If there is one universal truth among successful people, it’s that they have mastered the art of self-discipline.
Doing things when you don’t want to, when you don’t feel like it, and when those things are boring, hard, or frustrating, is absolutely essential to success. Disciplined people reach their goals faster, aim higher, and accomplish more, just by virtue of being able to push past themselves and Get. It. Done.
But if self-discipline doesn’t come naturally to you – and I’m not convinced it comes naturally to anyone, really – that’s okay. It’s a skill, and like any skill, it can be learned.
Sitting around waiting for motivation to kick in isn’t going to get you anywhere. Start implementing these ten tips into your life to build self-discipline into your toolbox, and you’ll see results much, much faster – that I promise you.
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1. Start With Small Habits
Nobody goes from couch potato to Type A overnight. And with any lasting lifestyle change, the key is to build up gradually. Start by committing to making your bed every morning, or not leaving a certain task until it’s finished, like folding and putting away laundry as soon as it comes out of the dryer, or not leaving your desk until you’ve cleared off the day’s clutter. Small habits are easy to incorporate as lifestyle changes, and easy to build on to create larger changes over time.
2. Keep It Consistent
Making your changes an every day thing has multiple benefits – first, if it’s something that has to get done every day, not just every couple of days, you don’t get to back out of it by telling yourself “I’ll do it tomorrow.” Because yes you will do it tomorrow, but first you still have to do it today.
Why is “going to the gym” one of the most commonly dropped New Year’s resolutions? Because people don’t typically start by going every day, so it’s easier to skip it on “gym day” and say you’ll go tomorrow. The next thing you know, you’ve missed an entire week of gym days, with all the best intentions in the world. Commit to efforts every single day, and leave the excuses at the gym for a change.
3. Set Yourself Up For Success Ahead of Time
I’m going to drop some tough love on you: You’re sabotaging yourself, and you know it.
You know you’ve got stuff to do tomorrow, but you’re staying up late watching TV anyway.
You know you’ll feel sluggish in the afternoon if you eat crap for lunch, and you do it anyway.
You know life would be easier if you got out of your own way, but you go for creature comforts instead.
But you know what else? You wouldn’t feel the need for those comforts as much if you set yourself up better.
Eat in a way that fuels your body. Drink water. Get enough sleep. The choices you make today will help you feel better tomorrow, and you won’t feel the need to “treat yourself” to mindless junk because it won’t have been as stressful just getting through the day.
Make good choices!
4. Set Rewards & Consequences
This is common advice because it works. Setting up a reward system to encourage good changes works on adults as much as it does kids. The trick is to be disciplined about the rewards and consequences too, even if it feels silly. Yes, as an adult you can technically treat yourself anytime you want to, but setting up a cycle of achievement and reward keeps you motivated to make changes until those changes become habit.
The rewards and consequences don’t have to be big or even cost money. I’ve found that taking some time in the evenings to sit outside, sip tea and enjoy the breeze feels way better when I’ve practiced self discipline through the day and stayed focused on my productivity.
5. See the Journey, Not Just the Destination
Focusing on the endgame is great, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big believer in keeping your goal in mind while you do the work. But for something like building self-discipline – forming better habits that will carry you through life – it’s counter-productive to have a singular goal in mind.
Look for the little ways self-discipline improves your life every day. Point out to yourself how much better you feel having finished something you were putting off, or how you enjoy your free time more knowing that you’re sorted out for the day ahead. Creating big lifestyle changes built up of multiple smaller ones has to be about reshaping daily habits.
6. Be a Little Weird
If you wanted to be like everybody else… you wouldn’t be here.
Here, we’re about changing your life.
If something’s going to derail you, ditch it. If you’ve set a deal with yourself that you can’t do X fun thing if you don’t hit a certain goal this week, keep it. It’s not about depriving yourself of things as a punishment – it’s about changing your mindset in order to take things seriously and actually get sh*t done.
