Self-discipline goes by many names – willpower, self-control, and self-regulation, to name a few.
It helps us stay focused, deal adaptively with distractions, and accomplish what we intend to do, among many other things.
Some researchers have linked self-discipline with accomplishment, others with well-being, and still others argue that it’s a precious finite resource.
If you’re interested in learning more about what self-regulation looks like and how you can improve it, this article includes some of the best books on self-discipline and self-control to help you make your own informed decision. Some fall into the “personal development” category, while others give a slightly more academic coverage of the concepts involved.
Read on to find something that tickles your fancy, and let us know of any personal recommendations you might have in the comments below.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Self-Compassion Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will not only help you increase the compassion and kindness you show yourself but will also give you the tools to help your clients, students, or employees show more compassion to themselves.
Since Mischel’s Marshmallow Test in the late sixties, we’ve learned a lot more about how willpower works and what it looks like. It’s created a very bustling market of evermore (and more) self-help books designed to equip readers with useful tactics, motivation, and insight into their habits.
In this section, a combination of popular self-help books on the topics of self-discipline and control is provided. We’ve made these recommendations with the average ‘you and I’ in mind, and they are not overly academic in any way unless specified otherwise.
Perfect for a summer read or a less tedious morning commute. In addition, after selecting a great book, head on over to Self-Discipline Exercises for even more inspiration and encouragement.
1. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success – Carol S. Dweck
This is considered the seminal work on Growth Mindset for the layperson – if you’re looking to read about self-control as part of a bigger picture on personal growth, this book provides exactly that.
Professor Carol Dweck is highly respected in the positive psychology field for her vast contributions to the scientific literature on motivation, intelligence, and mindset, among other things. In this straightforward but very insightful read, is an excellent introduction for anyone who wants to learn about fixed vs. growth mindsets.
Dweck’s work on the latter is highly relevant for all those who are interested in the role of hard work, effort, and practice in personal growth. In this sense, it’s not focused exclusively on self-control, but gives a more holistic overview of its importance in achieving what you set out to do.
Mindset is based on solid psychological science, but it’s digestible and a pleasant read for mainstream readers who aren’t keen on slogging through mountains of data. It explains the concept in-depth and uses plenty of anecdotes to flesh out key ideas.
2. The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play – Neil Fiore
This book is full of techniques to help anyone who tends to procrastinate – and perfectionists who want to improve their productivity. It’s a clear and straightforward read and offers plenty of help for people who – let’s be open here – can’t understand why they are procrastinating.
By delving into root causes, Dr. Neil Fiore invites his readers to get a better grasp of their unique difficulties and deal with them in the most appropriate way.
By offering to help you do things ‘Now,’ make a positive habit out of it, and break old, unhelpful ones, this is a powerful book. Perhaps not compelling enough for some very intense procrastinators, but a highly recommended read for anyone who wants to get things done and move on, minus the anxiety.
3. No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline – Brian Tracy
Brian Tracy is the author of several popular books on goal-setting, so his work on self-regulation is quite extensive. This book is roughly 300 pages long and spans 21 chapters, each of which contains tactical exercises to help you apply the concepts he’s discussed.
It is divided into three main areas: financial and business goals, personal goals, and general well-being, and these, in turn, are broken down further into domains such as leadership, relationships, friendship, personal excellence, responsibility, health, and time-management.
Concerning specific approaches, he emphasizes nine disciplines in particular, such as daily goal-setting, hard work, persistence, and similar. The ‘tone and flavor’ of this book is best described as motivational—it’s not a heavy read at all, and it’s easy to jump back and forth between chapters as you feel like covering certain topics.
4. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change – Charles Duhigg
Charles Duhigg is a business reporter for the New York Times, who wrote this book on habits after observing collective habits at play in rioting mobs overseas.
He became intrigued by human behavior and began digging further into the research on the “loops” that our brain gets into to conserve effort.
It is an insightful look into the deep-seated way in which habitual behaviors often sabotage the best intentions, and how they guide our behaviors in more ways than we may realize.
Duhigg considers some of the findings on how habits work at the brain level and discuss the 3-stages of cue, habit, and reward that can shape our actions. Throughout the book and more so toward the latter parts, he introduces specific strategies for changing habits and regaining self-control.
