Why Self-Discipline is so Hard

Self-Sacrifice — From Myself, To Myself

This is Odin, also known as the All-father. He will become the wisest and most powerful of the Norse gods, but not yet. For now, he hangs from Yggdrasil, the world tree that holds all nine worlds together, with a spear lodged in his chest. He will hang there for nine days, and nine nights, on the border between life and death. All the while, he peers down into the magical waters of the well below, calling out for the godly knowledge of the runes. Satisfied with his sacrifice, they emerge, revealing to him their wisdom and bestowing him with great power.

Odin had given himself to himself. Or, more specifically, he sacrificed his present-self for his future-self. It's no coincidence that he had to perform the greatest sacrifice for the greatest reward. This story is, at the least, a metaphor for self-sacrifice or self-discipline. And, it's one that we have been telling for generations.

The Myth(s) of Self-Discipline

Humanity has held the virtue of self-control in such high regards that it's a staple in most religions and the moral of many myths. In Christianity, the first sin - eating the forbidden fruit - was a lapse in self-control. In Greek mythology, evil entered the world when Pandora could not control her curiosity and opened the box. This myth, in particular, has even entered our everyday language. If I want you to avoid a temptation, for fear of causing disastrous consequences, I might warn you against "opening Pandora's box".

The elevation of this virtue to religious and mythic proportions highlights a commonly held belief: self-discipline plays a huge role in leading you to your best future, as in the case of Odin, or your worst one, as with Pandora. If this is true, it seems like it would be great if we could all have some more self-discipline. But, what is self-discipline?

People often use the term to describe someone who makes "good" long-term decisions by overcoming short-term temptations and that's reasonable. But, when you ask them how they overcome these short-term temptations, they often invoke some sort of will or willpower. What will actually means isn't really obvious. But, before we get to that, let's start at the beginning: the decision.

The Decision

At any point in time, you're making a decision on how to act. The difficulty arises when you have to make a decision between what's immediately gratifying versus what is not gratifying now, but will be in the future. In other words, the difficulty lies in delaying gratification. But, what causes you to not act impulsively?

The Brain — The Most Immediate Cause

The reason for any single decision you make is multivariate: genes, hormones, evolution, social environment, physical environment, past experience, context of the situation, and a multitude of other factors all play a role. But, the most immediate cause of any of your actions can be traced back to your brain activity. When discussing self-discipline, one of the best places to start is with the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Dopamine — Anticipation, Not Reward

In his book Behave, Robert Sapolsky puts forth an example that clarifies at least one of the primary roles of dopamine in our brains. Let's say that I take a monkey and stick him in a cage. Now, I put a lever in there that, if he pushes it 10 times, rewards him with a raisin. Next, I turn on a light that comes on before the lever enters the cage. In other words, the light signals that the lever will be entering the cage which, in turn, signals that the monkey will be able to get a raisin. As a result, the monkey learns to associate the cue (a light) with the reward (a raisin). Interestingly, the monkey will begin to release more dopamine in response to the light than he does when consuming his reward. Contrary to popular belief, dopamine is about anticipation more than it is about reward [4]. Certain cues in our environment hint at a potential reward and dopamine starts to rise in anticipation. Dopamine is what gets us to take action with respect to a goal [4].So, how does this relate to self-discipline?

Two Simulations

Let's say that you're deciding between an immediate reward and a delayed reward. When you think about the immediate reward, dopamine is sent to certain parts of the brain known as limbic targets [4]. When you think of the delayed reward, dopamine is sent to a different part of the brain known as frontocortical targets [4]. If the part of the brain associated with delayed reward is more stimulated, you're more likely to delay gratification [4]. Again, dopamine plays a role in driving our action. So, how does your brain decide how much dopamine is sent to each part?

The Simulation Process

Again, this comes down to several complex factors. But, pragmatically, the brains decision is affected by how pleasurable the reward is and how much time it takes to get that reward [4].

