Is there a goal you want to accomplish, but you just can’t seem to follow through? Maybe you know exactly what you need to do, but just can’t seem to do it? Perhaps you’re frustrated because your lack of self-discipline is affecting your confidence, career trajectory, health, weight or relationships?
If you’re ambitious and ready to take your life to the next level but just need a little more support in the follow-through, keep reading.
What Is Self-Discipline?
Self-discipline is defined as:
“the ability to control yourself and to make yourself work hard or behave in a particular way without needing anyone else to tell you what to do.”
It’s about self-control, self-regulation, willpower, resolve, determination and drive. It’s how you get yourself to do what needs to be done to move forward and excel in life.
“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishments.” — Jim Rohn
The Importance of Self-Discipline
Fitness experts, success coaches, doctors and personal development gurus all stress the importance of self-discipline. It’s a critical factor whether you want to lose weight, eat better, exercise more, spend less, be more productive, procrastinate less, get promoted, be more positive, better manage emotions or improve relationships.
Studies show that those with higher levels of self-control have “…higher self‐esteem, less binge eating and alcohol abuse, better relationships and interpersonal skills, and more optimal emotional responses.” Others show that those with self-discipline are more content, satisfied and happy.
As a coach, I see great people come up against challenges with self-discipline daily.
Take Cameron for example. Cameron was overweight, suffering from health-related issues and desperate to get back into shape. She wanted to start walking and stretching daily but was having trouble following through. Her lack of discipline with exercise was spilling over into all areas of her life and she was feeling defeated.
Or Stuart. Stuart was an artist with a part-time job to pay the bills. He wanted to spend at least three hours a day on his craft so he could build his portfolio and start making a living through his art. As motivated and excited as he seemed on the surface, he was finding it challenging to do so.
Then there’s Arden. An entrepreneur who wanted to take her business to the next level. She was struggling to stay disciplined and follow through on the paperwork and operational tasks that needed to be done to keep her business going.
I’ve been there too.
I like to think of myself as a fairly disciplined person. I was raised by entrepreneurs who valued hard work and taught us to keep our commitments and follow-through. Since we were young, my grandfather, a successful CEO, instilled the principle of DWYSYWD in our entire family. Backwards or forwards, it means the same thing… Do What You Say You Will Do. I was a competitive athlete, and self-discipline was ingrained into my mindset and habits. I credit this trait for much of my success.
But that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the distractions, temptations and vices were all faced with daily. There have been times in my life when I, like my clients, have struggled to stay the course and follow-through. Take last month. An opportunity I was deeply excited about and had worked endlessly on for many months fell through. I was disappointed and found myself unmotivated and distracted.
I work from home and normally able to stay hyper focused. However, I found myself sitting down to work only to be distracted – scrolling through social media, making another trip to the fridge, taking the dog for a hike or a ‘quick’ break to sit on the couch to watch TV.
I knew what I needed to do, but was really struggling. So I tapped into my arsenal of strategies: the tried-and-true principles I’ve used with my clients and myself (including Cameron, Stuart and Arden).
How to Build and Maintain Self-Discipline
Here are 10 strategies to build and maintain self-discipline:
1. Get Motivated
Ever notice when you’re excited about something, or have a significant or compelling goal you’re setting out to achieve, you don’t need discipline?
Let’s say you have your wedding or high school reunion coming up and you want to lose weight to look great and fit into a killer dress. Waking up in the morning for a run and skipping dessert just got easier, didn’t it?
Or let’s say your dream job just opened up at work. Getting to work early, staying late and keeping on task doesn’t seem so difficult anymore, does it?
“Motivation” comes from the root word “motive.” It’s why you are doing something. The reason and underlying drive behind it. Leadership expert Simon Sinek talks about the power of why. Knowing your “why” provides a compelling intrinsic motivation. It fuels the fire and you’re much likely to stay focused.
You can learn more about the power of why in his TedTalk video:
Bottom Line: Tap into your WHY. What is your underlying reason, motivation or purpose to be disciplined?
2. Remove Temptations
Research has proven that our environment affects our choices. Take for example one study done at Cornell University. The study found that:
“Women who kept soft drinks on their counter weighed 24 to 26 pounds more than those who didn’t and those who kept a box of cereal on the counter weighed on average 20 more pounds than those who didn’t.”
And those who kept fruit on their counter weighed an average of 13 pounds less!
If you want to eat better, put the junk foods out of sight. Better yet, don’t bring them into the house, office, car or arms-length in the first place.
If you want to finish that big project for work, secure a conference room, turn off instant messenger, close down notifications for social media and put your phone in the other room.
If you work from home and are easily distracted, go somewhere to focus. Right now, I’m writing from a café down the street for this exact reason. I didn’t try to fight against the temptations in my environment; I just removed myself.
