Discipline: but how?

When I struggle with certain goals and go seeking help in that area online, I’m confronted with the advice “you need DISCIPLINE!”

And I’m like “okay thanks but how?”

And people are like “just ya know, keep doing the thing you are supposed to until you have the discipline to do the thing!”

And I’m like “what? Doesn’t that require discipline?”

And they are like “crickets chirping.”

So any advice? How do you cultivate discipline in an area where you feel you have 0?


I don’t. I set up my life ahead of time to not need it. If i get to the point I’m relying on willpower, I’ve already failed myself. I take a systems approach.


How is this set up? Is it a schedule? A schedule that became a routine? How do you get the systems chugging along to be automatic?


I’ve been thinking and reading about this a lot. It’s one of the reasons I want to start a book club/accountability group. Each situation will have a different solution depending what the barrier is. I’m trying to change my environment to make it easier to do the right thing, and ideally impossible to do the unwanted behavior. I can’t depend on willpower in the moment. For example, buying impulse snacks after a hike or at a coffee shop. I’m starting to leave my credit cards at home so I literally can’t spend money. You have to admit that you won’t do the “right” thing later, so you need to foolproof the situation.

The first step would be identifying triggers. What triggers the unwanted behavior, and what are the bright spots? When do you successfully do X? How can you set things up so that the success criteria is in place more often? Is it a mental barrier to working out that goes away once you’re dressed and out the door? Sleep in your workout clothes and keep running shoes next to your bed. Is it the commute to the gym, or you’re tired after a long day? Change gyms, change when you go. Stuff like that.


I don’t have an answer to this but would like to! I’ve read before that we all have a finite amount of willpower, which I think is more or less the same thing as discipline. And when it’s used up, then we tend to make poor choices. Which explains why I can’t budget tightly and diet at the same time.

I’ll be following this thread closely for ideas!


Can confirm this works, although I take the “exercise in my pajamas” route.


Why do I want or need to do the thing? What are the consequences? When do I do it?

From the outside, you have an incredibly disciplined life, and are perhaps running out of willpower reserves.

For me, I use most of my will power on survival focused shit. I’m also not often reward focused. But I can remove temptation and distractions. So if I put on forest app and a podcast or audiobook, if I have the energy I will end up being productive. I also recognize that even not pregnant, I spend about one day a week in bed until dinnertime. That isn’t laziness, it’s coping with the fact that I force my diseased body into a regular routine that would be grueling if I wasn’t diseased. You know what is fantastic? Removing yourself from the world of discipline and going to an ashram or similar where 95% of your day is mapped for you. If you want to be more productive, you can take away all your choices like that, and you will have more energy to succeed.

I’m also motivated by people pleasing, so having my goals be someone else’s goals for me and them be proud of me will get me doing stuff, but that’s also super weird and huge potential for unhealthy. But effective in a school setting!


I try to combine it with an area that I have discipline in.

I automate parts of it.

I break it into super small pieces I can do in the moment. For example, I’m not going to clean the kitchen floor on a regular basis, but I can drop a couple of drips of water and scrub out a sticky spot with my sock. (This is easier in a household with no kids or pets to make a mess)


This captures it pretty well for me- I can keep to many new habits if I fit it within my existing fairly regimented schedule. Staying at home, it’s kinda key to my sanity frankly. But it also makes me pretty boring in some respects :sweat_smile: I can’t leave a ton of space for spontaneity and daily choice, or “nothing and depression” seems to be the default choice. So the only way I make a keep a lot of habits is to really structure a lot of things. (Although I’d say it’s a routine, not a schedule- I don’t do my PT exercises at 9am, I do them after I eat. That sort of thing) This won’t work for everyone for sure, we all have different things that make us panicky/spiral/feel trapped. Hopefully this conveys some sense or meaning haha, I am very much still waking up.


For me it’s different depending on the thing requiring discipline but it’s generally similar to BJ’s approach. Keeping a general routine helps me a lot, plus for things like exercising that I tend to fight I absolutely have to make it things that I enjoy. I hate running so if I tried to do that it would never work for me. But yoga or spinning or weight lifting I can totally do. And I feel so good afterward that I try really hard to sit and take a minute to be like “yeah I feel awesome, let me sit in this feeling and bottle it up for tomorrow when I’m resisting doing this.” I also try to always have a backup plan. Instead of saying “I’m gonna weight lift 7 days this week” and being really rigid, I backed up to “I’m going to do some kind of intentional movement every day this week” that way if I absolutely cannot bring myself to lift, I have the option of a long walk, yoga, or whatever else. It helps me build the habit and work toward lifting every day and avoids the grumpies where I feel like I failed. I have to be kind to myself.

For things like avoiding buying takeout food, it helps that I’m at home 90% of the time so it would actually be more work to go out. Aside from that we also don’t force ourselves to eat things we don’t like. It took a really long time but we put a bunch of our favorite recipes into OurGroceries so now we have a huge repertoire of recipes and can easily grocery shop for them. This way we’re excited about every meal (for the most part) and it makes it easier to want to cook at home. Most of the recipes fit our needs for how we want to eat (decently healthy) so it takes a lot of brain power out of the planning and executing of meals. The less I have to make food decisions, the better


Omg as a kid I used to sleep in my skating clothes since it takes forever to get on skating tights and I had to leave the house at 4AM!

