Hmm, discipline…the thing we all want but something that seems to continually slip between our fingers like sand.

Every day we all have the option to do whatever we like. Thousands of possibilities are laid out before us, from the moment we wake to the moment we put our head down on our pillow for a good night’s sleep. However, with all of this choice, it’s rare that we consistently choose to do things we know we should do.

We might go to the gym after work, we may even walk right past the vending machine despite the rumble in our belly, but we’re probably not going to check every box on the list of things we should do. Every now and then we’ll probably even pass on the gym (after all it’s been a long day), and we might get something from the vending machine (because we were good last week).

So if we know what we need to do to get in shape, to build that business, to write that book, to build better relationships, to kick smoking, or to do any number of other things we want to either stop, start, or improve, what is it within us that holds us back?

This is a lack of discipline.


Stoicism is an ancient school of Hellenistic philosophy that was developed over 2000 years ago under the sun of ancient Athens. Zeno of Citium gathered with his fellow Athenians in the ancient city to discuss how we can live a good and happy life.

The answers the ancient Greeks came up with for these questions produced Stoic philosophy, a school of thought that is still practiced to this day.

But what does any of this have to do with discipline and helping me stick to my four-day-a week gym routine? Well, I’m glad you asked. The Stoics have a number of core principles that help structure and question our thoughts, and they do so in such a way that cuts through the excuses we make, the stories we tell ourselves that we use to validate being undisciplined.

Here we’re going to go through four rules that the Stoics used to develop themselves into people who do the right thing despite laziness, doubt, and discomfort.

These are:

  1. The Dichotomy of Control

  2. The Path of Virtue

  3. The Art of Acceptance

  4. Mindfulness

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Before we sink our teeth into these rules, let’s clarify exactly what we mean when we say “Discipline”.

The word “tyrant” is often seen as a tyrant in our day-to-day lives; we’re beaten with it when we do something we shouldn’t or don’t do something we should have done. It’s a word that has an underlying feeling of mandatory obedience, the suppression of our desires, and the unquestionable adherence to the rules we make for ourselves.

Because of this, many people shy away from it. It’s easier to ignore the need to be disciplined and carry on doing what we’ve always done, than it is to get up, change our behavior, and say no to the voice in us that lures us back onto the sofa, back onto Netflix, and back onto the pizza delivery app.

However, we can reframe discipline and, instead of viewing it as a tyrant, see it as a friend. It fosters our wellbeing, guides us towards lasting happiness, and gives us the ability to harness our potential. It’s a skill that can be developed over time, and as it develops, it becomes easier and easier to master.

At its core, discipline is simply choosing one path over another; however, when we deliberately choose this specific path, we are aligning our choices with our deepest values and, in doing so, guiding ourselves towards the goals that we have.

Without it, we risk wandering aimlessly through life’s labyrinth of fleeting desires, whims, impulses, and passions. With it, we can navigate all of this more easily because we’re much more resilient to the things that pull us off our path.

Ultimately, discipline isn’t about depriving ourselves of comfort and enjoyment but about freeing ourselves from the chains of impulsivity and desire that would otherwise control our thoughts and actions, dragging us into a life we did not choose.

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Stoic Rules For Discipline:

So, let’s have a closer look at what Stoicism has to offer us:

The Dichotomy of Control

Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher who left us with the dichotomy of control, an idea that draws a line between events in our lives that we have control over and those that we have no control over; there is no in between.

Epictetus explained that we only really have control over our thoughts, actions, beliefs, and judgments. Everything else is outside the reach of our control. This includes, but is not limited to, the actions and beliefs of other people, the weather, the traffic, the economy, time, and the physical health of your body.

He went on to explain that when we get this distinction right, we are much better able to focus our energy on the areas of life that we have direct control over, and in doing so become more effective, confident, deliberate, and resourceful people.

When we get this wrong, however, we are unable to determine what we can control and what we cannot, and we are therefore bound to waste our time trying to change things we have no power to change. As a result, we risk becoming frustrated, bitter, resentful, and altogether unhappy.

So how does this tie into discipline? Well, when we have the ability to divide things into these two categories, we can quickly see if we’re being held back by externals or if the barriers to changing our habits lie within us.

If they are external, then we need to accept them and look for ways we can leverage our choices and our mindset to overcome them. For example, if we want to get in shape but there’s no gym close to where we live, we may have to get our hands on some basic equipment. If we don’t have the money, then we can google bodyweight exercises to do at home. Whenever we have an obstacle in front of us that is external, our first step should be to look inward and think about ways we can act or think to overcome it.

If we’re faced with internal headwinds, then we have a completely different challenge. Often, our lack of discipline is rooted in how we think. It’s not uncommon for people to make up stories to validate behavior that’s driven by impulse and desire, it’s our mind’s way of hijacking our ability to think critically and bending it to the will of our passions.

In this case, we have to develop the ability to be self-aware. When we’re self-aware, we can catch ourselves in the act. When we catch ourselves in the act, we can begin to see patterns in our thinking, and when we see patterns, we find areas of our mindset that need to be reframed.

Anything that falls within the circle we control is our responsibility.

The Path of Virtue

The Stoics believed that virtue was the only good and that behavior in conflict with virtue was the only evil. When one acts with virtue and strives to weave virtue into their daily life, they are on the path to a life well lived. One of happiness, contentment, and good spirit.