Bottom Line: Your environment can be stronger than your willpower. Ensure it is conducive to the goals you’re trying to accomplish; don’t put yourself in situations that are tempting or distracting.
3. Create a Goal, Challenge or Deadline
Many years back, my husband was working on his first screenplay. It was a daunting task that he knew would take a lot of time. Many of his film school buddies were overwhelmed by this project and were having a hard time making progress. As was he. Until he created a compelling goal, challenge and deadline.
His specific goal was to have the screenplay done by the end of the month. This was a huge challenge as it was a lot of work in a short period of time. He then created a deadline and sent out an email to all his friends and let them know we would be having a celebratory dinner and to mark their calendars. He upped the stakes by declaring that if he hadn’t finished his screenplay by the dinner date, he would buy everyone’s dinner. This was a big challenge, as we definitely didn’t have the money to pay for dinner for 15 of our closest friends!
There’s a reason why every influencer or blogger out there has created a 5,10 or 30-day challenge. To support you! Just search “challenge’ for what you’re looking for and I’m sure you’ll be able to find something. I’ve seen people shift their entire lifestyle, eating habits and motivation by joining these challenges – and they’ve worked for me too!
Bottom Line: Define your specific goal or vision, make it challenging, give yourself a deadline, and get moving.
4. Phone a Friend
It’s always helpful to have an accountability partner. Why do you think so many people hire trainers to stay on top of their fitness goals, coaches to achieve their personal or professional goals, or join a club or group such as Weight Watchers?
“When you are accountable to someone or a group of people for doing what you said you would do, you can easily get stuff done because you engage the power of social expectations.”
Bottom Line: Commit to someone other than yourself. Find a gym partner. Hire a coach to keep you on track and honest. Post commitments to social networks so you’re on the hook.
5. Start Small
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!
Change is hard and our brains are wired to return to what feels comfortable and predictable. Therefore, big changes can be really hard. But if you start slow, you can build momentum without getting overwhelmed.
If you want to start walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week, start with five minutes a day. If you feel like continuing after five minutes, go for it! If you want to start eating better, identify one change you can make in your diet. Often when our mind thinks it’s going to be easy, it allows us to get started…and then you can use that momentum to keep going.
Bottom Line: Get started. It doesn’t matter how small the action is as long as you’re going in the right direction. Small changes eventually lead to big results. Remember, action inspires further action and momentum creates more momentum.
“They journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu
6. The Carrot or The Stick
We’re all motivated in different ways. Are you compelled by the satisfaction of a reward or the risk of punishment? Or both?
The Carrot. What reward can you give yourself for being disciplined?
My daughter is eight and in third grade. She was struggling with doing homework and staying focused. We tried a forceful approach, which didn’t work. We tried to set challenges, like getting it done in 20 minutes. Nope. She was distracted and frustrated.
However, she is highly motivated by rewards, so we created a ‘homework treasure box’. If she stays focused and does her homework every day for the entire week, she gets to pick a prize.
Bingo. No more tears, no more late homework, no more fights. That treasure box has changed her attitude and her ability to stay disciplined. Phew.
“Discipline = Freedom” — Jocko Willink
Maybe you’re more motivated by the risk of not following through or staying disciplined? In my daughter’s case, this would have been taking away privileges (like playdates) if she didn’t do her homework. That would have completely backfired and thrown her into a tailspin. But for many, it can be very effective.
For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, you might not be motivated by fitting into a smaller size of clothing, but you may be motivated by the risks of not losing the weight. Knowing that poor health can lead to heart disease, a potential heart attack and early death might be the spark that ignites your fire.
If this sounds like you, identify the worst-case scenario. If you don’t’ stay disciplined, what is the negative result in your life? Fear can be a powerful motivator.
Bottom Line: Identify if you’re motivated by risk or reward and put it into place.
7. Stop Going Against the Grain
Perhaps you’re trying to be disciplined about something that simply doesn’t work for how you’re wired. For example, if you always wait until the last minute to study or complete that big project, why are you forcing yourself to try and get it done weeks in advance? You’re likely better off to just set aside time right before the deadline.
Remember Arden? She was trying to force herself to do the paperwork and operational components of her business that she was not wired to do. Then, she was beating herself up for not staying disciplined which wasn’t productive or helpful.
Once we took the pressure off that she wasn’t a failure by avoiding those tasks, she gave herself permission to hire someone to help her out. She then had the freedom to grow her business and make sales, which was her strength.
If you’re finding it hard to stay disciplined, step back and see if it’s important that you do the thing you’re procrastinating on or finding hard to follow-through with. Maybe you can hire someone else who’s much better at it.
Months behind on your accounting? Find someone to do the books. Years behind getting your family photos organized? Seek a company (or friend) that enjoys that kind of project. Drowning in piles of laundry? Drop it off at a laundry service or pay your kid to do it. Frustrated you don’t have the meal plan organized and dinner on the table every night? Find a meal planner app, order in or use a meal prep service.
