Habits Aren’t Enough. You Need Discipline As Well


Jim Rohn once said, “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going”.

And while habit is what keeps you going, it isn’t always enough to keep you going indefinitely.

Allow me explain.

The Sequence of a New Behaviour

You have a goal. You want to lose 14 pounds, run a marathon, or write a non-fiction book. But in order to achieve your goal, you need motivation — without it, you cannot start.

But motivation is not reliable; it ebbs and flows depending on your emotional state and if you’re “not in the mood”, you can let yourself off the hook.

So perhaps you incentivise yourself to do your new behaviour instead, which, in turn, motivates you again and again. “If I do X, I receive Y”.

This is understandable: in the beginning, it’s painful and not doing it is easier. You have to buffer resistance by rewarding yourself for taking action, especially when you don’t want to.

If you’re really committed, you’ll study the science of behaviour change, particularly, habit formation, and identify a cue to trigger your new behaviour.

You make it a habit.

To achieve a goal, you need to build a system; one you constantly and never-endingly improve. If you “systemise” behaviours like dieting, writing and prospecting as habitual behaviours – in other words, make them automatic – you’re going to slim down, finish your manuscript and have clients.

But only for so long . . .

The Power of Habit

Books like Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and Jeremy Dean’s Making Habits, Breaking Habits have popularised behaviour change. They motivate us because they’ve introduced us to research-based strategies that work. We can implement them immediately and see the results for ourselves. Granted, change is hard, but it’s never been easier to flip the swtich.

The problem, however, is we’ve become hooked on habits. Yes, habituating behaviours is easier and doing so helps us achieve our goals. I for one have written about them at length here and I certainly owe a lot of my success to changing my habits.

But what I’ve come to realise is we can become dependent on them; we believe, like an operator, we can turn our autopilot on, sit back and relax, and be left to our own devices.

The reality is we can’t; even though behaviours become automatic, that doesn’t mean they no longer require conscious thought. You still need to be engaged while you’re doing them.

So here’s the rub: motivation is what gets you started and habit is what keeps you going, but discipline is what takes you above and beyond. 

The Problem with Habit

As we’ve learned in previous essays, at the core of every habit is the same neurological loop called The Habit Loop.

There’s a cue; a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. There’s a routine, which is the behaviour itself. This can be an emotional, mental or physical behaviour. And there’s a reward; a reason you’re motivated to do the behaviour and also, a way your brain can encode the behaviour in your neurology if it’s a repeated behaviour. [1]

However, when we become dependent on cues – and especially ones that are outside our locus of control – we risk forgoing behaviours that are essential in helping us achieving our goals.

Discipline, however, become a behaviour you must do; cues or no cues, you do it.

Consider the following examples:

Example 1. The habit is waking up at 06:00 every weekday. Your alarm clock sounds [CUE] and you wake up [ROUTINE]. The discipline is not pressing the snooze button, regardless of how groggy you are.

Example 2. The habit is writing 750 words every day. You open your laptop [CUE] and you write [ROUTINE]. But you receive a phone call from a friend asking you for a favour: he needs you to pick him up from the airport. The discipline is writing when as soon as you return home. No excuses.

Example 3. The habit is eating healthily. You’re at a restaurant and you’re asked to place your order [CUE], your meal arrives and you eat [ROUTINE]. But one day you’re in company and everyone orders dessert. The discipline is saying no, regardless of pressure from your peers to say yes.

To be disciplined, you must essentialise your ONE Habit. You don’t rely on habitual cues. You do it because you choose to; your “shoulds” become “musts”. You have emotional clarity. You think rationally about your impulses, rather than respond to them irrationally and emotionally.

If we are to change our behaviours, indefinitely, we need discipline.

The question is: why is discipline so hard to practice in the first place?

Self-Criticism Vs. Self-Compassion

The word discipline has a negative denotation. Have you ever looked it up? Here’s a definition:

The practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience (italics added). [2]

If we train ourselves to obey rules or a code of behaviour – say, running every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday – do we need to punish ourselves to correct disobedience?

Absolutely not, in fact, research in self-compassion studies – including one published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin – found people who self-criticise and self-punish were less motivated to change. [3]

Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field, said:

“I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.” [4]

Our culture is wrong.

Discipline isn’t something we should be afraid of; it’s something we should strive for. As Stephen R. Covey said, “The undisciplined are slaves to moods, appetites and passions”.

So, with that said, let’s break the chains that bind.

Let’s get disciplined.

How to Get Disciplined

To become disciplined, we must delay gratification. Understand: pain is unavoidable. You have a choice: either you can experience short-term pain and long-term pleasure from delaying gratification, or short-term pleasure and long-term pain from experiencing immediate gratification.

A lot of people err on the side of immediate gratification. Don’t be one of them.

There are lots of ways to build discipline. Here are three of my favourite ways. You can start, now.

1. Self-Assessment. You must identify where you need discipline and perhaps more importantly, why. To quote Nietzsche, “He who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how”. The Focusing Question and essentializing your ONE Thing will help you achieve this. Learn what’s causing you resistance and buffer it, immediately.

2. Self-Awareness. Understand why you fail. The blame isn’t on you; it’s on your strategy. Do you know why we fail to break bad habits? Simple: we overestimate our ability to control our impulsive behaviours and say no. Change your strategy. Become a Choice Architect and eliminate anything that will distract you. Remember: “Out of sight, out of mind”.

3. Self-Celebration. A minor tweak in an old institutional habit was a small-win for the LGBT Community – but it changed everything. Celebrate your small-wins every day. Congratulate yourself for not pressing the snooze button, for saying no to dessert and for not checking your Facebook before studying. And, while you’re at it, celebrate your failures as well. Congratulations: you now have a learning opportunity. Remember: asserting discipline is hard, so reward your efforts.

In closing, when you feel weak – and it will happen – do something different; anything that will change your behaviour. Focus on your breathing. Do one pushup. Stand on one leg. Do something.

A Final Word

If you want to change a behaviour in the long-term, you need motivation to start. And, as Leo Babauta says, “You need to make it so easy you can’t say no”; with regularity, it will become a habit. But, with consistency, it will becomes a discipline. An example of who you are, not what you do. The responsibility no longer falls on environmental cues; it falls on you. You do it because you must. You do it because you’re disciplined.

Rohn also said, “Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment”. Laziness burns that bridge. Discipline is always less painful than regret. You can do it. You can do it now.


[1] Duhigg, C. (2012) The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change, Random House: New York.

[2] Google.

[3] Breines J. G., Chen S. (2012) ‘Self-Compassion Increases Self-Improvement Motivation’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, [Epub ahead of print].

[4] Parker-Pope, T. (2011) Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges, Available at: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/28/go-easy-on-yourself-a-new-wave-of-research-urges/comment-page-13/ – respond (Accessed: January 22 2015).