Can you recall the first time you exerted self-discipline?


Can you recall the first time you exerted self-discipline?  For me it was when I started to play the piano at age 6.  Every morning I got up before everybody else and practised for an hour, plonking away (it also served to wake everyone up).   I enjoyed it and it rapidly became a habit, thus not requiring much effort.  If you are reading this, I think the chances are that you had a similar experience at any early age.  And I would bet that the experience meant that you acquired self-discipline more generally – that you found it (and continue to find it) easier than most people to exert self-discipline.

Here are some 80/20 hypotheses and observations about self-discipline:

  • Self-discipline is one of the most important attributes we can develop – it is one of the 20 (or 1) percent of skills that contribute 80 percent of results.   Scott Peck, the psychiatrist and self-help writer, says that the two most important conditions for mental health are self-discipline and a well-developed ability to love ourselves and others.  Self-discipline is almost the Cinderella of virtues these days; it sounds rather old-fashioned and it is more common to hear opposite attributes praised – let it all hang out, better out than in, give free vent to your emotions.


But if you think about it, pleasant and democratic societies cannot flourish without self-discipline.  The only alternatives to self-discipline are external discipline – an authoritarian state – or anarchy: every person for themselves.  We rely upon the strangers around us to follow certain conventions that require at least a modicum of self-discipline – to pay attention when driving, not to bump into people when walking, to wait in a line, not to shout and scream when having a bad day, and so forth.  We expect courtesy and reliability, and we reward them with reciprocity or with our business (if we have a choice).  Self-discipline is essential for collaboration, and unprompted collaboration is essential for a free and decent society.  Self-discipline is what differentiates a child from a responsible adult, and a psychopath from people of reasonable mental health.
Self-discipline is also essential for self-respect and mature self-love.  The worst thing about addiction, for example, is that it corrodes self-respect.  If we are not in charge of our own bodies and minds – by and large, for all we are addicted to some harmful substances or emotions – then we are unlikely to be useful, popular, or highly valued.  And as the saying goes, “The only person you can change is yourself”.

If you accept my argument thus far, the question is not whether self-discipline is valuable, but how to cultivate it.


Not all self-discipline is equally useful

  • 80 percent of the value of self-discipline comes in less than 20 percent of its manifestations.  There are many different ways to be self-disciplined, some far more useful than others.  For example, we can discipline ourselves not to have sex, or to watch television for six hours a day – but these are not manifestations of self-discipline that are terribly useful.  It is therefore important for us to work out for ourselves the areas of self-discipline that are most important, perhaps attacking them one at a time.  If we try to exert new self-discipline across a broad front, we will fail – there is only a certain amount of attention or willpower that we have at our disposal.   You will have to decide which area of self-discipline needs working on, but areas of high potential may include self-discipline in exercise, in healthy eating, in controlling anger, and in learning new things that are most relevant and exciting to you.  In my experience, it is best to tackle one area at a time – one where we can see results quite quickly too.


Easy Self-Discipline

  • The 80/20 principle is all about getting results with the minimum possible effort.  When it comes to self-discipline, the critical thing is to develop habits.  Habits stick.  Habits become second nature.  Habits are like frozen self-discipline, automatic self-discipline.  Habits are like little rules that you use to guide your life, without being aware most of the time that you are doing it.  So my hypothesis is that 80 percent of results in developing self-discipline come from a small number of techniques, and the habit technique gives the most bang for the buck.   For example, it requires self-discipline to exercise daily, but if you do it at the same time – at 7.30 am for example, or at 7pm – and give yourself a little reward immediately afterwards, it becomes a lot easier.  After a week of doing that it becomes easier to exercise than not to.  After a month, it requires almost no self-discipline at all – so long as you stick to your habits and schedule like a limpet.   Another useful technique is to tell a friend when you are starting a new self-discipline habit, or get the friend to do it with you.


Self-Discipline & Freedom

We will be more inclined to exert self-discipline is we realize that it is the golden road to freedom and to the results we want.  Someone who has high self-discipline can achieve results autonomously – they are self-starters and don’t need someone else to organize them.  Yet, actually, most people do require other people to organize them – or think they do.  Why else do people allow themselves to be corralled into hierarchical organizations where they have limited discretion as to what they do – where it is other people, bosses or the like, or the organization’s rules and culture – developed by somebody else – that dictate what gets done?   You can see this at the extreme in organizations such as prisons, schools, the armed services, the police, or the civil service – where the freedom of the individual to do things his or her way is very limited.  Discretion at work is the essence of freedom at work – and the larger, the more established, the more bureaucratic, and, yes, the more successful the organization, the less likely it is to gives its employees a large wodge of discretion.  There is a formula or there are rules and expectations.  Results come not from discretion, but from following an approach that is well-defined and highly successful.

If that is what you want, fine.  In that case, you need less self-discipline, at least at work.  You derive the discipline from your surroundings and your bosses, without having to author it yourself.  Contrast that with the self-discipline required of a one-person outfit, whether a plumber, an artist, or a musician.  One of the reasons that rock stars often end up addicted to drugs may be that the occupation requires more self-discipline than most others – and self-discipline is something that nobody possesses in huge abundance.  It is not that the stars are deficient in self-discipline, compared to most other people.  It is that their roles require so much more.

There is a tension, therefore, between the freedom of a job and its requirement for self-discipline.  It follows that a high degree of freedom is only possible, sustainably, with a high degree of self-discipline.  To be free, we must be able to discipline ourselves, when nobody else and nothing else will do it for us.  And what is true for individuals is also true for society.   Why, for example, did the Russians put up with communism?   Why do they put up with Putin, an authoritarian kleptomaniac?   The answer may lie in that fact that Russian society has never experienced anything like the same degree of freedom that has become second nature in most Western countries.  If you have never had to discipline yourself, and have to do it all of a sudden, freedom becomes personally threatening.  That may also explain why the societies that are most free are also sometimes those with the most mental health problems.  Without carefully inculcated habits of self-discipline, and a strong sense of community values, freedom ends in self-destruction.  New Age gurus please take note.

If you want freedom, and the best results from it, you have to have self-discipline.


Self-discipline and the Entrepreneur

Self-discipline is perhaps one of the two most vital traits for entrepreneurs (the other is experimentation/imagination).  The entrepreneur is directed internally, not externally.  Managers have bosses; the entrepreneur does not.  The good entrepreneur boldly goes where no one has gone before – he or she is accountable to investors, but basically to themselves.  Economic freedom requires and responds to self-discipline, and without it, the entrepreneur will fail.  This is why I believe that being an entrepreneur is the highest form of business life – it is the most autonomous, the most self-starting, and the most unbounded by what has gone before.  If the only person you can change is yourself, the only economic reality you can change is that which you determine to change, regardless of courses already charted.  The adventurer is ultimately accountable only to himself or herself, and only self-discipline can make a success of such freedom.  I believe this is true for all of us, whatever our profession; but I think it is true to the highest degree for the artist, entrepreneur, and original thinker, someone who is attempting to do what has never been done before, without the support of any previous institution or convention.  What nobler endeavour could there be?


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