How many times have you vowed to improve your self discipline, only to find yourself failing only few weeks later?
You spend hours creating a beautiful colour coded schedule, setting up a new to-do list app and painstakingly planning how you will crush your goals.
You swear you will wake up at dawn, workout every morning, #hustleandgrind and live your best life.
You believe you can have everything you want, if you can just follow the plan.
Then, as it always does, one thing leads to another and things begin to go awry.
- You oversleep and miss a workout.
- You can't concentrate and start ignoring those pesky to-do lists in favour of listlessly scrolling through cute puppy memes on Instagram.
- None of the habits you tried to form have stuck and you're right back where you started from.
Cue the shame and guilt, the vow to do better, the obsessive planning. The cycle begins again.
What if you could actually pull yourself out of this slough of despond and make real, concrete changes to your habits? What if those habits could last for the long term and actually help you progress towards your goals?
In this guide, we are going to teach you everything you need to know to truly develop self discipline that lasts.
Guide Contributed by Kelly Dunning
The True Key To Self Discipline
Here's the key to building self discipline that really lasts.
It's not about which time management app or day planner you use. There are a million and one ways to plan, track and measure your good habits, but they are all useless if you can't form those habits in the first place.
Self discipline is ultimately a state of the mind. If you want to train yourself to be more disciplined, you have to shift your mindset and see the world in a new light.
This doesn't mean you need some sort of life defining epiphany. Even subtle changes in the way you think can dramatically increase your behavior and help you spend less time doing things you don't really want to do and more time accomplishing your goals.
In this article, we'll cover 20 small but powerful strategies and concepts that will change your mindset on self discipline.
Start With WHY: Why Do You Want to Be Disciplined?
Ask yourself: what is the outcome you want to achieve?
You have to have a reason for why you are doing this. If you don't have a specific goal in mind, it's too easy to give up when the going gets tough. You simply won't care enough to push through.
The desire for your goal must be stronger than the temptation to give up, so think about what you really want. (What you really really want.)
Do you want to get your work done more productively so you can spend more time with your family? Do you want to build healthy eating and exercise habits so you can have more energy and feel more confident about your body? Do you want to launch your freelance career so you can be location independent?
The motivation has to come from within you and you have to really care about the outcome - it won't stick if you're just trying to fulfil something you think you "should" do.
What Self Discipline Isn't
Before you begin on your journey towards building self discipline, it's important to understand what self discipline ISN'T.
- It's not about becoming a superhuman productivity machine who never fails.
- It's not beating yourself up because you didn't achieve more than you did yesterday.
- It's not expecting that you'll never be tempted to sleep in, eat cupcakes or scroll through Facebook.
- It's not rigid and inflexible. It doesn't mean holding yourself to an impossible standard.
Self discipline shouldn't require a Herculean effort (and if it does, it's not sustainable). It simply requires a normal amount of effort, managed effectively.
Remember that your human brain has evolved to be as lazy as possible in order to conserve energy. Smart self discipline is not about trying to fight that, it's about understanding it and making small, persistent changes anyway.
20 Self Discipline Concepts, Strategies and Mindset Shifts
Here are 20 strategies I've found helpful for developing self discipline. Not all of these will be relevant to your unique situation, but realistically, you only need to apply two or three of these strategies in order to see a fundamental shift in your own capacity for self discipline.
1. Challenge Your Own Excuses
"Argue for your limitations and they're yours." - Richard Bach
I used to tell myself that I didn't have time to work on my own blog, because I work full time as a freelance writer. By the end of a long day of working on projects for my clients, I was tired of sitting in front of the computer and didn't want to spend more time writing.
One day, my boyfriend pointed out that if that was my excuse, I would never be able to have time to build my blog. After all, my job wasn't going to change. I had successfully argued for my own limitations.
So, I decided to spend 30 minutes working on my blog every day first thing in the morning, before I got started with client work. It's a short, focused burst of work and I do it first thing, so there's no excuse not to. It might not sound like much, but it adds up.
I started the habit in November 2016 and I've kept it up ever since. That means I've found time for hundreds and hundreds of hours working on my blog thanks to this simple mindset shift.
Try it with your own excuses:
"I can't eat healthily because I don't have enough time to prepare food."
Can you prepare a large batch of healthy food on Sunday and freeze it?
"I can't write a book because I work full time."
Can you work on your book for an hour every evening before bed instead of watching TV?
"I can't exercise because I don't have a gym membership."
Can you go running outside, or follow Youtube workout videos in your living room?
