When we hear of “self-discipline”, most of us think about having to beat down our weaker self. That is somehow standing behind oneself with a whip and fagellate oneself. The ancient Romans called it “disciplina” and used it to indicate school and military education, as well as “discipline and order” and even “chastisement”. But they also used it to mark things like science, training and instruction. So how would “self-learning” sound instead of “self-control”?

As I read 2020 in a newspaper article featuring an interview with psychologist Wendy Wood: the idea we have of self-control is now considered outdated in research. “Most people believe that successful entrepreneurs, athletes or writers are more self-controlled than average. Yet people who do well on self-control tests usually don’t use self-control in the sense of self-discipline at all. They are merely good at turning desired actions into habits.”

The marshmallow test

But what about the marshmallow test story? In 1968, scientists led by the psychologist Walter Mischel observed children who were left alone in a room with a marshmallow. They were allowed to eat the marshmallow right away, but if they could wait until the experimenter came back, they would get a second one. When the same young people were examined 14 years later, it turned out that those who had the capacity for self-control at that time were better able to cope with life.

So is the ability to defer rewards something you are born with? Not really, because a later study found that the capacity for gratuity deferral is strongly influenced by the (social) environment and its reliability. Therefore if this ability was learned, there is hope for self-training after all.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

Self-discipline, i.e. sticking to something, is not particularly difficult when we are intrinsically motivated, i.e. when our motivation comes from our own actions, e.g. because we consider them meaningful or simply because we enjoy them. This also helps us to pursue related goals more sustainably and persistently.

We are extrinsically motivated when our actions and behaviour are perceived externally in such a way that we receive praise, recognition, money or other incentives from others. The “pain money” for an unloved job has to be high enough so that we don’t want to leave the golden cage despite all the adversity. And in the long run, self-discipline with clenched teeth could be rather harmful for us and our environment.

Type and/or learned behaviour?

And again, as a LINC Personality Profiler Coach, I come back to the Big Five. Why is this also of interest in this context? Because one of the Big Five represents the well-known polarity between conscientiousness and flexibility: especially the facet: discipline orientation versus relaxedness. It’s all well and good to be able to locate one’s own position between the poles. However, this view of a relatively stable character trait says nothing about how someone then behaves in concrete terms. Whether the discipline orientation is lived rather tense or rather joyfully. Whether relaxedness leads to ultimately stressful procrastination or only to being able to work on several tasks at the same time and still not lose sight of the deadlines. Which brings me back to my favourite topic:

Making conscious decisions

For any sustainable change and thus also for the way I want to deal with myself in certain issues in the future, conscious decisions are needed.

If I am more inclined to self-discipline with the proverbial whip, I need to decide to deal with myself in a more loving way. Here it helps to learn more about the concept of self-compassion. If I let too much slide, it makes sense to ask myself what is really important to me.

Self Compassion

The American Kristin Neff has become a leading figure on the subject of self-compassion through her TED Talk, film and book publications. In the book “Self-Compassion Step by Step” she defines self-compassion on page 13 as follows:

  1. kindness as an emotional response to our suffering.
    In an attitude of self-compassion, we actively treat ourselves with kindness and understanding.
  2. the sense of our common humanity
    We all share this basic reality of life
  3. mindfulness
    Mindfulness means that we turn to painful emotions and are willing to dwell with these emotions, to be with them.

In order to experience what self-compassion feels like, I have gladly adopted the following little exercise, which many of my clients have already experienced as beneficial and therefore practice:

First clench your fists and/or clench your teeth to feel one pole. Then place both palms upwards, one hand on the other and then on the heart to feel the warmth and security of this self-touch. Especially important in COVID-19 times, when contact with others often has to be omitted.

The conclusion

For self-discipline to work I need

  • A conscious decision about which new habit should become a place in my life in the future.
  • A motivation that comes from within me and not one that is triggered from the outside, because
  • (Pre-)joy at or about the feeling of self-efficacy and the new colour/component in my life increases the chance of implementation
  • The perseverance in the first weeks until this habit becomes an integral part of my everyday life.

When do you start, if not today, to get to know self-discipline in a completely new way?

And don’t forget to be kind to yourself in the process.
Yours, Harriet Kretschmar