Are you capable of delaying gratification? How well do you push through to reach your goals? Is it possible to train yourself to be self-disciplined?
In The Power of Discipline, Daniel Walter explores what self-discipline is and why people struggle with it. He explains the biological tendencies that hinder the ability to self-discipline and how to strengthen self-discipline so you can achieve your goals and reach your full potential.
Continue reading for an overview of this insightful and practical book.
Overview of The Power of Discipline
Forcing yourself to be productive when there’s almost anything you’d rather do is difficult. In fact, it’s part of our nature to choose temptations and instant gratification over hard work and long-term goals. However, in The Power of Discipline, Daniel Walter explains that the ability to self-discipline—to act in your best interests despite temptation—is the foundation of achieving any amount of success in your life. Luckily, he notes, self-discipline is a skill that can be practiced and strengthened over time by developing good habits.
Walter is a Canadian author. After graduating from Yale University with a degree in cognitive neuroscience, he chose to use his passion for writing and his expertise in the mind to help others improve their abilities and reach their full potential. Specifically, his work focuses on improving focus, habits, and memory. Walter is also the author of Habits for Success, How to Stop Procrastinating, The Productivity Blueprint, Take Your Day Back, and Ten-Minute Focus.
We’ll start by explaining what self-discipline is and why we struggle with it. We’ll then discuss the biological tendencies that hinder self-discipline and how to combat them. Finally, we’ll discuss the productive habits you should develop to overcome negative tendencies and strengthen your ability to self-discipline.
What Is Self-Discipline, and Why Do We Struggle With It?
Self-discipline is the ability to make healthy and productive choices, fight against temptations and instant gratification, and ultimately act in your best interests. Walter notes that having self-discipline is crucial because it pushes you toward actions that breed success—fully committing to your goals, developing good habits, and consistently putting in hard work.
Despite the importance of self-discipline, many people lack this ability because humans have a natural tendency to opt for instant gratification over hard work and long-term rewards. Walter further explains that humans struggle with self-discipline, and consequently fail to reach their goals, due to four main biological tendencies: craving consistency, overestimating their own abilities, procrastinating, and setting unrealistic expectations.
Tendency #1: Craving Consistency
First, Walter explains that we resist change and crave consistency. This tendency impedes self-discipline because it stops us from taking uncomfortable steps that disrupt consistency but trigger improvement and success.
Humans Fear Loss and Failure and Desire Comfort
There are three reasons why humans crave consistency and therefore avoid making difficult but necessary choices.
Reason #1: We’re afraid that change, or moving on to something new, will cause us to lose something valuable that we currently have.
Reason #2: We’re afraid of the failure and regret that change might trigger.
Reason #3: The longer we experience something—in this case, our current situation—the more comfortable and enjoyable it becomes.
When you have an important decision to make, write down your options (for example, make the move or stay in your current location), and list the pros and cons for each. The following day, return to your notes and determine which option will be most advantageous for improving yourself and reaching your goals.
Tendency #2: Over-Estimating Personal Abilities
The second tendency that can impact self-discipline is the Dunning-Kruger effect, notes Walter. This effect means that people who have low ability in a skill are more likely to overestimate their ability in that skill. According to this phenomenon, people who are bad at self-discipline are likely to overestimate their ability, and, therefore, neglect practicing it. This is problematic because, as noted, self-discipline is a skill you must regularly practice to be good at it.
To avoid this tendency, Walter recommends seeking feedback from others—especially those that are proficient at the ability you want to work on.
Tendency #3: Procrastination
Walter explains that procrastination weakens our ability to self-discipline because, the more we procrastinate, the more habitual it becomes, and the less likely we are to practice self-discipline. There are two main forms of procrastination. First, we might delay hard work in favor of something that’s instantly gratifying. Second, we might spend more time planning work than actually doing work, making us less likely to start the work at all.
To resist the tendency to procrastinate, Walter makes two suggestions. First, get started on a task as soon as possible after deciding to do it. Second, stop planning and start doing a task when you’re 70% sure you’ll succeed—perfection doesn’t exist.
Tendency #4: Setting Unrealistic Expectations
Finally, Walter explains that we set unrealistic expectations by underestimating the amount of time and effort it takes to reach our goals. When you make the easy decision to give up rather than putting in the time and effort necessary to achieve your goal, you weaken your ability to self-discipline. This is because giving up is another form of temptation and instant gratification.
To overcome this tendency, Walter recommends taking the time to analyze your goals and the actions you’re taking to reach them. Ask yourself what a rational time frame to complete your goal is, what work you must do to achieve it, and how often or when you need to do that work to reach your goal within the given time frame.