2. Delayed Gratification
In order to build self discipline, we need to master the art of avoiding a temptation that is right there in front of us, so we can hold out for something better in the future. Studies have shown that being able to delay gratification is one of the most important personal traits of successful people.
Sigmund Freud explains that when we are children, we are focused entirely on immediate gratification. The only thing we are concerned with is satisfying our immediate needs of hunger, thirst and attention. As we mature, we learn to tolerate a level of discomfort in order to achieve a greater goal.
For example, we resist the urge to go out partying every weekend, in order to save up to move abroad or buy a home. Or, we resist the donuts in the break room at work every day, in order to enjoy the health benefits of a better diet. Everytime we choose delayed gratification, we are doing a favor for our future selves.
3. Make Choices in Advance
When we have to make several decisions in a day, we can suffer from something called "Decision Fatigue." You might start out making smart choices and delaying gratification, but by the end of the day your ability to choose wisely is spent.
This is why supermarkets place impulse purchases such as chocolate bars by the cash registers - as most shoppers have decision fatigue by the time they get there.
Businessmen and politicians such as Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Barack Obama are known for only wearing one or two outfits in order to limit the number of decisions they need to make every day.
One way to reduce the amount of decisions you have to make in a day is to make these decisions in advance, so they are not a choice anymore. For example, if you make a large batch of healthy dinners for the week on a Sunday and freeze them, you've decided in advance what you'll eat each weekday night. On Wednesday when you are tired from work you'll still make a healthy choice, rather than order a pizza due to decision fatigue.
4. Removing Temptation
According to a study by the American Psychological Association, training self-control through steadfastly trying to resist temptation again and again simply doesn't work.
Instead of keeping temptations around and trying to resist them (which we are terrible at), why not remove the temptations in the first place? This makes self-discipline effortless, as the decision is automatic.
If your goal is to be more productive, use Facebook Feed Eradicator and other tools to block social media apps. If your goal is to eat healthy, don't keep junk food in the house. If you are trying to quit smoking, don't stand outside with your friends while they smoke on a night out.
5. What You Don't Do is Just as Important As What You Do
Take close look at where you are spending your time and energy. What percentage is spent on things that really don't matter?
According to this study, the average adult spends five hours per day looking at their smartphone. It sounds crazy, but when you think about the countless times you check your notifications for a minute or two, it really adds up.
With this in mind, NOT constantly scrolling through social media on your phone can make a huge difference in your day. Imagine what you could do if you had 5 extra hours every day to work towards your goals?
6. Consistent Small Habits
When young comedian Brad Isaac asked Jerry Seinfeld for advice, Seinfeld told him that the best way to improve was to write jokes every day. He advised Isaac to get a large wall calendar and a red magic marker. For every day he writes jokes, he makes a big red X over the day.
After a few days, you start to build up a unbroken chain of red Xs, which is a very satisfying feeling. After that, your only job is to not break the chain.
This strategy isn't concerned with the results themselves, it's simply about building a consistent habit. Once you do that, the results will come. (Also, it's important to pick a task that is significant enough to make a difference but small enough that you can do it every day.)
7. Focus is a Muscle You Can Build
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport writes about how most people lack the ability to stay focused on a task for a significant period of time. To test this on yourself, try to sit down and focus on doing just ONE thing. It won't be long until your mind starts to wander and you find yourself checking your phone notifications or email.
You can build up your ability to focus by setting a timer and working exclusively on one thing for a set period of time. Put your phone out of sight or on airplane mode and close all other browser windows. At first, this focused burst might only be for 10 minutes. Then, you can work up to 15, 20, 30 minutes eventually, taking a short break between each section. (This is known as the Pomodoro Technique.)
This is similar to how High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) trains your muscles with bursts of intense, 100% physical effort alternating with periods of short rest. After you train it for a while, your "focus muscle" will become stronger.
8. Nutrition, Sleep and Exercise Are Key
If you are trying to improve your self discipline and you're not getting enough sleep, healthy food and exercise, you're fighting an uphill battle.
If you eat nutritious food, get some form of physical exercise every day and get a good sleep, you'll find it much easier to work towards your goals. You'll have more energy, an overall positive attitude and you'll be less likely to give up when the going gets tough.
Like most successful entrepreneurs, Consulting.com founder Sam Ovens is big on making sure nutrition, sleep and exercise are taken care of, as he discusses in this sneak peek from the Consulting.com Quantum Mastermind:
9. It's About the Habit, Not the Outcome
Rather than saying "I want to lose weight" say "I want to walk at least 10,000 steps per day."
"Losing weight" is something nebulous and difficult to pin down. How are you going to achieve it? How will you know when you are successful?
Walking 10,000 steps per day is something concrete that you can track and measure. If you focus on this habit, the outcome of losing weight and improving fitness will likely come as a result. So, figure out what you want to achieve and think about the habits that would get you there.
10. "It's Just What I Do"
In this podcast episode about building healthy habits, Problogger founder Darren Rowse talks about the power of saying "It's just what I do" when he is building a new habit.
I walk 10,000 steps per day. It's just what I do.
I eat 5 servings of vegetables every day. It's just what I do.
One of the reasons why this works so well is because it turns your habit into an "identity based habit." You can tell yourself to get up early or go to the gym or eat healthy once or twice, but if you don't shift your underlying identity then it will be much harder to stick with these changes long term.
In the early days it won't be easy to say it to yourself, because it won't be true yet. But after a while, it will legitimately be "just what you do." You'll start to see yourself as a person who does that thing - so it will become part of who you are. This means you won't have to summon as much willpower to get it done, it will become natural.
You'll start thinking of yourself as the type of person who has already achieved self-discipline in the habit you want.
"I'm the type of person who wakes up at 6am and writes for an hour before breakfast."
"I'm the type of person who plans out my projects and doesn't procrastinate."
"I'm the type of person who always eats a nutritious breakfast."
"I'm the type of person who goes straight to the gym after work every day."
Every time you choose to do the action that matches this identity, you are reinforcing it. Every action is a vote cast for the type of person you are becoming. (On the flip side, every time you choose to perform a negative habit it's a vote for the opposite identity.)
11. "You Can't Improve What You Don't Measure"
You may have heard this saying before, but it's really true. Measuring progress is a powerful way to motivate yourself to improve. Clearly tracking the things that are important will help you better understand your performance and how you can improve.
You can measure anything that you want to improve, from minutes spent exercising per week to the number of books read in a year. You can use a an app or a device (such as a Fitbit) or you can simply track your progress in a notebook or a spreadsheet. It doesn't matter how you measure, it's the act of measuring that will make the difference.
For example, a budget app can help you track your spending and see where your money is going. Seeing how much you spend on online shopping or late night burritos might encourage you to change your habits. Watching your savings total increase month on month can motivate you to keep going.
Remember: You are measuring your progress against your past self, not anyone else.
12. Eat That Frog
Mark Twain said, "If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. If it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first."
The "frog" is the big, daunting item on your to-do list you are avoiding. If you can face this task first, you'll tackle it with a clear mind when your willpower and concentration are at their strongest. If you save it for the end of the day, you'll be tired and more likely to push it onto tomorrow's to-do list.
To prepare to eat the frog every morning, make a to-do list the night before. You can use an organization app such as Trello or Asana, or a good old-fashioned piece of paper and pen - it really doesn't matter. Place the biggest, hardest and ugliest task at the top of your list. When work begins, take action immediately and don't do anything else until you've swallowed that frog.
The good news is that once you've done the hardest task first, you can relax because the rest of your to-do list will seem easy in comparison.
13. Do Just One Pushup
Stephen Guise writes about how he overcame his resistance to working out by telling himself he only had to do ONE push up. Just doing one push-up took all the pressure and anxiety away. Of course, once he was on the floor and did that push up, he did several more. Then, he was already warmed up so he did a few other exercises as well. One simple push-up turned into a full 30 minute workout.
This technique really works, because sometimes one of the hardest parts of doing something is the initial push to get started. We often avoid something difficult because we are thinking about how daunting the complete task is, so reducing it to something tiny can help you get started.
Tell yourself you only need to do one small thing - once you get started you'll end up doing more. This can be used for developing self discipline in any area. You can tell yourself that you'll work on your blog for 10 minutes, or that you'll read one page of a book every day.
Don't worry if the micro-goal you set for yourself is embarrassingly easy - that's the point. The key is to choose something that is so easy that you can't say no.
14. You Don't Need Permission From Anyone
If you're waiting for approval from others - don't. Building self discipline means that you will need to learn how to find that approval within yourself.
So many of us are holding back on working toward a meaningful goal, because we are worried about what other people will think. Once we let go of this need for approval from others, we are free to follow our goals and work on what is important to us.
15. But You Do Need a Supportive Environment
"Surround yourself with positive people who believe in your dreams, encourage your ideas, support your ambitions, and bring out the best in you." - Roy Bennett
Okay, I know that in the last section I wrote about how you should forget about getting approval or permission from others when working towards your goals. However, I don't want you to get the idea that having support from others isn't important.
A support system of people who believe in you can be incredibly value when you are improving your own self-discipline and striving toward a difficult goal.
Surround yourself with people who want you to succeed. This can be harder than it sounds, because sometimes friends and family can say destructive and discouraging things out of jealousy or feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes they might even encourage you to give up on your goals, or tell you that what you are striving for is silly, pointless or impossible.
Instead, seek out people who are genuinely happy for you when you achieve your goals and who will cheer you on toward the finish line.
16. Budget Your Energy, Not Your Time
When do you do your best and most focused work? Everyone has a different circadian rhythm. Some of us are more alert and active in the morning, while others get a burst of energy at night.
I'm definitely a morning person. I know that I need to get my most important tasks done before the afternoon, otherwise my ability to concentrate will begin to wane. Working in the evening is usually pointless for me, as it takes me twice as long to do a task as it would in the morning.
My boyfriend is the opposite. He is sluggish in the morning but gets a burst of energy around 11pm and has been known to work on projects until 3am. Neither of us is right or wrong. We both have around the same amount of productive hours in a day. We just need to learn to plan our work around the times when we have the most energy.
Think about the time of day when you naturally have the most energy and plan your schedule around that. Of course, if you have a job with set hours you might not be able to choose when you work, but this still might help you make other decisions - such as whether you should go to the gym before or after work.
17. Punch the Clock
You will have good days and bad days, but what matters is that you show up and complete the habit. This is often referred to as "punching the clock."
If you've made a goal to hit the gym every morning before work, there will be some mornings where you feel tired and you won't have your best workout ever. It's still incredibly important to follow through and go to the gym on those mornings anyway.
It's not the occasional amazing workout that makes a big difference in your health, it's the cumulative effect of many workouts over time. Sticking to the habit over the long term is the most important thing.
18. When You Catch Yourself Cheating, Reassess
I'll be perfectly honest with you, there will be a moment when you'll decide to cheat on your own plan. (If this never happens to you, you're either superhuman or a liar.)
If you've committed to counting your calories, you'll eventually eat a cookie and decide not to log it. If you've decided to turn off notifications while at work, you'll eventually decide to sneak a peek at your email. If your plan was to run for 5 miles, you might find yourself giving up and walking the last mile.
Does this mean you are a terrible, no-good person who will never amount to anything? Absolutely not. It just means that it's time to re-examine your habit and figure out why you are tempted to cut corners.
At this stage you might need to adjust something else to help yourself get back on track. For example, perhaps you don't have the energy to complete a full run in the morning because you aren't getting enough sleep. So, going to bed earlier might be the solution for getting your running goals back on track. Or, you might be giving up out of boredom - so choosing a new route or downloading some podcasts to keep you entertained while you run might help.
The only thing you should NOT do in this situation is lie to yourself. Don't tell yourself you are doing a great job when you know deep down you really aren't. Being honest with yourself about your own progress is difficult, but it's essential if you want to see real improvements. This is a chance to understand exactly what is holding you back, so you can adjust your course and keep going.
19. Trust In a Good Habit
"When a behavior becomes habit, we stop using our decision-making skills and instead function on auto-pilot. Therefore, breaking a bad habit and building a new habit not only requires us to make active decisions, it will feel wrong. Your brain will resist the change in favor of what it has been programmed to do.
The solution? Embrace the wrong. Acknowledge that it will take a while for your new regime to feel right or good or natural. Keep chugging along. It will happen." - Jennifer Cohen, 5 Proven Methods for Gaining Self Discipline
Jennifer explains it well. Once you set a good habit in motion, you need to trust that it will get you closer to the outcome you desire - even when you feel like quitting.
20. Don't Expect Perfection
"People often say that motivation doesn't last. Well, neither does bathing - that's why we recommend it daily." - Zig Ziglar
Last but not least, don't expect yourself to perform perfectly every time. If you hold yourself to an unachievable standard of perfection, you'll only succeed in making yourself feel inadequate.
When you fail, forgive yourself, get up and move forward.
Make it your motto to "Never Miss Twice." That means that if you miss one workout it's not the end of the world, but you're not going to miss two in a row. If you don't write 500 words this morning, you're guaranteed to do it tomorrow morning.
Slipping up on your habits doesn't mean you are a failure - it means you are normal. Successfully improving self-discipline is not based on never making mistakes. It's all about having the grit and determination to keep persisting and improving over the long term.
Self-discipline is like a muscle. It doesn't explode overnight. It grows over time with consistent work.
You don't need to master your discipline today. All you need to do is begin implementing a single one of the strategies we've listed out and take incremental steps toward growing your self discipline "muscle".
If one of your primary goals for establishing self-discipline is to become more productive, check out this guide on how to become more productive in every area of life.