The Myth of Discipline

By Leo Babauta

It’s one of the most prevalent myths of our culture: self discipline.

The myth is larger than life. Benjamin Franklin had it, with his waking early, his virtues checklist and his daily reflection. The best athletes have it, with the discipline to train harder than anyone else to win the gold. My readers often think that I am more disciplined, after reading My Story and the list of habits and accomplishments I’ve achieved, from exercise to waking early to saving money.

It’s all a myth.

I’m hoping that if you accept that it’s a myth, you’ll be released from the guilt of not being disciplined, you’ll be empowered to create the habits you want without the need of the mythical discipline.

Why Discipline is a Myth

I’ve written about the illusion of discipline for almost 4 1/2 years now (see my old posts on the topic), but it’s necessary to revisit the topic now and then. Especially when I read otherwise excellent posts still spreading the myth. So I need to put an end to this myth right now.

Here’s the thing — discipline sounds like a perfectly valid concept, until you dig a little deeper. Consider the first line of the post I linked to above:

Discipline is not a mystery.

Except that it is. What is discipline? How much of it do you have? How do you get more of it? If by practice, how do you practice if you don’t have any in the first place? If you don’t feel like doing something, how do you use discipline to force yourself to do it?

I’ve had many conversations with people who believe strongly in the myth of discipline. It usually goes something like this:

Me: What is discipline, exactly? How is it different than motivation (which is a set of actions we can actually do)?

Friend: Motivation is like pulling you toward something, making yourself want to do it. Discipline is pushing you to do something, making yourself do something you don’t want to do.

Me: OK, so if I have no discipline, how do I get it?

Friend: You practice. It’s a muscle that gets stronger as you practice.

Me: How do I practice if I have no discipline?

Friend: Just do something small, then keep practicing over and over.

Me: But it takes discipline to do that. What specific action do I take to make myself do something if I don’t want to do it?

Friend: You push yourself to do it anyway.

Me: But that takes discipline that I don’t have. OK, let’s say I’m sitting on the couch and I want to go out and run, or get up and write. How do I make myself do that? What specific action do I take?

Friend: Hmmm. You visualize about the end result, something that you want.

Me: That’s a motivation action, not a discipline action.

Friend: OK. Then you set up rewards. No, that’s motivation. Hmmm. You psyche yourself up and tell yourself you can do it. No, that’s motivation too. You tell people you’re going to do it. No, motivation too. You focus on the enjoyable aspects of it … or, maybe you only do the things you like doing. No, those are motivation things. Huh.

Every single specific action you can take to make yourself do something is motivation. Not discipline.

And that’s why discipline is a myth. It might sound good, but it’s not a useful concept. When it comes to taking specific actions to make yourself do something, the only things you can do are motivation. Not discipline. I’ve challenged people to come up with a discipline action that isn’t motivation for years now, and no one has done it.