The terms self-regulation, self-control, and self-discipline are often interchangeably used in everyday conversations. The first, however, is the term most commonly used by behavioral psychologists to refer to a specific set of mechanisms.
The books in this particular section are either:
Written by professional psychologists or therapists;
Based mainly on psychological research; or
Strongly recommended by/for therapists.
They also make great reads for anyone who’s looking for a slightly different, perhaps more scientific take on self-control. If you’re interested in reading more about the psychology of emotional and behavioral self-regulation, our article What is Self-Regulation? (+95 Skills and Strategies) also looks much closer at the topic.
In this article, we’ve put together a list of some of the best books on the topic.
1. Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength – Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney
One of this book’s fundamental premises is that willpower is a finite resource. Along with IQ, the authors argue, it is one of life’s most important determinants of whether we succeed or not.
This book lays out how willpower is linked very strongly with happiness, emotional well-being, social support, physical health, and more.
At least in part, then, self-control is about consciously managing how we channel our energy—what depletes our willpower, replenishes it, and even when we should leave things (like critical tasks) until another time.
Cited over and over by myriad other self-development authors, Willpower is probably one of the seminal texts on self-discipline and self-control. It’s a 316-page read and professionally written by psychologists, so it touches on some fascinating experiments to make its strong and convincing arguments.
2. The Little Book of Big Change: The No-Willpower Approach to Breaking Any Habit – Amy Johnson PhD and Mark Howard PhD
In this fascinating book, psychologists Dr. Amy Johnson discusses the neuroscience of addiction and habits to argue that changing them is very much possible.
Popular with counselors, therapists, and other helping professionals, it’s heavily focused on recovery but also touches on how we can reverse our tendency to think in certain ways.
There are useful insights for those struggling with anxiety or anxiety-related disorders, and may at times be a little heavy for reluctant readers.
Some highlights include Dr. Johnson’s approach to breaking down habitual behaviors to get a better grip on them, and tuning into your internal narrative. Psychologists will find it useful for its potential relevance in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
4. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It – Kelly McGonigal
In this book, Dr. Kelly McGonigal introduces readers to the what, how, and why of willpower from numerous perspectives. She draws not just on psychological research, but on medical and neuroscientific insights to consider the up and downsides of self-control.
Readers who are curious about the impacts of willpower on our physical health, cognitive capabilities, and emotions will enjoy this informative read, in which McGonigal consistently references relevant studies.
It considers the roles of mindfulness, nutrition, mindset, and self-compassion in self-discipline, and includes practical advice regarding productivity, habits, and procrastination.
At 240 pages, Emeritus Professor Rachlin’s The Science of Self Control is not very long, but it packs in vast quantities of deep, scientific insights about self-control.
This is a textbook; an academic read for big fans of solid data, and it includes a lot of experimental research to examine various key principles of self-regulation – how it relates to decision-making, behavior, and more.
Because it is admittedly a textbook, you will find charts, diagrams, and – on occasion – numerical data. Nonetheless, Professor Rachlin somehow does an excellent job of making this quite a fascinating read for anyone with interest in behavioral science.
2. Smart but Scattered Teens: The “Executive Skills” Program for Helping Teens Reach Their Potential – Richard Guare PhD, Peg Dawson EdD and Colin Guare
Written by two experts, Drs. Richard Guare and Peg Dawson, along with young adult Colin Guare, this book is predominantly aimed at parents.
It draws on psychological research to provide practical, science-based strategies for helping teenagers deal productively with issues such as procrastination, lack of focus, and impulse control.
It offers an executive skills-based approach for adults to tackle common difficulties which youths experience – such as lack of organization and forgetfulness – in a more effective way than micromanagement or punishment. In this sense, it considers concepts such as working memory, self-control, and how these can be developed with the right approaches.
Two points to note: the print copy comes with more resources, such as quizzes, worksheets, and activities, and it may be slightly tricky for educators to implement, as it’s geared specifically at parents.
Smart but Scattered Teens is available from Audible.
3. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us – Daniel H. Pink
This is a highly, highly popular book with leaders, managers, and Organizational Development practitioners.
