Dear Therapist:

I have never been what you would call a "disciplined" person...I can't say I am an unsuccessful person and...I do well but I am a bit all over the place. My question is: Is this something I can learn and develop? Are there strategies or therapies that can help me develop discipline? Or is this more of a personality type and something that I should just accept that that's not the kind of person I am and just go with the personality I have?



I wonder to what degree your concern is with regard to specific tasks (like learning, or work goals) and to what degree you’re generally unhappy with your undisciplined nature. Many people struggle with self-discipline. Depending on the severity, emotional reactions can range from constant self-criticism to enjoyment and appreciation of personal style.

I think that the first goal is to truly be accepting of our limitations. Acceptance doesn’t necessarily correlate to giving in or giving up. Often, in fact, acceptance of our limitations is the first step toward positive change. When we feel badly toward ourselves because of a perceived inadequacy, it can destroy our motivation and initiative. Due to this, we often rob ourselves of the ability to change for the better. This naturally makes us feel all the worse about ourselves, thus completing a vicious cycle.

Alternately, if we obscure our negative feeling by repressing, denying, or otherwise suppressing them, we tend never to deal with them—simply continually reinforcing these defense mechanisms. Rather, identifying and recognizing our limitations while viewing them in a non-judgmental light can help us to both feel better about ourselves and work on changing our behaviors.

Do you have a friend who faces similar challenges? Do you negatively judge them because they are not well-disciplined? If you don’t have such a friend, try asking yourself how you would view a friend who did have a similar issue. If you recognize that you feel negatively toward yourself but don’t (or wouldn’t) toward a friend, you can begin challenging your negative thoughts.

Once you’ve worked on any underlying negative self-thoughts (or if you don’t feel negatively toward yourself, but would simply like to identify helpful strategies) there are some ideas that might help. There is a dual approach for which I use the example of an exercise regimen. Many people resolve to work out in a gym “a couple of times a week.” Often, they begin strongly, going regularly. Then it dwindles until the point where they no longer attend.

There are two factors that we tend to forget. We are more likely to follow through when our tasks are rigidly scheduled. For example, rather than “a couple of times a week,” scheduling exercise time for Monday and Thursday at 8:00 in the morning—and adding visual and auditory reminders—make it more likely that we will actually follow through. Also, having a partner who relies on us can help increase our motivation.

The concepts of routine scheduling and reinforcement can be applied in many areas. Once you’ve resolved negative self-thoughts and begun to properly schedule your tasks, you may find that you’re not very undisciplined after all.


Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

 psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY   |   Far Rockaway, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 718-258-5317