Improve Self-Discipline With Good Habits
Walter argues that the best way to improve your ability to self-discipline is to get rid of bad habits and replace them with good ones that support discipline. To override bad habits that weaken your ability to self-discipline, Walter recommends developing the following good habits:
Habit #1: Create Morning and Evening Routines
Walter explains that following a healthy morning and evening routine makes it easier to engage in productive behaviors and make good choices. Making these routines a habit will help you to resist unproductive temptations.
For your morning routine, plan out what time to wake up, eat breakfast, leave for work, and so on. Your evening routine should start an hour before bed and incorporate things that make it easier to fall asleep.
Habit #2: Create Plans to Achieve Your Goals
Walter explains that big goals are daunting and can lead to inaction if they seem too lofty. To avoid inaction, clearly identify your goals and create a plan of action for accomplishing them. Being clear about your goals and breaking them down into daily actions will make it easier for you to practice self-discipline, and it’ll make you more likely to succeed.
To create an effective plan of action, you first need to be clear and realistic about your end goal. Next, break down the tasks you must do to reach your goal. Once you’ve outlined the tasks required to accomplish your goal, create a daily schedule so you can accomplish a task (or subgoal) every day.
Habit #3: Gain Control Over Your Impulses
Walter explains that one of the habits most detrimental to self-discipline is acting on our impulses without thinking. This habit can come in the form of giving in to temptations. Walter recommends developing two habits that will help you control your impulses: keeping in mind the 40% rule and following the 10-minute rule.
The 40% rule states that, typically, you’ve done only 40% of the work you’re capable of completing when you start to lose energy and feel ready to give up. Instead of giving up at this point, acknowledge the discomfort and try to push past it.
The 10-minute rule is designed to help you overcome your impulses for instant gratification. When you feel the urge to make an unproductive decision, wait 10 minutes and see if the urge fades.
Habit #4: Become Familiar With Discomfort
Walter explains that self-discipline can be uncomfortable because it often involves making ourselves do something that we don’t want to do. However, by observing our urges to engage in unproductive behaviors and instead choosing to practice self-discipline despite its discomfort, we’ll strengthen our ability to resist those urges.
Walter explains that one of the best ways to familiarize yourself with discomfort is to actively seek situations that take you outside of your comfort zone.
Habit #5: Practice Mindfulness and Meditation
Walter argues that practicing mindfulness—focusing on the present and controlling your thoughts and emotions—is key to improving self-discipline. This is because it’s harder to self-discipline when you’re overwhelmed by negative thoughts and emotions.
Walter explains that one of the best ways to develop mindfulness is to get into the habit of meditating. Over time, meditation allows you to be more mindful more often. It also produces many benefits that are directly linked to the ability to self-discipline, such as focus, rational decision-making, and delaying instant gratification.
Habit #6: Fully Commit to Your Goals
Walter explains that, to effectively practice self-discipline, you must fully commit to your goals. When you make a commitment to “try” to do something, you’ll only make a half-hearted effort. You must put 100% of your effort into the necessary work.
Increase Commitment by Pacing Yourself and Creating a Routine
First, pace yourself and the amount of work you’re doing. Ensure that you’re spreading your work over a rational amount of time.
Second, make a goal-focused routine and stick with it even after you begin to succeed. Walter explains that achieving success requires consistency.
Habit #7: Create Positive Associations
Walter explains that using self-discipline to force yourself to do important work won’t sustain you forever. You must form positive associations with the work you’re doing—even if it’s not something you particularly enjoy.
To form positive associations with your work, create a ritual that integrates things you enjoy into your work process—before, during, and after your work. Walter emphasizes that these routines must be repeated for your brain to form positive associations with your work.
Exercise: Overcome Temptations and Instant Gratification
Walter explains that one of the biggest threats to self-discipline is acting on your impulses without thinking—most commonly, giving in temptations and instant gratification. However, if you can identify your weaknesses and determine strategies to overcome them, you’ll be able to strengthen your self-discipline and engage in productive behavior.
- What are three of the most common unproductive impulses you encounter in your daily life? (For example, do you feel compelled to eat a bowl of instant pasta instead of a nutritious meal? Do you struggle with the urge to play video games instead of cleaning the house?)
- Based on the biological tendencies and bad habits discussed by Walter, what do you think are the underlying causes of each of the impulses you just identified? (For example, do you crave the bowl of pasta because it’s comforting to you? Do you feel compelled to play games instead of cleaning because you fear losing your enjoyable gaming time?)
- Finally, identify which of Walter’s potential solutions will help you resist these temptations and develop self-discipline. (For example, would the 10-minute rule help you overcome your impulse to eat a bowl of pasta instead of a nutritious meal? Would working cleaning into your morning routine make it easier to resist the urge to play games instead?)
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Power of Discipline summary:
- What self-discipline is and why we struggle with it
- How to do what you should do even if it's not what you want to do
- The six good habits that will override your bad habits