Understanding Self-Discipline: Definition and Importance

“What’s the hack? How do you become stronger, smarter, faster, healthier? How do you become better? How do you achieve true freedom? There is only one way. The way of discipline.” -Jocko Willink, Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual


August 10th, 2010. My eyes creaked open. I blinked them several times before remembering that they wouldn’t completely focus due to the cocktail of painkillers and anesthesia that had been continuously flowing into my body for the last two weeks since I stepped on the IED. The same cocktail that had induced me into a mid-morning nap. My second of the day.

I turned my head toward the clock on the far wall of my room. Through a series of squinting and blinking, I finally read the time. 9:50. Ten minutes before my normally scheduled time for physical therapy. I sighed as I remembered the pain and struggle from yesterday’s session. All I did was lift the stumps of my legs off the bed for a few sets of ten, but afterward, I was exhausted. Not only that but simply moving my stumps was one of my most painful experiences in recent memory.

I slowly pushed myself up in bed and began preparing mentally for the session. Sitting up in and of itself was a bit of a struggle since the drug cocktail was still making the room seem like it was spinning slightly. I sat there waiting for my therapists to inevitably knock and walk through the door. 10:00. 10:10. 10:15. 10:30. They didn’t come. I shrugged and lay back down. I craned my neck to look out the door as much as possible.

I looked at my stumps. I thought about whether or not I could just do the session myself. After all, I knew the repetition and set structure. But I was tired. My stumps were feeling pretty sore. And I was sure there must have been a good reason why the physical therapists weren’t coming when they said they were going to.

“I guess I get the day off.” I reached for the remote control to the TV across the room so that I could begin my post-PT ritual of watching Seinfeld. When my hand gripped the remote, I pointed it at the TV. I hesitated.

Almost every single human being on Earth has at least one aspect of their life that they want to improve. Something that they want to get better at that will advance their life closer to being what they want it to be. But, quite often, they make the choice to forego that improvement and the better life that it would create. When they have the idea to work on that skill, simultaneously, their mind is inundated with reasons why they shouldn’t. They’re too tired. They can wait until tomorrow. They don’t have the right equipment. They don’t have the time. They don’t really care about that skill, anyway. Too often, these reasons sap away the person’s strength, and they settle back into the warm embrace of the status quo.

There is only one way that we can break this cycle. One force that is strong enough to smash through the relentless reasons not to try. Discipline. Discipline is the skill of forcing oneself to take the action that they know in the core of their being to be the right action to take. The action that is going to move them forward as a leader and as a human being. Regardless of the supposed reasons why they should do the opposite.

I took a deep breath as I tapped the remote control on my mattress. I recalled a conversation I was having with my mom just the day before about how much I was looking forward to being able to get out of bed without anyone having to help me and go for wheelchair rolls outside. I put the remote control back on my bedside table. I pulled the blanket off my right leg. I grimaced and lifted.

What is the Definition of Self-Discipline?

Why do we do it to ourselves? Why do we automatically produce more reasons to forego doing the right thing than we do to undertake the right thing? Because we’re afraid. We’re afraid of the pain. We’re afraid of looking bad in front of our peers. We’re afraid of standing out. We’re afraid of what it’s going to mean if we try and fail. These intangible fears incite us to create tangible reasons to take the easy path where there is no risk of pain, no risk of looking bad, and no risk of momentary failure. We use those reasons to create self-imposed limitations.

Thus, the discipline we utilize to defeat these limitations must also come from within. It must be self-discipline. Because discipline cannot be imposed upon you. Nobody can force you to practice guitar, just like nobody can force you to be disciplined. Discipline must be self-imposed. It must come from within your own mind. The fact is, the majority of the time, when you’re faced with the fork in the road between the easy path and the disciplined path, you will be alone. Even if there is someone with you, whether or not you choose to take the easy path doesn’t matter to them. They have their own lives. You are the one that’s stuck with the decisions that you make. My physical therapists weren’t there in my room to force me to do my exercise. But even if they were, they couldn’t make me do the work. They couldn’t make me put in 100% effort. Then, after the session, they would go home to their lives, and I would go back to mine. And mine wouldn’t be getting any better.

What is meant by self-discipline is that you are the one who is choosing to do the right thing. Nobody else can, and nobody else will do it for you.

