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How to Be Disciplined: Discipline as a Self-Relationship

Profile picture of Samson ZhangSamson Zhang
Jul 19, 2021Last updated Jul 21, 202111 min read

This week*, I tried to be more disciplined for the first time in my life.

(*two weeks ago as of the time this article is actually getting published)

In the past, strict goal-setting and time-boxing always felt stifling and ineffective to me: to tackle the root cause of unproductivity or driver of productivity, I should manage energy, not time, I believed. If I was struggling to complete my tasks, it meant that I was overloaded and should cut down my commitments, not that I was undisciplined and should work harder.

The commitments I'm juggling now are varied and many: organizing a co-living house, doing hours of contracting work, writing for a newspaper, preparing to go to college in the fall, and more. I've had to push back deadlines and fail to fulfill promises; with my old mindset, I would have seen this as a signal to start cutting commitments.

Surrounded by hardworking and ambitious people, though, I've started to wonder if there's more I can get out of myself. The people around me have been a catalyst for this questioning: Kristie runs a crypto fund, works as a full-time+ engineer, travels and connects with people, writes, and does a million other things. Kevin enrolls in every competition he can find, runs a literary magazine, juggles multiple research projects, and plays piano pre-professionally. Linus Lee works as an engineer full-time while continuously hacking out side projects, writing prolifically on his blog, writing prolifically on his other creative writing blog, and pursuing music and art.

Given what these people were accomplishing, do I really need to drop commitments just to focus on Edyfi and software work? Will I really need to drop out of tech, more or less, to have a good time at Pomona? It seemed like these were arbitrary limitations that I placed on myself rather than natural optimizations. Plus, if I wanted to pursue my double major/3+2 engineering path at Pomona, I wouldn't have the choice to not juggle multiple avenues of pursuits at the same time.

Thus, scheduling meetings and accountability syncs as an Edyfi organizer, I decided that I wanted to try something other than my old methods. I wanted to implement structures to allow me to build discipline, to try and rise up to the commitments in front of me rather than bringing them down to my level.

Here are four points on how I approached the challenge, what I learned.

1. Discipline is a self-relationship

Discipline stems from the relationship between your conscious and unconscious selves.

I first heard about the idea of the relationship between the conscious and unconscious in a podcast with Phil Stutz, a Hollywood psychiatrist who has worked for high-profile celebrities and executives.

Your unconscious mind serves you with ideas and impulses. Your conscious mind then takes these impulses and makes something of them -- or not. Maybe you'll follow through with a scary idea, or maybe you'll back down from it and choose a less risky one instead.

Taking action and following through with your unconscious mind's suggestions strengthens the relationship between your conscious and unconscious minds. Knowing that you'll follow up on what it presents to you, your unconscious mind will invest more heavily in you, giving you more ideas and energy to make use of.

I applied the same strategy to building discipline. If I have tasks I need to get done, my conscious mind asks my unconscious mind for some commitment and motivation. My unconscious mind tentatively says, "okay, sure," and hands over a bit to see how things go.

If I take that energy and follow through with the tasks I promised I'd use the energy for, then my unconscious mind trusts me more, and the next time I ask for energy or willpower my unconscious mind will be willing to hand over more.

Conversely, if I fail to follow up, my unconscious mind will be hesitant to lend me more resources in the future.

The latter of those outcomes is procrastination, when emotional fear (i.e. from your unconscious of you squandering resources) prevents you from taking action. The former of those outcomes is discipline: the ability to consistently turn goals into outcomes, surmounting obstacles in the way.

2. Structure scaffolds trust-building

In order to build a habit of fulfilling promises, promises must be consistently made in the first place. This is where planning structure is crucial.

If you only have a loose idea of what you're going to do over the course of a given day, it's very hard to hold yourself accountable: both failure and success conditions are unclear.

Conversely, listing out specific tasks and time blocks provides concrete opportunities for building discipline.

There are many ways to build structure. I've seen people meticulously time-block entire weeks, or set consistent times of day for certain activities like reflection or meditation.

Personally, for my trial week, I took a more flexible, fast-moving approach. Each night, I wrote down must-do tasks for the next day: finish an article, a certain set of features, etc. I'll often do rough time-blocking, in text and as empty Google Calendar events.

Mindful of the larger picture (i.e. three buckets per day), I also analyze the themes of the tasks I'm doing; but I didn't bother with planning more than a day ahead, or setting weekly or monthly goals.

With this very simple structure, I was able to build a robust positive feedback cycle. Crossing off tasks each day made it easier to do the ones I wrote for the next, and the next, and so on.

The negative feedback cycle, though, is just as strong and destructive. After the week, I stopped writing daily plans for the next day. I thought that I had built up a bit of discipline and could now handle a mental rather than written task list.

Perhaps with more time I could have, but this decision proved disastrous for the past week. My ability to stay on-task and make use of my time well slipped away almost completely, and I found myself completely wasting as many ho (urs a day as I spent working.

Another week down the line, I kicked off today by planning my day as I did before. Now, the habits kicked in: even the emotionally daunting task of writing a high-standards newspaper article about an unfamiliar topic, I was able to complete as scheduled.

This also explains why external workloads can make us more, rather than less, productive, e.g. students with heavier courseloads often do more outside of classes than students with lighter ones. External deadlines force you to take on structured planning for your time and energy, when you might struggle to do so as consistently or effectively on your own.

In summary, what structures work for building discipline varies by person and time; but some sort of structure is crucial, and a simple, short-time-horizon one may serve you well if you're just starting out like me. (I would recommend Updately for that :) )

3. Relationships with others are a threat -- to be balanced

When my experiment was going well, which it did for most of week, most distractions, like social media or YouTube, easily fell away. Doing what I wanted to was simply more fulfilling. Having my phone next to me with notifications on wasn't even a problem.

What did cause me trouble, though, were the people around me. I scheduled an interview in the middle of my trial week, and got to it on time: but the dialogue soon turned to simply good conversation, and I felt my hard shell of discipline suddenly start to crack apart.

To understand why this is the case, I like to return to thinking about discipline as a relationship with yourself.

Unless you have a piece of media you're really attached to, no TV show or indulgent activity would usually outweigh, say, a close friendship; likewise, it poses no challenge to a healthy self-relationship.

On the other hand, multiple relationships with people can certainly meaningfully conflict with each other. Splitting time and energy between a partner and friends, for example, is a common source of struggle.

Relationships with other people, then, is something far more powerful than other distractions, easily powerful enough to challenge your relationship with yourself (i.e. discipline and productivity).

You could solve this problem by cutting off other relationships. In certain circumstances, this can be appropriate: if you're grinding for a particularly important deadline, it makes sense to cut back on social activities and time with others.

As with other sets of relationships, though, the healthiest solution is usually balance. It'd be dangerous to completely stop maintaining relationships with your friends once you have a partner, but it's also important to set aside quality time and energy for specific relationships.

Treat discipline, then, like any other important relationship in your life, e.g. one with a partner or family member. Make sure you spend quality time with yourself to maintain discipline (i.e. setting tasks and staying focused), but also reserve time to develop other relationships (i.e. chunks of time that you don't plan, prioritizing relationships other than your own self-relationship).

4. Basic needs (sleep, food, water) underlie it all

Lack of sleep often accompanies with ambitions of productivity. Working longer and harder leads to more work done, right? Or missed meals: I've had days -- even today -- where I would have forgotten to have lunch if I hadn't scheduled it in my calendar.

What I discovered in my trial week, though, was that physical unhealthiness and discomfort is actually one of the deadliest threats to discipline.

If you don't have the physical capacity to push yourself along, your relationship with yourself will fall apart. Hearing blaring alarms from your body about its derelict conditions, your unconscious self won't have any time to recognize the work you're doing, good or bad. No matter how well you plan or how much willpower you try to muster, it eventually becomes simply impossible to stay focused.

If your unconscious mind gets used to the alarms, you may be able to keep squeezing focus out. Even if you operate at near-full capacity then, though, you're putting yourself in a much less predictable position. With good sleeping and eating habits, you can take a day's hit if needed and spring back afterwards. When you're already pushing the line, though, an added burden can cause you to break through and spiral out of control.

After the initial trial week, which involved a near-all-nighter in which I learned the above lessons, I set a healthy amount of sleep as a second optimizing metric in addition to pure disciplined time management. As someone who enjoys cooking Chinese food, eating heartily and healthily is not usually a problem for me, and I always keep my water bottle with me to stay well-hydrated.

The latter two of these things, and soon hopefully sleep along with them, are as big contributors to my ability to stay disciplined as any of the planning I do.


I maintain strongly that discipline isn't an end-all-be-all thing to strive for. Being more disciplined hasn't made me happier or healthier. Looking back on what I accomplished in complete unstructured weeks, I'm not convinced it's even increased my work output. There's much more to both life and work than time management.

Still, I feel much better about myself and how I work after doing this challenge. I now have a mechanistic foundation on which to build, both in terms of further increasing my discipline and productivity, and increasing my understanding of what drives me, in structured and unstructured ways.

I'll continue to aspire towards the Kristies, Kevins, and Linus Lees of my life in my own authentic way, running experiments and recording results as I go.

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