Savvy Student”s Study Skills: Self-Discipline

| TBS Staff

Are you ready to discover your college program?

The Savvy Student's Guide to Study Skills—Chapter Eleven

Marshmallows and Self-Discipline

You've been working really hard, taking in all of these ideas about being a strong student. Let's take a marshmallow break. Take a few notes here, and tell me what you see—and yes, if you need to get up and get a marshmallow of your own once the video's over, that's more than OK.

What you've just seen is a reenactment of a classic psychological experiment that offered some insights into self-discipline. The rules seem simple and clear; don't eat the marshmallow, and you'll get another one in a little while.

But as the video shows, the rules just aren't that easy for some people to live by. Sure, some people pick up the marshmallow, some pretend to eat it, some even lick it—but that's not eating the marshmallow, so those are all OK behaviors.

But what about the children who eat little nibbles, and hope the experimenter doesn't see them? And what's going on with the one child who takes pretty big nibbles out of the marshmallow, but doesn't eat the whole thing? Is she really hoping the experimenter won't notice? And what about the adult in this version of the marshmallow test, who actually eats the whole thing? Is she really OK with just having one marshmallow now, or is she hoping the experimenter will give her a break and give her a second one anyway? These videos, and other replications of the marshmallow test, make it clear—if the experimenters are looking for people who are going to keep still in their chair and just let time go by, they're going to have to keep looking for a really long time.

Return to Top of Page

Marshmallows and You

The lessons from the marshmallow test can offer some pretty good insights into our level of self-discipline, as long as we're honest with ourselves. Most people look at the video and think “Hey, that's not me. I'd be the one who can just sit there and wait.” But consider these real-life situations that involve a different kind of marshmallow:

The truth is, we all have marshmallows in our life, and we all have spinach, or liver, or something we really don't like to eat. In a world of choices between marshmallows and liver, we're inclined to go with the marshmallow every time—even if it's the situation where the “marshmallow” is a text from a friend that might never come. And the last example, where the student is counting on extra credit to get them by? This happens way too often in school, and always ends up badly—but that's liver that's coming later, and it isn't worth eating the liver of studying they'd have to eat now to avoid the liver they'll have to eat later.

Return to Top of Page

The Roots of Self-Discipline

A quick search for the background of self-discipline includes some familiar phrases, like self-control and Emotional Intelligence. But neither one of these quite captures what self-discipline is really all about. Self-control makes life sound like some kind of chemistry experiment, where all the elements are present for something bad to happen at any given moment. Emotional Intelligence gives us the tools to understand how we're feeling in any given situation, but being aware that a choice can be made is different from understanding which choice to make.

It can be pretty hard to get past the idea that self-discipline just isn't a lot of fun, but this quote from the author Abraham Joshua Heschel puts a new twist on self-discipline:

“Self-respect is the root of discipline. The sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.”

Now there's a concept we can hang with. We don't make fun of our friends or forget to meet them after school when we say we will. Why? We respect them. Mom tells us to take out the garbage, and we hate taking out the garbage, but we do it because it's important to her. Respect. There are some classes where students don't think twice about getting bored, but others where they like the teacher, and they pay attention without any trouble. Respect.

This isn't always easy, but you do it anyway. Your friend wears a goofy blouse to class, we cut them some slack. Your mom's fascination with an empty garbage can is a little obsessive, but you don't say anything. Your favorite teacher sometimes talks a little too much about football for your liking, but that's cool.

And that's the secret. Respect is seeing the cool in someone.

Return to Top of Page

Try This Experiment

Keep that in mind—respect is seeing the cool in someone. Now, take a second to write down the names of five people you respect, and why you respect them.

Got it? Good.

Now, turn the paper over, and write down five reasons you respect yourself.

Start by going back to your answers. Draw a line under the last one, then list five things you'd like to respect in yourself. For the next 10 minutes or so, just think about those five things, and why they matter to you. Write your ideas down, if you want to.

Return to Top of Page

Building Self-Discipline

Now, next to each of the five things you'd like to respect in yourself, write down up to five things that could get in your way. What could keep you from showing yourself the same care, the same consistency, that you show others you respect?