How to Choose Self-Discipline

While it is certainly not easy, selecting the path of self-discipline is simple. We choose self-discipline by asking ourselves: what is more important? What we want right now in this moment or what we want the most in the world? What hurts more? Failing to achieve a meaningful goal you have set for yourself or the pain of looking bad or failing once in the pursuit of that goal?
After I put my left stump down, having completed my 30th raise in addition to 30 with my right, exhausted and in a pool of sweat, I knew I had made the right choice. The pain of the exercise was significantly less than how I would have felt having not made what progress I could toward regaining my self-reliance. As I basked in the feeling of choosing self-discipline and making progress instead of giving in to my base desires, I noticed my bed handle. Four feet above my bed, running from top to bottom, was a bar. Dangling from that bar on a small chain was a blue, triangular handle. The handle was there so I could use it to pull myself into a seated position. I was feeling so good that I grabbed it with both hands and performed my first pull-up since I was wounded. My body only lifted about six inches off the ground, but the motion took me back to the days when I was able to do dozens of them in a single session. I did more. In the middle of my seventh one, I heard footsteps from my doorway. It was my mom.

“What are you doing?” The concern in her voice was evident.

“Just doing some pull-ups,” I replied as I lowered myself down.

“Is that safe?”

I shrugged. “I dunno. But, I was feeling good, so I figured I’d do some.”

My mom smiled. “Well, you always did like to exercise.”

“And most likely always will.” I smiled back and did another pull-up before finally calling it a day. I raised my eyebrows at my Mom. “Seinfeld?”

What Happens When you Choose Self-Discipline

Throughout the course of each day, we are all faced with abundant moments in which we have a choice. Our natural human tendency when we’re faced with those two options: the hard but right choice vs the easy but wrong choice. To get out of bed and work out vs pulling the covers over our heads. To eat broccoli vs eating a donut. To revert back to our old habits of leadership and ignoring a person on our team that we don’t like vs building a relationship with that person. Our natural human tendency urges us to take the easy path. To be undisciplined.

But what happens when you give in to that tendency? Do you get stronger? Do you get more skilled? Do you gain knowledge? Do you improve? Does your life move closer to what you want it to be? No. You get weaker. You get less capable. You get dumber. You get worse. Your life stays the same or gets worse.

The only way to turn yourself into the person you want to be and make your life what you want it to be is to take one small step forward at a time. When you are faced with all of those moments of choice, choose self-discipline. When you choose self-discipline, you will take the action that is going to move you that one step forward. If you do it enough, over time, you will see your ideal self begin to take shape. You will see your life begin to change into what you hoped it would become.

And, it’s not just you whose life it will improve. When you choose self-discipline, you will be helping your team to have the life they want as well. Whether it’s your family, your friends, your community, or your team at work. The closer you are to your ideal self, the better their lives will be. I could tell by the smile on my mom’s face when she saw me doing those pull-ups that I had inadvertently helped her feel better about my situation and, thus, her own. I showed her that I wasn’t going to let this injury destroy my life. And because she saw that, she could put more energy into her own life.

What is Self-Discipline as a Practice?

Self-discipline, like leadership, is a skill, and cultivating self-discipline works just like any other skill. You have to practice it as much as possible. You won’t get it right every time. But, when you don’t, you need to assess why. You need to figure out which fear it was that overcame your self-discipline and prepare for it in the future. And, just like any other skill, the more you practice self-discipline, the better you’ll get at it. Until eventually there will be almost nothing that can penetrate it.

What Does Self-Discipline Mean for Your Team?

All of the benefits of being disciplined and the pitfalls of being undisciplined apply to your team as well. If the team allows itself to slack off, ignore procedures, or let the quality of work slip, then the team’s mission will not be accomplished. And ultimately, the people connected to that team will be negatively affected as well. But, if the team remains disciplined. If they work the extra hours when the need arises, if they maintain the standard of quality even when it means working harder, and if they adhere to the procedures even if it feels less convenient, then their mission will be a success. And the company, their families, and their communities will benefit. It’s up to you as a leader on that team to ensure that the team sees the benefits of self and team-discipline.


So, what is self-discipline? It is knowing that what you want the most in life is more important than what your weaknesses are telling you to want right now. It is you and only you deciding, when you are faced with that choice to give in to the easy path and the short-term gratification to do what you know is right. For your team. For your community. For yourself. Be self-disciplined. Do what’s right. And win.

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