Imagine what would your life look like if you’d be able to do everything you ever set out to do without fail. No more missed training sessions, unwritten paragraphs, or ‘accidental’ afternoon sugar bombs. The good news is that you can live that life once you master self discipline. The bad news? Well, as humans we’re not exactly predisposed for accomplishing our goals through discipline.
Underscoring its importance, I see discipline also as the predecessor of habits, which are the cornerstone of long lasting behavioural change. Anyone who’s even tried to develop new habits such as waking up early, eating healthy, or exercising more, knows that it is easier said than done. Particularly after the early eagerness and excitement evaporates, it requires tremendous self discipline to keep going before the new behaviour becomes hard wired into our operating system.
Given the role of self discipline on the journey to living a great life, I scoured the internet for ways to develop the control over my actions. Disillusioned by the available advice I decided to collate some actionable ideas I’ve found helpful, hopefully you’ll find them useful on your journey too.
1) Clarify your vision and motive
“In order to carry a positive action we must develop here a positive vision.” ― Dalai Lama
I define self discipline as ‘regulating ones behaviour to align with a specific goal’. Hence it’s impossible to develop any self discipline before we specify what is the goal we’re striving for. I assume you already know a lot about goal setting (if not, here’s a decent guide) so I won’t delve into that too much. There are three points I’d highlight. First, focus on performance goals instead of outcome goals to maintain full control. Second, make sure you have clarity on the motive behind achieving that vision. Why is it important for you to keep up the desired action? And finally, don’t pursue too many self discipline goals at the same time. Try to reach the habitual level with some or them before attacking a new behaviour. Changing everything at the same time might be alluring but focus trumps dabbling.
2) Measure and quantify
“If you can measure it, you can manage it.” ― Rheticus
As with most pursuit, the only way to know if you’re on the right path is to measure the progress. Personally I use an app called HabitHub, but you can achieve the same through pen and paper, Excel, Evernote, or any other way of jotting down whether you’ve completed the action as intended. Just by visualising whether you’ve had the self discipline or not can be quite a wake up call, and even small quantifiable improvements over time (e.g. achieving 60% of your target this week instead of 44% last week) help with developing the beliefs that support self discipline.
3) Start with tiny steps
“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” ― Confucius
If you’ve never ran in your life and you’re aiming to develop the discipline to go for a jog every morning before work, don’t start by aiming for an hour long run straight away. I’m not entirely sure what’s the exact difference between willpower and self discipline, but as described by PhD Roy F. Baumeister
, I suspect both operate like muscles: you can develop them through consistency and incremental improvement, so start small and work your way up slowly. Perhaps ironically, by doing this you also decrease the reliance on self discipline since every time you manage to complete the action it becomes more ingrained in psyche as a habit.
4) Apply external pressure
“A lion does not flinch at laughter coming from a hyena.” ― Suzy Kassem
We all have an inherent need to belong in a group, so using the fear of failure and potential social mockery can be a very powerful tool in your arsenal to preserve self discipline. The higher the stakes, the more likely the compliance. Easy ways to incorporate social pressure are for example an accountability partner, social network announcements, apps with ‘buddies’, betting systems with penalties, and contextual groups.
In general, it helps if you associate yourself with people who already possess good self discipline with the area you’re developing. To use exercise as an example again, by joining a running club you’re unconsciously mirroring the beliefs held by others in the group. What’s more, you can rely on your survivor instincts: the desire of not being the one with the poorest condition within the group will force you practice harder and maintain discipline.
5) Apply internal pressure
“The man who does not value himself, cannot value anything or anyone.” ― Ayn Rand
Once you reach a certain confidence level and get used to seeing results, you might be more driven to reach your internal standards than any external ones. At this stage, it feels horrible to let yourself down, for example when you eat the muffin after promising yourself you’d drop all processed sugar for that month. Thus, first make a commitment to keep the promises you make to the most important person in your life – yourself. Then, promise yourself to maintain self discipline in the areas you’re pursuing. And when you fall of the cliff (yes, you will eventually), embrace the disappointment and remember that feeling next time you face the same choice of action.
6) Fast forward the consequences
“We all make choices, but in the end our choices make us.”
― Ken Levine
For the past six months I’ve worked on developing a morning routine and wake up about 40 minutes earlier than usual. One of the most powerful tactics for getting myself out for the warmth and comfort of the bed has been thinking of the consequences of this small action. Instead of seeing it as a one-off event, I try to imagine what are the implications five years ahead. In the spirit of better questions
some examples could be: ‘Am I the kind of person who wakes up early, full of energy?’ or ‘Where will I find myself and my health when I’m 50 years old if I don’t go to the gym today? Circling back to step (1), make to sure answers align with where you envision yourself to be in.
7) Embrace your uniqueness
“The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.” ― Voltaire
It’s worth noting that the effectiveness of the ideas above is very much dependant on your psychological makeup. You might find that external pressure works a lot better than raising the internal standards for you, or vice versa. Thus, acquire an experimental mindset – like a scientist doing tests with a sample size of one. Create a hypothesis, test it, analyse the results, adjust and repeat. Self knowledge also helps you choose the goals that spark something inside you. Not everyone needs to wake up at 5am or run regularly. Study what makes you tick and where are your limits, so the journey of developing self discipline becomes a fun challenge.
Don’t forget, you’re one of a kind. And through discipline, you can influence the kind of person you become.