These are the blockers that just have to go—and there's a way to get rid of them. This article offers five key ways to grow your self-respect, and if you think about it, they're all pretty familiar to you:

Remove the temptation

Did you notice in the Marshmallow video that the subjects had to stay seated? That kept them right in front of the marshmallow, and few of them, if any, left their chair.

The experiment didn't offer the chance to avoid the temptation, but life often does. Think of something else, go do something else, distract yourself with other ideas—just do what you need to do to make disrespecting yourself less of an option, until it becomes no option at all.

Watch your gut

Doing something new can feel awkward, uncomfortable, and just plain wrong, especially if you're trying a new behavior that isn't going smoothly. If you know the change is right, keep going—that's the only way respect becomes your new habit.

Take a break

We talked about the importance of taking breaks while studying. You're now studying self-respect, and it's OK to do other things while you perfect this skill. You might even consider taking a break to do something nice for someone else—that can give you a different view of respect all together.

Give yourself a break

So you're not perfect? It's OK. Here's the list of those who are. In the words of one of the most underrated songs of the 70s, “The strong give up and move on, while the weak give up and stay.” If you're like most people, moving on is the single hardest skill to perfect.

Return to Top of Page

Self-Discipline and Your Studies

It should come as no surprise that demonstrating self-discipline in one part of your life can lead to more self-discipline in other parts of your life as well. Getting up every morning when the alarm rings, getting ready for school promptly, taking care of your household chores—all of these things exercise the mental muscles of self-discipline. Just like an athlete cross-trains to realize their greatest success, respecting your abilities in one part of your life can lead to newfound respect as a student.

You already know many of the specific steps needed to become a more disciplined student, nicely summed up in this video. Keeping a planner and sticking to it helps set the course for new habits. Recognizing your accomplishments (better grades, less cramming for exams), and writing about them in a journal, helps offer evidence that you're making headway. Living through the discomfort of trying something new is a different kind of proof that you're on your way to a different level of success. Waking up one day and thinking your new level of discipline is no big deal means it's with you for life.

This last point is an important one to understand—there's no way to really tell when a new habit of self-discipline is going to feel natural. For some people, and for some habits, it's a matter of days; for others, it's a matter of months, or even years. There's no doubt that the subjects in the Marshmallow video probably would have behaved differently if the experimenter had said “Sit in the chair. I'll be back in five minutes, and if the marshmallow is still here, you'll get a second one.” Lots of people can hang in there for five minutes. Most of the time, we don't get to keep track of the time; we can only keep track of our progress. The good news is that keeping track of our progress leads to even more progress.

Return to Top of Page

But What About …?

Thinking about self-discipline as self-respect can really be a game changer. Like the video gamer whose life gets a lot easier when they unlock the next key tool, self-respect can open up a world of energy, opportunity, new ways of looking at the world—and most of self-discipline involves looking at the exact same situation in a brand new way.

At the same time, some students will look at the idea of self-respect with a high degree of doubt. Looking at the past, or holding on to the way they've always seen themselves, they look at the opportunity to learn new behaviors that will lead to new opportunities, and their outlook can be summed up in this video, or by the simple phrase “I get it. But I'm not motivated to be motivated.” This is especially true when they look at the technique the presenter uses to wake himself up every morning. Before he goes to sleep, he prepares a Twitter post that will pay each of his friends $5 the next morning. The only way that doesn't happen is if he wakes up when his alarm rings and cancels the Twitter post. If not, it's a payday for his pals!

Return to Top of Page

Back to Basics

It's easy to see why setting big goals might not be enough to get you to change the way you live your life. Big goals take time to achieve, and unexpected events can get in the way that you have no control over.

If you feel that way, or if your track record of goal setting hasn't been all that successful, go back to the key rules of self-respect and make a few tweaks:

Set a fair goal

There may be all kinds of reasons that getting the highest grade in the class isn't a fair goal. If that's the case, pick one that is: homework complete and turned in every day for a week; a higher grade on the next spelling quiz than you earned on the last spelling quiz; meeting with one teacher after school to review the rough draft of a paper. The goal has to require some behavior you aren't displaying right now, but nothing says it has to be impossible. So if you can't quite get to this, try this first.

