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How to develop self-discipline

Self-discipline can sometimes be talked about as a fight — we battle our craving for snacks, we wrestle with our urge to smoke, or we struggle with our emotions.

But it all depends on how we frame our willpower. Because, in truth, self-discipline is a skill that can be developed over time, to the point where exercising it in everyday life feels both natural and effortless, whether applied to participation or avoidance.

Think of something — a task, a hobby, a project, or a pursuit — where you didn’t have to think about turning up to practice, refine, and perfect. You arrived with eagerness and passion, determined to get it right … this is discipline in action. This is worth remembering next time you say “Oh, I don’t have self-discipline!” Because you do. We all do.

But what often gets in the way of our discipline — especially when we don’t feel eager, or when we know something isn’t necessarily good for us — are the thoughts, feelings, or storylines the mind creates, be it excuses to not do something or cravings to partake in something.

The best way to improve self-discipline is to stop giving our thoughts and emotions such power. This doesn’t mean succumbing to unhealthy cravings, or to give up on a challenging task. Quite the contrary. It does mean we can learn to find peace with the thoughts and impulses that can get in the way of where we want to go, or who we want to be.

With meditation, we discover how to move through such thinking. In fact, meditation is a practice in self-discipline itself, because showing up to sit with the mind on a regular basis is what strengthens our discipline and sense of commitment.

We discover how to acknowledge our thoughts as they arise, without judgment, without giving them significance, which, in turn, allows us to let them go and instead provide the space to exercise our willpower, unhindered by resistance or temptation. It’s no quick fix, but once we learn this approach, it’s a powerful tool and takes all the struggle and fight out of exercising self-discipline.

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What is self-discipline?

The ability to manage our impulses, emotions, and behaviors to achieve our long-term goals is an important part of what separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Self-discipline and self-control are primarily regulated by the prefrontal cortex — the executive center of the brain responsible for higher-order tasks like problem-solving and decision making — which is significantly larger in humans than in other mammals.

Research has shown that people with strong self-control have better health, relationships, finances, and careers. And we feel good when we practice self-discipline, meaning we live happier and more fulfilling lives.

Nathan DeWall, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, says: "Self-control is the capacity to override an impulse in order to respond appropriately. We use self-control when we eat carrots instead of Krispy Kreme donuts, when we forgive instead of freak out, and when we pay attention instead of giving someone short shrift."

There is rigorous debate among scientists and psychologists as to how much self-discipline is innate or learned. But where experts do agree is that we can all learn how to improve self-discipline, even if some believe it comes more naturally to some people than others.

Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Florida State University, is one of the best-known researchers in the field and author of one of the notable self-discipline books, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister is behind the theory of "ego depletion” — the idea that willpower is a limited resource, and that using it depletes our mental energy. By using our willpower on one task, we have less available for the next, he suggests. Maybe that’s why we can be so disciplined through the day, only to find that it wanes in the evening?

But this theory — widely accepted by many in the field for 30 years — has recently come under criticism. A paper published in the Perspectives on Psychological Science journal in 2016 attempted to reproduce Baumeister’s studies and found no evidence of ego depletion.

So even the theories of self-control have become a battlefield. But where the best books on self-discipline and researchers do agree is that the power of self-discipline can be harnessed through developing healthy habits and behaviors to give us better control over our actions.

Avoid the battle

Increasingly, research on the topic is suggesting that brute willpower doesn’t work, so we need to look for other ways to develop discipline and overcome temptation. The benefits of effortful restraint — where you fight with yourself internally to exercise restraint — can be “overhyped,” according to Kentaro Fujita, a psychologist who studies self-control at the Ohio State University.

He says, "Our prototypical model of self-control is an angel on one side and devil on the other, and they battle it out. We tend to think of people with strong willpower as people who are able to fight this battle effectively. Actually, the people who are really good at self-control never have these battles in the first place.”

We can instead find ways to make it easier to make good decisions without having to first engage in an internal battle.

Psychologist Brian Galla, who published a 2015 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, says people with good self-control also have good habits — like doing the same positive activity (for example, exercise or meditating) at the same time each day. Routine can be the best self-discipline training, as it takes away the need to make a choice at all.

He explains: “People who are good at self-control seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place.”

Sometimes, simply sitting with an urge or a moment of resistance can be enough to bring awareness to what’s going on within us. The more we pay attention to a thought or feeling that arises, the better able we are to not succumb to it.

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The Headspace app has specific courses for Focus and Productivity to help us find clarity on what matters and help us to achieve our goals.

Research of 137 healthy volunteers carried out at the University of Denmark found that four weeks of Headspace resulted in a 14-percent increase in focus.

And studies using MRI scans show that a regular meditation practice can make the brain’s executive center, the prefrontal cortex, thicker — which helps us to make better decisions. And while it does so, the amygdala, which regulates our stress and fear, shrinks — which improves our ability to cope with emotions that can knock us off course.

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Psychologist Kirk Warren Brown, Associate Professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, says that exerting self-control to overcome an unhelpful urge “often involves either stopping it, or suppressing it, or redirecting it in some way.” Mindfulness on the other hand, involves “paying attention to it,” and that is less draining on our energy and willpower.

He explains: “We realize, ‘Hey, this thing that’s coming up? I don’t have to necessarily jump all over it to get control of it. I can simply be with it and know that it’s going to work its way through my mind.’”

Meditation, mindfulness, and self-discipline

When we look at self-discipline through the lens of meditation and mindfulness, we begin to understand that we can cultivate a clear, calm headspace from where we are most able to exercise a self-discipline that has conviction and is resilient.

Former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, who is also the co-founder of the Headspace app, knows what self-discipline looks and feels like, having dedicated 10 years of his life to the monastery — sometimes sitting with his mind for up to 18 hours a day.

But don’t worry — meditation for the ordinary person on the street doesn’t involve such commitment. In fact, Andy says that we can start to feel a difference with as little as 10 minutes of meditating a day.

Sticking to a new healthy habit takes self-control in itself, of course, but if we can establish it as part of our routine, we can learn how to develop self-discipline and the skill becomes easier, creating a healthier kind of self-perpetuating cycle.

“Meditation is not some quick fix,” says Andy. “We are taking time out to train the mind; we are fundamentally shifting the way we relate to our thoughts and feelings. At first, that can sound a little overwhelming. But if we take a little-and-often, slowly-but-surely approach, the benefits are experienced step by step over time.”

Strengthening self-discipline

Through meditation, we learn to step back from the thinking that can drive us to make unhealthy or unfulfilling decisions and stay on task. Behavioral scientist Rimma Teper explains that during mindfulness training, “you’re monitoring your thoughts actively, but you’re also not holding on to them.”

She says: “You’re not ruminating about the past, you’re not thinking about the future. You’re noticing thoughts as they come up, and you’re letting them go. The two facets of mindfulness — awareness and acceptance — help enhance executive control. This, in turn, helps to promote effective emotion regulation.”

Headspace’s 30-day Coping With Cravings pack (available only to Headspace subscribers) uses a technique called noting to teach us to acknowledge our urges but separate ourselves from them, so they have less power over us.

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Practice self-discipline with Headspace

The Headspace app — downloaded by millions of people — can help us learn how to deal with distractions, impulses, and urges without fighting with our thoughts. It takes its own kind of discipline to stick to the practice and feel its benefits, but that will come naturally over time to promote a more peaceful, less-conflicted mind.

Andy says: “Meditation shows us that there is another way. By letting go of those old ways of working, we are able to work with more flow, more speed, more productivity, [and] more focus. It requires a slightly different approach and a new type of effort, driven by intention and discipline, as opposed to cortisol and adrenaline."