Self-discipline is difficult to master. It can be discouraging when you have the best of intentions but tend to fall short of what you set out to do. Research shows that some conditions make it harder to be self-disciplined. For example, if you’re constantly faced with temptation, you might give in and find it hard to stay on track. Other conditions make it easier to be self-disciplined. For instance, being well-organized will help you make progress toward your goals.
In this article, we are going to help you build self-discipline, even if you start from scratch. We will guide you in what to do and what to avoid when you’re striving toward a personal goal or trying to pick up a new habit. We’ll also give you a definition of self-discipline and tell you more about how being self-disciplined can benefit your life. Finally, we’ll throw in some quotes and a reading list to inspire you on your journey toward becoming more self-disciplined.
What is self-discipline?
Self-discipline represents the qualities that enable people to accomplish goals or adopt new habits, no matter what obstacles arise along the way. There are three key qualities that make self-discipline possible: the ability to pay attention, self-control, and persistence.
Let’s look at an example to show how these qualities come together to make self-discipline happen.
Charlie dreams of becoming a web designer. He loves the creative, practical side of web design but he hates learning the theory behind it. To get a qualification in web design, he’d need to study and pass theoretical exams. Since he hates theory, he’d have to practice some serious self-discipline to study and get through his exams.
He’d need to:
- Pay attention. He’d have to focus hard enough and long enough when studying material he finds boring or challenging in order to pass his exams.
- Maintain self-control. He’d have to control his urges to do something more appealing, like watching TV or going out with his friends.
- Persist. He’d have to consistently choose behaviors that will help him pass his exams. He’d have to keep working hard to focus and maintain self-control when things get tough.
As you can see, self-discipline is about consistently choosing behaviors that will help you reach your goal while inhibiting behaviors that will deter you from it.
How to build self-discipline
Self-discipline comes more naturally to some people than to others. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn and get better at self-discipline if you struggle with it.
Here are 11 tips to build self-discipline:
1. Conduct a self-assessment
If you’ve been thinking about starting to be more self-disciplined, then there’s a good chance you’ve identified one or two areas in your life that need improvement. If you can’t pinpoint where you need to strengthen your self-discipline, take stock of a typical day in your life to identify areas where your self-discipline is lacking.
Get a piece of scrap paper and draw two columns, one with the heading “What I did well today” and another with the heading, “What I could have done better.” As you reflect on your day, fill in the columns. Maybe you managed your time well and completed the tasks you needed to do. However, this came at the cost of sticking to your healthy meal plan because you ordered fast food to save time.
You might also like this article on improving self-awareness.
2. Turn weaknesses into goals
Once you’ve identified what your weak spots are when it comes to self-discipline, try coming up with some goals aimed at improvement. The SMART method of goal setting can help you muster the self-discipline needed to reach your goal. When you set smart goals, you make your goals specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound.
Here’s an example. Say your weakness is your exercise regime—which is non-existent at the moment. Instead of setting the goal “I want to exercise more,” your SMART goal would be the following: “I want to run for 30 minutes, two times a week from 18h30-19h00 on Mondays and Fridays.” Be careful not to make your goal too difficult and keep it as specific as possible for the best chance at success.
3. Determine your why
When you’re working toward a goal, it’s easy to become weary and lose motivation along the way. Remembering why you set the goal to begin with and why it’s important to you can help you stay strong and disciplined.
The next time you feel your energy and your drive waning, take a moment to reflect. Ask yourself what the purpose is for doing what you’re doing. What is the long-term reward? Then, write the answer down and keep it somewhere you’ll see it often.
For example, if you’re working late on weekends to start up a new business, stick a post-it note with some encouraging words on your laptop. The post-it note can act as a reminder of why you’re putting in the long yards when you’d rather be out enjoying yourself with everyone else!
4. Track your progress
When you’re working toward a goal, it’s normal to feel discouraged at some point. Tracking your progress can help you stay disciplined because it’s a reminder of how far you’ve come and what you’re capable of.
You can track progress toward your goal by coming up with milestones and ticking them off as you get closer to achieving your end goal. For example, say your goal was to be ready to run a half marathon within 12 weeks. You may start out with an initial goal to run 10 to 15 miles a week, then build up to 25 to 30 miles a week or more.
5. Use visualization
When you visualize yourself performing an action, an impulse is created in your brain that tells your brain cells (neurons) to carry it out. So, visualizing can support self-discipline by increasing the likelihood that you’ll take action and do what’s needed to attain your goals.
When people visualize the future, they tend to focus far ahead—on the end goal. Yet visualizing the process is just as important, if not more important. Visualizing the steps you need to take each day to reach your goal prompts you to act on what you can do to attain your goal in the present.
Set aside 10 minutes each morning to visualize the steps you need to take that day. For the best results, engage all five of your senses as you visualize your day: think about what you can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Imagine how you feel as you achieve what you need to.
6. Create a morning ritual
One reason people find it hard to stay disciplined relates to the time it takes to develop a habit. Habits take time to form, and they usually form automatically—not much thought is required to do something you’ve done for weeks, months, or years!
People usually perform rituals or a series of actions when they’re about to engage in a familiar habit.
For example, if you go swimming at 5 am each morning, you might pack a kit bag and prepare coffee the evening before. These rituals usually develop organically, but you can be intentional about them. Think about a ritual you can try to help you become more disciplined with a new habit or behavior you’re trying to adopt.
7. Do challenging work at your mental best
Doing challenging work requires a lot of mental focus and energy. So, if you want to succeed in being disciplined when it comes to doing challenging work, you should be strategic about when you work.
