How to Build an Ironclad Personal Discipline


“The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens.” Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold probably enjoyed going to the gym. But just an interest isn’t enough to become the seven-time Mr. Olympia champion. Especially if you aren’t feeling particularly motivated to push beyond the last few painful reps. Arnold had an ironclad personal discipline, and having a strong discipline will make the difference if your motivation drops and you feel like quitting.

Building discipline is a lot like building strength. The times when your commitment wavers and you feel like backing down test the limits of your discipline. Every time you brush that limit and keep going, you slowly build your personal discipline.

Discipline is Your Failsafe

A failsafe is a device that won’t create damage if it stops working. Discipline is your failsafe to ensure that an unexpected drop in motivation won’t shatter any progress you’ve made. Motivation has definite power, but it can waver during challenges and failures.

Motivation is rarely a constant. I’m sure you’ve had days where you are driven to work on a project or goal for hours at a time. I’m also sure you’ve been drained and making any effort was difficult. What determines your motivation is a matter of your emotions, energy levels and focus at the time.

The problem occurs when your motivation drops at a key moment. As Arnold mentioned, those last few reps make up most of your increase in strength. It doesn’t matter how motivated you were for the entire buildup if you can’t push through the resistance.

A great example of where an ironclad discipline can be helpful is changing habits. I’ve noticed that the first week I’m usually highly motivated. After a week or two, the motivation drops as the conditioning takes over. Unfortunately, if a challenge comes up that might threaten that conditioning (birthday cake when you’re on a diet) your motivation might be gone by that point. Discipline helps when motivation fails.

Building an Ironclad Discipline

If you feel your discipline is ready to topple at the slightest breeze, how do you go about building discipline?

The best way is simply to train it. Like a muscle, simply condition yourself by facing more difficult challenges and persevering. As you continue working through it, your discipline will rise and you can move through harder problems. Steve Pavlina mentions this method in his series on self discipline.

There are a few other methods I’ve found useful when building an ironclad discipline. Here are some you might want to try:

1) Creating a Mantra

In one of my favorite books, Dune, the main character Paul Atreides speaks a mantra known as the litany against fear:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Paul repeats this mantra whenever he encounters a particularly painful or frightening situation. Although this is a fictional example, it speaks to the importance of words in controlling thoughts. By creating your own discipline mantra, you can push yourself forward despite fear, pain or laziness.

2) Use Motivation On-Demand

Discipline could also be thought of as motivation on-demand. Forced motivation to get yourself to do something rather than the natural motivation that comes from inspiring goals and passionate work. Using tricks for motivation on-demand you can boost your discipline temporarily.

Some good methods to get motivation on-demand include:

  • Carry a list of your goals. They can inspire you in pessimistic times.
  • Write out your commitments.
  • Commit publicly or to a friend.
  • Get leverage on yourself.
  • Set a stop-point for when you can quit. For example, if you feel like giving up writing, commit to go for another twenty minutes before taking a break. Often you will rebuild motivation and breeze through the twenty minute mark.

3) Measure Your Discipline Levels

Do you think Arnold would have gotten to be the seven-time Mr. Olympia if he didn’t know how much weight he could lift? Probably not. If you don’t know where your discipline levels are, you can’t do much to build on them.

When you give up and your discipline fails you, this isn’t a time to beat yourself up. Instead, go down and mark out how much you managed to do when you failed. Consider this one sample position of your discipline. For example, if you fail to stick to your diet after three weeks, set a goal to last for two and a half. If you can only work six hours straight, try moving it up to seven.

Knowing your limits is the key to pushing past them.

  • Ketan Patel

    This is good article Scott. I can really relate to the roller coaster motivation part. I love the feeling of starting a new product but rarely have the drive to see it through to the end, which is one of my biggest problems.
    Lot’s of food for though in this article.

  • Tejvan Pettinger

    Thought provoking article. Discipline is easier when we focus on the benefits, rather than the difficulties. Best not to fear the necessary discipline.

  • Mark Freedman

    I can relate when it comes to exercise. I had to develop the discipline of going to the gym every day when I started my diet. I forced myself to go when it opened at 5:00 AM each day, which was great since I never even really woke up until about halfway through my workout 😉 Before I realized it, I was almost done. After losing almost all the weight I wanted (around 70 pounds so far), I’m at a steady four days a week, and if I get off track, I feel the same way I do if I haven’t brushed my teeth yet. So I quickly get back in sync.

    Also, I made it a game to get those last few reps in, even though I feel like I may not. Making it a game distracts my discomfort for the very short period it takes to get over the hump.

  • Scott Young


    Great job! Thanks for sharing your story.


  • Omar

    Wonderful. My goal is to limit my sweet intake. It’s challenging but I can do it. Haven’t had sweets in two days.

  • Laurie

    I googled to learn more and refocus on my goals, I have wasted so much time and energy by not developing discipline in my life. I have been a rebel for a multitude of reasons developed from bad experiences mostly childhood, another reason I choose to let go of. How long will I allow other peoples actions dictate my outcome? Enough, It is truly up to me to stop surrendering the control of my life. I am no longer a child, but the repeated cycle will continue only as long as I will allow. Making myself accountable, starting with goals, breaking it down, then setting a schedule to walk through the steps to fulfill my dream, reach my goal, this I understand, yet I’m still disabled that I have a lack of discipline. I must develop discipline in my life, I have never desired disciplne, but avoided it and very creatively at that. Anyone have suggestions or tips in achieving the next crucial step, how to build discipline into an undisciplined life? Thanks, LL