We all hear about the importance of self-discipline, self-control, and mastering thy self. We listen to it so much that we’ve all become a bit immune to the message, like those banner ads we don’t even notice. But the reality of the matter is that self-discipline is truly at the root of success, not just in business or personal health but everywhere in life. Improving self-discipline is a skill in itself and, I’ll tell you this much: if it doesn’t come naturally to you, it’s hard as hell. But that’s okay. In this article, I will tackle a feaw critical steps you can take today to begin improving your self-discipline and self-control and take charge of your life.
What Is Self-Discipline?
Psychology defines self-discipline as,
It’s a pretty straightforward definition, but let’s analyze the main keywords that appear in this short description.
“Control of one’s impulses and desires.”
As author Mark Manson wrote in his excellent book, Everything Is F*cked: A Book about Hope, two types of brains live inside us at all times: a thinking brain and a feeling brain. We all would like—and often shout out from rooftops for everyone to hear—that our thinking brain is the one that drives everything we do.
The research, though, tells us that the feeling brain is the one that is most often in charge, and the more you attempt to magnify the power of your thinking brain to take over the wheel, the more the feeling brain will be in control.
That’s a critical concept not only to understand but accept. Because you—yes, you—much like me and everyone else you know, we are all way too arrogant and vain to accept that feelings merely drive us. But they are.
So, working on your self-discipline is partly improving your thinking brain, but a more significant part is making those two brains work together toward a common goal.
“Foregoing immediate satisfaction in favor of long-term goals.”
Oh, this one! Eat a cookie today—feel good. Eat a cookie tomorrow-feel good again. But what if you continue to eat a cookie every day (aka, give in to temptation) for twenty years? What effects does that action have long-term?
You see, this idea of playing the long game is quite elusive when today’s actions don’t have immediate, visible repercussions. If every cookie you ate gave you hives, I can guarantee you that you wouldn’t be eating any cookies.
Therefore, the trick, which you will learn from the steps below, is how to foul your mind to flip the pain and pleasure of short- and long-term actions, respectively.
“Resolute adherence to a regimen or course of action in order to achieve one’s goals.”
That is the first hint to one of the biggest self-discipline drivers: setting up goals.
Self-discipline is not something that you merely learn for the sake of learning. It’s not like a foreign language which you study because you love how it sounds even though you don’t have any close friends to practice it with.
Instead, self-discipline and self-control are practical skills. They need to be applied; you cannot merely theorize about them. Because self-discipline implies the said regimen, this means that there must be something at the end of that metaphorical tunnel that you are actively chasing.
I often hear people complain of a lack of self-discipline, but at the same time, they lack a vision in life and have set no goals, neither small nor big. As we’ll see in the tips below, this is probably the number one reason you lack self-discipline. We’re going to fix this together!
What Self-Discipline Is Not?
Understanding self-discipline is critical before you start improving it, but also figuring out first what self-discipline isn’t is worth mentioning to avoid taking the wrong steps.
Self-Discipline is not:
- Being a super-human who can perform at 110% all the time, everywhere, at any time.
- Being rigid and inflexible.
- Putting everyone’s needs far, far behind your goals.
- Beating yourself up for having one or more bad days.
You must understand that self-discipline is a consistency game, not an intensity one. If something takes an inhuman effort to accomplish, that’s not self-discipline; that will quickly lead to burnout and won’t be sustainable.
Self-discipline is taking the same step, over and over again, toward something that you want or need. It’s also doing it at the average pace of your life and the level of effort you can sustain.
Why Should We Care About Self-Discipline?
So now, let’s pause for a second. Okay, fine, self-discipline is terrific, but not everyone is self-disciplined, right?
Of course not. Are there successful people out there who lack self-discipline? I’m sure there are. But some people smoke all their life and never get cancer, some people never exercise and live to be 100, and some people never tell anyone I love you, but die content.
