Hearing the word self-discipline, many people might react with resistance. It sounds like an unnatural effort, an artificial constraint we put on ourselves that seems to be the opposite of freedom. But is it true? What does true freedom even mean? Is it to be free to do anything we desire? Or is it to be free to go beyond our desires and thus to be able to do what we deep down feel is right?
What Is Freedom?
Freedom is an abstract concept with many facets, and everyone might interpret it differently. Since it is nothing we can really grasp or measure, this blog post is more a philosophical investigation than a scientific discourse. It is not about defining freedom in an absolute sense, but about looking at it from a specific perspective. One that allows us to see that the seemingly opposing concepts of self-discipline and freedom are actually deeply interconnected and that they, in the end, even rely on each other to a certain degree.
So what is freedom? What exactly do we want to be free from? We could ask these questions in many different contexts, referring to aspects such as political or legal freedom. However, the concept I am elaborating on here refers to something else. It has nothing to do with external liberty or restriction. Instead, it is about a state of mind, an internal freedom. It is about being free from our own unconscious impulses and being able to always act on our deepest personal values. We can actually stop being a slave to our own mind, stop always submissively obeying its orders, and instead, begin to consciously choose our own destiny. This, in my opinion, is true freedom.
The Nature of Impulse and Desire
Most of us have certain habits we want to implement or change because deep down we feel that it would be the right thing to do. We might try to eat more healthily, exercise more, or work on our passion instead of spending our time scrolling through social media. So what is the reason it rarely works as planned? What makes us always fall back, break our resolutions, and do the things we know are “bad” for us?
Is it because we want that? Is it a conscious decision? Or would we actually love to stick to our resolutions, but instead often fall victim to our impulses? What is even controlling these impulses in the first place?
If we observe this dynamic closely, we can notice that we are actually not consciously controlling our impulses, but that they are controlling us instead. No matter what our ideals are regarding how we want to live our life, our momentary desires can overshadow them really quickly. As if a little devil sits on our shoulder, constantly convincing us to rather go for the short-term gratification than the long-term fulfillment. He makes us stay in our comfort zone and chase after the easiest forms of pleasure.
The reason why it is so hard to stick with our resolutions is that our willingness to do something often fluctuates greatly. One moment we might be really convinced that what we want is to eat healthily and not to indulge in candies or fast food. Yet in another moment, we might suddenly change our minds and let go of all our previous decisions. We can ignore all the initial reasons why we made this resolution, just because our minds changed their agenda. Sometimes it might feel as if we consciously decide to do so, but is it really true? Or could it be that it only seems so?
If we look back on our lives, did the decisions influenced by impulses and desires turn out to be the ones that felt right? What seems to be a better guide – our momentary impulses or our deepest values that we committed to in a more conscious state? Is it more free to always follow whatever our minds want or rather to be able to do what we deep down feel is right independent of our mood swings? How would we feel if we would practice self-discipline and do the things we resist instead of the things we crave?
The Mechanics of Self-Discipline
We can look at the concept of self-discipline from different perspectives. For this blog post, I define it as the ability to act upon our deepest values and intuition instead of our momentary impulses. Self-discipline allows us to stick to the commitments we made independent of our current resistance against them. For example, if we plan to eat healthy but then get triggered by all the candies in the supermarket, we will stay strong and resist our urge to buy them.
The first step to free ourselves from the control that our emotions, our neurotic thoughts, our habits and the triggers of our external circumstances have over us, is to become aware of them. If we are just fully absorbed, we will not even notice that it is happening and will believe we are the ones making the decision.
The awareness of the fact that we are not generating, but receiving all these impulses is the foundation for all forms of personal development. We have to become conscious of our ability to create a gap between stimulus and response. We can learn to choose our own reactions to whatever might trigger us. We can go beyond what our thoughts or emotions push us to do and instead act upon our deepest intuition.
The path of personal growth requires a commitment to do things that can sometimes feel challenging. This is why self-discipline is so valuable. It allows us to put in the necessary effort to step out of our comfort zone. Although it first might seem as if it is more difficult and painful than taking the easy way, it often turns out to be the opposite. Staying in our comfort zone is what can hurt us the most, whereas being proactive in life and pursuing our vision can feel deeply fulfilling.
It might seem counterintuitive, but if we are always looking for a shortcut in life without the willingness to work for it, we will most probably end up being disappointed. Life often gets even more exciting and fun when we are committed to what we truly want.
