The “Secret” to Becoming a Better Man in 2010

by Brett & Kate McKay on January 3, 2010 · 33 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

It’s a new year, a time for both gazing into the future and reflecting on the past. As you look back on the last year, how do you feel about the way it went? Do you have the sinking feeling that you are in the same place mentally/professionally/romantically/spiritually that you were 12 months ago? That the only thing that’s changed is the date on the calendar?

There are always a lot of tips given out this time of year about how to make and keep resolutions and make the next year better than the last.

But I have only one “secret” to impart: discipline. It is the key to unlocking your potential and finally moving forward with your life.

The reason you still haven’t finished that book you started last January but have spent several hours surfing the internet every day? A lack of discipline. The reason that you want to propose to your girlfriend or have kids but keep holding back? You’re afraid you don’t have the discipline to be successful at those endeavors. The reason you’re still just as fat as last time you ate that cream puff before making a new resolution? A lack of discipline. The reason you haven’t made any progress on starting that side business, and your house is a dump, and you feel like your life is slipping away? No discipline!

Discipline is essentially the ability to put off what we want in the moment for what we want in the long run. By now, almost everyone is familiar with the famous marshmallow experiment run by Dr. Walter Mischel. Four year old children were each given one marshmallow. They could either eat the marshmallow immediately, or, if they waited 15 minutes for the lab assistant to return, receive another marshmallow, thus doubling their prize. The kids who were able to wait generally went on to become successful and well adjusted adults, while the kids who gobbled the first marshmallow had more trouble dealing with stress, frustration, and impulse control.

We all probably imagine ourselves as the kid who would have waited for the second marshmallow. And maybe you would have. But even the most disciplined among us have areas in our lives where we’re failing. Areas where we’re just middling by and it’s absolutely eating at us, knowing how much potential we have and how we’re not utilizing it.

Everyone wants a secret or hack on how to be more disciplined. But there isn’t one. It is simply a matter of training your mind to do what you want it to do. Of saying a resounding “No!” to the things that waste your life and your time. You decide what you really want out of life and you go for it. That’s it.

But here are some thing to think over to help your frame of mind, for as Dr. Mischel says, “We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”

Stop thinking of your “flaw” as part of your identity. Part of why it’s hard to make changes in our lives, why we find ourselves unsuccessful in changing our habits, is that we rationalize our weaknesses as simply part of “who we are.” We assuage our guilt but adopting them as part of our identity, as part of our shtick.

We’re the jolly fat guy who makes self-deprecating jokes and amazes people with how many slices of pizza he can wolf down. We’re the funny drunk who always gets totally plastered and cracks everyone up with our antics. We’re a night owl, dammit! That’s how we roll, burning the midnight oil! We’re the player, not because we can’t keep a girlfriend but just because we crush a lot!

We do so much rationalizing that it can be downright painful to change; we feel like we’re losing a part of ourselves. Maybe our habits aren’t making us happy, but at least they give us the stability of an identity, the comfort of routine. What happens when the fat guy slims down and the drunk gets sober? Who are we then?

When it’s time to shape up your life, it’s crucial to replace your old identity with a new one; it’s the same concept that applies to changing your habits. Instead of being the jolly fat guy, become the super fit, former fat guy who loves being active. Instead of being a playah, become known as the guy women would love to date, a true gentleman.

Stop being haunted by the ghost of your mom. Whenever part of you wants to become more disciplined, another part of you cries out, “We don’t have to follow anybody’s rules! Nobody puts baby in the corner!” Your mind often identifies this voice as your inner-rebel, the part of you that feels an affinity for James Dean. This voice flatters your identity. You’re not lazy, you’re a rebel!

But the voice is really your eight your old self. And he’s crying out against mom’s rules.

Whenever a man first leaves home, he begins to test his boundaries; away from his parents’ prying eyes, he is enamored with his new found freedom. Many men, like myself, saw their grade point averages bottom out during freshman year of college for this very reason.

