is important to be disciplined, the next question then becomes, why is it so difficult to be disciplined?

Beyond the obvious answer that our body likes pleasure and dislikes pain, there are more practical reasons why it’s difficult to practice discipline even if it means delaying our deepest desires.

  • We overextend ourselves — When we try to incorporate new behaviors, we often try to be radical in our approach, rather than bring in the new behavior one step at a time. This leads to burnout. For example, we want to start exercising. More often than not, we push ourselves to go to the gym everyday and for 1 to 2 hours per day. This is a drastic change to our bodies and minds if we were not exercising before. The ideal would be to start small, say, commit to going 2 or 3 days per week, for at most 30 minutes, just to get into the habit.
  • We’re not clear about what we desire — We might decide to pursue a course a study in this or that field, to get a job in a specific industry to earn x amount of money. This, of course, will take a tremendous amount of discipline: Countless hours of studying, writing, networking, practicing for job interviews, researching, etc. Many of us fail to fulfill these goals, however. Why? Because often, these goals are sold to us as something we should be achieving, instead of something we actually do want. Thus, we fail to achieve them or suffer while we attempt to reach them.
  • We’re guilty of perfectionism — We decide to lose weight, but instead of modifying our eating and choosing better foods right away, we might pick a start day and plan the perfect meal plan for the next 3 weeks. Before that day comes, though, we continue eating as usual, persisting in the old behavior. The need to start perfectly delays the implementation of the new behavior.
  • Our concept of time is distorted — We want fast results. In our mind, discipline is only worth it if we can get fast results. This, however, is self-defeating. First of all, a life time of a behavior cannot be undone overnight. Second, we fail to understand that momentum needs time to build, and though change can start slow, we will see faster results if we stick to that behavior. Often, though, because we’re sold into an idea of fast results, and thus, it is more difficult just get started.

It’s easy to blame circumstances outside of us for the way we behave. That, however, is the root of failure. As soon as you realize that the power to change lies only within you, waiting for motivation to become more disciplined will no longer be necessary.

Start by looking at yourself and deconstructing your patterns of thought and behavior just as we did above. Analyze your motivations and desires, and you will start figuring out easier ways to become much more disciplined and to achieve your goals.



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