Bottom Line: Stop trying to do it all yourself especially when it’s like swimming upstream. Leverage the resources of others and don’t waste your self-discipline willpower on things that aren’t important to you or a good use of your time and talents.
8. Create Habits and Rituals
Performance Coach Jay Henderson talks about the power of creating habits and rituals:
“Our subconscious is automated, so we only have 5% of our conscious mind to fight the subconscious habits we have built over months, years and, in some cases, a lifetime.
In order to combat that subconscious, we must create new habits.
For example, you want to start running but find yourself continuing to hit the snooze button. We have learned that the more specific we get, the more the mind helps us with motivation: drive, energy, enthusiasm, focus, optimism and creativity. Research shows that when a person takes the time to think through the “what, where and when” of a new task, they are 70% more likely to achieve.
Creating hyper-specificity will do this for you. In the case of running in the morning, you can list out very specific steps to help you get up and moving.
- Step 1: Set the goal to get up and run at 6am.
- Step 2: Lay out clothes the night before.
- Step 3: Set an alarm and put it on the other side of the room. How many steps is it from the bed to the alarm?
- Step 4: Determine to turn on the lights while walking to turn off the alarm. How many steps is it to the light and then to the alarm?
- Step 5: Get in bed, turn off the TV, and go to sleep at 10pm with a mental vision of waking up energized to run.
- Step 6: Walk the pre-determined number steps to the bathroom to splash water on my face.
- Step 7: Walk the pre-determined steps to the clothes that were put out the night before, put them on and put on shoes.
- Step 8: Walk to the kitchen.
- Step 9: Drink a glass of water.
- Step 11: Walk to the door using the number you’ve already counted.
- Step 12: Warm up and start running.
You get the point. This helps because you engage senses: mind, might and heart with clarity through specificity. Your mind, which wants to make you act like the picture you have of yourself, then delivers the energy, drive and motivation.
Your chances of getting up and running will jump exponentially. This is because in your subconscious mind, where your habits are stored, there’s absolutely no question about what you want.
Rituals are also important. A ritual is partly defined as a ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order. You need this amount of specificity to overcome the force of habit. Focusing and using rituals can help you completely restructure habits and behaviors to achieve more powerfully.
9. Put the Big Rocks in First
Legendary time management expert and author Steven Covey first introduced this concept in the 80’s and it’s just as relevant if not more so today. The idea is that if you do the most important things first, you won’t get distracted by all the little items that can end up mindlessly filling your day.
In fact, studies have shown that willpower is a limited resource.
”A growing body of research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll. Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse.”
I’ve seen this challenge across many executives I’ve coached and known. Many of them are so bogged down in the day to day elements of their job and the urgent distractions (Squirrel!), they don’t have the time or mental energy to spend on strategy. Unless they block out time and are intentional about how they order their priorities, willpower – and results – are compromised.
Bottom Line: Get started early in the day and do the most important things first before you run out of mental willpower, time and energy. Bonus, getting quick wins in early leads to motivation and momentum too.
10. Be Nice to Yourself
Change is hard. New habits are hard. Our minds are wired for familiarity and if you’re doing something new, part of you is going to be fighting against it. You are going to face setbacks and failures. Don’t allow obstacles to cause you to give up on your bigger vision or goal.
I see this all too often. Case in point. When I was an intrinsic health coach, one of my clients made the goal to be active five days a week. When we talked a week after she made this commitment, she was feeling bad and down on herself. Why? She said she had worked out only three days that week and was frustrated she didn’t hit her goal.
I asked her, “How many days did you work out the week before you set this goal?”
“Zero,” she responded.
“And how many the week before that? “
“So, is working out three times this week really a failure?” I asked.
“No, I guess not.” I guess not?! Not only is it not a failure, it’s a HUGE win!
Unless you’re the most self-disciplined person in the world (in which case you probably aren’t reading this article), you’re going to hit the snooze button and miss a run. You’re going to choose chips over an apple. You’re going to lose your temper instead of keeping your cool. It’s going to happen. You must forgive yourself and move forward.
Bottom Line: It’s a waste of mental energy to spend time worrying about mistakes and setbacks. You made a mistake, it’s over. It’s a lesson. Pick yourself up, acknowledge the lesson and move on. Celebrate your wins and successes, no matter how small.
You’re ambitious. You’re driven. You’re ready to reach your goals. They’ll always be a reason you can’t do something. And there’s always a reason you can. You get to choose.
So before you scroll on to the next thing, consider this question:
Where would a little more self-discipline have the greatest impact on your life or success?
Then identify which of the strategies above will help you get started and stay focused and what you need to do.
It only takes one strategy. One step. One change to move forward. You have the power to be more disciplined. You got this.
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Featured photo credit: Thao Le Hoang via unsplash.com