By Steve Pavlina
This is the first of 6 wonderfully impressive articles on Self-Discipline that I came across on Steve Pavlina's website. As he has generously made them available to the public domain I will take the opportunity to share them with you.
The Five Pillars of Self-Discipline
The five pillars of self-discipline are: Acceptance, Willpower, Hard
Work, Industry, and Persistence. If you take the first letter of each
word, you get the acronym “A WHIP” — a convenient way to remember them,
since many people associate self-discipline with whipping themselves
In each of the articles of the series, I’ll explore one of these pillars, explaining
why it’s important and how to develop it. But first a general
What Is Self-Discipline?
Self-discipline is the ability to get yourself to take action regardless of your emotional state.
Imagine what you could accomplish if you could simply get yourself to
follow through on your best intentions no matter what. Picture yourself
saying to your body, “You’re overweight. Lose 20 pounds.” Without
self-discipline that intention won’t become manifest. But with
sufficient self-discipline, it’s a done deal. The pinnacle of
self-discipline is when you reach the point that when you make a
conscious decision, it’s virtually guaranteed you’ll follow through on
Self-discipline is one of many personal development tools available
to you. Of course it is not a panacea. Nevertheless, the problems which
self-discipline can solve are important, and while there are other ways
to solve these problems, self-discipline absolutely shreds them.
Self-discipline can empower you to overcome any addiction or lose any
amount of weight. It can wipe out procrastination, disorder, and
ignorance. Within the domain of problems it can solve, self-discipline
is simply unmatched. Moreover, it becomes a powerful teammate when
combined with other tools like passion, goal-setting, and planning.
My philosophy of how to build self-discipline is best explained by an
analogy. Self-discipline is like a muscle. The more you train it, the
stronger you become. The less you train it, the weaker you become.
Just as everyone has different muscular strength, we all possess
different levels of self-discipline. Everyone has some — if you can hold
your breath a few seconds, you have some self-discipline. But not
everyone has developed their discipline to the same degree.
Just as it takes muscle to build muscle, it takes self-discipline to build self-discipline.
The way to build self-discipline is analogous to using progressive
weight training to build muscle. This means lifting weights that are
close to your limit. Note that when you weight train, you lift weights
that are within your ability to lift. You push your muscles until they
fail, and then you rest.
Similarly, the basic method to build self-discipline is to tackle
challenges that you can successfully accomplish but which are near your
limit. This doesn’t mean trying something and failing at it every day,
nor does it mean staying within your comfort zone. You will gain no
strength trying to lift a weight that you cannot budge, nor will you
gain strength lifting weights that are too light for you. You must start
with weights/challenges that are within your current ability to lift
but which are near your limit.
Progressive training means that once you succeed, you increase the
challenge. If you keep working out with the same weights, you won’t get
any stronger. Similarly, if you fail to challenge yourself in life, you
won’t gain any more self-discipline.
Just as most people have very weak muscles compared to how strong
they could become with training, most people are very weak in their
level of self-discipline.
It’s a mistake to try to push yourself too hard when trying to build
self-discipline. If you try to transform your entire life overnight by
setting dozens of new goals for yourself and expecting yourself to
follow through consistently starting the very next day, you’re almost
certain to fail. This is like a person going to the gym for the first
time ever and packing 300 pounds on the bench press. You will only look
If you can only lift 10 lbs, you can only lift 10 lbs. There’s no
shame in starting where you are. I recall when I began working with a
personal trainer several years ago, on my first attempt at doing a
barbell shoulder press, I could only lift a 7-lb bar with no weight on
it. My shoulders were very weak because I’d never trained them. But
within a few months I was up to 60 lbs.
Similarly, if you’re very undisciplined right now, you can still use
what little discipline you have to build more. The more disciplined you
become, the easier life gets. Challenges that were once impossible for
you will eventually seem like child’s play. As you get stronger, the
same weights will seem lighter and lighter.
Don’t compare yourself to other people. It won’t help. You’ll only
find what you expect to find. If you think you’re weak, everyone else
will seem stronger. If you think you’re strong, everyone else will seem
weaker. There’s no point in doing this. Simply look at where you are
now, and aim to get better as you go forward.
Let’s consider an example.
Suppose you want to develop the ability to do 8 solid hours of work
each day, since you know it will make a real difference in your career. I
was listening to an audio program this morning that quoted a study
saying the average office worker spends 37% of their time in idle
socializing, not to mention other vices that chew up more than 50% of
work time with unproductive non-work. So there’s plenty of room for
Perhaps you try to work a solid 8-hour day without succumbing to
distractions, and you can only do it once. The next day you fail
utterly. That’s OK. You did one rep of 8 hours. Two is too much for you.
So cut back a bit. What duration would allow you to successfully do 5
reps (i.e. a whole week)? Could you work with concentration for one hour
a day, five days in a row? If you can’t do that, cut back to 30 minutes
or whatever you can do. If you succeed (or if you feel that would be
too easy), then increase the challenge (i.e. the resistance).
Once you’ve mastered a week at one level, take it up a notch the next
week. And continue with this progressive training until you’ve reached
While analogies like this are never perfect, I’ve gotten a lot of
mileage out of this one. By raising the bar just a little each week, you
stay within your capabilities and grow stronger over time. But when
doing weight training, the actual work you do doesn’t mean anything.
There’s no intrinsic benefit in lifting a weight up and down — the
benefit comes from the muscle growth. However, when building
self-discipline, you also get the benefit of the work you’ve done along
the way, so that’s even better. It’s great when your training produces
something of value AND makes you stronger.
Next installment will deal with Acceptance.