The 5 Components of Self-Discipline


Last week, I attended a talk on self-discipline. It’s an issue I work on quite a lot with my clients, as it’s hard to embed new habits when our old ones are so ingrained. The talk was run by Windy Dryden, a legend in his field of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which he applies to the coaching arena. The theory and principles behind CBT are ones that influence my coaching practice heavily, as I firmly believe our behaviour is led/hindered by what we think and feel - a fundamental concept in CBT.

As self-discipline and motivation are things that many of us struggle with, I thought it would be helpful to share the observations and tips that Windy covered in his talk. I also volunteered to be coached live on stage by Windy. I can therefore share first hand how effective a CBT coaching approach can be - the challenge we spoke about was my inability to write regular blog posts. Since then, I wrote two blog posts in a week (this being my third) compared to only managing to write one a month previously! Breakthrough or what?!

Windy Dryden talks of there being five components to self-discipline, which need to be managed effectively if we’re going to become engaged in the new habit we are trying to embed.

1. Improvement

In order to be self-disciplined we have to want to improve. We need to set ourselves very specific goals that are our own and that are important to us. They need to be our goals, not someone else's, otherwise our ability to commit to them won’t last. Windy talked about them being worth the effort too - we have to make sure that we realise we are worth the effort, especially if they are health or fitness related. We deserve the things we seek to gain by changing our behaviour e.g. our bodies deserve to be healthy by not eating junk food.

2. Long Term Self

It is the Long Term Self that helps us identify what we seek to gain from changing. Often, what we want to achieve won’t happen straight away; the results take time to see. It’s therefore important that our Long Term Self can identify the benefits of what we want to do. What do you hope to gain by changing your behaviour or career? Write these down and keep adding to them. Bring them out when you need to motivate yourself to keep on-track with your goal.

3. Short Term Self

Often, the problem with self-discipline lies with the Short Term Self; a pure pleasure-seeker, as described by Windy. It’s the part of us that wants to be safe, remain in our comfort zone, living the easy, pleasurable life, despite the negative consequences. It’s the part of us that refuses to get out of bed in the morning (because short term, it’s warm and cosy) even though we said we’d go for a run (which is better for us in the long run). It’s the part of us that wants to eat cake because it tastes so dam good!

4. Executive Self/Mediator

This is the part that mediates our Long Term and Short Term Self. It tries to balance out our short term needs with our long term gains. It’s this part that we must access and develop if we want to be self-disciplined.

An audit needs to take place if we are to be self-disciplined. We need to take the time to consider the short term and long term benefits of engaging in the behaviour we're aspiring to, and the short term and long term costs of implementing the specific goal we’re working on. We then need to record the same benefits and costs of not implementing that goal. What needs to happen is that we realise that the gains of achieving our goal largely outweigh the costs. It might not be pleasurable to start with, and it’s likely to be out of our comfort zones, but that’s where change/the magic happens!

5. Obstacles

When trying to be self-disciplined, we encounter a variety of obstacles that threaten to de-rail us from achieving our goals. We need to have a plan for how we will overcome these when they arise.


Refraining from something pleasurable for a long term gain is incredibly hard. We all know how hard it is to resist our favourite food or drink when we’re trying to lose weight, for example.

Windy talks about the need for a replacement behaviour to help us overcome this sense of deprivation. If you drink wine in the evenings because it relaxes you, what could you do instead that relaxes you and helps you sleep? The alternative habit becomes the distraction and replacement for the behaviour you are trying to stop.

Our beliefs:

The breakthrough for me came when Windy discussed how our limiting beliefs can hold us back from being disciplined and productive. For me, I hold back from implementing several goals (like running, business development tasks etc) because “I don’t feel like doing them”. We tell ourselves that we must be in the mood/motivated to do something. Having this belief therefore completely stops us from engaging in the behaviour when our perceived conditions are not in place, which are fairly often, in all honesty.

The trick is to see these as ‘desirable’ conditions, not ‘essential’ ones. With this in place, we’re more likely to start something and then our motivation and mood tends to kick in once we get started - a bit like me writing this blog post. Previously I would’ve told myself “I’m not in the mood to write a blog” and waited weeks and weeks for a window where I felt motivated to get started. Instead, I recognised that yes, I wasn’t necessarily in the mood but that I could at least start writing the article and see how far I got. Low and behold, I now feel in the mood and I’m finding it easy to continue writing, despite it being a Friday night (I'm so rock and roll)!

We believe that we deserve to be comfortable, that we should wait until we are ready before embarking on any change - these beliefs just hold us back, limit our potential, and keep us behaving in ways we know are not congruent with the goals we have set ourselves. We must realise that we can get started before we feel ready. We might never feel entirely ready, which means you just waste valuable time waiting for something that might never come. You might as well get started and see what happens.

The trick here is to start small, nothing too ambitious; aim for baby steps to start with and build up to more challenging goals once you’re in the groove. Going from one extreme to the other is never going to be sustainable, which I learnt when trying to go from nothing to running every day - of course it’s not sustainable and I ended up giving up completely. Much better to start running once a week, then twice, then three times etc.

The other belief that we all grapple with comes up when we experience urges whilst trying to refrain from an unhelpful habit. We believe that we can’t possibly stand to be deprived from what we crave, we believe that we absolutely must have what it is we want, after all we deserve it. The trick is to get used to experiencing these urges and not giving in to them. We then realise that the world doesn’t end when we don’t get what we want - we can cope with deprivation for the sake of our longer term aspirations. Windy suggests seeking out the opportunity to experience your urges and get used to such discomfort. Practice your ability to tolerate and overcome your urges, learn what it is like to withhold, and realise that you don’t have to act on them immediately. You have the choice whether to give in to them or not. Learn what helps you to overcome your urges and implement more of that behaviour next time you experience the urge to go against your goals. Windy describes it as developing a ‘high frustration tolerance’, which I thought was a pretty good term for it.


We have to teach ourselves to decline the unhelpful invitations we receive each day that threaten to de-rail us from our goals. We can think for ourselves and refuse to give in to the pressure (from ourselves, friends, and society) to take up unhelpful invitations.

However, if we do give in, it’s worth noting that this is a very normal part of change. When we’re trying to adapt our behaviour, it’s very common to slip back in to old habits or to not engage in the way we wanted to. That’s fine. We just need to learn what triggered us to come unstuck, plan how to overcome that obstacle next time, dust ourselves off, remind ourselves of what our goals were, why we want to achieve them, and then try again. Remember, it takes time to embed and maintain new're definitely worth effort though!

If you really struggle to implement and stick to your own goals, contact Alice to arrange a free introductory session to discuss how Life Coaching could help you develop your self-discipline and create sustainable change in your life.

Alice Stapleton

About Alice

Alice coaches those who want to change career but don’t know what they want to do instead. She offers Career Coaching designed to help graduates, early to mid-level career-changers, and parents returning to work gain a clear vision of what career is right for them, and how to achieve it. She is also an accredited Coach Supervisor, and host of The Career Change Diaries podcast.