by Andrea M. Darcy
Have the best of intentions? But terrible carry through? Why is it that some of us seem born with self-discipline, and the rest of us flounder?
The holy grail of self-control
Self-discipline, along with conscientiousness and perseverance, are a triad that form the ‘holy grail’ of self-control, a hot topic right across the social sciences.
For psychologists, self control means a child grows up into an adult with better mental health and life stability. Sociologists link it to less crime and unemployment. Health researchers have connected an ability to be in charge of yourself to longevity, and better physical health.
And even economists and policymakers are jumping on the self control bandwagon.
Researchers following a group of 1000 children from birth to age 32, as well as another group of 500 sibling pairs, concluded that teaching citizens self-control as children would “reduce a panoply of societal costs, save taxpayers money, and promote prosperity.”
No wonder we feel stressed if we feel we are falling to the wrong side of the self-control spectrum, when self-control is promoted as a sort of societal ‘cure all’.
The bad news about self-control
Genetics play a part in our self-discipline. (The good news is you can stop beating yourself up about it as if it’s all your fault).
Two researchers analysed over 31 twin studies, and concluded that genes contribute as much as 60% of our differences in self-control.
But note that the researchers admitted that all studies were based in America, meaning the data is skewed, so true percentages could be lower.
And that still leaves at least 40% of our self control as coming from elsewhere.
Did my childhood affect my self discipline?
Some of this ‘elsewhere’ might be ’environmental’. In other words, arise from the situations we live within, and the experiences we live through.
These can be positive environments, like supportive family members who modelled self discipline.
Or it can be negative environments, like an unstable home life, a critical parent, neglect, or childhood trauma.
Trauma in particular is connected to struggles with self-control. A study looking at control of emotional responses and impulses (called ‘emotional regulation‘) made this clear. It scanned the brains of participants as they performed an ‘emotional conflict task’, looking at pictures of faces that represented one emotion, but with a word laid over the picture that represented another emotion entirely. (So a happy face, for example, had the word ‘fear’ across it.) The task was to label the emotion on the face while ignoring the word.
But those who had experienced early-life trauma showed heightened brain activity in areas that meant they felt threatened by the conflicting emotional message. And they couldn’t control this overreaction, which then affected their ability to think clearly and give accurate answers. So the trauma response of their brain directly affected their self-control.
So am I a lost cause who will always lack self-discipline?
We all have some sort of self-discipline. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be sitting here, clothed, fed, and reading this article. True, you might not have the discipline of Beyonce. But you have the discipline to practice self-care.
And we also now know that the brain has what is called ‘plasticity’. It responds to training. So while you might be less likely to be self-disciplined, and just ‘telling yourself’ to change this will have little effect, there is still hope.
1. Shift focus and find your ‘factors’.
Sometimes we are so busy negatively comparing ourselves to those around us we completely overlook our own ability to be in control, and our own special way of doing so.
photo by Tikkho Maciel
Make an effort to notice not just where your discipline goes wrong, but where it goes right.
- What is it exactly that has you more disciplined in some areas than others?
- Is there any way to ‘move that across’ to other areas of your life?
For example, if you are motivated to exercise as you know it increases your longevity, can you research ways success at work affects longevity?
2. Identify your ‘discipline rhythm’.
Start to notice not just what keeps you disciplined, but when you are disciplined. Do you tend to get a burst of focus first thing in the morning, but feel uninterested by noon? Or do far better work when out in a cafe surrounded by noise, than when alone in your home office?
Professor and author Cal Newport, in his book “Deep Work”, suggests that instead of focussing on how not to be distracted all the time, we need to focus on finding daily windows to do ‘deep work’. The idea is that we all have windows of time where our brain is suited to very deep hyper focus and extreme productivity. And if we recognise when those windows are, and maximise them, we can go further faster.
3. Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.
If you are waiting to feel good to get focused and be disciplined, forget it. This is particularly true if you experienced childhood trauma, and your brain is geared to back away from stress. If you sit down to achieve something, you are likely to feel edgy, jumpy, or tired and achey.
Get a timer and set it for ten minutes. Then sit with that feeling of discomfort instead of jumping up and avoiding it. Even if you feel like you are not really getting any work done, see it through. Keep adding five minute increments to the timed sessions, seeing how long you can work despite the extreme feeling of discomfort. And is the feeling starting to shift? Even stop? As your brain realises work stress is not ‘dangerous’?
4. Engage with self-discipline’s siblings.
Remember that triad of self-control? Discipline, conscientiousness, and perseverance? They work together. If you struggle with discipline, engage the others to prop you up.
- What is the bigger picture here? How does this relate to my personal values? (conscientiousness)
- What are the benefits of continuing this, regardless of outcome? (perseverance).
5. Find a ‘watcher’.
Why is it that some of us can’t for the life of us show self-discipline in our personal lives, but are a productivity machine when at the office? Our brains, even if they are geared to avoid stress and further trauma, area also geared to seek reward. If you register approval of others as a type of reward, then you will be far more motivated when around colleagues and your boss.
Use this by finding someone to report in to in other areas of your life. This could be an agreement with a friend, or it could mean hiring a coach or talk therapist who you check in with weekly.
Time to get help with your lack of self-discipline? We provide a team of top London-based therapists known as experts in their fields. Or use our online booking platform to access UK-wide registered therapists and online counselling now.
Still have a question about self-discipline? Or want to share your own tip for ‘getting it done’? Use the comment box below. Please note we are unable to provide free counselling via comments.
Andrea M. Darcy is the lead writer of this site. Diagnosed with ADHD while in university, self-discipline has had to be learned, but she’s found her own unique ways of getting things done. And would argue that policy makers, in their efforts to create perfectly self-controlled citizens, shouldn’t overlook the superpowers of creativity and self-compassion. Find her at @am_darcy and on Linkedin.