Have you been waking up early, writing in your journal, meditating, exercising, drinking eight glasses of water a day, and planning your week religiously for months and months, but aren’t seeing any real progress in your life?

What gives? 

Since we were little kids, haven’t we been told that if we exercise discipline, we’ll be a success?

Problem is, discipline is not the same thing as self-discipline, and you’ve only been exercising the latter. 

The Difference Between Discipline and Self-Discipline

In his book, The Attributes, retired Navy SEAL Rich Diviney makes a deft, useful distinction between discipline and self-discipline.

For Rich, self-discipline is all about, well, the self. It’s about managing your emotions, resisting temptations, forcing yourself to do things concerning your personal habits and routines that you may otherwise not want to do. 

Discipline, on the other hand, “is about accomplishing external goals.” When you’re disciplined, you know what you need to do to achieve an outside objective and then do whatever is necessary to get it done.

The end for self-discipline is personal improvement; the end for discipline lies beyond the self. 

This distinction helps explain why individuals can be incredibly self-disciplined and yet see very little external achievement as a result. Sure, they never miss a day writing in their journal and never lose their temper, but those displays of self-mastery don’t automatically lead to outward success. There are plenty of rigidly controlled folks who nonetheless lag far behind their goals, lack cultural influence, and can’t cut it as leaders.

This distinction also helps explain why some men who lack self-discipline nonetheless make things happen in the world around them. They may drink, swear, sleep in, and never follow a daily routine, but when given an assignment with a clear objective, they do what they have to do to achieve their mission.

Case Studies in the Difference Between Discipline and Self-Discipline

It’s often assumed that self-discipline is a prerequisite for discipline — that you have to master self-control in handling your private matters, if you ever want to tackle public ones. But plenty of examples from history belie this neat correlation. 

Take Winston Churchill. He isn’t what we traditionally think of as a self-disciplined individual. He was a bit of a glutton, something of a lush, and certainly a spendthrift. He lost his temper, kicked over wastebaskets, yelled at his staff. He kept an idiosyncratic daily schedule, staying up late each night, and taking a nap each afternoon. After rising in the morning, he’d luxuriate around in the bath (the first of two he enjoyed each day), then put on a velvet dressing gown . . . to get back in bed. There he’d read the day’s newspapers, respond to correspondence, and prepare memos, while propped up on pillows and smoking a cigar. 

Yet, despite his lack of self-discipline, Churchill was highly disciplined. He understood his objective as a wartime leader — to win the war — and tirelessly worked for years, with unflagging focus, to achieve that objective. 

Then there’s someone like Jake McNiece. McNiece was a renegade, rule-breaking paratrooper who constantly got in trouble for failing to keep his uniform and quarters clean, show up for drills, and salute officers. He got in fights and drank too much. His antics landed him in the brig more than once. He had little self-discipline. 

Yet McNiece was one of WWII’s most effective and legendary leaders. As the section sergeant of the “Filthy Thirteen” — an elite demolition unit — McNiece’s men would follow him to hell, and his mission focus was unassailable. Commanding officers knew that if they gave him a job to do, he’d get it done. McNiece was disciplined. 

The difference between discipline and self-discipline can be highlighted well in the contrast between the Civil War’s two commanding generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.

Lee had self-discipline in spades. He graduated second in his class at West Point, meaning he excelled in studying, drilling, and polishing buttons. As an officer, he had a reputation for being fastidious in manners and composure. 

But Lee