Potential Gap and the Value of Self Discipline

I’m currently reading The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I haven’t finished it yet, but it has given me some useful insight on the nature of doing creative work.

According to the author, the enemy of doing creative work is something he called Resistance. Resistance is the force that prevents you from doing what you are supposed to do. If you are a novelist, for instance, it will try to prevent you from writing. It does that by offering you easy escapes. The escape could be in the form of a bar of chocolate, an hour of watching TV, or others. If you take it, you will procrastinate.

But the fact is, short-term pain is necessary for long-term gain. There is no such thing as easy success, at least not if what you are seeking is true and sustainable success. You must always pay a price.

That’s why losing to Resistance makes you fall short of your full potential. It causes a potential gap: the difference between where you are and where you can actually be. The more you lose to Resistance, the wider the gap will be. Your goal, obviously, is to make the gap as small as possible.

But the question is: how can we do that?

There is no easy answer here: to close your potential gap, you must build self discipline. Self discipline is the ability to keep doing what you are supposed to do regardless of your mood. If you have self discipline, you will be able to resist the pull of immediate gratification. You will overcome Resistance.

Building self discipline isn’t easy; I’m still working on it myself. But here are some tips:

1. Have a strong why.

As with many other things in life, it’s essential that you have a strong motivation. You must have a strong enough why to overcome the obstacles in front of you.

In my case, I want to reach my full potential. Life is precious for me and I want to get the most out of it. I can only do that by having self discipline, so that gives me a strong reason to build it.

2. Cultivate a kind of pleasure in pain.

This is what Robert Greene suggested in his book Mastery (see my post). Or, in the words of Steven Pressfield, the author of The War of Art, you must learn “how to be miserable.” You must learn to somehow enjoy the difficult process that will get you to your destination. Having a strong motivation will help you here.

3. Start with something small.

Building self discipline is like building muscles. You must do it step by step. So start with a small commitment and go from there. The important thing is that you stay consistent along the way.


Mark Twain once said, “Do something everyday that you don’t want to do; this is the golden rule for acquiring the habit of doing your duty without pain.”

If you train yourself in discipline every day, not only will you do what you are supposed to do, but you may eventually enjoy it. That means you get the best of both worlds: you get things done and have fun along the way.

Isn’t that a great way to live?

Photo by Bigstock


  1. Dear Mr. Donald Latumahina,

    Excellent. Thanks. You have not only depicted clearly a major impediment in life but also have spelt out what we need to overcome it. For overall development self-discipline is essential.

    The question ‘why’ is helpful in strengthening a logical approach in us. So it would help us in realizing our potentials.

    Cultivating a kind of pleasure in pain is self-deception. I do not think here you are right.

    For developing self-discipline, we should cultivate a deep sense of priority; Drawing a well-ordered, prioritized list of works to be done and adhering to it strictly would make us a no-nonsense person and improve our productivity.

    Thomas A Edison said: “If we did all the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.” If we have to do so, we should have a clear idea about which is the first and which is the second and so on; we should also have the habit of doing it so, as far as possible.


    • I believe we can learn to enjoy the things that we have to do. It’s “love what you do” instead of just “do what you love.” Doing so will make it more likely for us to go through them.

      Cultivating a deep sense of priority is definitely helpful. I agree with you.

      • Mr. Donald,

        I see your point in trying to find pleasure in what you do, but I believe that producing pleasure through being in love with what you do is a better and more fulfilling approach to living life.

        Yes, we can possibly find pleasure in every situation but why not go for the real thing?

        Mr. K.S Venkataraman,

        Valid points, thanks for the contribution.

      • Hi Donald,

        I’d have to disagree with you on the statement, “love what you do” instead of just “do what you love”. Although I do see your point in increasing self-discipline and tolerance for pain in order to achieve goals, there is a limit to loving what you do. What if a person is stuck at a job in which he or she doesn’t like and tries all his/her best to love what they do? But they simply cannot, because it’s far from their passion? No matter how much self-discipline they have, they will not come closer to their goals, because it’s far from their passion.

        I commend you on your blog BTW. 🙂 Good job.


  2. Hello Donald,

    Thank you for an interesting article about self-discipline in reaching your full potential. I see your points and agree with them.

    As I see it your perspective is, that you want to make the gap as small as possible – I argue that we have to close the gap entirely. Close the gap entirely? Is that possible? I’d say it is.

