When people think about discipline, the term willpower usually comes to mind—pushing yourself to work hard or stay focused.
But if you actually observe highly disciplined people closely, you’ll notice something striking…
Disciplined people don’t rely on willpower.
Sure, they make use of it from time to time. But willpower isn’t their main tool for getting things done.
Instead, highly disciplined people cultivate mindsets that help them do consistently great work without needing to use willpower.
Here are 4 of my favorites…
1. Progress Through Subtraction
Maybe the biggest misconception I see among people who struggle to be disciplined is their “Do More” mindset…
They think being focused and productive comes from doing more things…
- Using another app or to-do list system to stay focused
- Using more positive self-talk and affirmations to motivate themselves to work
- Reading more self-help books and watching more YouTube videos about how to be productive
Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of these things… I enjoy a good self-help book as much as anyone!
The problem is the underlying belief behind them that says: “If I want to be more disciplined I need to do more.”
But here’s the problem…
The Do More Mindset leads to wasting even more time, energy, and resources on everything besides the real thing you need to do.
Instead, truly disciplined people take the opposite approach and cultivate a Progress through Subtraction mindset.
They know that usually the best way to stay focused and actually get meaningful work done—especially creative work—is to remove distractions and obstacles and let their natural motivation pull them toward progress.
- Instead of researching yet another app to help you be productive with your writing habit, try uninstalling all but the most essential apps from your computer so you’ll be less distracted when you sit down to write.
- Instead of trying to add more positive emotions to your headspace whenever you feel insecure and afraid about your work, focus on removing negative self-talk and chronic worry.
- Instead of spending more time researching and looking for inspiration in order to feel ready, try reducing your expectations and finishing a smaller part of your planned project rather than constantly tinkering on everything and never making real progress.
Here’s the main idea behind the Progress Through Subtraction Mindset:
It’s usually more productive to spend your energy removing obstacles and friction points than trying to add inspiration, discipline, or willpower.
So, the next time you find yourself stuck, procrastinating, or just wishing you were more disciplined, ask yourself this question: What can I remove or do less of that will help me work better?
“The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. Proficiency and results come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, or combining relaxation with activity.”
— Aldous Huxley
2. When You’re Stuck, Break It Up
Consistently disciplined people are also highly motivated.
Which makes sense… It’s much easier to be disciplined, stay focused, and be productive when you feel motivated to work.
But how do these people stay so motivated all the time? Were they just born that way?
Here’s the thing about motivation most people don’t understand…
The most powerful source of motivation is progress.
- You’ll be much more likely to stay focused and complete a report you’re working on if you successfully complete the first section in good time.
- You’ll be much more likely to stay focused and ship that new app you have an idea for if you successfully write some code every single morning.
- You’ll be much more likely to stay focused and write a weekly newsletter each week, if you write one small section every single day.
Here’s the key thing to realize about progress as a motivator…
The size of the progress has almost nothing to do with how motivated it makes you feel.
Just making some progress—even a tiny amount—will boost your motivation significantly, which means a much higher likelihood of staying focused and disciplined.
Which leads to this mindset: When you’re stuck, break it up.
Any time you find yourself procrastinating or stuck, break that work up into smaller chunks or tasks.
Because anytime you make even small amounts of progress, your brain will reward you with more motivation. And if you’re constantly completing small chunks of work, you’ll have a steady supply of motivation.
To the outside world, you’ll look incredibly disciplined. But inside you’ll know that it’s really that you always stay motivated by making continual progress because you’re smart enough to break up big projects into smaller chunks.
Progress is the best motivator. And the best way to always make progress is to chunk your work into smaller pieces.
“You have to show up before inspiration will.”
— James Clear
3. Less But Better
The Less But Better mindset is about giving yourself permission to focus on what really matters and ruthlessly eliminating everything else.
At first this can be challenging because of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out):
- I don’t want to say no to that new idea for starting a podcast—what if it was really popular?!
- I don’t want to spend all morning only working on one thing—multitasking energizes me!
- I* don’t want to focus my business down to one narrow product—what if the other three ideas turn out to be hits?!*
Imagining new things to work on gives you a brief hit of dopamine and the illusion of progress. But really it’s just another form of procrastination that makes it harder to be disciplined.
But in the long-run, all these shiny new objects actually deplete your motivation and make it harder to stay disciplined and focused because you’re chronically spread too thin.
On the other hand, when you say no to all the trivial stuff, all of your energy and focus gets dedicated to the one or two things that really matter. This inevitably leads to more progress, which keeps your motivation high and your discipline strong.
So, do your best to avoid the seductive call of doing lots of stuff. It feels exciting in the short-term, but it depletes you in the end.
Instead, make the uncomfortable decision to say no to most things so that you have the energy to say yes to the right things, which is where true discipline comes from.
“You don’t need more discipline, you just need a better reason to be disciplined.”
— Jack Butcher
4. Values Over Feelings
The final mindset of highly disciplined people is about prioritizing your values over your feelings.
Now, this doesn’t mean that your feelings are bad or that you should ignore them. Your emotions can be a tremendous source of inner wisdom and intuition. But they can also lead you astray…
- You sit down to work, feel the urge to procrastinate, and follow that feeling into mindlessly scrolling social media.
- You’re half-way through a task, get distracted by an email that feels exciting, and follow that feeling into your inbox, which leads to a phone call, which leads to getting distracted for the rest of the morning and losing the momentum and progress you were making.
Your feelings are like a good friend giving you advice… Sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes it’s not.
And when we have trouble staying focused and disciplined, a huge percentage of the time it’s because we followed our feelings when they didn’t align with our values—what we really want long-term.
On the other hand, people who are extremely productive and disciplined always check their feelings with their values…
- Let’s say you’re feeling excited to start coding that new project you’ve been wanting to work on… Does it align with your values and what you really want to be focused on? Yes, great, full steam ahead!
- But let’s say you’re feeling really excited to call your best friend and chat about all the new stuff you’re working on… Does that align with your values or conflict with them? Well, it sure feels more fun than actually working on the task in front of you, but it’s actually conflicting with your value of working hard on the essentials first. In this case, best to choose your values over your feelings.
It’s a misconception that highly disciplined people somehow ignore or suppress their emotions.
On the contrary, highly disciplined people have a healthier relationship with their emotions—they’re always aware of what they’re feeling and listen to these feelings, but they’re not controlled by them. And when their feelings conflict with their values, they recognize this and choose values first.
At the end of the day, being a truly disciplined person is about building the habit of asking yourself what’s actually in your best interest rather than impulsively doing what feels right in the moment. In other words, they’re clear about their values.
It’s a simple question but it makes all the difference in the end: What do I really want?
“The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”
— Joseph Ratzinger
All You Need to Know
Highly disciplined people don’t simply have more willpower than the rest of us. Instead, they cultivate mindsets that help them do great work consistently.
- Progress Through Subtraction
- When You’re Stuck Break It Up
- Less But Better
- Values Over Feelings
This article was written by Nick Wignall who is a board-certified clinical psychologist with an MA from The University of Chicago and a PhD from The University of Texas Southwestern. He is also the founder of The Friendly Mind, an email newsletter read by 50,000+ people each week that shares practical, evidence-based advice for emotional health and wellbeing.