Should you do any of those things? I know this might lead to a philosophical argument outside of this article’s scope, but I would argue that you shouldn’t.
On the other hand, we also know that self-discipline is not a panacea for every single issue that you face in your life. It’s just another tool, albeit a powerful tool, but a tool nonetheless.
So, then why do we care so much if we have it or not? Why should we work toward improving it?
Psychologist and University Professor June P. Tangney wrote in the abstract of a study published in 2004 that, “Higher scores on self-control correlate with a better adjustment […], less binge eating and alcohol abuse, better relationships and interpersonal skills, secure attachment, and more optimal emotional responses.”
What this tells us is that, although self-discipline is a tool, it is a vital tool. And yes, there are those outliers we mentioned before, but you do not want to hinge your life’s success on the luck of the draw. Instead, you want a stable process that is sustainable and has proven results.
That is why working on your self-discipline early on in life is critical and will increase the chance that you will be successful and lead a more happy life filled with joy, love, and accomplishments.
How To Improve Your Self-Discipline?
Now let us focus on some workable ways to practice self-discipline in your life starting today. As you read through these, they’ll seem obvious, but make no mistake-neither one of them is easy. They all take time and commitment.
Sure, it would be fantastic if you had the self-discipline to work on your self-discipline, but that’s precisely how it all started and why you’re reading this.
So if you feel like you lack self-control and want to work on it, make a commitment today, read through these steps, and begin to apply them one by one across all aspects of your life.
Get going, not motivated
If you’ve read other articles about self-discipline, you’ll see that many of them start with getting motivated. That baffles me. Like willpower, motivation doesn’t truly work in a vacuum, at least not in the sense in which we are interested here.
Motivation is excellent, but it never comes first. I firmly believe that action comes first, and good results from that action will spark inspiration. Telling someone to simply get motivated is no different than telling them to be happier, just like that. It doesn’t work, and it merely exacerbates the situation when you realize that you can’t get motivated either. It’s a vicious circle.
So, the idea behind this step is a mindset change. You need to stop waiting for the right feeling to do something. Simply banish that idea from your mind. You will NEVER feel right. You need to train your mind to identify those moments when the thought “I just don’t feel like doing that right now” pops into your head.
That is the moment when you NEED to do it. Practice silencing that voice and act despite it. Or better, mock it. Fuck with it. Do a “Nah, nah, nah, nah!” as you do the thing your brain tells you you shouldn’t do.
This second step is much more practical, but it works in tandem with the first one. The reverse side of your lack of self-discipline is temptation. That’s another game your mind plays on you.
You know you need to do this thing for many reasons, but you don’t feel like it. So, your brain will tempt you someplace else, so you don’t feel lost. Suddenly there’s a purpose to the moment, and you grab on to it.
The tip here is to become more self-aware of those temptations in your life. If you find it hard to uncover them, keep a daily journal, and write down all those things that have tempted you throughout the day. Think of physical, emotional, and mental temptations.
Identify those patterns, and start to quash those temptations. Banish them from your life, and you will have no choice but to fill that void with the essential things you genuinely need.
If you watch too much TV, cancel your subscription. Do you binge-eat snacks in the evening? Don’t buy any more snacks.
Removing temptations is a critical step in this journey because we are all vulnerable in that sense.
Instant gratification feels fantastic. I know it, and you know it. But it’s a terrible thing.
I’ve seen it first hand in my kids when we first introduced them to video games. Once they understood the power of instant gratification, nothing that required more work to resolve was interesting anymore. In fact, it became a nuisance.
The same goes for you and me. The more things you do that produce instant pleasure, the less you will be inclined to engage in activities that only bring long-term satisfaction. By doing so, you mask any long-term damage that your actions might bring, but more critical, you won’t learn how to associate hard work today with good results ten years from now.
You can introduce delaying gratification in any area of life. Even if you decided that it’s okay to eat a cookie today, take that cookie and put it on the table. Then say to yourself that you will eat it in an hour.
