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I'm curious of how disciplined people think? What is their mind like? I found that some tips on how to be disciplined are good, but not good enough if one's mind is not thinking about it differently. Hyped books often give just tips on how you should do things, and what end result should be, but I think that only works for people that already have good amount of discipline. I think that if you don't think like disciplined person, nothing books/articles suggest will stick.

I want to know what such people think of life, work and learning. And since they often seem like men of steel, and as if everything they do is not burdensome to them, I want to learn what they know, and I don't.

Is there any book/article out there about discipline that doesn't have that "you are little special snowflake" vibe? Or does someone here has an experience of transition from undisciplined to disciplined and can answer the question him/herself? :) Because I already tried treating myself special and that doesn't work in a long run (neither in a short run).

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closed as too broad by Dennis S., Jeanne Boyarsky May 2 '14 at 1:29

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Book recommendation questions are a poor fit for the Stack Exchange sites, because you'll normally get a list of books and no explanation on why they're good. If you want good books on a topic, check out Amazon. You can still edit your question to ask why some people are more disciplined than others, and some people will cite books that strengthen their answer. – Muz Apr 23 '14 at 6:04
I checked amazon before asking this question. I was disappointed that there is no serious book out there, but only titles that are either hyped and/or offer just end result, without considering flaws in one's mindset. I understand your concern,I will edit my question, but I will leave question about books in the text :) – user7522 Apr 23 '14 at 11:27
up vote 10 down vote accepted


Different books with 'discipline' in the title could be talking about entirely different things. Let's get our definition straight so that we're not disagreeing.

This is the first definition that appears on Google: "The practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience."

On a site like this, I think we're more interested in self-discipline. So, we'll redefine discipline in our discussion as this:

The practice of obeying rules or a code of behavior.

I'll also use the words willpower, self-regulation, and self-control interchangeably. I think that some literature might differ between the two, but I'll assume that they're the same.

Discipline is not simply willpower

I'll quote the abstract of a psychological study directly:

Exerting self-control may consume self-control strength, reducing the amount of strength available for subsequent self-control efforts. Coping with stress, regulating negative affect, and resisting temptations require self-control, and after such self-control efforts, subsequent attempts at self-control are more likely to fail. Continuous self-control efforts, such as vigilance, also degrade over time. [1]

You can read the article itself for deatils. But the important thing to take from it is that everyone starts with the same amount of willpower. If you've seen infants, babies, and children, they start with remarkably low self control - a 3 month old child will get excited to the point of crying. But they build it up over time.

An experiment was done. One group was asked to eat fresh cookies, the second group was shown the cookies, but asked to eat radishes instead. They were both given impossible puzzles to solve. The cookie group worked on the puzzles for 20 minutes on average, the radish group worked on it for 8 minutes. The radish group also became more hostile towards the experimenters.

The experiment found that the same resource was used for making decisions - someone who had to make difficult decisions had less willpower. It applies to being nice to mean people and doing things we don't want to do. They found direct correlation with blood glucose supply too.

However, they find that it does get stronger with exercise. Baumeister recommends practicing overrriding habits and exerting control over your actions. Use your left hand to brush your teeth instead of your right hand. Resist buying candy and cigarettes for a whole day or eat healthier. [2][3]

Instilling discipline

The most famous example of an extremely well-disciplined force is the military. How do they do this? By forming habits. Militaries are the greatest experiment in habit-formation. Militaries are tasked with turning uneducated, undisciplined people into a group that can follow orders exactly, without question. Every routine in a soldier's life is planned from morning to night - when they wake up, when they sleep, how they brush their teeth or maintain their gear.

Habits require no self-control to do. In fact, they do require self-control to break. [4]

From an outside perspective, this looks painful. But if you wake up every day at 5 AM, it becomes difficult to suddenly wake at 8 AM. If you're used to brushing your teeth and showering every morning, it suddenly becomes difficult not to do so.

These things all have a tiny cost in self-control. Once they're built into a routine, their cost is reduced to zero. If waking up and jogging costs no willpower, you have more willpower for more difficult tasks ahead.

Self-discipline vs external discipline

So why do we procrastinate? Why don't we wake up at 5 AM? Why do we eat unhealthy food?

Self-discipline isn't externally applied discipline. Imagine yourself sitting in front of a computer, doing work. How long does it take before you wander off on the Internet? Now imagine your boss sitting behind you. How long does it take then?

It's extremely easy to be 'disciplined' when someone is imposing it on you. But a lot harder when you're expect to discipline yourself. You can't simply tell your boss "I'll do this work after I watch this movie", but you'll tell it to yourself all the time. [5]

There's a lot of literature comparing ourselves to Jekyll and Hyde [3][4][5][6]. We have two parts of ourselves wanting very different things. One side of us wants to quit smoking, the other wants to buy bigger packs of cigarettes, no matter what the price. One side wants to jog in the mornings, the other wants to sleep in. We'll call this 'dark' side the Hyde side.

Your inner Hyde is not evil - it just wants to have fun. It's the impulsive, happy-go-lucky, charming, creative side. It lives in the now, never thinking in the long term. If you were to completely supress this side, you'll become boring, uncreative, uninspired.

Most of us are trapped in an endless struggle with our Hydes. We choose to procrastinate studying for an exam. If we studied, we'd never be able to study enough. We'd be spending our lives studying harder to beat our previous grades. If we did our best, we couldn't force denial on ourselves; there's no way to cope with the disappointment if you did your best and couldn't pass. It's easier to tell yourself you failed because you didn't do your best. In many jobs, people are punished for working too hard - the faster they get things done, the more their bosses expect them to get things done faster. [5]

Instilling self-discipline

There's a long list of CEOs and company founders who wake up at 4.30 in the morning to exercise. How do they do this?

A good number of them also live by a "no excuses" lifestyle. There is no way for them to justify that they're not doing their best. Their jobs require them to perform extremely well or get fired.

Aside from habit, many of them are entrepreneurs. They have a vision in mind, which their Hyde side also enjoys. If you've ever started a business, there's a certain kind of thrill felt when everything you do brings results. You stop working against yourself and even your negative side starts dragging you forward.


[1] Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle?, Muraven, Mark; Baumeister, Roy F., 2000.

[2] Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?, Roy E Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne M. Tice, 1998.

[3] Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Prize winner), 2013.

[4] The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg, 2013.

[5] Self-Discipline in 10 days: How To Go From Thinking to Doing, Theodore Bryant, 2011.

[6] Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Dan Ariely, 2010.

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Actually, it's said that it's ok to visualize success, but it's even better to visualize process of getting there. It reduces stress of not achieving it yet. Beside that, all these are just tips what to do/avoid , not actual mindset of someone already disciplined. thanks for the input tho. :) – user7522 Apr 23 '14 at 18:44
Some research puts the motivation highest as the success at the end of line, or at the atomic early tasks (Adams & Rollings, Fundamentals of Game Design, 2007) – Muz Apr 23 '14 at 19:30
Atomic early tasks are rarely a problem. That time just after you complete early atomic tasks, that's where it gets stormy and the right time to keep visualizing process, not just end goal. Imho. – user7522 Apr 24 '14 at 11:57
@JunJun Changed the answer to suit the question better :) If anyone wants to see the tips on what to do/avoid, see the previous edit. Since you wanted book recommendations, I put up a references section - recommend 3 and 4 the most. Psychology books beats self-help books on this topic IMO and the books themselves are fun to slog through. – Muz Apr 28 '14 at 17:09
"Habits require no self-control to do." <-that! I think that sentence really made difference to me.It didn't directly answer the question, but it gives gist of what is going on there. I guess I can assume that if I form a habit, lets say to learn something mathematical every day, over time I won't find it as burdensome as in the beginning of habit forming. Does that make sense? :) – user7522 Apr 29 '14 at 11:12

My personal definition of discipline is: The ability to persist in achieving something you value, in spite of defeat or setbacks.

In the book titled "The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking" by Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird, one element is to welcome failure and learn from your mistakes in order to eventually get what you are trying to do right.

I think this above anything is what defines discipline. There are many paths to success. Everyone, it seems, has some kind of prescription on how improve performance and be highly productive. However none of those are any good if you abandon the pursuit. Setbacks and defeat come in many forms. There is bad luck, ignorance, adverse changes in our world, violence, injury, fatigue and just plain old bad judgement. The ability to keep going in the pursuit of your own choosing, and according to your own rules, is what discipline means to me.

If you are looking for books on the topic, I would look for biographies of people who have achieved greatly.They nearly all experienced severe setbacks and/or failed greatly; some many times over. They would all go on to make history and change the world.

This is my short list of recommended biographies. I have an American/Western bias. I welcome other recommendations in the comments.

Abraham Lincoln. Harriet Tubman. Thomas Edison. Winston Churchill (Read the biography, "The Second World War". It is a case study in disciplined thinking.)

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Thank you so much for straightforward answer and book recommendations. I saw that title before and though "this is one of those X-steps-do-to-get-something books" :D but now I see it's actually written by a mathematician, and not by some self help guru. – user7522 Apr 23 '14 at 18:40
This made me think that "I'm experiencing akrasia on this issue" is one of the "setbacks" that a disciplined person would have to attack like any other. – Noumenon Apr 29 '14 at 11:41

Focus is the key - decide what needs doing first, then do it. Repeat.

The clearer the plan, and the more defined the actions, the easier it is to work through the sequence. If you are tempted by distractions, (like StackExchange forums!) allow it as a small 'reward' after a productive session, but keep it to a minimum to avoid losing concentration.

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A quote comes up to my mind: "Perfect is the enemy of good", which you could also translate to "Works-now is better than Works-correctly-someday". I usually get things working very quickly, and the main principle is to do that one thing only until it works, then do another. It is much nicer to be able to see something work in practice. You can always fine-tune and improve it later.

While others have commented about it not being about willpower, I tend to disagree. With sheer willpower, you can get a lot of things done, especially when you already have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish. I guess you could call it the The Zone (AKA flow) also. People in programming/IT tend to have this aspect to their personality - often more or less through Asperger.

But you can also feign the positive attributes of Asperger through simply staying focused. Do not allow yourself to procrastinate and do not allow others to disturb you (close the office door, turn off your phone and instant messaging, do not check e-mails). This is even easier when you simply work from home/somewhere quiet.

This also reflects on my personal life, or eating habits to be precise. I often see people struggle to stick to their diets, and they have a hard time to say "no" to sweets offered by other people. For me, being able to say that word is important, and I use it often to other people or to myself. I haven't eaten any foods with sugar for the past 4 months simply by saying "no". My longest stretch has been more than a year without sweets, simply by being firm with myself and keeping my willpower high.

But in terms of work/business, overall, I still feel the most important aspect is to "shut off the world", closely followed by being strict/disciplined with yourself. That gets things done.

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I agree on willpower. :) Also, nicely put. I was wondering, do you find your discipline as something burdensome,daunting, or are you somehow mentally prepared that you'll exert yourself in work/lifestyle/etc. ? To make it short, are you used to it? I've read many articles on discipline,and some people still find it tough even tho they are disciplined for years. But I wish to know if there is a tough cookie out there liking the disciplined life,and all that comes with it. :) – user7522 Apr 25 '14 at 15:01
I like to set a combo of "target --> reward" to myself :) The bigger the target, the bigger the reward. Perhaps some daily things, like making a special dinner in the weekend if you finish something a bit tougher. A larger target, such as completing a half marathon, you could have a reward of "eat freely any sweet things for a week" or something abnormal like that. I've found it keeps me motivated quite well :) – Juha Untinen Apr 28 '14 at 11:06