I have also been thinking about discipline and for me it takes planning/setting things up when my intentions and willpower are high for when they are low. It’s like how the closers at the coffeeshop pre-set out everything so it takes less time to do at 5:30AM - it’s not that for some reason the time of the closers is less valuable than the time of the openers, but it’s less stressful to do it in preparation.

It takes “discipline” I guess to get up at 4:30am to commute an hour to go to the skating rink and work out extremely hard for 1-2 hours. But if I make sure that I set up my life in the evening to get enough sleep and have everything ready, I can make it feel sort of inevitable when the alarm goes off.

I wrote a blog post a few years ago about how I stick to resolutions, and the biggest part of it for me is that I have commitment devices in place. I charge myself money, or I have a workout buddy, etc.


I absolutely love this book by Nick Winter about how to “hack” your motivation

and this one by lauren vanderkam:

I also have a bit of an all-or-nothing thinking issue (I talked about this in a show) but I use that to my advantage - I track data and streaks for things I care about. I have practiced German every single day for over 5 years - and I know because of my two 800-day duolingo streaks. I hate losing a streak.

I struggle with discipline when I don’t have enough energy. I find that energy management is about 90% of it for me. While it takes discipline to make YouTube videos- my creative hobby that has been going through a regular cycle of abandonment - the biggest issue for me is that the work of them WILL happen when I have time and a enough sleep. But they’re the first thing to fall off the plate when I don’t.

Okay, so the answer? A combination of commitment devices, data tracking, and doing things ahead of time when my willpower is strong.


I’ve seen this idea in multiple books. When building a habit, set yourself up for success. The habit of the habit is more important than the habit itself. Make it easy to achieve 30-60 days in a row. If you miss one day, tell yourself it’s no big deal, you’ll get back into it the next day. Shaming yourself interferes with habit formation.


I think we need to define discipline. I feel like there are two things that people mean with discipline, and one is doing a thing regularly even when you don’t want to and the other is delayed gratification, so doing stuff that sometimes takes a while to be really gratifying.

I kind of think discipline (in the sense of doing things really regularly even when you aren’t in the mood) like a side effect and not a goal itself? Like I am “disciplined” about fitness…because if I’m not I will immediately suffer physical consequences. I’m also “disciplined” about cooking, because I love it and it makes me feel good and it helps me save money which makes me happy, so when I don’t feel like cooking I still do it…because I have the motivation to do it because it’s what I really want. I was also “disciplined” about ballet because it was (at the time) the love of my life and my absolute passion, so it was easy to make myself get up early for rehearsals and say no to other things that would take away from it. It was natural!

By contrast, I was not very disciplined about studying in college…because I could get away with the bare minimum and still get good grades. I wasn’t interested in the courses and I didn’t have to be disciplined, so I wasn’t. I’m also not disciplined about things like having a schedule, because I don’t like having a set schedule and my life is such that I don’t have to have one. Yet, when I had to work full-time I was “disciplined” enough to get up at 6:00 am every single day, do cooking on a certain day of the week at a certain time, etc. I was able to be disciplined enough to have a schedule…because I had to have one.

I really liked the idea of learning to draw, but I couldn’t develop the discipline to do it. That’s not because I lack discipline, it’s because I didn’t actually want it enough. I didn’t enjoy the learning process, and I didn’t really want to put in the time required to get good…I just wanted to be good. I’ve learned not to fight this when it’s something nonessential. I let it go and chalk it up to not a thing I care enough about at the moment! So, I don’t see my inability to draw today as a reflection of my discipline level but of my interest level. I don’t have the interest level needed, I like the idea of an rdaneel0 who draws quietly alone and creates beautiful art…but that’s not rdaneel0 today! Today rdaneel0 wants to use feel-good time for climbing or cooking or making friends! It’s a preference, not a failing.

“Discipline” I think, is what happens when you have a strong drive to do something either because you want it, love it, or have to do it, and there is a strong component of delayed gratification inherent in a lot of forms of discipline. So I think it’s twofold, for someone like you who has proven they can have discipline (i.e. you graduated college, got an impressive job, saved a ton of money, paid off a house, etc.) maybe it’s worth looking at the types of goals you set more closely, and what you’re trying to achieve with those goals, and what you really really want versus what you like the idea of? Just spit balling here…

ETA: I also totally agree with the idea of setting up systems for things and making the have to do stuff as automatic as possible. For me, stuff I have to do that I hate…I find a way to not hate it if at all possible, usually through gratitude. I have actually shifted the way I feel about stuff this way. I used to really hate cold weather, cleaning, doing taxes, lots of stuff, now I kind of like those things so it’s way easier to be “disciplined”. Like cleaning, I focus on how much I have to clean, how fortunate I am, and how many people would love to “have to” clean such a beautiful space. Then after I’ve cleaned I soak in how much I love it, light candles, really celebrate it, so it’s now a pretty pleasant experience.