You can take that idea and apply it to many aspects of your life. Understanding and practicing delaying gratification is a fundamental brick at the foundation of your self-discipline training.
Make the good thing the default and easy choice
This tip goes hand in hand with healthy habit creation, which we’ll discuss shortly, and it also ties into removing temptations.
You see, over time, we tend to arrange our lives in a way that makes us increasingly comfortable. If you are always cold on the couch and have to get a blanket every time, you will find yourself moving the blanket permanently on the sofa after a few weeks.
If you continuously reach for snacks every day, you will, eventually, put a snack bowl on the coffee table right in front of you. You do this almost subconsciously, but it’s all driven by a desire to make things easier and more convenient. It’s part of ensuring that your satisfaction is served right away and without delay.
But what if you were to not only remove temptations but make the good things the default and easy choice?
For example, do you find it hard to wake up in the morning, get dressed, and go to the gym? Okay, then get yourself a home-based workout program that you can do in the basement, and go to bed in your workout clothes.
Do you feel like you need to chew on something while watching TV? Put a bowl of fruit in front of you.
Removing temptations and delaying gratification were the first steps; by making the right choice the easy choice, you are now doubling down on shifting your mindset and sharpening your self-discipline.
Have a vision and goals
When I say having a vision for your life, I mean understanding your long-term, life-long aspirations. Where do you want to be, who do you want to be, and who you want to be with?
To work on your self-discipline, you need this vision and purpose very clear in your mind. Your vision for your life will act as a beacon showing you the way no matter where you are.
If you lack this, in those moments of weakness, when temptation comes along like a slithering snake coiling around your feet, you won’t have anything to grab on to. No tether. The beast will drag you under with no mercy.
But if you create a vision for yourself and become crystal clear about your purpose in life, that vision will be there for you during those moments of temptation.
From that vision, you create your life goals, which are the more practical, down-to-earth steps toward your dreams. The goals themselves will be an even stronger motivation because they are palpable.
If your vision is to be a healthy human being and a goal is to lose weight, you will be able to hang on to those ideas when the temptation comes along in the form of a cookie.
Be aware, please, that living your life without a vision and goals will make it significantly hard to practice self-discipline.
Surround yourself with the right people
It’s critical for your success to create a circle of trusted people who can support and understand your struggle with self-discipline. Unfortunately, sometimes, this means removing from your life those people who are a terrible influence.
There are very few things in life that can push you in the right or wrong direction as the people in your life. As you grow up, you begin with little to say about who can and should be around you. The older you get, the freedom of choice slowly becomes yours.
Unfortunately, some people forget to take advantage of that. There’s an element of allowing the status quo when it comes to people because it just feels right. But it shouldn’t.
First, you do the self-reflection work and understand the things in your life that need to change. Next, you look at the people in your life and decide who gets to be there and who shouldn’t.
I know it sounds harsh, but always remember you must surround yourself with people who understand and support you much like you understand and support them. Like Dr. Stephen Covey used to say, you and the people around you must wake up every day with a win-win mentality.
Identify your response to reward and punishment
Some call this the carrot and the stick. The question is, what do you respond to most—reward or punishment? When I say punishment, I’m not referring to living your life in fear. I’m talking about self-imposed penalties versus self-awarded rewards.
I first encountered this issue when I had kids. I noticed that they’d do anything for a reward in some situations, while in others, although a bonus would present some motivation, the thought of losing a privilege would be the driving factor.
The same happens to all of us in adulthood. It’s connected deeply with the values and beliefs we have. You need to identify those places in your life where you respond better to a reward and those places where risk is the prevailing factor. That will allow you to implement the right kind of method depending on the situation.
Things such as staying on a diet, exercising for weight loss, waking up on time, or giving up smoking are challenging to implement overnight. In fact, they are impossible to implement overnight.
Whether you are talking about removing a bad habit from your life, such as smoking, or introducing a good and healthy habit, such as exercising, they all take time and consistent practice.
