Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – few spaces left and I’m not doing it again!

Self-discipline? NOW I understand!

Sometimes, I learn things through the wisdom, research or knowledge of others. Occasionally, I come to a new understanding through a flash of insight from within my very own mind. I know! This post is about one such insight. It came about because I spend a lot of time trying to find the right words for things and the meaning of one particular word had subconsciously been bugging me for about 35 years.


Ever since I became a writer, particularly a writer of books – fiction and, more recently, fact – I’ve had people say to me, more times than I could estimate:

“You must be very self-disciplined.”

I know this is because they think that sitting there on one’s own, with no boss, doing something as long as writing a book, must require self-discipline. Otherwise writers would spend their days wandering round in pyjamas and eating chocolate. (Shhh….)

And I’ve tried to answer honestly, in various ways:

“I don’t feel very self-disciplined!”

“You should see me when I’ve been faffing about on social media instead of writing!”

“Yes, but it’s the deadlines that do it, not me.”

“It’s just a job – sometimes you don’t want to do it but you just do.”

“I suppose I do get my work done but you should see me with wine or chocolate or ice-cream!”

The truth is that I know that “self-discipline” is not the right word for what makes me consistently get my work done, despite huge targets that seem unmanageable, and take on more and more work. And not just work, but other things I set my mind to. I realise that I do take things on and get things done.

But I don’t think I have very much self-discipline at all.

It was one of those “other things” that made me realise that I’m right: it’s not self-discipline. In a flash of insight, I realised what it was. I think the insight is useful for anyone who is trying to motivate themselves or someone else to take certain positive actions, whether to do with application to work, getting off social media, making good food choices, drinking less.

So, no, you don’t need self-discipline. In fact, if you try to improve your self-discipline you’ll probably weaken it. You’ll probably fail. Self-discipline shrinks the more you use it. You need something different.

I have your attention, right? Patience, now

This is not me running

A few years ago I became a runner. I surprised everyone, especially myself. And, bizarrely, I have become one of those people who gets stressy when they can’t run.

But I don’t actually enjoy it. Often, I hate it.

So, I obviously use self-discipline, right? You think I make myself go for a run by applying discipline to myself? By maybe punishing myself if I don’t or rewarding myself if I do? By reminding my rational prefrontal cortex that I’ll live longer and be healthier? Nope. Well, I do that a bit but if that was all or even most of what I did I would not still be running.

Here’s what happened.

Earlier this year, I took part in a running challenge: to run 100km in April. I did it to raise money for charity and to give myself a bit of a personal challenge. 100km was more than I’d normally run but not unattainable. And I did it! I was proud and thanked all my generous supporters. And they were pleased for me.

What no one knew was that I carried on. If I could do it one month I could do it every month, couldn’t I? So I did it in May, which was not going to be easy because I was away a lot so I decided I’d have to run 10 lots of 10km – a tough one but I managed. June would have been fine except that I got Covid right at the end and missed my last run. Obviously I still had Covid at the start of July but I managed the 100 by doing a lot of long runs towards the end, again through planning which days I’d do whatever amount and keeping track of it so that I could adjust as necessary. August should be manageable though I missed a few days this week.

And during one of these runs I had my insight: not self-discipline but determination.

Determination – or “grit”

I am very very determined to do whatever I set out to do. This determination feels very focused. It feels positive. It feels structured and as though the goal is helping me, drawing me forward. The goal is with me, just in front but almost holding my hand; it’s like a pace-setter not a task-master; it holds a carrot (or chocolate!) not a whip.

These are the elements:

  • I know the target – I set it myself, a thing I wanted for whatever reason
  • It’s an important target to me, again for whatever reason
  • I believe I can do it if I try hard and take certain steps and if things go right
  • I know what those steps are and when to take them
  • If something goes wrong, it is not because I wasn’t determined but because something went wrong – and next month is a new month
  • And if I don’t achieve the target, I still benefited from the attempt

There feels no negativity in determination, whereas self-discipline is intrinsically negative, nasty. It glares and criticises; determination encourages and affirms.

Extrinsic motivation

When I give talks to parents or teachers about teenage brains, mental health, learning and performance, I talk about extrinsic motivation and how it relates to teenage brain development. My determination-not-discipline insight links very much to that.

I’m going to bring this into my talks from now on. Damn – this means I’ll have to cut something out. Or speak faster!

But I’m very determined and I know what the task is and I want to do it so I have no doubt I’ll manage. (Book me quickly as I’m restricting the number of talks I do.)

Now, pass the chocolate!

I hope you don’t mind if I mention that my fund-raising page is still open. I’m raising money for HospiceUK and if you go here you’ll see why. It’s now three years since my sister Jo died. She had been a runner for many many years, was super-fit and had never smoked. She was also very determined but the hospice was there for her when she ran out of options.



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