This is actually a healthy process (provided you don’t flunk out or get a girl pregnant or something). Part of growing up is exploring and breaking your old rules and finding out how you want to live your life. At first you want to eat the whole jar of cookies because you can! No one can stop you! But there has to come a point where you say, you know, eating the whole jar of cookies makes me sick; it makes me feel like crap. It’s the place where you stop doing stuff just because you can, and start living the way you know is actually best for you and will make you happiest. Mom’s not looking over your shoulder anymore. You are in control of your life, and you don’t have to prove anything to anyone but yourself.

Freedom is not the end all be all. The voice in our head that likes to derail our efforts at discipline loves to wave the grand flag of freedom in our faces. You can choose to do whatever you’d like-that’s the ultimate in freedom! You can sleep in until noon, and surf the internet instead of cleaning up, and stay out late instead of studying. Why would you want to reign yourself in with a schedule or goals?

What the freedom voice neglects to tell you is this: while everyone has the freedom to choose, you can’t choose the consequences of those choices. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. There’s no use fighting against the laws of the universe.

The only reward of unchecked freedom is freedom itself. So you spent the day doing what you want-surfing the net in your underwear-what do you have to show for it despite an extensive knowledge of how the next Batman flick is coming along? Without the feeling of personal progress and the satisfaction of real, hard-earned achievements, freedom alone feels completely empty.

Fix your core values first. Let’s say one of your core values is family. And let’s say you’re trying to lose weight while the relationship with your wife is crap. What do you think the odds are of your success? Pretty dang low.

Think of your life like a stack of cups. Your core values are the cups on the bottom, your foundation. What if one of the bottom cups is removed or is missing? The rest of the cups will fall. If you want to be successful in tackling other areas of your life, you’ve got to build on a rock solid bedrock of core values. It’s just like building a house. You can’t put in the jacuzzi before you’ve built the foundation.

Train your discipline like you train your body. Your self-discipline is just like the muscles in your body. When you first start working out, you’ll find that there’s a maximum weight you can bench press. You can try piling more weight on the bar, but it will just crush you. That’s your baseline strength.  As you regularly work out and incrementally add more weight, your baseline strength will increase and you’ll be able to lift more weight and do more reps.

Your self-discipline works in the exact same way. Right now you have a limited amount of self-discipline available to you. If you spend it on one thing, you have less to spend on other stuff. If you use your willpower in controlling your diet, you’ll find it harder to reign in your spending. But as you keep flexing your willpower in an area, your self-control will expand and you’ll have more strength to discipline the other areas of your life as well. So don’t take on too much at once. Pick an area of your life where you want to exercise more discipline and work on it until your self-discipline grows and you gain the self-control to take on more and more challenges.

In conjunction with this post, we published a manvotional: The Kingship of Self-Control. For further insight and inspiration on this topic, be sure to give it a read.

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

1 matt January 3, 2010 at 11:03 pm

Well written and so true. Too many people not willing to work for anything anymore, and it show’s in the WIIFM attitude of society.

2 Joey January 3, 2010 at 11:14 pm

Great post. I particularly like the part about letting go of your flaws as part of your identity. I was reading an article today in which a blind woman said she wasn’t sure if she would have her sight restored if there was a procedure that could do so. And I know a guy who was paralyzed from birth who said he wouldn’t have his legs restored to normal if he could. Both said it was because their disability was who they were.

I think it’s awesome to be able to happily accept the cards given you in life-the things you can’t change. But I think they’re a good example of not holding yourself back from progressing simply because it’s “who you are.” You shouldn’t be scared to change who you are when something better is within reach.

3 Shiva January 4, 2010 at 4:18 am

just when i’m moping about my grade point average being low in the first year of college itself, i read this article.
You’ve just inspired me!

4 Playstead January 4, 2010 at 5:38 am

Awesome post. So much of this is true, and while it’s an even bigger problem in your 20′s, it’s still haunts people into their 30′s and 40′s. Nice work.

