The Two Sides of Self-Improvement

We all have things we want to get better at; skills to learn and improve, projects to complete, or physical actions related to our health and appearance. We often hang the success of these goals on the power of our self-discipline. Conversely, failures to perform are blamed on a lack of discipline.

But discipline is only one half of the story.

Imagine waking up every morning, jumping out of bed into your running shoes, and heading straight out the door for a run. Later, at the end of the day, you stuff your face with ice cream right before bed. At the end of the month your weight hasn’t changed despite all the miles you’ve put in, and you bemoan your lack of self-discipline in achieving your goals.

Waking up to run each day takes discipline though, so it isn’t as if that is impossible to tap into. The obvious culprit here is the nightly ice cream party. And avoiding that doesn’t take discipline; it takes self-control.

The Two Sides

Simply put, discipline is what we do. The actions we take. It is the force that requires us to move, to put on those running shoes, or to sit at the desk and start writing.

Self-control is what we don’t do. It’s what we bring in to play when we go to bed early to ensure a good night sleep, order salad instead of fries, or put down that ice cream scoop.

Discipline is what we do. Self-control is what we don’t do.

This isn’t just semantics. Recognizing that these are two distinct operating modes allows recognition of how they can be used in different situations. Each requires different strategies to ensure success, and each can be strengthened through practice. Recognizing which tool to use in different circumstances helps stack the deck for a positive outcome.


If discipline affects what we do and the actions we take, then how to best stack the deck in our favor to ensure success?

Discipline is the precursor to habit. While it is difficult at first to wake up every day and go for a run, or floss every night, or write for 30 minutes, eventually the repeated action becomes a habit and is completed almost on autopilot. The inflection point that triggers the habit routine becomes very small and is the lever where your discipline needs to be applied.

The key is to identify that lever then create optimal conditions for completing it. Make it too easy to fail.

If you are trying to work out in the mornings, prepare your gear the night before so it is ready. Put it on and then just focus on getting out of the door. If you get outside you’ve won for the day, and at this point it is easier to just keep moving than it is to go back inside.

In The One Thing, author Jay Papusan figures that it takes around 66 days to build a new habit and encourages us to choose One Thing to focus on at a time. At the end of each period the action has become a habit and the discipline required to execute it is minimal. A new action is then chosen and will be “stacked” on top of the previous one.

Remove the obstacles to discipline and identify the lever where its application will have the greatest affect.


Often referred to as will power, this is described by the American Phsychlogical Association as “the ability to delay gratification, resisting short term temptations in order to meet long term goals”.

Self-control is what you don’t do. It is avoiding the things that move your life in the direction opposite that you want it to go. And it is the more difficult skill to master.

Our desires are formed from thousands of years of evolution and many of them rest deep in our lizard brain. They can never be expunged and must be resisted time and time again. Sometimes we win the battle and others we lose. What can we do to improve the odds in our favor?

Environment design is the first place to start. Just as we are often driven by our base desires, we are also inherently lazy and will gravitate towards the easiest option in many instances. Trying to lose weight? Get rid of all junk food in your house and keep a bowl of apples on the counter. Want to spend less time on social media? Delete the apps from your phone and only check it from your laptop.

Make it hard to do the things you want to avoid and easy to do something more positive. Delay the gratification of these actions and use them as a reward, rather than a crutch.

I love reading, but there was a point where I would read when I should have been writing. At the end of the day I hadn’t written a thing but had polished off another book. Something had to give. I made a deal with myself that I could start reading (reward) once I had written something (trigger). A single paragraph was enough, but this had to happen each time before I picked up that book. This helped establish a healthier balance and I was able to get things back under control.

A second technique that helps with self-control is to pre-determine your responses. Use an “If this then that” statement as a guide.

“If we go to a restaurant then I’m going to order a salad.”

“If they bring drinks I’ll have one and then switch to water.”

“If I’m invited out then I’ll take a raincheck.”

Make your decision ahead of time so that you’ve already practiced the response. This especially helps in situations where your default (easiest) decision is one that you are trying to stop or minimize. Eventually these decisions will become the new default decision once they have been applied enough times.

Divide and Conquer

Changing out bad habits and developing new ones can be a big job, but is made easier by separating techniques for the things you do (discipline) and the things that you don’t do (self-control). They are two sides of the same coin and, when used together, will help you achieve your goals more effectively.

One or the other will usually come more naturally to most people. The trick is to realize where you are flagging, then take steps that are tailored towards specific action to stack the deck in your favor.