Many times, tackling such an enormous task might seem daunting. Once you start, an early failure might trigger even more erosion to your self-discipline as your inner chatter comes along, reminding you that you can’t do it. Confirmation bias kicks in, and your progress is doomed.
That’s why it’s so critical to start on this journey with baby steps. Find the smallest area in your life where you lack self-discipline. Ideally, it should be something that doesn’t rock the boat too much (definitely not sink it), but a place that is important enough for you to start developing that self-discipline.
Whatever it is, remember that self-discipline is a mental muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it gets. By finding multiple self-discipline practice grounds in your life, you strengthen your self-control, and slowly you can apply it in more difficult places.
Be okay being uncomfortable
It almost feels like this should go without saying, but I think it’s vital to bring this up and have it in your face from the start.
You know how you go to the dentist, and the dentist says, “this is gonna sting just a bit?” And it does. How different would it be if he or she didn’t tell you? It would still sting the same, but you’d be taken by surprise. That surprise will make the pain much harder to withstand.
But when you are aware of the potential pain, you can prepare yourself mentally and emotionally to deal with it. It works the same with self-discipline and its practice.
You will feel bad often; you will go through discomfort and feel frustrated, angry, and annoyed. That’s okay. You need to say this to yourself and slowly but surely accept it as a natural part of the process.
Our brains and bodies are designed by nature to seek comfort and push away all pain at all costs constantly. During your practice to improve your self-discipline, you need to fight that natural urge and accept that this will be hard, and it won’t feel right.
Focus is a critical part of practicing and improving self-discipline. We all have different thresholds for focusing, and it’s not all equal across all activities. You might be able to watch a three-hour movie without moving a bone on the couch, but when it comes to reading a book, you might doze off after a page or so.
That’s normal because, much like self-discipline, your focus is also a muscle you can train. Generally speaking, it’s easier to focus on the things you feel like doing while it’s much harder to focus on the things you must do.
One feels natural, while the other one feels forced. That is why you need a complete mindset change here. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, we’ve been bombarded by this idea of multitasking and how to be more productive, we all must do more things in a shorter time. But recent studies have shown that multitasking is a productivity killer.
Instead, you must learn how to focus your mental, emotional, and physical energy on one task and give it all. Removing distractions in this context is just like removing temptations. Your practice here will be to keep your attention on one thing and give it all you’ve got.
Don’t eat lunch and work at the same time. Don’t have a conference call while also reading the news. Avoid having a conversation while also peeking at your emails.
Practice being focused and being present in the moment, and your self-discipline muscle will grow with it.
Alignment in life
As I wrote before, the values and beliefs you have in life will determine your behavior, attitudes, and actions. Your vision and the goals you set up for yourself will provide the trajectory for your energy.
If those two concepts are not aligned, you will have a hard time with self-discipline. That’s because if you set up goals that are in direct conflict with your values and beliefs, you won’t be able to accomplish those goals. That result will turn into an apparent lack of self-control. Therefore aligning your goals and values is critical.
It will become a self-fulfilling prophecy; in the meantime, the reality is that you’ve tackled something that you are hardwired not to do.
Therefore, before you can start improving your self-discipline, you need to do the exercise of identifying your values and beliefs and putting them head to head with your vision and goals. Find places of misalignment and then go ahead and align them.
This is an exercise in honesty because your values define what you hold to be right or wrong in all aspects of life. If you are oblivious to your values or those values are merely an approximate idea in your head, approaching self-discipline will be hard, if not impossible.
Spend some time on self-reflection and understanding what your values and beliefs are, and the chances of you succeeding will increase tenfold.
Create healthy habits
The science of habit creation and the fact that we are all habitual creatures is not even up for debate anymore. We know that our brains are designed to create specific thoughts and action pathways as a response to different stimuli. They do so to reduce the number of decisions we need to make and simplify our lives.