    I find one of your tips to be the fundamental one but I have another view on it. You mention that we need to have “a strong why” in order to stay motivated in life and in the pursuit of achieving our goals. I could not agree more. I would argue, that all you need in order to eliminate that gap you mention, is “a strong why”.

    Have you ever tried to want something so bad, that it is all you think about? Been obsessed with the thought of making it reality? When that become your goal the resistance will not be there anymore and you will work tremendously hard to achieve it. To me, it all comes down to goal setting. Being selective and honest with oneself in setting up the goals we have. Pursue the goal is you have nothing else on your mind than achieving this goal – be obsessed – be passionate!

    I’d love to discuss this matter with you, if you are interested. Send me an email and get in touch. Alternatively, I encourage you to read about my thoughts on goal setting and passion on in my blog post: http://andershasselstrom.com/happiness-is-not-a-destination/

    Best Regards,
    Anders Hasselstrøm

    • Hi Anders,

      Yes, ideally we should close the gap entirely. But I think saying it that way might be too burdensome for some people. It implies that if they procrastinate even once, they already fail. So I think it’s safer to say that we should make the gap as small as possible. That way you should do the best you can, but it’s okay if you are not perfect.

      You’re right with regard to having a “strong why”. If your why is really strong, the rest will automatically follow. However, in the moments when the why isn’t that strong (for example, when we get distracted by a problem), I think the other points will help us stay on track.

  3. I like what you’re saying Donald. If you want to grow and be successful, you need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

  4. Very good tips to carry through life. Anything worth achieving certainly carries a level of commitment needed.

  5. I like the “cultivate pleasure in pain” comment. There is a kind of pain barrier that you get through after sticking to something long enough, and once you do you start to crave the challenge

  6. Thanks Donald, its true that if we choose to do something that we don’t particularly enjoy the resistance is greater. However even when we are in a field that we enjoy, there are aspects of it that we don’t enjoy! I always remind myself of the “strong why” at this times. That’s not to say that I never find myself giving excuses..

  7. Thanks for the nice concoction to improve self-discipline.

    “Start with something small” –Yes it reminds of ‘focussing on Process rather than then final result’, Surely It will help to start with something than not doing anything.

  8. People tend to focus too much on motivation when they should be focusing on discipline. Motivation is conditional – it relies on you being in the mood whereas discipline is a constant that is there every day.

  9. I loved this part. – “You must learn to somehow enjoy the difficult process that will get you to your destination.”

    Usually we spend more time in the difficult process anyways.

  10. The 5 things that have helped me the most are:

    1. Get a model or a vivid image in my mind of what the end in mind is. This helps me keep a true North and work through resistance.

    2. Change my “Why.” A key here is to connect to your values. Don’t call back a customer. Win a raving fan.

    3. Change my “How.” Find a way to enjoy it. Make it a game of speed, or again, connect it back to your values, such as “learn a new way” or “master a skill.”

    4. Make a meaningful mantra that’s simple and sticky. For Stephen Covey, he used “thinner tastes better”, when he was losing weight.

    5. Find a meaningful measure of progress. Feedback helps us feel the impact of our efforts. Follow it up with an attitude of gratitude by both acknowledging and appreciating your self-discipline and it reinforces your behavior.

  11. We can all fall victim to not using our potential. Every person is different and may require a different motivation. Perhaps, finding out how you can move around your obstacles, find out what motivates you, is time well spent. Maybe find purpose in the pain instead of pleasure…

  12. What if you have the self disciple, you start small and you don’t mind a little pain, but you can’t seem to get it off the ground. You seem to have bad luck or bad karma. What then?

  13. descipline is so essential in Life. I think i agree with Grace about doing what you love. But loving what you do is something. When you learn to love what you are doing, that’s everything although it’s hard at the beginning because it is a process. I believed love can be learn especially when you are sencere. sometimes it would be painful, but love conquers all.

  14. Reading a post like this one really helps motivate me with what it is that I’m going to do. Whether it is about doing the things that I love or loving the things that I do, but as long as your putting your heart in whatever you’re doing is one way to get you big results though starting with small things.

  15. The Law Of Attraction. Someone just recommended The War of Art to me, now I just come across a blog post about it.

    My greatest effort to self discipline the mind is to create a schedule

    Schedule a task to work on for 50 minutes, then take a 20 minute break. My iPhone alarm holds me accountable.

    The 50 minute block will keep you more focused because the time frame is not excessive. During the 20 minute breaks, be constructive. Get a healthy snack, go for a walk, exercise, meditate, or use it to get a more mundane chore out of the way.

    This process helps stay productive and energized

Comments are closed.