5 Tinamarie Bernard January 4, 2010 at 8:17 am

What a refreshing read. I’m pleased that you found me via twitter, and I’m following you now too. Are you familiar with the concept of a mensch? What you are describing here is such a person. Someone with integrity, passion for life and doing what is right, as so much more.
My husband and I were talking about infidelity last night. In light of all the scandals this past year involving high profile men behaving badly, I’ve been engaged in a thought experiment. What can a couple do to prevent betrayal? Oh, we can exercise, be sexy in and out of bed, go on dates, work hard, blah blah blah, but it isn’t so much what we do that makes the difference. It is who we are. Our essence. We must strive each day to love consciously, live as you’ve desribed above. So at this point I believe that the answer lies on that continuum of ethics and intimacy.

6 Mike K in Oregon January 4, 2010 at 8:33 am

Right on! I love the advise. Much like a wedge on a kick off you need someone/something to break it open. Discipline. Allow your successes in one part of your life to give you courage that you can expand that into others, I find when one area is working a little better I let that success help me push harder in other areas of my life.
Goals and Dreams.

7 Alec Corday January 4, 2010 at 9:38 am

It is for articles like these that I read AOM. Total awesome squared. Now if I only could get away from reading your grear site and back to work…

8 Heidi January 4, 2010 at 10:04 am

Thank yu for posting this. I’ve been thinking about men for (ahem….a while)….and knowing they needed something just like your website provides. I think men in western culture are in an identity crises. It saddens me because I think it is probably very confusing. Something organic like you provide here seems like a wonderful balm. I will surely pass this on.

9 Chad Egeland January 4, 2010 at 10:12 am

This is the first article I had read on The Art Of Manliness as I just found the site through AllTop. This was a great read with fantastic advice and many valid points. Discipline and self control are two of the things I see severely lacking in society today. I myself have been working towards being more disciplined in work and being more focused. Thanks for the great article.

10 jcard21 January 4, 2010 at 11:26 am

Minimize the 7 Deadly Sins:


Maximize the Contrary, Heavenly, and Cardinal Virtues:

…whether you are Christian or not.

This requires voluntary self-control and voluntary self-discipline [I'm being redundant on purpose!].

Mankind has struggled with these sins and virtues for ages.

And, let us not forget what was once taught in elementary school: an individual’s freedom ends at other peoples’ freedoms.

11 Delshon January 4, 2010 at 11:27 am

This is good stuff.
Myself & a few of my friends started a running group about a month ago and we currently have 27 Members.
The new runners never believe that they can run half marathons/ full marathons my response too them is with hard work, and consistency anything is possible.

The same holds true in our lives if we keep at it no matter how hard it gets we will see the fruit of our labor.

12 The Adjudicator January 4, 2010 at 11:29 am

Great post — I’ve been enjoying this blog quite a bit recently. Mens Health could learn a thing or two about creative topics and intelligent writing from you guys! Keep up the good work.

The Adjudicator

13 Richard | January 4, 2010 at 11:34 am

I think freedom is the be all and end all but the way you used “freedom” here is right too. Self discipline is essential and the true sign that a boy has become a man. Just look at Bond, disciplined and cool at all times.

14 Mr Miyagi January 4, 2010 at 12:23 pm

“Daniel son… wax on… wax off!”

15 Josef January 4, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Wow, powerful article.

16 Jim January 4, 2010 at 1:25 pm

Thanks for a powerful article. Feels like a bucket of cold water in the face.

17 Kevin Shook January 4, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Great article!

18 Jake January 4, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Fantastic article. Discipline gives the ultimate freedom… the freedom from the prison of bad habits, laziness, eta.

19 Eric January 4, 2010 at 10:46 pm

Thank you for this! If you’ve ever given a speech, I’m sure you may have wondered if what you were saying was falling on deaf ears. But then after it’s over someone would tell you that your message was meant for them. I’m that person in the crowd that needed to hear this at this exact moment in my life. Perfect. Articles like this is why I tune in to this site.

20 Stan January 4, 2010 at 10:52 pm

For most of my life I resented the concept of discipline because I associated it with rigidity and restrictions. I envisioned soldiers marching in lock step, mystics walking on hot coals, a student putting logging lonely hours over books in the back of a library. My focus was one’s practice of discipline without consideration for the purposes or goals that discipline serves. A wonderful quote from “The Actor in You” by Robert Benedetti opened my eyes to the liberating power of discipline towards pursuing one’s own goals:

“Real discipline is not a matter of following someone else’s rules. In the best sense, it is your acceptance of responsibility for your own development through systematic effort. You accept this responsibility not to please someone else, no to earn a grade, or a good review, or a job, but because you choose to become all that you can be.
Discipline is rooted in your respect for yourself, as well as your respect for your fellow workers, for your work, and for the world you serve through through that work. Poor discipline is really a way of saying, ” I’m not worth it” or “what I do doesn’t matter.” Discipline will come naturally if you can acknowledge your own value, the importance and seriousness of your work, and the great need for your work in the world.”

21 Christian D. January 5, 2010 at 10:29 am

Very well said. Like many people, perhaps readers of this site, I’m starting the old lose weight blah blah blah thing. And in the end it really does come down to self control and making yourself do it when you’d rather just sit down and eat yourself into a coma!

Will be marking this one to come back and read later on this year, when that self discipline is waning!

22 Tony January 5, 2010 at 11:46 am

“Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” — John Paul II

Absolutely marvelous article. Over the last century, certain people have stressed the kinship we have with other animals right to the point of saying, “We’re no different from them.” But we are different, Animals can’t choose their actions and reactions like we can. We can exercise self-control, and we ought to exercise self-control. This article is a keeper!

23 MARCO GARCIA January 5, 2010 at 12:17 pm

I’m really glad I found this article. I’m a mess and every problem I have revolves around lack of discipline. I’m 37 and have underachieved in my career, my fitness level, my education, and am now afraid that my life is going to be defined by one word – mediocrity. This article was a wake up call. Thanks for it.

24 Aaron January 5, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Great post.

I think we have a whole generation of men who are clueless when it comes to what their goals are and what it means to live a life of discipline. Even in law school, among the “best-educated folks around” (so we’re told), I meet far too many men who have no direction. Their only goal is getting to the Saturday afternoon tailgate. And for what?

There was a good article about this kind of thing a little over a year ago ( Here’s a quote: “No longer has male hedonism to do with learning how to be well-dressed or cultivate a taste for wine, women, and song. It is about immediate satisfaction of the appetite and pleasures of the youth.”

Men today do not direct their efforts and attention to the more meaningful things in life–family, work, etc.–and instead are content playing video games and drinking cheap beer. It’s quite tragic. Especially the part about the cheap beer.

25 Carlo d. January 5, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Well written article. I feel very proud of myself to live up to most of what is written here. It’s inspired me to make an effort in improving my family relationship.

26 Alex January 6, 2010 at 9:00 pm

Great article. As always this site delivers what is promised.

27 Jesse January 7, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Great article! Interesting that one can be extremely disciplined in certain aspects of life but undisciplined in others. Sometimes we max out time and energy to discipline one aspect of our lives and neglect others. This is true in my case. I was a college athlete and enjoyed studying and reading so I did well in college. However, I had somewhat on a crisis after college. I thought I was a hot shot because I was in excellent shape and well read. However, I would just work out and read instead of doing what I considered “busy work” at my job. For this reason, people who I thought were inferior stopped taking me seriously and moved up faster than me. It took me years to realize, but I was and still am undisciplined when it comes to doing work that I don’t want to do but that needs to be done. Something I am working on now.

28 Gabe January 12, 2010 at 12:57 am

haha i love this site! its so amazing!!!!!!

29 Dr. Rod Berger January 12, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Interesting read about breaking down previous ideals with our own experiences and judging as we move forward….thank you for making me think!
Dr. Rod

30 Steve Doran Trail Boss January 15, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Discipline is good but making it fun is the only way you will continue on any quest

31 Robert Amparan February 11, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Read over it and just think about it.

32 Claseturista February 23, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Another star for AOM!

33 Vrtical1 December 17, 2012 at 5:27 am

Thanks for helping to plant new seeds of thought in my mind!!!!!

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