Of course, that would be great if those same rules wouldn’t apply to things that also damage our life significantly—bad habits.
While working on your self-discipline, learning how to implement habits in your life is a crucial step. But don’t forget those baby steps we spoke about before. With habit creating, starting small is an essential factor.
A friend of mine once told me how he wanted to grow muscles on his arms, but every complicated exercise program he started failed. He simply couldn’t keep up with it. One day, he decided to implement a habit of doing one push-up before going to the bathroom. It didn’t matter where he was or what he did-one push-up.
He did that for 90 days, so much so that he couldn’t go to the bathroom without a push-up. From that point on, going to two push-ups and then ten wasn’t hard. Once he had this habit established, he moved to a more formal 0 to 100 push-ups program. Because the pattern was there, it wasn’t difficult to extend it.
By finding more places in your life where you can implement healthy habits, you create a platform for your self-discipline to thrive.
To paraphrase Dr. Stephen Covey again, do first things first. All the time. Brian Tracy calls this concept of “eating the frog.”
In other words, take stock of your life and truly identify what is essential and what is not. Be mindful of how you determine that priority and how it’s connected to all areas of your life. By setting up priorities and then deliberately pushing those priorities first, you already improve your self-discipline.
One of the easiest ways to do this is always to look ahead. Think about the next twelve months, the next month, week, and day. Within each one of those periods, determine what the 3-5 most critical things you must address are. Then, put those things first on your priority list and act on them.
If you don’t do this, priorities will appear by themselves. They could be items that were not important but now have become urgent, or they could be priorities that others have set up for you. Either way, you need to be thoughtful about what is essential in your life and learn how to set up your priorities and give them the place they deserve.
Take care of yourself
Finally, you need to remember that practicing and improving your self-discipline is a work in progress. It will take time, energy, and commitment. But it doesn’t need to burn you out.
You need to bake enough time for rest and recovery for your mind, body, and soul. Having recharge hours every day, recharge days every week, and even recharge weeks every year is just as important as the hard work of developing good habits and rituals. Without it, you won’t be able to sustain it.
Being kind to yourself is a critical part of this process, as well. Don’t expect perfection on this journey. Instead, expect failure and setbacks, but keep your eye on the vision. That’s why it’s there. The outcome is not the most important thing here, but going for it is.
There will be good days, and there will be bad days. There will be temptations you won’t be able to resist. Be kind to yourself, but get back on track. Learn from those moments and feed them into your self-reflection. Beating yourself up won’t do any good.
Applying The Steps
The lack of self-discipline is a very elusive thing. It sneaks up on you, and you don’t even know it. That is why before you start on this journey of improving your self-discipline in all areas of your life, you must first take stock of your life.
You need to take a deep dive into where your life is today and then create a vision of where you want your life to be. Along with that, you will create your goals, and that will add clarity to your path.
Now you can pinpoint those places in your life where you don’t have self-discipline, where you never had it, and where it slipped away over time.
Once you have that list, find those that are important enough to matter but not big enough to be too daunting. Pick the first one, and begin practicing your self-discipline in that area. Don’t try to do more than one at a time. Remember the focus we spoke about before?
Prioritize the area you will attack first, and maintain your focus on it. Apply all the steps above to that one area until you feel like you’ve gotten far enough to move to the next one.
Be aware that this might take not months but years. However, with every year that passes and you tackle more and more areas in your life, your self-discipline muscle will grow exponentially.
Other Resources On Self-Discipline
- 5 Ways To Improve Self-Control
- A Guide to Developing the Self-Discipline Habit
- 14 Ways to Improve Your Self-Discipline
- 17 Self-Discipline Exercises to Build Your Self-Control Muscle
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- What do you believe makes a person self-disciplined versus not self-disciplined?
- Do you consider yourself self-disciplined? If so, does it apply to some or all areas of your life?
- What are some of the techniques you use to improve your self-discipline?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!