If someone is next to you right now, ask them this question (if you’re by yourself, ask yourself):
How can I be more disciplined?
What was the answer?
Was it something vague like “You just have to force yourself to do it”?
Self-discipline is one of those overused words that people have a hard time explaining. It’s filed under the category “easy to recognize but hard to do”.
I’m not going to waste time telling you about the benefits of self-discipline because if you’re reading this, you already have enough reasons of your own. To make sure we’re on the same page, here is my definition of self-discipline:
Self-discipline is the ability to do what you are “supposed to” do despite how you feel about doing it.
What you are “supposed to” do should only be determined by you and no one else. If you let others decide what you are supposed to do, you’re no longer building self-discipline, you’re building obedience.
Most people don’t have problems doing things they feel like doing. The real issue is doing the things they’re supposed to do when they don’t feel like doing it. Examples that come to mind: going to the gym after a long day of work, not eating your favorite dessert because you’re trying to lose weight or waking up early to always be on time.
As you know, doing things we don't feel like doing is tough. It doesn't matter how good it is for us. The good news is we all have self-discipline. Some just have more of it than others. If you floss at least once a month (even year), you have some self-discipline. It's not much but it's a start.
So how can you be more disciplined?
Know Why and Remember It
Do you know why you are supposed to lose weight?
Do you know why eating dessert will not help your diet?
Do you know why you want to be on time?
If you don’t, that’s a good place to start.
When I was working in China, I learned an effective method for finding the root cause of a problem. It’s called the 5 Why’s and the technique is to keep asking why until you drill down to the real cause of the problem. For our purposes, we’ll be using this technique to get down to the real desire behind your action.
Your desired action: I want to go to the gym.
Why do you want to go to the gym?
I want to lose weight.
Why do you want to lose weight?
I want to be healthier.
Why do you want to be healthier?
I want to live longer.
Why do you want to live longer?
I want to be in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Ok. You get the point.
A key to remember is that you don’t need permission or approval to do what you want. Whatever reason you come up with is legitimate as long as that’s what you really want. Some people might believe that being in the Guinness Book of World Records is a great reason for being healthy and others may think it’s a stupid reason.
No one can tell you if your why is valid. As long as you want it, that’s all that matters. Don’t let anyone tell you how to live your life.
Self-discipline is really about doing what you ultimately want. Many people associate discipline with sacrifice but you're not really sacrificing anything. When you're disciplined, the only thing you sacrifice are things that are not as important to you as the task at hand. The reason we struggle with being disciplined is because we lose sight of what we really want and take action for a lesser want instead.
You know you should go to the gym but you feel tired after a long day at work and you don’t want to go. You decide to go home instead because at that moment you want to go home and relax. You’ve let that want overshadow your ultimate desire to be in the Guinness book of World Records. It’s not because you think that’s bigger, it’s because you forgot that’s what you really want.
Remember: You’re not going to the gym to work out. You’re going to the gym to fulfill your dream.
The best time to do this: You definitely want to know why before you decide to take action or else you're going to have a tough time sticking with it. If you need discipline to do something in particular right now, ask yourself why at least 5 times? Be clear on what you ultimately want and remember it when lesser wants tempt you.
Create a Temptation-Free Environment
Most people are lazy. I have a theory that the entire productivity movement was developed by lazy people who want to do more work in less time so they can go back to being lazy. If given the choice between two paths that lead to the same outcome, we’ll usually choose what’s convenient.
When my clients find it hard to stay disciplined, I usually find their environment filled with temptations that make it easier to be undisciplined than to be disciplined. Make life easier on yourself by creating an environment that will help you do what you're supposed to do. This will help you tremendously when you don't feel like doing something.
- If you're a writer and you want to work on your book, remove all distractions. Prepare all your notes before you start writing so you don’t have to be distracted to do research or to look up anything. Clean up your office so your work space is not cluttered and you won’t have the temptation to clean it up instead of writing your book. Turn off your internet connection, email alerts and phone so no one can interrupt you without your permission.
- Eating healthy is extremely difficult if you have junk food and soda in your home. If you want to stay disciplined, make it easier to do so by stocking your home and office with only healthy foods and snacks. Use your laziness to your advantage. I’ve never left the house to buy food just because I had a craving. Usually I just grab whatever is in the pantry or in the fridge (I am also lazier than most people so I find this method especially effective). For those wanting to cut down on their meal portions, buy smaller bowls and plates. Set yourself up to win. It works.
The best time to do this: Right at the beginning when you have a lot of motivation and you’re excited about making a change. Most people jump right into doing the activity. I recommend using that energy to create the best environment for staying disciplined. Motivation is fleeting but a well-designed environment can keep you on track for a long time. Make it as easy and convenient as possible to do what you’re supposed to do.
Exercise It Daily
Self-discipline is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. Don’t kick yourself if you feel that you’re not disciplined enough. You may have committed to something that is beyond your current discipline level. What’s great about self-discipline is that it can be developed so what may seem hard now will become easier later.
Find ways every day to exercise your self-discipline. It can be just waking up 5 minutes earlier than you usually do for a week or limiting yourself to 1 soda per week. Whatever you decide, make sure you stick to it no matter what. In the beginning, you may not see any immediate benefits but when being disciplined becomes a habit, you’ll find it is easier and easier to do what you're supposed to do. You'll also find that you’re achieving all the things you want to achieve.
This was certainly the case when I decided to go 3-day/week vegetarian. In the beginning, I was struggling to do 1-day/week but now 3-day/week is easy. When I first started, if it was my vegetarian day, I would choose the vegetarian option no matter how bad it was. This was important because I got into the habit of sticking to my rules no matter how dumb the decision may seem. I’m all for being flexible but if you are looking to build self-discipline, it’s better to make no exceptions. (Side Note: The vegetarian options at many restaurants are pretty bad. It’s usually their regular dish minus the meat for the same price. If you plan to go vegetarian, make sure you map out a few vegetarian friendly restaurants.)
The best time to do this: Every day. It doesn’t matter how big or small the action. Find ways to exercise your self-discipline by committing to something and sticking with it. As you build your self-discipline, remember to increase the difficulty. Make bigger commitments and stick to them. If you find that you’re consistently failing to stay disciplined, reduce the commitment. You always want to be just outside your comfort zone.
"Self-discipline is an act of cultivation. It require you to connect today's actions to tomorrow's results. There's a season for sowing a season for reaping. Self-discipline helps you know which is which."
– Gary Ryan Blair
Self-discipline boils down to empowering yourself and taking control of your life. It’s really about committing to what you want. Don’t fall into the trap of justifying yourself or making excuses when you slip up. Take responsibility and get right back on track.
In the words of Plato, "The first and best victory is to conquer self."
Do you do what you're supposed to do even when you don't feel like it?
What are some ways you use to stay disciplined?
Photo by gadgetdude
Robert Chen is the founder of Embrace Possibility and author of The Dreams to Reality Fieldbook. He helps people who feel stuck move forward by guiding them to see other possibilities for their lives. He specializes in working with high performers get to the next level. If you're going through a tough time right now, check out Robert's article on How to Feel Better Right Away and if you're having trouble getting what you want out of life, check out How to Always Achieve Your Goals.