Celebrate the steps

Getting your study space organized can be a huge step forward in being a better student, but it probably isn't something you want to share on social media (unless it looks like this). Sharing that news with a friend or two, making a note in your journal, checking it off on your planner—give yourself some credit for what you've done.

Keep the big goal in mind

The main reason 8 million people have watched this video is because they want to be inspired. They want to know that doing the impossible is possible. It's because they want to get up in the morning and know that whatever challenge they think they can't handle can really be a piece of cake. Keeping the big picture in mind, and getting fired up by the greatness and everyday good that's out there, makes a productive life something that's natural for us to have, and to work towards.

Return to Top of Page


Learning to stay at a task, even when we don't completely remember why we're working towards the goal, is the working definition of persistence. Self-discipline may lead us to decide to change our behavior, but persistence is the quality that helps us stay with it, even when the reasons for doing it aren't clear to us.

If it sounds like persistence is all about doing something that's of no benefit to you, that isn't quite right. Persistence is more like doing something with purpose that takes a really long time—and the only way it will get done is to stick with it. Examples of persistence can be found in all kind of places, from the business world to everyday life.

Persistence is getting a lot of attention lately, thanks in part to researchers who have shown that it's possible to teach students how to be persistent. This idea, also known as grit, has been a part of education for a very long time—just ask any coach or math teacher. But the research is important because it hopes to show the best way to teach grit to students with different levels of persistence. Coach may be teaching persistence to one student by making them do a lot of pushups, but that same approach may lead other students to take up the bassoon.

Return to Top of Page

How to Learn Persistence

Grit studies are in their early stages, but some of the findings are leading to some interesting ideas, including:

Teaching students about the brain

Too many students go through school believing there's only so much they can learn, or that they'll never be good at a particular subject. Early research on grit says that can change if students understand more about how their brain really works. Not only does this show them how it's possible to become a better learner over time; it also helps them ditch the idea that there's nothing they can do learn more, or understand more about the world.

Expecting more from students

The best way to learn about grit is to use it, so teachers are designing lessons that require students to react a little less and respond a little more. The result? Students have to think about the ideas being presented to them, and are expected to consider them from more than one point of view—and that expands their ability to see things, including themselves, in new ways.

Give shout outs for progress

The days when teachers handed back tests without saying a word to the students are over. By tying a student's success to a behavior (“Nice job on the quiz on One Hundred Years of Solitude. Your work in that study group is really paying off!”), teachers make it clear to the student that it wasn't brainpower alone that made the difference; it was sticking with it.

Use Tech to Create Lessons Like Video Games

One of the great mysteries of today is how some students can spend hours playing video games, doing the same thing over and over again, and failing, only to stick with it and finally reach the next level. This works at home in front of the big screen, but many of these same gamers can't be bothered memorizing times tables or doing other school work they see as repetitive?

What's the difference? Researchers are trying to figure this out, and their early ideas suggest:

Using technology and the video game approach in the classroom leads to the kind of repetition and anticipated award that are keys to developing persistence.

Return to Top of Page

Applying These Ideas to Your Own Learning

Researchers are just beginning to understand how persistence can become a bigger part of students' lives, but the ideas they're working with now can still become an active part of your life.

You and Your Brain

Since realizing that you have potential to learn is a key part of developing grit, it might be a good idea to understand more about your noggin'.

For starters, take this quick quiz that gives you some idea how much grit you demonstrate in your life right now. No matter how you score, remember that you have the potential to build more grit. The results of this quiz can give you some insights into how to do that. (And if you want to measure your social grit, give this quiz a try—but remember, there's not a lot of science behind this one.)

Next, it's time to see what you can do to make sure your brain is getting the messages needed to become a grit factory. This article is one of many that talks about persistence in sports, but the ideas they talk about work just as well in school and in the social scene:

Think about your roadblocks

If you know you need to be more persistent, think about what's getting in your way. There's a good chance you know; you just need to give yourself an opportunity to admit them.

Get happy

The great motivational speaker Les Brown is known for saying “If you can look up, you can get up.” If you have an attitude that has you looking at anything but what's positively possible, it's time to convert an attitude of impossible to an attitude of I'm possible (did you see what Audrey Hepburn did there?)

Schedule to your strengths

Once you find out your peak time of day, first take on the tasks that seem hardest to achieve. Keep your focus, and focus only on the good—and finish any work period with a challenging task you know you'll do well. That's how you grow progress.

In addition, this article points out a lesson on thinking about persistence that comes from the gaming world. If you don't realize success, you're more likely to learn from your failure if you feel you were in control of what happened. If you're always late for school because you don't get up early enough, you can actually learn from that experience as soon as you realize that's the cause. But if you get up early enough and are still late for school because traffic was heavy, it takes longer to learn anything from that message, because heavy traffic is out of your control (or is it?)

This goes back to the importance of finding ways to reflect on the progress you're making on your goals. If you can understand what you can do to advance (“If you can look up”), you're more inclined to try again (“you can get up.”)

Set Your Goals High

The art of tweaking your goals is a lifelong process—some goals will be too high at the start, and some will be too low. If a time comes when you have a choice between the two, aim high. The science behind this choice isn't too precise, but part of the idea is that you have to value a goal once you achieve it—and if you think anybody can do what you just did, that's not the kind of praise you can grow on. Just ask Tom Hanks.

Call Yourself Out

Research often reinforces what we already know—and that's the case when it comes to praising your own effort. Finding the good in what you made out of your day lifts your sense of self and vision—as long as it's based on something real. There may be a day that has so many challenges that this will be the highlight, but that's not going to be as often as you think. Look around for the progress you make, and get it in your journal. That's how you increase optimism.

Value the Repetition

Another lesson we get from video games is the value of repetition with a purpose. It's easy to see situations where repeating yourself gets you nowhere (in fact, it could be a bit of a negative thing), but now that you know why teachers are building repetition into their lessons, and how you can learn from it, you're now in control of what you think about hearing the same thing more than once.

An Anatomy student told me about a professor she had who started every single class the same way. He would put a blank figure of the body up on the screen, and draw in the key veins, explaining their relationship and purpose—and that was the end of day one of class. Day two started the same way, but the explanation of the veins was a little shorter, because the teacher then added in the muscles. Day three started with veins and muscles, then added the organs.

It went on this way for the entire semester, and while the student really started to appreciate the art and beauty of the professor's work, the repetition drove undoubtedly drove other students crazy. I can't help but wonder which students did better on the final exam; based on grit research, I think we all know.

Return to Top of Page

Learn from Failure

We already talked about the importance of looking at failure from the right perspective, but this is an idea that bears repeating, for two reasons. First, a fear of failure can give you an attitude that suggests there's no point in trying to realize your goals at all. You may see them as too hard, too easy, too complicated, or something others will laugh at. There are a million reasons people come up with to decide that a goal remains something nice to think about, just a dream.

It's easy to understand why some people look at failure that way, especially if they've experienced a big failure that was out of their control. But others experience big failures- many of them in front of their friends—and move on, once they've learned what they need to learn from their failure to make sure it doesn't happen again, (even if sometimes, it does). What's the difference? They want something better for themselves—and grit is all about learning how to see more of your life from that perspective.

The second reason it's important to look at failure is to understand what you may need to change to experience greater success next time. Sometimes that's as simple as remembering not to open the big door on Level 4 of a video game, and other times it may be a little more complicated—so much so, that trying to figure out what went wrong seems more like guessing than knowing. What keeps us going, and gives us the humility to admit we have more to learn, and that we're looking forward to learning more? Grit.

Fear of failure prevents you from doing anything, and fear of analyzing failure prevents you from learning anything. Taking the time to make sense out of what happened can make what will happen next that much better-- and if you don't believe me, take it from a guy whose best remembered for his successes, because he studies his failures.


Popular with our students.

Highly informative resources to keep your education journey on track.

Take the next step toward your future with online learning.

Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.

woman in an office