Depending on your natural sleep and wake cycles, you’ll be more alert at certain times of the day than others. If you’re a night owl, you’ll probably be more alert later in the day, whereas if you’re an early bird, you’ll probably be at your mental best earlier in the day.
Think about what time of the day you’re most energized. Plan to do your most challenging work then, when you feel mentally strong.
8. Take care of yourself
Self-discipline is easier when you’re taking care of yourself properly. If you’re getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and managing stress with exercise and recreational activities, it will be much easier to stay alert, focused, and engaged when it matters.
Here are some general self-care guidelines:
- Get enough sleep each night. Healthy adults need at least 7-9 hours of sleep.
- Exercise regularly. You only need to do 150-300 minutes of moderate exercise per week. That could look like three 50-minute walks per week.
- Eat a healthy diet containing lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Make time for activities that bring you joy and help you relax.
9. Resist temptations
Temptations can act as obstacles when you’re working toward an important goal or trying to make a new habit stick. Research studies have shown that the environment can have a big influence on behavior.
It’s important that you make your environment as conducive to success as possible by removing anything that could lead you astray. For example, if you’re trying to eat healthily, don’t keep junk food at home. That way, if you’re craving something unhealthy, it won’t even be an option. If you’re racing against time to meet a work deadline and you know you get distracted by your phone, then remove it from your sight. Put it on silent in another room until you’ve completed your work.
10. Find an accountability buddy
It’s harder to be self-disciplined when you only have to be accountable to yourself. If you rely on your own willpower and motivation alone, you may struggle to keep pushing yourself when the going gets tough.
Tell a friend or family member who you know has your best interests at heart about the goal or habit you’re working toward. Ask them if they’d be willing to hold you accountable and check in with you regularly.
Having someone hold you accountable makes it easier to stay disciplined because it feels like it’s not just you who you’re letting down if you don’t do as you say. It forces you to take responsibility.
11. Limit all-or-nothing thinking
Thinking in an all-or-nothing way is where you judge yourself or your behavior negatively because of a minor mishap.
For example, say you’re trying to give up smoking, and you usually smoke ten cigarettes a day. You would be thinking in all-or-nothing terms if, on your first day of quitting, you caved and had one cigarette and started telling yourself you’re a failure.
Thinking in all-or-nothing terms is unhealthy because it discourages you, makes you feel bad about yourself, and can cause you to lose motivation. Instead of thinking in a narrow way when things go wrong, try to see things from a wider and more positive perspective. Failing means that you tried! Pat yourself on the back for trying, and remember that you can start afresh tomorrow.
The benefits of being self-disciplined
If you’re looking for reasons to start training your self-discipline, then you can begin by looking at the benefits of being self-disciplined. You can gain many positive life changes from practicing self-discipline. Here are 5 strong benefits of self-discipline.
1. The achievement of long-term goals
Motivation and willpower can only take you so far when it comes to habit formation and goal accomplishment. While good to have, some research suggests that we may experience less or more willpower from one day to the next. Self-discipline, on the other hand, is less about how you feel and more about how you act. And consistent action counts more than feelings or mindset for achievement. In the words of psychologist Angela Duckworth, “Achievement of difficult goals entails the sustained and focused application of talent over time.”
2. Reduced stress and anxiety
A lack of self-discipline can lead to procrastination and an inability to reach important goals. These behaviors have consequences of their own.
If you tend to procrastinate, you may find yourself constantly working under pressure and struggling to meet deadlines. If you’re unable to reach important goals, it can cause stress and anxiety about the future and chip away at your self-esteem.
If you can learn self-discipline, you’ll find that you’re less stressed and anxious because you’re living up to your expectations and doing what you set out to do. This will boost positive emotions and make you feel good about yourself.
3. Increased self-worth and happiness
Self-discipline enhances self-worth because when you achieve the goals you set for yourself, you build belief and confidence in yourself. Self-discipline increases happiness, too.
Studies show that the more productive people are, the happier they feel.
4. Better relationships and interpersonal skills
Learning self-discipline is great for relationships, too. A self-disciplined person is better able to manage their emotions intelligently. Being able to pause and reflect before acting on how you feel is an important interpersonal skill. It helps you handle conflict effectively without becoming defensive or exploding and lashing out in anger.
5. Improved physical health
If you’re self-disciplined, you’ll be better able to resist urges to engage in unhealthy behaviors like overeating, excessive drinking, and smoking. You’ll also be better able to commit to making behavioral changes that promote good health, such as exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle.
7 self-discipline quotes to inspire you
If you’re looking for some motivation and encouragement in your journey toward better self-discipline, you may find the following quotes helpful:
- “I think self-discipline is something, it’s like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.” —Daniel Goldstein
- “In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves…self-discipline with all of them came first.” —Harry S Truman
- “Respect your efforts, respect yourself. Self-respect leads to self-discipline. When you have both firmly under your belt, that’s real power.” —Clint Eastwood
- “It’s a lot more than mind over matter. It takes relentless self-discipline to schedule suffering into your day, every day.” ―David Goggins
- “Self-discipline is often disguised as short-term pain, which often leads to long-term gains. The mistake many of us make is the need and want for short-term gains (immediate gratification), which often leads to long-term pain.”―Charles F. Glassman
- “Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” —Jim Rohn
- “We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret & disappointment.” —Jim Rohn
Self-discipline reading list
Since so many people struggle with self-discipline and want to learn how to cultivate it, several self-help books have been written on the topic. Here are 4 of the best-selling books that can teach you how to be more self-disciplined:
- No Excuses!: The Power Of Self Discipline by Brian Tracy
- Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear
- The Little Book of Big Change: The No Willpower Approach to Breaking Any Habit by Amy Johnson
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey