How to build self-discipline with joy, meaning, and challenge

Hard work is often seen as, well, hard work–something that drains your energy and requires a bit of suffering. Moreover, people often believe they either have self-discipline, or they don’t.

But is this always true?

Counter to common beliefs, research shows that people can develop self-discipline and even find hard work and self-discipline enjoyable, meaningful, and energizing. In this post we’ll walk you through the evidence and suggest science-backed strategies to do just that.

Specifically, we will discuss how to build self-discipline by:

  • learning to find hard work energizing and enjoyable
  • finding meaning in your work
  • treating weaknesses and setbacks as challenges

As always, our team of researchers have reviewed over 50 articles from psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience to ensure our suggestions are backed by the most up-to-date science available.


Build self-discipline by learning to find hard work energizing and enjoyable – AKA, “Learn Industriousness”

Hard work, in and of itself, can be enjoyable. Really.

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Perhaps you are thinking: please, of course I’d rather be relaxing on a beach right now than carrying heavy boxes or re-checking my company’s financial statement for the umpteenth time. And of course people need rest, relaxation, and time to enjoy life’s hedonic pleasures. But, importantly, hard work–be it moving boxes or crunching numbers–can also be enjoyable and even energizing.

There are many examples of this in our everyday lives. People like doing all sorts of difficult things that require self-discipline like playing competitive sports, completing 1000-piece puzzles, and spending hours preparing elaborate meals.

You might also have noticed that working hard and practicing self-control makes outcomes better or more meaningful. Perhaps the love put into a homemade meal makes it taste better, or you have felt pride and excitement after forcing yourself to master a new skill. Experiments have even shown that people value Ikea dressers more when they put in the work to build them!

self-discipline through hard word

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So take a moment to think about times that hard work was enjoyable and invigorating. Perhaps…

  • A difficult work project that required you to learn new skills turned out to be useful or interesting,
  • Forcing yourself to finish a dreaded assignment filled you with a sense of accomplishment,
  • Surviving several life setbacks made you feel like you could overcome anything, or
  • Finishing a hard week at work energized you to celebrate with colleagues.

Ok, so how can I enjoy hard work more? Let’s discuss “learned industriousness.”

Now that you have (hopefully) noticed that hard work can be enjoyable and even invigorating, we’ll discuss a science-backed strategy for cultivating the link between hard work and enjoyment: learned industriousness.

You might be more familiar with learned industriousness’ negative counterpart, learned helplessness. Learned helplessness occurs when people “give up” on trying, because they feel their effort never makes any difference.

Learned industriousness is essentially the (much better) opposite of learned helplessness; it happens when people believe that effort and self-discipline do lead to desired outcomes. Whereas in learned helplessness effort becomes a useless or even negative experience, in learned industriousness effort itself becomes a positive experience. On a biological level, reward-related parts of your brain start firing when you practice self-control or tackle a difficult task, because your brain automatically associates hard work with rewards. Even animals and small children can learn industriousness.

learned industriousness

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Unfortunately, when you struggle with self-control or life hits you with setbacks, it’s easy to start believing effort doesn’t increase success. So how can you start learning industriousness? Here are a few science-backed suggestions:

Create rewarding challenges. Think about what challenges you have enjoyed in the past or always wanted to try, and start doing them! Perhaps as a child you enjoyed word puzzles, you are scared of running but like the idea of participating in your office’s yearly charity 5k, or you’ve always wanted to learn basic carpentry. Use this as an excuse to make yourself do them. Complete word puzzles on your morning bus ride, begin a “none to run” program, or sign up for a weekend beginners woodworking class.

Whatever your interest, just make sure the challenge is difficult but doable. You want to start regularly reminding yourself that you have the willpower to complete challenges, and hard work pays off.

rewarding challenges

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Remember when your effort paid off. Human memory tends to focus on bad stuff. Before bed we replay over and over embarrassing moments from the day or things we should have done better. We don’t spend as much time thinking about the good stuff–say, how our meetings went off without any major glitches or how our customers are generally satisfied.

So to ensure your brain learns to link effort with reward, take some time to think about those times too. You could,

  • Every night, write down a time your self-control paid off that day. This could be something big like completing a project that took months of focus and willpower to complete. Or it could be something small like getting out of bed without hitting snooze first, so you got to work on time without rushing.
  • When you are feeling demotivated, take a break and recall one time from your past when your effort and willpower paid off. Perhaps it was passing an important exam or making your first sale. Savor this memory. Close your eyes and remember the details of where you were, whom you were with, and what it felt like.
  • Look around you at how other people’s hard work has led to success. This can be especially helpful is you are struggling to see examples from your personal experience.


Build self-discipline by finding meaning in your work AKA, “How to work even when it is not enjoyable”

Of course there will be times when you just don’t get a rush of enjoyment from your work. What then?  We’ll turn next to practicing self-discipline by focusing on your work’s meaning.

Find the meaning in work by remembering why you do it.

To begin, take a moment to think about why you want to work hard and develop your self-discipline in the first place. You may recall from this post on expectancy theory that you are more likely to achieve your goals when you remember why they are important.

Even though popular culture extols a life of leisure and ease, research finds that work can provide people a sense of meaning, increasing your overall well-being. Imagine, for example, that you are 90 years old and looking back at your life. Would you be happy to have spent every day watching Netflix or partying on the beach? Or would you also wish you had challenged yourself to reach your full potential and done meaningful work?

self-discipline through finding meaning

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Work can help fulfill basic psychological needs like the desire to feel autonomous (authentic and in control of yourself) and competent. It can also help you live a purposeful life consistent with values like taking care of family or personal growth.

So to make it more likely that you will achieve your goal of enjoying hard work and self-discipline, take a moment and think about why work is meaningful to you. Perhaps you want to..

  • Fulfill career ambitions like building a company or moving up in your line of work,
  • Master skills at something that is intrinsically interesting to you, like piano, photography, or kickboxing,
  • Create some kind of legacy by, for example, leaving the world a little better than you found it or creating something new,
  • Provide financial security for yourself or your family, or

Just see how much you can achieve and self-actualize if you make yourself focus.

finding meaning in your work

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This same technique of asking why can be used when you are unmotivated to do specific tedious tasks. For example, if you are frustrated by checking your company’s financial statement for the third time or hate weekly meetings, you can remind yourself of why these are important and how they relate to a bigger purpose. For example,

  • Checking details can be necessary to ensuring your work is accurate and organized, which helps you become the reliable person you desire to be
  • Weekly meetings serve the purpose of allowing everyone to give feedback and stay in touch, and having open communication among colleagues is an important value to me

When you are feeling demotivated, take a moment to reflect on these bigger, long-term reasons to help you find the meaning behind your work.

Craft your work to be more meaningful

If you are still struggling to find purpose in your work, take a moment to think about how you could redesign it to be more meaningful. Switching jobs altogether may be one option. But if that is not feasible, look for ways to “craft” how you spend your time at your current job to be more meaningful.

make your work more meaningful

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“Job crafting” refers to how people can modify their work to do just that. And there are multiple strategies that may work. For example, you could:

  • Change the actual tasks you have to do. Would different tasks be more challenging or innately interesting to you? Could you discuss with a supervisor or colleague how to shift responsibilities?
  • Change the people you work with. Are there any colleagues or supervisors that you enjoy working with or find particularly inspiring? Could you join projects with them?

By crafting your job to be more meaningful to you, you not only improve your personal experience but also may become a more effective, high-performing employee.


Build self-discipline by treating weaknesses and setbacks as challenges – AKA, “How to work even when you’re not very good at it (yet)”

Finally, the brutal truth is that there will be setbacks along the way. Your boss will hate the proposal you’ve been fine-tuning for weeks; there will be a day when you just cannot muster the self-discipline to continue to work. Your self-discipline will fail you.

Importantly, this is fine! It means you are human, and you may need to take a break and acknowledge that you feel bad.