Its central premise is that three things underpin intrinsic motivation: a sense of purpose, autonomy to go about achieving our goals a certain way, and mastery – we are driven to get increasingly better at things.
Self-discipline doesn’t need to be about struggling tenaciously against the odds for the sake of it; when we are intrinsically motivated, we move toward achieving our goals much more naturally in spite of the odds.
At least, this is Pink’s premise, and he provides copious amounts of scientific research to support it. It’s approximately six hours long and peppered with plenty of corporate and scientific examples to keep the listener entertained.
Self discipline the neuroscience by Ray Clear - Great AudioBooks
Other Good Recommendations
Teaching children self-control is important. As any parent or early childhood educator knows, it can be just as much of an exercise in emotional self-regulation for the grown-up involved. It’s why we’ve also included some recommendations in this last little section – for kids.
Books for Children
Here are a few suggestions that will hopefully make things a little easier and keep those little ones entertained at the same time.
My Mouth Is A Volcano! by Julia Cook (Amazon) – Louis is a boy who has a hard time not interrupting others. In this colorful book for 5 – 8-year-olds, he learns about the good things that happen when he tries listening and being patient instead.
A Grand Bed Adventure: Developing Habits of Self Discipline for Children by A. M. Marcus (Amazon) – Little Ted asks his granddad some common questions about daily routines that lead him to do a bit of deep (kid) thinking about self-discipline. An illustrated book for 4- 10-year-olds.
Katie Loves the Kittens by John Himmelmann (Amazon) – Katie the dog’s overwhelming enthusiasm about some cute little kittens, makes them scared, and she can’t understand why. She learns to control herself in this beautiful, relateable picture book for 3 – 8-year-olds.
What Were You Thinking? by Bryan Smith (Amazon) – playful Brayden makes a few suboptimal jokes and ends up regretting his actions in this storybook for 4 – 8-year-olds. His teachers and mother try to help him learn how to make better decisions and control himself.
There are also a few more great books that touch on self-control but which – because they aren’t exclusively focused on it – we’ve put in this section.
1. Stumbling on Happiness – Daniel Gilbert
Professor Daniel Gilbert has won multiple awards both for his psychological teachings and as a researcher, including the 2007 Royal Society of Science Prize for this best-selling book.
His look at habitual behaviors, thought patterns, and happiness makes it a good read for those curious about cognitive biases and mental patterns, and how we might start controlling them.
2. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance – Angela Duckworth
Angela Duckworth argues for the learnability of valuable psychological assets – that through hard work and self-discipline, we can accomplish what we set out to achieve despite not being ‘born’ with particular talents.
She credits her success in large part to passion, deliberate practice, and grit.
For those curious about how grit and self-control differ – despite being positively correlated – Duckworth and Gross (2004) have written a lovely paper on the topic entitled: Self-Control and Grit: Related but Separable Determinants of Success.
3. Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman, Patrick Egan and Random House Audio
Daniel Kahneman’s bestselling Thinking Fast and Slow already enjoys its place in our Emotional Intelligence section, but is still worth a mention here.
The Nobel Prize Winner’s core argument is that we can think in two separate ‘modes’ – a rapid, emotionally-driven mode, and one which is more rational and controlled.
This is something which anyone struggling with emotional self-regulation will likely find valuable, and some would argue quite profound. This and other EQ books have been reviewed more thoroughly in our article: 26 Best Emotional Intelligence Books (Reviews + Summaries).
The book’s central thesis is a dichotomy between two modes of thought: System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The book delineates cognitive biases associated with each type of thinking, starting with Kahneman’s research on loss aversion.
The market is chock-full of self-development texts that claim to help you improve your focus, productivity, and happiness, and they are a dime a dozen. To dismiss them all as fluff would be frankly imprudent because you never know where your next great inspiration might come from – so we’ve included some popular self-help titles in this article.
Hopefully, you will also find some of these science-based reads as enjoyable as we have. To improve and enhance our abilities at anything – self-control included – expert help is never a bad idea!
What books have we missed, in your opinion? Do you have more suggestions or recommendations that we can include? Let us know in the comments, and happy reading!
