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.
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.