The Myth of Discipline

Zen Habits

Hailing from Guam it's a pleasure to introduce Leo Babauta, who will be providing the frank community with inspiration and tactics on setting and achieving your goals each and every week, check out his blog Zen Habits

It’s one of the most prevalent myths of our culture: self discipline.
The myth is larger than life. Benjamin Franklin had it, with his waking early, his virtues checklist and his daily reflection. The best athletes have it, with the discipline to train harder than anyone else to win the gold. My readers often think that I am more disciplined, after reading My Story and the list of habits and accomplishments I’ve achieved, from exercise to waking early to saving money.

It’s all a myth.

I’m hoping that if you accept that it’s a myth, you’ll be released from the guilt of not being disciplined, you’ll be empowered to create the habits you want without the need of the mythical discipline.

Why Discipline is a Myth

I’ve written about the illusion of discipline for almost 4 1/2 years now (see my old posts on the topic), but it’s necessary to revisit the topic now and then. Especially when I read otherwise excellent posts still spreading the myth. So I need to put an end to this myth right now.

Here’s the thing — discipline sounds like a perfectly valid concept, until you dig a little deeper. Consider the first line of the post I linked to above:

    Discipline is not a mystery.

Except that it is. What is discipline? How much of it do you have? How do you get more of it? If by practice, how do you practice if you don’t have any in the first place? If you don’t feel like doing something, how do you use discipline to force yourself to do it?

I’ve had many conversations with people who believe strongly in the myth of discipline. It usually goes something like this:

Me: What is discipline, exactly? How is it different than motivation (which is a set of actions we can actually do)?

Friend: Motivation is like pulling you toward something, making yourself want to do it. Discipline is pushing you to do something, making yourself do something you don’t want to do.

Me: OK, so if I have no discipline, how do I get it?

Friend: You practice. It’s a muscle that gets stronger as you practice.

Me: How do I practice if I have no discipline?

Friend: Just do something small, then keep practicing over and over.

Me: But it takes discipline to do that. What specific action do I take to make myself do something if I don’t want to do it?

Friend: You push yourself to do it anyway.

Me: But that takes discipline that I don’t have. OK, let’s say I’m sitting on the couch and I want to go out and run, or get up and write. How do I make myself do that? What specific action do I take?

Friend: Hmmm. You visualize about the end result, something that you want.

Me: That’s a motivation action, not a discipline action.

Friend: OK. Then you set up rewards. No, that’s motivation. Hmmm. You psyche yourself up and tell yourself you can do it. No, that’s motivation too. You tell people you’re going to do it. No, motivation too. You focus on the enjoyable aspects of it … or, maybe you only do the things you like doing. No, those are motivation things. Huh.

Every single specific action you can take to make yourself do something is motivation. Not discipline.

And that’s why discipline is a myth. It might sound good, but it’s not a useful concept. When it comes to taking specific actions to make yourself do something, the only things you can do are motivation. Not discipline. I’ve challenged people to come up with a discipline action that isn’t motivation for years now, and no one has done it.

If you’re interested in learning about motivation, I’ve written a book about it.

Build Habits for Consistency

When people talk about wanting discipline in their lives, they usually mean they want to be more consistent at something. Maybe that’s exercise, or meditation, or writing, or some other creative activity, or finances, or eating, or productivity at work.

These are all doable without the concept of discipline. What you want is to build habits instead.

Habits are not well understood by most, which is why I’ve created The Habit Course. In the course, I explore the concept of triggers, positive and negative feedback loops, consistency, motivation, accountability, support, and other things that help form habits.

But none of these are nebulous concepts. They are all specific actions you can take to form a habit. If you want to be consistent about something, take the actions necessary to make it a habit. Start small at first, so you can successfully build the habit. Once it’s ingrained as an actual habit (which can take anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months), you can expand on it from there.

Habits are the key to consistency. Not discipline.

And I can attest: once you’ve built a consistent, positive habit, it’s a wonderful thing. You feel disciplined, and strong, and good, even if you’re a living embodiment of a myth.

It’s kinda like how the Greek gods must feel.

Sort by
  • Greg0 says
    This is brilliant and so true. I am a competitive natural bodybuilder and I get "You must be so disciplined" a lot from people when they talk about it. Little do people know; I am the worst person when it comes to time management but I have developed motivation from several aspects (my weight loss) and formed habits that provide me with the tools to succeed.

  • FlipFlop says
    Interesting article, but it seems to me you answer your own question.

    How do you get discipline? You find something that motivates you enough to be disciplined.

    Motivation is what allows and enables you to be disciplined - without an end goal you are right, self discipline is impossible.

    Discipline cannot be maintained in a vacuum (i know..I've tried it!)

    But habits are what you do, and discipline is what stops you doing what you should not do.

    Don't you need both?

Post your comment

Want to have your say?

It's quick, easy and 100% free.



Endorsed Events