Dr Thanh-Tam Pham - 02/08/2022

Whatever goal you want to achieve in life, you must go through the discomfort of self- discipline. Nothing great was ever accomplished without it. Throughout your life, you can make a choice of how you suffer, the pain of self-discipline or the pain of regret. To have self-discipline and willpower requires the ability to do difficult things or unpleasant things because those things will bring you well- being in the long run.

Researchers were able to identify the brain region that is most active when subjects practice self-control and discipline, the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is active when they are weighing future and immediate options. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to constantly form and reorganize synaptic connections. The more a particular circuit is used, the stronger it becomes and the easier for the person to activate this pathway in the future.

It is impossible to say how much of the self-discipline comes from a genetic disposition and how much from the environment and upbringing. But wherever you began, it is possible to change and improve your self-discipline.

Focus and Executive functions

A person who lacks the ability to focus will certainly lack discipline. The three executive functions involved in being disciplined are working memory, impulse control, and cognitive flexibility and adaptability. Through the executive functions, you can set and pursue goals, prioritize activities, filter distractions, and control unhelpful impulses.

Meditation is demonstrated to help with strengthening the areas of the brain that are responsible for executive functions. Moreover, meditation is associated with shrinking of the amygdala, causing less susceptibility to fear, strong emotional impulses, and stress. Self- discipline is often sabotaged by emotional impulses and stress so keeping these under control is helpful to condition strong willpower. Meditation was seen to improve grey matter growth in the prefrontal cortex and in other areas allowing for greater cognitive flexibility.

Willpower fatigue

As with lifting weights makes your muscles fatigue, using your willpower will deplete it. This means that no matter how great the willpower is, if the person is subjected to enough temptation over a long enough period, he or she will eventually give in. Exercising self-control can be beneficial, but ultimately the most effective way of maintaining discipline is by simply avoiding the situations that present the strongest temptations and the highest chances of failure. Stress also diverts energy away from the prefrontal cortex and causes you to focus more on short-term outcomes, which can influence you to make regrettable decisions.

Discover your Motivation

You need to have a clear idea what you want to accomplish. Everybody is motivated by different things, some are driven by the need for power, money, status while others are stimulated by the need for freedom, happiness, and love. Researchers found the three main categories of motivation are autonomy (allow to work their own way), mastery (master a skill to perfection), and purpose (impact on the world or people).

Extrinsic versus Intrinsic Motivation:

Extrinsic motivation is when you do things for other people rather for your own values as you are vulnerable to judgment.  They can include pleasure seeking, material rewards, achieve wealth and social status, reproduce, avoid suffering and avoid unhappiness. The biggest extrinsic motivation is how you are perceived by others. You may seek acceptance from your peers and may even conform socially to do so. Monks have strong discipline and dedication to let go of extrinsic motivation, not to act because of their ego, pride, insecurity, or desire for power. Intrinsic motivation includes helping other people, having positive impact on others, or to have personal growth and improvement.

Some other negative motivators could be compulsions, habits, addictions, anger, passion, and appetite for pleasure. It’s important to develop self- awareness and have a clear understanding of your own positive and negative motivators.

The 40% Rule

Maximizing human potential in the way that Navy SEALs push themselves has led to the development of the famous 40% rule. The rule says, when the individuals’ mind begins telling them that they reach their physical or emotional limits, they have only pushed themselves to 40% of their full capacity. That is, they could endure 60% more if only they believe they were capable of it.  We are usually ready to give up around the time that we begin to feel pain or discomfort. That point is just the beginning of what we are capable of, and the key to unlocking more potential is to push through the initial discomfort and the self-doubt. By maintaining a belief in ourselves, we can do more and that evidence builds our confidence and mental toughness. Our mind can be our best friend when we have a strong belief in our capabilities, but it can also be a poisonous enemy if we allow negativity to seize control. Most of us never test ourselves and we don’t know what we’re capable of. A study in 2008 about the placebo effect, found that participants who were given sugar pills and were told it was caffeine that could give them extra energy and strength, they could tap further into their own potential without even been aware of it. Placebo effect is a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the human brain anticipates an outcome and produces that outcome of its own accord.

A stressed-out mind is an inefficient and uncreative mind, so it is crucial for you to remain calm if you want to perform to your full potential. You can use box breathing like breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds then out for 4 seconds and hold for 4 seconds to calm your heart rate down. Meditation also involves mindfulness breathing to reduce stress.

Setting goals

Grant Cardone states that you should set targets that are 10 times more than you think you want (x10 rule), and then take 10 times greater action than you think is necessary to accomplish those targets. If you want to go further and achieve more, you first start thinking and acting well beyond what you originally considered the norm. It’s so common to set mediocre expectations for yourselves so that when you fail it’s not such a letdown. But if you aren’t willing to go after more, you’re always stuck in mediocrity.

The 10-Minute Rule

The 10-minute rule is to fight the urge for immediate gratification, building discipline and improve decision-making. If you want something, wait at least 10 minutes before getting it. If you ‘re still craving it after 10 minutes, then have it. Or wait for another 10 minutes because you’ve already done it fine. Similarly, if you want to quit doing something beneficial, like exercising or working on a project, just wait for 10 more minutes.

Discipline Pitfalls

Embrace discomfort:

Just as lifting weights causes temporary struggle that allows muscles to grow stronger, choosing self-discipline also makes your “uncomfortable muscles “stronger.  Making a regular habit of embracing uncomfortable situations can have a positive impact on all aspects of your life. Leaving your comfort zone teaches you that the things you fear aren’t as bad as they seem. Each time you learn that lesson, your tolerance for discomfort and your willpower both increases. A lot of people go through their life avoiding fears, insecurities, discomfort and thus limiting their own potential.

Other helpful factors:


Habit formation:

Creating and develop good habits are necessary to make self-discipline sustainable for the long term. Motivation is a temporary state of mind, while habits become ingrained behaviours. Once you have a good habit, it is your second nature. Habits are your subconscious, automatic response that doesn’t require extra effort. Habits have shown to take around 66 days to form. Building positive habits and breaking bad ones is bound to feel awkward and uncomfortable at first, so do not wait for it to feel right before you take the first steps. Once you form a habit of self-discipline, you’ll find that choosing actions with long term benefits over immediate gratification becomes a subconscious, automatic response.




The Science of Self-Discipline: the Willpower, Mental Toughness and Self -Control to Resist Temptations and Achieve Your Goals by Peter Hollins