On the other hand, when one forgoes virtue and allows the pull of desire to drag them away from virtuous behavior, they become saturated with guilt, pain, envy, and other negative emotions that lead to a life of unhappiness and suffering.

To the Stoics, there were four core virtues that could be used as a compass to guide a good life. They are:

  1. Wisdom

  2. Temperance

  3. Courage

  4. Justice

Wisdom (Sophia): Wisdom, in the Stoic sense, is not merely an intellectual understanding but also practical insight. It includes the ability to navigate life’s complexities, make informed decisions, and determine what is truly valuable. It includes our ability to look at the world objectively and see it for what it is, rather than what we want it to be.

Wisdom involves the understanding that some things are within our control while others are not, and focusing our energy on what we can control. It is about distinguishing between good, bad, and indifferent things, emphasizing that virtue is the only good, vice is the only evil, and everything else is indifferent.

Courage (Andreia): Courage for the Stoics is not limited to physical bravery but also embodies moral courage — the strength to stay true to one’s ethical convictions even when faced with adversity. It is about maintaining dignity and integrity under all circumstances. Stoic courage involves the willingness to accept and face the realities of life, including suffering and death, without succumbing to fear or distress.

Justice (Dikaiosyne): Justice in Stoic philosophy is about fairness, kindness, and recognizing the dignity and value of all human beings. It implies an active effort to contribute to society’s welfare and uphold social harmony. It involves treating every individual with respect, regardless of their status or behaviour, as we are all part of a broader community of rational beings.

Temperance (Sophrosyne): Temperance, also often translated as moderation or self-control, is the virtue of regulating one’s desires and impulses. It is about creating balance and harmony in life. Temperance ensures that we do not let our appetites or emotions dominate our actions, but instead we respond to them in a measured and mindful manner, contributing to our personal growth and the well-being of others.

When we reflect these virtues in our behaviour, we not only become more disciplined, we also walk a path that brings us closer to a happy and well lived life.

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The Art of Acceptance

The Stoics held firm to the belief that acceptance is an important part of any personal philosophy. But how does acceptance, a seemingly passive way of life, help the active pursuit of building discipline?

To understand this connection, we first have to take a deeper look at acceptance as an active endeavor rather than a passive resignation to fate and the world around us. Acceptance, in the Stoic sense, is not about lying down, giving up, and letting the world go by around us, it is about acknowledging and confronting the truth of reality, recognizing the things around us for what they are, and moving forward with that knowledge instead of complaining about the state of the world and wishing it were different.

Some things just are, and accepting them as they are can go a long way towards preventing needless frustration, and building a resilient peace of mind in their place.

Now, discipline….discipline in essence, is a continuous commitment to specific and deliberate behaviors that help align our lives and the direction of our lives with our long-term goals and values. The practice of acceptance helps us stay true to this path despite coming into hurdles along the way. With acceptance, we don’t dwell on the hurdle, we see it for what it is, accept it, and find a way over it.

For instance, consider the disciplined pursuit of physical fitness. Unforeseen circumstances, such as an injury or a sudden change in routine, might disrupt our regimen. However, through acceptance, we shift our focus from the uncontrollable event (the injury or change) to what we can control: our response. We can choose to modify our exercise routine, adapt to the change, and continue our disciplined pursuit of fitness. It is this adaptable resilience that acceptance nurtures—a trait at the very heart of discipline.

Moreover, practicing acceptance helps us maintain consistency in discipline by helping us manage our emotional reactions. Disappointments or setbacks might trigger negative emotions, leading us to abandon our disciplined routines. But acceptance allows us to witness these emotional waves without letting them capsize our vessel of discipline. We learn to accept our feelings without letting them dictate our actions, thus strengthening our discipline.


Mindfulness is our fourth Stoic practice on the list, and it’s often overlooked in modern explanations of the philosophy.

At first glance, mindfulness and discipline might seem like unlikely companions. However, with a deeper look into the philosophy, we can see that they’re bound together, like two sides of the same coin. To show the nature of this connection, we’ll need to go over some of the basics of what we mean when we say mindfulness.

With roots both in Stoic philosophy and Eastern traditions, mindfulness is about developing our ability to be engaged in the present moment, aware of our thoughts in real time, and cognizant of our actions while we’re acting. The opposite of mindfulness would be to be tangled up in thoughts about the past or future at any given time, meaning that we have no headspace to focus our awareness on the here and now.

At this point, you might be wondering how mindfulness relates to discipline. If we think of discipline as the deliberate choosing of one action over another, we can also see how the ability to recognize our thoughts and emotions in real time can help prevent these very thoughts and emotions from pulling us into behaviors that contradict our values and goals.

Awareness allows us to catch these desires in the act and reject them.

Consider the discipline of maintaining a healthy diet. Mindfulness enables us to be fully aware of our eating habits, to notice the impulse to reach for that unnecessary snack, to savor each bite, and to recognize when we are satiated. This heightened awareness fortifies our discipline, helping us stick to our dietary choices despite momentary temptations.

Moreover, mindfulness encourages us to stay focused on the present task, a trait central to discipline. It anchors us in the ‘here and now,’ helping us engage fully in our current activity. This focus bolsters our productivity and effectiveness, enhancing the quality of our disciplined routines.

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