Self-Discipline Comes First

The most important skill is execution. Having great ideas, wise decisions or clever strategies comes second. The ability to get things done is paramount.

This why I sigh when I hear people complaining about being unable to stay motivated on a project because they aren’t sure whether it’s the right one. These people have it backwards—if you can’t get projects finished, it doesn’t matter if it is the right one.

Ask yourself this: if you gave yourself a project that you had to commit to, no matter what, for one year, could you see it through? What about five years? Ten?

Tying Yourself to the Mast

It took me awhile to realize that the get-it-done-no-matter-what discipline was the skill I lacked. Before I started this blog, I had many ideas that failed to realize. Business ventures that never hit the market. Personal goals that were abandoned soon after they had begun.

Every time they died, I had the same excuses. It wasn’t a good idea (but my next one was perfect, of course). I was bored with it. I wasn’t motivated.

Maybe these excuses were valid. Maybe the projects were bad ideas, boring or not motivating. But most ideas are. Few ideas are perfect in conception—it’s through the grueling process of execution that they get sculpted and improved.

The triggering point for a change in me was realizing that the thing I lacked wasn’t a good idea—but the ability to finish. So I changed my aim: for my next project, I would set tight constraints and finish it, no matter what.

I can’t say discipline was instantaneous, but reframing the problem helped considerably. Because I recognized that my inability to execute was my true weakness, I stopped trying to make excuses and focused on trying to get it done. Even if it was a bad idea, boring or not motivating.

Odysseus tied himself to the mast to avoid the allure of the siren’s song. Knowing he would be tempted, he constrained himself in advance so that he couldn’t make a rash decision. If you’ve struggled with execution in the past, you need to find your own mast to tie yourself to, so that you won’t give up for any reason.

Stubbornness isn’t always a virtue. Often there are good reasons to give up. But those decisions are much easier to make when they are made on a firm foundation of discipline. If you base all your decisions on the temporary whims of laziness or fatigue, you’re likely to crash upon the rocks.

Training Discipline with 30-Day Trials

Small projects are a good starting point for training discipline. They are short enough that even if their concept is seriously malformed, you won’t waste too much time.

I started with thirty-day trials. This is where you commit to a new habit or behavioral change for an entire month. Good candidates are exercising every day, waking up at a particular time or giving something up, like drinking or smoking.

While the habit changes themselves are worthwhile, the biggest benefit of doing this practice was that it strengthened my self-discipline. Each trial was a burst willpower, like lifting a heavy weight. With enough repetitions, the weight becomes easier to lift.

I remember jogging at 6am in the morning after having spent the entire night awake at a party, to make sure I didn’t miss a day. I remember waking up at 5am every morning while reading the unabridged edition of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

Neither of these were necessary. I’m sure if I had skipped one day, my fitness habit wouldn’t have suffered. It’s also unlikely I needed to grind myself through reading what turned out to be a long-winded and boring book.

But the reason I did these was that I had tied myself to the mast of those one-month 30-Day Trials. I had committed to that trial, so I would see it through, regardless of whether it was necessary or enjoyable.

I wasn’t always successful either. My exercise habit took four attempts before I finally made it through the last one. Discipline is a lot like physical strength. If you’ve never been to the gym before, you won’t be bench-pressing 300 lbs.

I’d like to say that building discipline is easy, that there’s just some productivity “hack” you can use to have more willpower. But there isn’t. The only way to strengthen your ability to stop giving up is to stop giving up.

Why Bother?

To many people, the idea of pushing yourself that hard is a little silly. Even if people don’t come outright and say it, there is a certain condescending attitude we have to the overly self-disciplined. Nobody likes a try hard, and building self-discipline is practically the definition of trying hard.

In many ways, ignoring the social pressure is harder than the act of discipline itself. I used to keep my goals private because I didn’t want to add social pressures to my internal ones. I don’t worry about it now, but that’s probably because I’ve already built a great deal of confidence from years of practice.

It’s not silly. While I remember vividly my 6am post-party jog and 5am reading sessions, I also remember another moment.

Around five years after starting this website, I had a major project flop after a year of lousy income. I felt convinced that my business wouldn’t make it—and despite spending thousands of hours of work—I was still washing my laundry in a bathtub to lower my expenses.

At the time, however, I was still finishing school. Starting a new business was impractical, so I had decided the best course of action was to hold out a bit longer. If this business wouldn’t work, after I graduated, I would move onto something else.

Despite my doubts, I put together another project and tried again. This time it was Learning on Steroids, which forms the basis of my income today. All of this happened just a few months after convincing myself I wouldn’t be able to make it work.

I can’t say what would have happened had things gone differently. But I can’t help wonder whether all those 6am jogs and early-morning reading sessions helped me stick through just a little longer.

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  • Filipe

    Brilliant article Scott, as always.

    Not very related question:

    Do you have any technique or practice that you do when you feel bored?

