Self-discipline vs habit: which one stopped the candle from burning at both ends?

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

In 2016, I stumbled across a TED Talks about Coursera, a massive open online courses provider. I did a little research on Google to learn more about Coursera, almost instantly, I decided to give it a try. I have no recollection of how I finally came across the “Learning How to Learn” course by Dr Barbara Oakley and Dr Terry Sejnowski. For those four weeks in September 2016, I have allocated one-hour every day to sit in front of my desk and have my laptop playing the online course videos. I have to answer questions that popped up in between videos and read through the materials provided or suggested from time to time. After four weeks, I’d got my certificate of completion.

That experience of learning with MOCC ignited my passion for self-paced learning. I have been looking for resources to learn on the Internet, such as YouTube and Khan Academy for free courses, Coursera and Udemy for paid courses. I was still swamped with works at that time, yet, the feeling of wanting to learn more propels me to allocate time to learn. Finally, 2017 marked a special year as I had enrolled in graduate school to pursue a master’s degree.

The two-years study plus business expansion plan have somewhat turned my life into a 24/7 battlefield. I was either at work to expand my business throughout Malaysia, or I was at home studying. I missed numerous family and friend’s gathering for work and study. Soon, the feeling of burnout starts slipping into my waking moment and even takes away my precious sleep time. I faced a dilemma by the end of 2017, whether to put more time and effort into studying, work or at home. Soon, I felt literary too tired to work or study, and I thought I was losing my motivation, so I looked for motivational speech videos on YouTube or TED. Unfortunately, it wasn’t motivation that I was lacking. It’s habits.

Self-discipline has been the number-one characteristic for every successful person. They have a strict schedule and ritual to follow each day; they woke up in the odd hour (say, 4 am!) or read extensively (say, read a book in a week). However, it sounds terribly scary to become one of those who discipline themselves, follow strict rules and rituals! I am one of those who struggled to wake up early and definitely hate going to bed before 12 am. So all these waking-up-early-start-work-early ritual doesn’t fit into my life.

Books by Stephen Guise, Mini Habit: Smarter Habit, Bigger Results and Charle Duhigg, Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, taught me a different lesson. Instead of thinking about “discipline”,, I should focus on building a series of habits that will get me through each day’s challenges. Even better, if I could cultivate some keystone habits, it will cause widespread changes in my life.

So I followed the books’ suggestions and built mini habits that grow into keystone habits and have my life changed over time. Slowly, I start to wake up earlier, 30 minutes to 60 minutes earlier than I used to be; I read more, and most importantly, I learned more; I worked more effectively without adding extra hours; I even saved more money than I used to be. All these come with less stressful moments. Then I realised it is not self-discipline that brings success but a habit.

Self-discipline sound like self-torture where you must commit to a series of dull and painful routines, whereas building habits means you put a series of actions in the loop of cue-routine-reward. Habit is powerful as it passes through the consciousness and prompts you to carry out the actions without being aware of the whole process. Habit spend less cognitive resources, which caused less resistance and increased the chance you actually carry out the routines.

Waking up early could be torturing, especially for me, but building a mini habit of waking up 30 minutes earlier than I used to is easier. Mini habits could create a start on the things I needed to do, creating momentum to keep things running and drive real changes. My keystone habit of regular workout helps to contain stress and give me better sleep at night. In my case, habit triumphed over self-discipline; instead of relying on self-discipline to make myself read three to five reports every day, I set a habit to read at least five minutes. Initially, I stop reading after the five-minutes timer rang and do not feel guilty about such a short reading time. Committing to reading five minutes a day could sound silly, but the momentum of the action keeps accumulating until I could read more than fifty minutes without feeling stressed.

Reflecting on the events that happened in those two years, it was as if I went through a battle. In the end, I get through the battle with victory, but I knew I could not have done it without my secret weapon — habits!

Originally published at



Top Writer in Reading | Writer/trainer/teacher | I write about teaching and learning, habits, and mindset.

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Yean Foong (M.Ed.)

Top Writer in Reading | Writer/trainer/teacher | I write about teaching and learning, habits, and mindset.