Self-control and self-discipline are closely related but distinct concepts. While self-control refers to the ability to resist immediate temptations, self-discipline involves taking consistent action toward achieving long-term goals (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005).
What are 4 types of self-control?
According to the theory of ego depletion, there are four main types of self-control (Hagger et al., 2010):
impulse control, and
Can self-control be trained?
Yes, self-control can be improved through practice and training (Hofmann et al., 2012), such as:
mindfulness meditation, and
Bandura, A. (1991). Social cognitive theory of self-regulation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50(2), 248-287.
Duckworth, A., & Gross, J. J. (2014). Self-control and grit: Related but separable determinants of success. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(5), 319-325.
Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 16(12), 939-944.
Hagger, M. S., Wood, C., Stiff, C., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. D. (2010). Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136(4), 495-525.
Hofmann, W., Schmeichel, B. J., & Baddeley, A. D. (2012). Executive functions and self-regulation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(3), 174-180.
About the author
Catherine Moore has a BSc in Psychology from the University of Melbourne. She enjoys researching and using her HR knowledge to write about Positive and Organizational psychology. When she isn’t getting super ‘psyched’ about her favorite topics of creativity, motivation, engagement, learning, and happiness, she loves to surf and travel.
What our readers think
It’s been over a year; hopefully you are in a better situation now.
But honestly, the solution to your problem is a lot simpler than you’re making it seem.
You’re doing the same things over and over, wondering why nothing is changing. You haven’t put a full, conscious effort into getting yourself out of your situation. You say you’re trying, that nothing is working, that maybe it’s a problem with who you are as a person. That’s not really true; the thing is, you’re just not facing your problems. You don’t really want to change. You’re letting your life happen to you instead of taking control and leading yourself.
If this is you, then hopefully this comment helps. If not, maybe you can still find something of value.
Most everything you wrote here is completely fixable.
Just take out a piece of paper, something to write with, and make a list of what you need to do. And then, write what you need to do to change that.
Problem: Being late to work
Solution: Go to sleep earlier so you can wake up at 5am.
Things to do:
– turn off your TV, phone, music, whatever at 7-8 pm. Put away your screens. Let your mind slow down in preparation for sleep.
– be in bed by 8:30 or 9 pm, so you can give yourself time to fall asleep. Try to be asleep by 9. You’ll get a full 8 hours of sleep and probably won’t need an alarm to wake up the next morning. If you usually sleep less, you might wake up earlier.
– And there, you’re up at 5am, ready to start the day. It’s really that simple.
– Get out of bed immediately (none of the “5 more minutes” or hitting the snooze button). It helps to have a set routine that you can just go through as you fully wake up, so you don’t waste time just doing nothing. (as an example, for me, that’s brushing my teeth, making and drinking tea as I plan out my day, working out, showering, making a protein shake, then going to school)
A quick tip that helps with this: If you find yourself hesitating, wondering if you should procrastinate or do the really hard thing you need to do, just tell yourself this:
“I’m going to count from 5, and when I get to 1, I’m going to DO this thing.
Go.” And then you do the thing.
What this does is that it gives you 5 seconds to really thing about the decision you’re making, and by the end of it, you’re prepared to work. And get your life together.
You don’t belong with the homeless, you aren’t a pretender in the working class, and you don’t need an extreme conditioning to change your very being.
All it takes are some simple steps, a little bit of planning, and action to go through with that planning.
This whole time, you’ve been looking for a shortcut. A magic pill, a fast past, a quick, effortless solution to get what you want. That’s not how it works. That’s not how life works. That’s not how people work. To get what you want, you have to work for it. You have to take action. And the small actions matter. What you choose to do with 10 minutes matters.
You’re the only one in your life that has the power to bring you up. Not a book. Not an article. You.
The more you make these hard decisions, the easier it’s going to get. And everything, every little action you take, takes you one step further or one step back. If you hold yourself accountable, you’ll become someone you want to be, someone you respect.
And remember: It’s always a choice before it’s a habit.
What if some of us are just lazy ?
Not lazy in a sense of not giving 100 percent when we perform but slothful in a sense of lack of motivation.
Myself for example a very hard worker whenever I work. I perform to my very best. However ‘ getting ready to get to work is my problem.