Discipline is an investment in ourselves. We can grow from it and create a foundation that will pay back in the long run. If we let go of some of our short-term pleasures and comforts, we might get rewarded with genuine long-term fulfillment. The longer we maintain our discipline, the easier it gets. Over time, we will get closer and closer to a state of true freedom.
The Relationship Between Self-Love and Self-Discipline
One aspect that is sometimes overlooked while talking about discipline is self-love. This does not mean that we think we are flawless and better than everyone else, but rather that we love ourselves regardless of all our imperfections.
It is often a form of unconscious self-punishment to do something that we know is somehow bad for us to a certain degree – as if we do not deserve to be truly fulfilled in life. Would we do the same if we would deeply care about ourselves? Would we want our partner, our family or our best friends to throw away all their resolutions for their momentary impulses? For example, would we want them to eat unhealthily, stop exercising, and spend all their time on social media? Could it be that the reason for these different standards is indeed a lack of genuine self-love?
Without self-love, we cannot be truly disciplined. It is possible to force ourselves to stick to our resolutions for a limited amount of time, but it will most likely backfire really quickly. We can only maintain a consistent discipline when we love ourselves enough to feel we are worth the effort.
If our motivation is solely extrinsic, coming from concepts about what is right or wrong, it will not last for long. Instead, true discipline comes from our intuition and a sense of deep self-love. We have to respect ourselves and have the trust that we can become the person we deep down aspire to be. Only then will we have a sustainable drive to commit ourselves fully to our personal growth.
How Self-Discipline Opens up New Opportunities
Beside the fact that self-discipline can change the internal relationship to our impulses, it can also have external effects. The more disciplined we are, the more efficient we become with our time and resources.
When we need to get something done, we often end up distracting ourselves with activities such as scrolling through social media, watching YouTube videos, or cleaning the flat. This also comes from a lack of self-discipline. In contrast, if we just stay focused on the task, we will probably be finished earlier and thus have more free time to do anything else afterward.
It is important to see the difference between working efficiently and overworking. Some people might assume that being disciplined means being productive all the time. Yet, it can be the opposite and can even allow us to work less and have more free time.
Another example could be that if we are disciplined enough to work on our passion consistently, we can become so good at what we do that it allows us to have more options in life. We can choose more freely where to work or what to do with our skills. It gives us the freedom of choice that we otherwise could not enjoy.
We can also apply the same logic to starting our own business. If we are disciplined and work on it for long enough, we might one day be free to decide how much time we still want to invest in it. At some point we might decide to retire early and enjoy our passive income without having to actively work for it – which would give us tremendous freedom on how we can spend our time.
These are just some examples from a long list of ways to use self-discipline to create more freedom in our lives. Effort and commitment can open up many opportunities we would otherwise never seize.
The Importance of Balance
It is important to know that self-discipline also has its limits. If we force it too much, it will eventually backfire. It has to be a natural process that feels right. In the end, one of the primary reasons we want to be disciplined is that it can create genuine fulfillment in the long run. But if we challenge ourselves too much, we will suffer more than we will benefit.
Sometimes it might also be important to let go of our self-discipline and pursue our desires. Going through the experience first-hand can actually teach us best why short-term pleasures do not really make us content. If we only follow the mere belief of what is right or wrong, we will not learn our lessons. Only by our own mistakes do we realize what we really want in life.
It is not about giving up all our pleasures or living like a robot that is doing everything perfectly. It is about balance. Many people fall into the extremes, either only chasing enjoyment without being able to be disciplined, or losing themselves in productivity while forgetting the fun in life. In the end, it is about learning to go the middle way, about conjoining the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-regulation.
How To Maintain Self-Discipline
To find the right balance, it is important to first find out what we really want in life. What are our highest values? What do we choose as our purpose? Who do we want to be as a person? If we could choose freely, what kind of life would we want to have?
If we have a clear vision, our discipline will follow more naturally. Therefore, it is helpful to approach this topic with strategy and commitment. Before trying to improve our self-discipline directly, it is essential to understand how it works and why we even need it in the first place. The next step would be to figure out how exactly we can implement these learnings in a practical way – which I will elaborate on in a future blog post. If you already want to do further research, I recommend checking out the books “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, “No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline” by Brian Tracy and “Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength” by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney.
Now it is up to you. Take your time, be honest with yourself, and find out what you truly want in life. And no matter how confusing it sometimes might seem – as long as we are in harmony with our intuition, we will always safely be guided through this unknown terrain.
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