Stop worrying about what other people will think of you working actively towards being your best self. The people who matter don’t mind, and the people who mind don’t matter.
7. Crush Distractions
When I was in university, I talked to a girl once who said she turned her phone completely off in order to study. It wasn’t enough for her to have it in her pocket or bag – if she was busy, her phone was off. At the time (I was a new student) I thought she must really have had a problem with self-control if she couldn’t focus on studying just by knowing her phone was on in her backpack.
Then I got a little farther into exams, and realized she had it so right.
It’s not about being “strong enough” to resist distractions. It’s about being smart enough to remove them completely so there’s nothing to resist. I can’t tell you how many times, while studying, I’d whip my phone out to do some quick research – how to spell a word, what year did this important thing happen in, or even check the time – and then oh, look, a facebook notification. That might be important.
News flash: It’s never important, and even if you didn’t jump down that rabbit hole and spend ten minutes scrolling media, even opening it to check a comment derailed your train of thought and pulled your brain out of focus mode.
Now, if you have kids to juggle and business to conduct, turning your phone off completely might not be the right choice for you. But practice eliminating distractions completely instead of just resolving to ignore them. Save your willpower for something that matters.
8. WRITE IT DOWN & PLAN ON IT
Yes, I put this heading in caps. No, I’m not yelling at you.
If there’s one thing I want you to walk away from any post on this blog thinking, it’s “huh, this girl really wants me to write stuff down on paper”.
Write down your morning routine, your nighttime routine, your goals for the week. Write down the housework that needs to get done. Write down your intention to go to bed at a healthy time. Write down what you plan to eat. If paper planning and to-do lists aren’t your thing, there is a whole host of apps and software to manage your schedule and keep notes in. I don’t care how you write it – write it down.
Solidify your intentions by making them into plans. Announce to your subconscious brain that you’re taking this seriously. Get into the simple joy of checking off an item on a list. Once it’s down, on real paper (or a screen), you have an immediate, visual feedback on your productivity, where you’re at in your goals, and what you need to do next. More than once I’ve pushed myself to do a task I didn’t want to do, just because it was in my planner already.
Any planner will do, but lately I’ve been obsessed with this daily layout from inkWell Press. There’s room to track your new habits, your short and long term goals, and all the steps you need to take on your journey to build self-discipline! (You can also find it on Amazon here!)
Commit to yourself by writing it down and keeping a record of your progress. It really will help.
9. Carry It Through
So you’ve resolved to build self-discipline and decided on a number of ways to start doing that. Great! I’m proud of you. But you know that no matter what I say, just committing to making your bed every morning and remembering to complete a night time routine isn’t going to magically change your life. We’re building self-discipline, remember?
Start looking for opportunities to carry that through your life. If you see something laying around, pick it up. If you find a spare ten minutes, ask yourself if there’s a way to spend it that will better the rest of your day (sometimes sitting down and putting your feet up is the productivity-enhancing choice…)
Building life-changing habits deliberately requires a conscious effort to create a trickle effect. Yes, you can revolutionize the way you keep your house clean and still have your work habits be a total mess.
Do you think professional body builders hit the gym every day and then go home and watch TV for five hours? No, they build active rest into their days, maintain healthy habits and keep themselves running at peak. Carry your new, disciplined habits with you throughout your days, everywhere you see the opportunity, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you build real results in your life!
10. Celebrate Successes!
This is the fun part! When you start getting stuff right, celebrate that. When you notice positive changes in your life that are there because YOU put them there – that is the best feeling in the world. Don’t shrug that off. You deserve to be overjoyed at your accomplishments, even if they may seem small. You’re doing big stuff over here. And that deserves a celebration.
Remember, Self Discipline is a Process, Not a Product
This isn’t an area of your life where you’ll ever be “done”. Fostering a habit of discipline isn’t an item you’ll ever fully check off your to-do list – but that doesn’t mean you’ll struggle forever. Discipline is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.