I hate to be late yet I’m always late. Though I know I need to be at work at 7 and I know I need to start getting ready by 5 which I do most times, still there are times that I procrastinate.
My greatest enemy “procrastination”. Why do I wait until the last minute to get everything done.
Most times there are deadlines yet I will wait until the last minute. Then if I come across any troubles which will prevent me from meeting this deadline I will surely attempt to concoct the perfect excuse why I’m late.
Lying, that is what I’m good at. You wouldn’t believe if I tell you I despise lying but I’m top class at it when I’m forced to.
I am filled dreams and aspirations. Oh the things I wish to accomplish ‘ so far none of my goals have been met.
I have been in this country for 20 years yet I have achieved nothing but debts and bad credit.
A complete embarrassment to myself and my countrymen.
There are others who have only been in this country for 5 yrs, Yet they have surpassed me in everything except my indolence.
Why do I only dream and not act? Why I’m always late for everything.? Why I’m I not motivated? I have ambitions but I’m I ambitious? No.
This habitual lateness since I was a child. It’s as though punctuality does not exist in my world.
I cannot keep a job because I am always late or miss work too much.
Often I ponder if I belong with the homeless and I’m just a pretender trying to fit in with the working class.
Do I need to go through some sort of extreme condition for me to wake up and make something of myself?
If death were to take me will I be reborn as a better person? These are the thoughts I often find myself with . Like days when I miss work or worried if I’m terminated. I’m I insane to think if I take my life I will revive a new? This is the thought that shadows my head everyday. Though I know this cannot be. My responsibilities are too great.
I am here on the web searching for a book hoping to self treat myself. No I am looking for empathy but a solution
Kay – I once was in the very same situation as you- just know that there is plenty of good ahead. IF you take the appropriate action going forward. Ultimately, the best way to describe what you must do is take the same approach to your work, that hard working mentality, and use it towards working on yourself.
You see, the objective is not to fix yourself from being lazy and showing up to work on time etc…
The objective is to find out WHY that is, understand that its okay for it to be that way- and now to work on what it has caused in your life. The objective is to look at the things surrounding your poor habits and to work on improving them, day after day.
Reading all of the books, articles, watching all of the videos, listening to all the podcasts- wont do you any good until you’ve done what each one of them has provided to you. Take action.
Its not as intimidating as it seems – the word ACTION might come off to you as this uncomfortable big bold thing that you’ll have to tackle head on. At least it did for me. Look at the small things you can do. Turn off the TV, shut off the phone early. Shower and read before bed. Re-set your eternal clock. Make sure you have a job/ career your happy doing.
There is a boundless amount of things you could change in your life and things i could tell you to do and type out for you to read. But the sad reality is its all up to you.
You have to read the knowledge necessary to fix your shitty habits, you have to do the things necessary for your subconscious mind to adjust to. you have to make sure your mind is right and your eating healthy, exercising everyday – maybe practice mindfulness meditation so your more aware of your actions and you can stop yourself from making the same mistakes.
Its not easy – its hard. That’s the truth. It will never be easy to change. That uncomfortable feeling inside of you… You must face it head on for your OWN growth.
Tony Robbins : Awake the Giant Within
Charles Duhigg: The Power of Habit
James Clear: Atomic Habits
Every self help book relative to you.
Realize you have to MAKE the reality. The reality doesn’t come to you. YOU are in control of your actions, your thoughts, your habits, your REALITY is controlled by YOU !
Hoped this helped- the solution is within you. No-one can give you anything that will magically change things. You have to make the action of change in order to change.
small thing = “Make sure you have a job/ career your happy doing”
Maybe I just had a rough ride, but I feel like most people this takes about a decade of sustained effort.
Try getting checked for ADHD, you sound a lot like the rest of us that have it. I wasn’t diagnosed till I was 36.
Why on earth do you identify Mischel as the “Jewish-American …”? I did not see you make any reference to any other author’s religion or nationality. I would truly love to see you answer on this.
Excellent observation and question — I’m unsure and now intrigued myself! I will do my best to get hold of the author for an answer, but in the interim, I’ll remove the reference as it is definitely not our intention to cause any disrespect or ambiguity.
– Nicole | Community Manager