Here's an example to help you understand it intuitively. Let's say that I make you an offer: you can have $100 today or $100 tomorrow. The reward is the same but the time delay is greater in the second scenario. You'll probably take the $100 today because there's no point in waiting until tomorrow. But, what if I said that you could get $100 today or $200 tomorrow? It's more likely that you'll be willing to wait, if an extra $100 is pleasurable enough. But, what if I said that if you wait until tomorrow, you could get $101. You'll probably revert back to taking the $100 today.

Your brain does multiple calculations like this every time you decide. It creates a sense of wanting or reward seeking based on the speed and size of a reward. So, how do you end up determining what rewards to seek?

Desire & Habit

To live life is to have desires. The world fills you up with needs and wants, inviting you to come and interact with it. Every time you satisfy a desire, you receive an internal reward and a belief forms about how you did it. When that desire re-emerges, your brain activates the corresponding belief circuitry and dopamine releases, in anticipation of the reward, which motivates you to repeat the same action as before. In other words, you begin to form a habit. With each repetition, the neural pathway strengthens and you solidify the habit's role as the solution to your desire.

Here's the punchline: habits mediate the relationship between an individual’s desires and their environment. To change the habit, the individual, the environment, or both have to change, and that's why self-discipline is so hard.

The Individual

We have little control over the biology that determines our desires. According to Sapolsky, individuals with ADHD have abnormal dopamine responses when thinking about immediate rewards vs delayed ones: they're biased towards impulsive action [4]. Individuals who experience a childhood adversity are more likely to have an underdeveloped frontal cortex, making delayed gratification more difficult [4]. Eventually, we may be able to change an individuals biology using science, but the morality and long-term consequences of this are questionable.

There is a part of our biology that is more malleable: the brain. An individual can be changed with education. As people learn more about the world, they can test out new beliefs and reinforce new behaviors. But, this leads me to the heart of the issue.

A Social Problem

Self-discipline is much more of an environmental problem than it is an individual one. While an individual can change their beliefs and behaviors through education, the resources available for education are presented by the environment. Furthermore, the habits an individual builds to meet their desires are, in large part, a product of what's available in the environment. A study done by neuroscientist Carl Hart found that when meth addicts were given a choice between $5 and 50mg of meth, the addicts took the $5 half of the time [6]. When he increased the value of the cash reward to $20, they almost never took the drug [6]. He found similar results with crack cocaine addicts [6]. Hart suggests that addicts are actually rational decision makers, and will choose not to take a drug when there are "alternative reinforcers" [6]. It seems that drug habits are more likely to be formed when individuals are in an environment that offers no alternative or competing ways to meet their desires.

Bruce Alexander found similar results when he conducted his now-famous study: Rat Park [7]. Prior to Alexander's study, it was commonly believed that addiction was caused primarily by drugs. When you take a drug, you get addicted. That's how the story went. But, Alexander noticed that most drug-related studies occurring at the time placed rats in isolation. He wondered if this played a role in the rats deciding to take the drug. It turns out that it did [7]. When rats were in isolation, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them consume a drug until they died. But, when Alexander constructed a "Rat Park" complete with friends, sexual partners, toys, and so on, rats were much less likely to take the drugs.

Both of these studies present an interesting idea: addiction is much less likely to occur when you have greater access to alternative ways to meet your own desires.

From Me to You, and You to Me

In his Meditations,Marcus Aurelius said that,

We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.

People are a product of their environments a lot more than we like to think. By acknowledging this, we can have more compassion for one another but, more importantly, we can begin helping one another. By providing people with as many opportunities as possible for learning and alternative ways to meet their needs, we can eradicate the problem of self-discipline.



1. The Mythology Book. DK Publishing, 2018.

2. McCoy, Daniel. “Odin's Discovery of the Runes.” Norse Mythology for Smart People.

3. Satel, Sally. “The Science of Choice in Addiction.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 30 Sept. 2013.

4. Sapolsky, Robert M. Behave: the Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Books, 2018

5. MacBride, Katie. “This 38-Year-Old Study Is Still Spreading Bad Ideas about Addiction.” The Outline, The Outline, 5 Sept. 2017.

6. Hart, Carl L. High Price: a Neuroscientists Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know about Drugs and Society. Harper Perennial, 2014.

7. Alexander, Bruce K. “Addiction: The View from Rat Park (2010).” Bruce K. Alexander.