Then, after you’ve taken that break, re-engage your self-control and get back to it. This ability to return to work even after failure–whether you call it resilience, hardiness, grit--matters even more than IQ to ultimately achieve success.

self-discipline through treating setbacks as challenges

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So how can you re-build your self-discipline after a big setback? Research shows that people who view setbacks as opportunities (rather than as threats) are substantially more likely to achieve ultimate success. We’ll discuss two science-backed techniques based on treating setbacks as growth opportunities:

  • Recognizing that failure is part of the growth process, and
  • Challenging yourself to exercise your self-control muscle.


Recognize that failure is part of the growth process

When looking at goals, you can focus on the outcome you want (i.e., have an “outcome focus”) or you can focus on the process of getting to that goal (a “process focus”). Research repeatedly finds that focusing on the process is more helpful. For example, in one study, dieters were more likely to return to eating healthy after lapses and ultimately lost more weight when they focussed on improving their daily eating behaviors (the process of dieting) rather than focussing on losing weight (the outcome of dieting).

Indeed, any difficult task that requires an ongoing self-discipline will occasionally involve setbacks. The most cutting-edge, important work may even be particularly likely to involve failure. And overcoming failure may even help you better develop the “grit” needed for success.

So next time you are discouraged by setbacks, instead of thinking about how bad it is, remember that this is an expected part of the process. Take a moment and consider:

  • How can I use this setback as an opportunity to learn, adapt, and improve? Should I alter my process?
  • Can I use this setback as a challenge to build my self-discipline? Should I try again? Work on a particular skill or habit?


Challenge yourself to exercise your self-control muscle

Relatedly, even if you sometimes find hard work and self-control exhausting, you can improve your stamina. Growing research finds that self-control is like a muscle. Just like you can strengthen your arms by lifting weights or your heart by jogging, you can strengthen your hard work and self-control “muscles” with regular practice.

And exercising your self-control doesn’t have to be difficult. Small acts of effort and self-discipline have been shown to improve abilities after just days or weeks. For example, practicing better posture, using one’s nondominant hand, and forcing oneself to exercise have all been shown to increase self-control and effort at later tasks. (Did you ever realize that silly Simon Says game from preschool is partly about self-control? Researchers even use it as a measure of children’s self-regulation skills!)

exercise your self-control muscle

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So take a moment to think about easy ways to incorporate self-control exercises into your daily routine. You could…

  • Practice sitting in perfect posture every time you are at a red light.
  • Challenge your body while waiting in line at the coffee shop or grocery store. Push your hands together and flex your biceps until they burn, or see how long you can hold your balance on one leg.
  • Identify the people or situations that often test your patience or self-discipline, and intentionally encounter them so you can exercise your self-control or self-discipline. Perhaps you will take a deep breath, smile, and say hello every time you see your rude neighbor. Perhaps you will start each morning by working on your most hated project for 10 minutes. Remember, the purpose of this exercise is to intentionally challenge yourself. (And then feel pretty proud afterwards!)


Recap of how to build self-discipline with joy, meaning, and challenge

In summary, hard work and self-discipline can be built incorporating joy, meaning, and challenge. To build a strong work ethic and increase your self-discipline,

  • learn to find hard work energizing and enjoyable. Learn industriousness – practice linking effort with positive outcomes, so that your brain begins to automatically associate the two and work itself can start to feel positive and rewarding. You could pick up a challenging hobby you enjoy, or just think of times your hard work paid off.
  • find meaning in your work. Think about why you do your work?  What basic needs, interests, or desires does it fill? This could be anything from supporting your family to helping you develop on a personal level.  And if you are struggling to find the motivation to complete certain tasks, consider how you can “craft” your responsibilities and environment to be more meaningful and fulfilling.
  • treat weaknesses and setbacks as challenges. Recognize that setbacks are  part of the process of achieving success. Failure provides a chance to re-evaluate and learn. And if your self-discipline is weak, just start exercising it more. Creating small challenges like standing on one leg or intentionally interacting with rude people.

So go forth, practice building self-discipline, and (mostly) enjoy yourself during the process!