    I’ve noticed I manage pretty well many kinds of emotions: anxiety, fear, uncertainty. But feeling bored for some reason is something that I have a hard time dealing with, and it’s the main reason I procrastinate on my projects. I’ve set up systems to not feel bored, which is useful but what do you do when it strikes nevertheless?

  • Zach Johnson

    Great post. I enjoy reading your posts and would like to eventually start a blog of my own. I am not quite sure what it will be about because I do not know if the things that I am interested in will interest others. Nevertheless, keep up the good work. -Zach


    HI Scott

    Very Nice Post, simple, clear and to the point as always. This one touched a cord in me as i am struggling to discipline myself to work on the ideas that i have. Will work on your 30 day rule and get back to u.


  • Anthony

    Self-discipline is fundamental. I am reminded of Will Smith’s comments on running and reading. Running teaches self-discipline. Reading opens up the whole of human knowledge.

  • Harry @ GoalsOnTrack

    Great post!

    Self-Discipline is one of a few key character traits that ultimately determine what level of success one can achieve in life. It’s like in those RPG games, your character’s several key attributes define how far you can go in the game.

    This applies too in reaching life goals. It’s not always about what steps to take, or whether you take them, but sometimes it’s also about what sort of person you must become first.

  • Will B

    Hi Scott,

    Great article. Just found your blog and it has been very useful.

    Getting the job done is the most important aspect of any project – sometimes. Background: I’m doing a second undergrad in Economics after a brief stint in corporate Calgary. In my experience, there’s a large both large benefits and downsides to finishing projects for the sake of finishing. I’m not being facetious; as you wrote, there’s definitely very real (but perhaps intangible) rewards to finishing something we start out of principal. Education is a good example; in a world where most white collars need to specifically trained to do a specialized job, the value of an undergrad degree is weighted more on completion than facts learned.

    However, at the innovation and testing phase, it’s better to FAIL AS FAST AS POSSIBLE. Self-discipline is important, but it’s more important to back off when we run into absurdity (e.g. finishing school after inventing Facebook).

    When someone tells me they can’t find motivation: I see it as my calling to convince them to QUIT; and be overjoyed if they prove me wrong.

  • Ariana

    Very good post Scott. Printed it out and gave to my children (and myself!), it’s important to receive words of motivation now and then just to keep up the momentum.

  • Martin

    I had a keychain in high school that was in the shape of a key and read “Self-discipline is the key to success”. I had that keychain for years and it reminded me how important self-discipline really is. I’ve long since lost the keychain but the message has stayed with me.

    Great post!

  • Rick


    Great post, I’ve only recently discoverd your blog, and I think the content is amazing. I’m sure everybody could learn at least from it.

    In your experience, did improving self-discipline this way also improve your ability to concentrate for extended amounts of time?

  • Jeremy Cook

    Nice post! It seems like my problem is coming up with too many ideas to realistically do. I’ve completed (at least to the point of being workable) several good “inventions,” but there are quite a few others that languish because I had another “even better” idea. Making random stuff is mostly a hobby for me, so I guess I should do what I enjoy, but I also enjoy finishing a project!

  • Khoi Pham

    Same here!

    Can’t express enough how much this resonates with me. I was thinking that a little change in environment usually works far better than a smarter plan. I don’t know if it’s social pressure or whatever but when I join a company I’m far more productive than when I’m working on my own project.

  • Scott Young


    Depends on the boredom. A lot of boredom is overcome with the kind of discipline I mention above. Other kinds of boredom are the result of you not making the goal intense enough.

    Will B,

    As I mention in the article, stubbornness isn’t always a virtue. But the decision of when to quit is a lot easier to make if you’re the kind of person who can persist easily. I don’t stay with dead projects now for nearly as long as I would have in the past, but I’m also much better at executing on all of my projects, so I don’t worry about the damage giving in once or twice will do to my overall self-discipline.


  • Reid


    Enjoyed the last newsletter. Also, I like the odysseus reference. I recently was contemplating how odysseus would have performed shooting his arrow through donuts instead of axes. Then, I asked a student of mine if it was possible as an interview question. He locked up.



  • Stephanie

    Awesome advice. I totally relate to this. Almost every single coding project I’ve started has never been finish. Always I said to myself, “It’s too hard. Start with a basic.”
    So I will try your method for this project I am on. Hopefully it works for me 🙂

  • Baggio Wong

    Hey Scott,

    Another excellent post – I’ve always struggled with self-discipline myself, and I’ve used a similar idea in the past to help improve, except I use something even simpler – 7 day challenges, instead of 30 days, because it just seems that much easier to accomplish something set for 7 days, after which you can easily extend it to 30.

    And I do agree that completion is more important than getting the “right” idea. I think the ability to complete something comes partially from character, and partially from your own interest in the project – I’ve seen people who are just “inclined” to see things to completion – it’s in their character, while others may need a little coaxing and reminders of why they’re doing what they’re doing to see things to an end.

    On a separate note, I just wanted to add a comment on self-discipline. I think that a large part of it is very much related to habit development. Rather than trying to push ourselves to achieve something, I find it useful also to reframe that challenge to defining the cues which trigger bad habits and changing how we respond. There’s certainly an element of “just do it” in this, but it’s just easier when you break the challenge down into conditioning yourself to respond a certain way to cues instead of pushing yourself via willpower alone.


  • Guillaume

    Good stuff, keep on 😉

  • Jonathan

    Best blog on the web (for me). Your ideas are invaluable and always seem to come at just the right time! Thank you for your constant, disciplined approach.

  • Jennie

    Self discipline is a skill. A skille that you need to constantly get better at. Practice it every day. Because the day you stop practicing is the day you start to lose it. That’s because no matter how skilled you are, there is always room for improvement. The best basketball player on the planet still misses a shot from time to time.

  • Ravi Moosad

    Your post reminded of a message posted by Tony Robbins in FB 2-3 days ago. It was like ‘Research has consistently shown that those who succeed tend to make decisions rapidly and are slow to reverse a well-thought-out position. Conversely, people who fail usually decide slowly and change their minds frequently. Once you’ve made a sound decision, stick by it!”

    I can’t remember the number of projects I left half way stating silly excuses like the ones you mentioned. However, I’ve decided now to be consistent no matter what. I’ve tied myself to the mast. Thanks for the great article!

  • Harsh

    Scott this month I made it a point to make calls between 10-12am. I felt resistance on many days but I still picked up the phone and called. I don’t know whether I will get the sales I want from these calls but I do know that I connected with many and if even 1 sale closes it validates my approach to pursue it further.

    Different people define “getting things done” in different ways. Charlie Munger calls is assiduity. You call it self-discipline. I say “it ain’t suppose to easy.” Self-discipline is fucking hard but necessary to do great work. Its a never ending process. Keep on executing->measuring->tweaking->executing->…

  • Erica Xu

    Nice article Scott, but one small typo in “Discipline is a lot like physical strength. If you’ve never been to they gym before, you won’t be bench-pressing 300 lbs.” “they gym” should be “the gym”.

    Edit Scott Young: Fixed! Thanks for the pointer!!

  • Eric

    This is something I’ve known on a certain level but have never committed myself to following through with as much as I’d like to. So, I’m going to spend at least 30 minutes reading a book every day. I’ve got plenty of time on my commute. 🙂

    Thanks, Scott!

  • Corne De Roubaix

    Nicely done, Scott. A well received post at exactly the best time.

    I however, am very determined in what i do, but get distracted very easily and then switch over to procrastinate. I know i have endurance, but i “loose interest, motivation”. I will definitely try this 30 day trail and push for the goal to accomplish it and feel great for a change.

  • Greg

    Thank you very much, Scott!

    This is the skill I mostly lack and what stops me from achieving my goals.

    I’ll try it and will tell you the results! I’d appreciate more posts of this type.


  • goodwince

    Scott, I have some of the same issues you mention. I’m definitely going to start tying myself to the mast. In many success books, I found one of the biggest powers to success is the never give up spirit. I believe your self-discipline talk is exactly this. I appreciate you for saying this.

    One thing I feel like could add to your post are a few more reasons to why self-discipline becomes easier. I think the ability to stick with something will grow, but we also learn how to control our behavior. For instance, you learned that you can only work so many hours per day. Or like your idea of making your work day “top-heavy”.

    My goals have been to build the necessary self-discipline by attempting to do tasks that take work and making it easier on myself by creating the least resistance. Closer to automation the better.

    Thanks for sharing. I’ll have to try some of your smaller tasks to help build it up!

  • Christian Flores-Carignan

    I’m reading Anthony Robbins’ “Awaken the Giant Within” and it approaches this issue in a different way, which seems to me much more effective. HOW we interpret the stimuli we come into contact with is FUNDAMENTAL. Also, getting past the fears that are holding us back (which we may not even be aware of) and establishing CONVICTION for our goals. These are just a few of the strategies that he describes in his book. I’m only a third of the way through, but what I’ve read has already significantly impacted my life in a positive way.

  • Michael Maslowski

    This 30 day trial sounds a lot like Steve Pavlinas 30 day trial method :p.
    I’ve been doing this for a couple months now and i noticed some nice successes in school already just by waking up at 6 am every day and going for a run every day. its encouraging to see other smart people participating in this as well!

  • Scott Young


    Yes–I first heard about it from Steve years ago. But it’s not Steve’s idea either, the idea has been very common in self-help for the last 50 years. It’s probably so popular because it has some merit!


  • lakshmi

    great post as always
    u r really taking the topics that always make us down
    and its really worth of it
    now on ,i’ll be restarting my 5.30 waking up program that i always used to give up
    see you after the 30 day rule
    thanks for the great articles