You Can Build Self-Discipline, And You Can Start Today

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A while back, a reader of my ezine wrote that self-discipline had always been a struggle for her. “I know I’m capable of it from time to time, and I’m definitely getting better at it, but I would like to keep improving.”  She asked me to write something about how to improve self-discipline.  And “could you recommend any books?” she asked.

Many of us share that struggle with self-discipline, and often it’s an issue with my coaching clients.  But the question is so big, and the potential paths are so varied, that I have hesitated to try to address it in the form of a few quick tips. But now, because I love receiving suggestions for writing topics, and I try to respond whenever I can, I’m going to give it a try.

One reason the topic is so slippery is that self-discipline takes many forms.  A prime example is avoiding immediate gratification to obtain a greater benefit  (like if you quit smoking).  And another is doing something that you’re not in the mood to do in order to achieve a goal (like working when you feel like playing). 

Wikipedia says self-discipline “can be defined as the ability to motivate oneself in spite of a negative emotional state. Qualities associated with self-discipline include willpower, hard work, and persistence.” 

Sometimes it feels like self-discipline is something that comes easier than to other people than to oneself.  Have you ever heard yourself thinking, “I could do that if I just had the self-discipline that she has”? 

But if you want more self-discipline you can get it.  Building your self-discipline is rather like building your body.   Even if you are very weak, you could start today to build your muscle strength, and over time you would increase your level of fitness.  In the same way, you can start now to build your self control “muscles,” and by working on them a little bit every day you will develop greater self-discipline.

Here are suggestions for increasing your self-discipline:

  • Start with a goal.  Is there something that you would like to do, if only you had the discipline to do it?  Let’s say, for example, that you want to start getting to work on time.   State your goal in specific terms, like “I will arrive at work by 8 o’clock every day for two weeks.”
  • Know what self-discipline looks like.  Identify steps that you would take to achieve your goal if you did in fact have the necessary discipline.  To reach the office on time would you turn off the TV and go to bed earlier?  Lay out your clothes the night before?  Fill up your gas tank during the weekend? 
  • Choose discipline. Once you have a detailed vision of the person you’d be if you did have discipline, start choosing to act like that.  The opportunities to practice will take the form of a series of small decisions, like whether or not to turn off the TV at bedtime even if something good is on.  Each time you meet the challenge of choosing self-discipline you will be exercising and building your self-control muscles.
  • Write it down.  Keeping some form of log or diary is tremendously reinforcing, and can help you to gradually build your self-control.  Once you’ve identified decisions that will help you get to work on time, keep track of how often you make the right choice.  And if your initial plan doesn’t seem to be on target after all, write about additional activities that might help you to meet your goal.
  • Reject excuses.  When we’re trying to build discipline, we may be defeated by the voices in our own heads.  Notice if you are tempted by internal arguments like, “I deserve a break,” or “I’m too tired to get organized tonight.”  In “Excuses Begone!motivational writer Wayne Dwyer describes how habitual excuses can block the achievement of our goals.  Simply by becoming aware of the ways you rationalize temptation will help you to fight it.
  • Encourage yourself with affirmations.  Dwyer lists 18 excuses that commonly prevent us from acting like disciplined people.  And for each he suggests an affirmation that can help us get past the excuse.  For example, if you hear an internal voice saying “I don’t have the energy,” tell yourself “I feel passionately about my life, and this passion fills me with excitement and energy.”
  • Acknowledge that it may be difficult.  Research demonstrates that self-supervision can be exhausting.   In their intriguing book, “Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard,” Dan Heath and Chip Heath describe self-control as an “exhaustible resource.”  In other words, we can exercise self-discipline only for so much and for only so long.  So in creating change it often makes sense to move forward in small increments.  As each new behavior becomes a habit it ceases to become so tiring, freeing up our reserves of self control for another challenge. For example, after you start getting to work on time, you might turn your attention to something else, like your exercise program.

Beverly Jones is an alum of Ohio University. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.