Cultivating Self-Discipline is Best Done Gently

Heads up! This post is 13 years old. In 2021, I restarted my blog after many years of not writing regularly. See the the new stuff!

Self-discipline is tricky.

In the movies, there is always a big motivating factor, and then a montage of activity toward a goal, and finally a triumphant success.

In real life, it rarely works that way. We get the initial burst of energy. We make a plan. We do it faithfully for a few days. And then our old habits and patterns emerge and we are back where we started, only worse because we feel bad for “being a quitter”.

Steve Pavlina elucidates this: willpower is just a jolt at the beginning, and willpower alone will not carry you.

So what is required to make conscious progress toward a goal?

Necessary Ingredient #1: Internal Alignment

Intrinsic motivation describes something you want to do for its own sake. Extrinsic motivation describes something you do to make others happy, or to get a reward that is not directly related to the activity. Intrinsic motivation is a much stronger motivator, and an essential component of self-discipline. The problem is that extrinsic motivation can supersede intrinsic and we can lose our sense of why we are doing something. When the goal is hard and requires discipline to achieve, this can kill our internal alignment.

Many internal conflicts about self-discipline boil down to a conflict between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Take losing weight for example. Instrinsic motivations would be to look and feel better, to enjoy more fashion options, to live a longer and healthier life. However, the extrinsic motivation to lose weight and be thin no matter what is a huge unspoken pressure that we all feel every day (especially women). When outside culture is handing us extrinsic motivation reminders daily (“you’ll be sexier! people will like you more! you’ll be a better person!”) it can be hard to remember your own reasons and not feel like a tool for cowtowing to pressure by wanting to lose weight.

Here’s another example: I have struggled to change a habit of going to bed really late and waking up when half the day is over. There is definite external pressure to not do this, because I don’t feel “normal”. I feel like a freak, like I can’t get my life together. But these kind of messages are not motivating at all. It’s actually de-motivating to criticize yourself or hold out threats (“You’ll never have a normal life if you don’t get this together!”). Instead, I need to focus on my own internal reasons to want to get up earlier – i.e. I feel better and am more productive. And yes, I get to feel like I’m more a part of the society I live in as I share their hours. But to be motivating, I need to connect to that as a positive internal desire to be involved in life, not a negative threat that there’s something wrong with me if I don’t fix this.

The workhorse of intrinsic motivation is inspiration—a compelling positive replacement for the current pattern. I was recently talking with a friend about quitting smoking years ago. She had berated herself for years, and tried to quit a dozen times. But it wasn’t until one summer where she was a counselor at Girl Scout camp that she finally quit. It was because she had something new to do that she loved: play with kids, outside. This was fun. It wasn’t about adding more force to quit, it was about finding something even better that made her feel alive.

Necessary Ingredient #2: Self-Trust

Self-disicipline involves a little bit of force. You are pushing yourself out of your normal grooved way of being to try to establish a new groove. This is hard. Self-trust means you feel an agreement with yourself that you are not going to push yourself too hard or too fast, and will pay attention to your real needs in the moment and accommodate them. The image of a person with iron-clad willpower-driven self-discipline is not how you want to be with yourself.

For example, my first goal with getting up earlier was to set my alarm for 10 am every morning. The first few days I was really tired all day and that makes me unhappy after awhile. So I checked in with myself and considered changing my goal to 11 am instead. After a few days it turned out I adjusted to 10 am so I kept it, but knowing that I wasn’t going to consider myself a failure if I needed to adjust to an easier goal made me feel good and happy about the project. It creates an internal culture of positivity instead of forcefulness.

Think of training a horse. You can’t just force the horse to do what you want it to do. You have to gain its trust and go slowly. It wants to learn, but it needs gentleness and trust. Same with yourself.

And you?

I would love to hear your experience with this. What has helped you establish new patterns? What is your experience with positive motivation vs negative?

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Hi there! I’m Emma and I write about self-liberation. My writing is meant to share my process & inspire your own. If you want more frequent/current writing, visit my Substack Sparkly Dark, where I’m unpacking my neurodivergence.

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Thanks so much for reading! ~Emma

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  1. Short and sweet article! It explains a lot to me about why i’ve been trying and failing over and over again for years. I was using extrinsic motivation, trying to survive on the initial jolt of motivation alone (and burning out fast), and getting out of my depth, pushing myself too hard, setting my goals too high then feeling like a loser when I inevitably ran out of gas.

    This article is good, it’s up to the reader wether they apply the advice or not.

    Cheers šŸ™‚

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