I like your perspective of “if you care about the result, or if you really love it, then you’ll be disciplined” a lot.

Like, I’m really disciplined about funneling money towards my debts & investments every month because I really, really want to not work 40 hours a week at a job I’m “meh” about until I’m 65.

I’m considered “disciplined” about cooking most of my own food and making my own coffees by a lot of people because when I have any amount of time & energy to do it, I enjoy cooking and appreciate the benefits of the quality generally being higher than at most restaurants and having everything made to the specific preferences Greyman & I have.

I don’t feel I’m disciplined at work, because I really don’t have to be and I haven’t seen evidence that me working at 120% gets me any more personal benefit than working at 25%. I’ve gotten huge raises and promotions in the depths of my depressive/anxious slumps where I don’t feel like I’ve done any good work for months. There’s not an external incentive; and because the whole reason I work is external incentive (dolla dolla bills y’all (yeah I’m cool)), the internal incentive of “well you won’t feel like a garbage person if you’re at least productive 4 hours a day” doesn’t really help.

I think that the reason there’s a divide between my financial discipline, which is excellent, and my fitness/nutrition and homemaking discipline is that with my financial choices, it feels as though the efforts I put in have permanent results. When I pay off a debt, I permanently don’t have to pay that anymore. When I make an index-fund investment, that should be of permanent long-term benefit to me. When I do a full kitchen cleaning, it’s amazing… temporarily. And in fitness/nutrition, I’ve become temporarily healthier enough times where I doubt any changes are ever permanent.


@Greyweld I think it’s true! Needs and desires are insanely strong forces. I’m glad you see that you are seriously disciplined in lots of areas :slight_smile: because you really really are!

So, I think it’s like, reverse engineering the desire for stuff that’s the highest impact and that you avoid/give into the most. I know that sounds bizarre, but it really really really helps me- especially with stuff that’s (like you said) not permanent or has to be done over and over again. I like to have a life with very few things that I intensely dislike, so I try to find a way to like the little stuff that just has to be done or if not like it find some other motivation source.

Like you have no motivation to do more at work, and I totally see why, so maybe you need to manufacture some? Since you want to retire early for more time and freedom, I suspect you dislike the idea of wasting your own finite time. So maybe that fact, can motivate you to say, look for another job really intensely? Perhaps one where you are more disciplined because you have more of a natural desire internally to do really really well?

IDK, maybe not that exactly but that’s the type of troubleshooting I do on myself. I do feel like the motivation has to be really genuinely felt to work though (see: the number of times I tried and failed to quit smoking, before coming up with a real internal motivation, and quitting pretty effortlessly).


100% me with drinking. I can’t say how or why it was different this time, but I wanted it in a new/deeper/different way, and it was frankly pretty effortless. Every time I tried before it felt HARD, and it never stuck.


Yeah, I really plan on doing this. But I want to LOVE what I do, and for the time being, I want to continue making good money.

I’m trying to appreciate short-term benefits of things more for changes that don’t guarantee permanent benefit. I’m getting pretty good at appreciating the immediate benefits of getting enough sleep. I’m working on appreciating the short-term benefits of exercise and eating reasonably well, but short-term the downsides (time, tiredness, pain/discomfort) can be more evident than the upsides.


I think this is the million dollar question. AKA, I don’t know how to answer it either. Thanks for asking! I hope we get answers1

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So, if it’s about cleaning: Dana White is my hero. She talks about Projects vs That Pile Of Continual Cleaning That Never Stops. There are some work tasks like this too. I enjoyed her book “How to manage your home without losing your mind”. She GETS how I like projects that get done and hate regular stuff that never ends. I read the book many times over the past 18 months, and with the addition of a dishwasher and regular cleaning service to prompt me to clean, this week I’m suddenly able to keep up with the dishes and it’s no longer a big deal. We’ve never had a clean bench this long before, but now seeing dishes is part of my bedtime routine. Even if there’s 5, I do them. Before I thought that meant it wasn’t worth filling the sink, but now I KNOW I have to do those 5 because otherwise magically there’s 30 the next day.

On work: I made a task list and I had to pick ONE item and wrote it on my sticky note on my desk as my ONE AND ONLY VERY NEXT THING to get done. No other task mattered until that one was done. It helped me focus a lot. I had to make the task very, very small when I started this method. Priority means ONE, so I can’t have 5 priorities. I get ONE.

Your “lack of discipline” might be “inability to focus/prioritise” or it could be “belief the task isn’t worth doing (yet)”. Or it could be one of the many ideas already discussed.


I was stuck writing my dissertation for months – like almost a year, I barely got anything done and I had panic attacks when I opened the file. And then one day it was just “yup, okay, it’s time” and I wrote hundreds of pages and edited them in about four months. For whatever reason, I was finally ready to face the disseration, and I enjoyed it.

I think rdaneel0’s post sums up a lot of my experience with motivation and discipline.