If I just had more self-discipline, everything would be easier.
I’d exercise every day, never eat junk food, and wake up at 6 am each morning. I’d never get sucked into YouTube rabbit holes; I’d read a book instead.
At least, that’s what I tell myself.
We think of self-discipline as the key to living a better life, but is this true? And if it is, how can we become more disciplined? That’s what this article examines: what self-discipline is, how it works, and how you can build it.
If you’re going to increase your self-discipline, you first need to understand what self-discipline is. It seems obvious, but I’ve found that many people don’t even have a self-discipline problem.
Sure, they may think they do. They’ll say things like, “If I had self-discipline, I’d go to the gym every day.” Cool, but is lack of self-discipline really the reason you don’t go to the gym?
To find out, let’s define self-discipline. Self-discipline means acting in accordance with your thoughts, not your feelings. It’s your ability to do something regardless of how you feel.
Now, let’s contrast that with motivation. Motivation is your desire to do something in the first place.
To illustrate the difference, let’s look at a common fitness goal: running a marathon. It sounds impressive, and you figure that doing it will help you lose weight or get in shape or get more dates or something like that.
You find a training plan online, and you start following it. But after just a week, you give up.
Why did you fail? If you failed because you couldn’t force yourself to get out of bed early to run every day for an hour, then the problem is self-discipline.
But if you look a bit deeper, you might realize that you never wanted to run a marathon in the first place. You liked to idea of it, or the idea of having done it, but not the reality of doing it. In this case, the problem was never self-discipline; it was a lack of motivation.
So before you decide to increase your self-discipline, you should be sure that your issue isn’t a lack of motivation instead. Remember: motivation is your desire to accomplish a goal. Self-discipline is your ability to follow through on that goal even when you don’t feel like it.
Got it? Cool. Then assuming that the issue is self-discipline, let’s move on how you can get more of it. Before we do that, though, we need to clear up another misconception: self-discipline vs. habits.
In the previous section, I argued that you may have a motivation problem, not a self-discipline problem. But it’s equally possible that the problem isn’t discipline, but rather habits.
Self-discipline is a worthwhile skill to build. But if you rely on it for everything, you’re not going to get the life you want. Honestly, self-discipline is overrated. Instead of developing the discipline to resist temptations, you can just change your habits.
A habit is something you do automatically, without thinking. I won’t get into the details of what habits are here (for that, I recommend reading The Power of Habit and Atomic Habits). All you need to know is that habits don’t take any thought or willpower; they just happen.
Therefore, in many cases, it’s better to focus on changing your habits.
For instance, if you want to go to the gym each day, turn it into a habit. At first, you will need self-discipline to overcome the resistance you feel to doing the habit.
But after a while, you won’t even need to think about it. Instead, you’ll go to the gym automatically, and not doing so will feel uncomfortable.
Still, you do need some amount of self-discipline to start building new habits and changing existing ones. So let’s take a look at 8 of the best tactics for developing the self-discipline you desire.
It’s easy to think that self-discipline is about regulating your behavior. And while that is the ultimate goal, it’s not the most helpful way to think about it. Instead, you should focus on changing your identity.
This comes from a concept called “identity-based habits,” which James Clear first wrote about here (and which he talks more about in Atomic Habits). The idea is that if you want to change what you do, you first need to change who you are. If you can change your identity, then it will be much easier to change your behavior.
For instance, let’s say you’re trying to eat less junk food to lose weight. You’re at a birthday party, and someone offers you a slice of cake. You could say, “No thanks, I’m trying to lose weight.” This is a perfectly valid response, but it puts the focus on self-denial.
You’re still the sort of person who eats cake; you’re just saying no to it this time around. This can make you feel miserable if you do it enough. And with time, you’re likely to say, “Screw it,” and just eat the cake.
But let’s look at how that same scenario plays out if you instead say, “No thanks, I don’t eat cake.” It’s a subtle difference, but the shift in focus is crucial. Now, instead of denying yourself, you’re simply affirming your new identity.
Why does this technique work? Because of something called “consistency bias.” It’s a term psychologists use to describe our tendency to act in a way that’s consistent with our identity, even if doing so makes no sense.
In many cases, this tendency is detrimental to our well-being. But if you’re trying to change your behavior, you can use it to your advantage. You can learn more about consistency bias in our article on the principles of influence.
Wanting to develop self-discipline is great, but why are you doing it in the first place? If it’s just for its own sake, you’re unlikely to stick through the pain and resistance that will arise when you’re building your discipline muscle.
Instead, I recommend having a concrete reason. What change will greater self-discipline bring about in your life?
Maybe you want to resist unhealthy foods, quit smoking, or drink less alcohol. Maybe you want to work out more often or eat better to have more energy. Or perhaps you want the discipline to learn a new skill.
Whatever the reason, you need to articulate it. And once you’ve done that, you need to remind yourself constantly of your “why.” I recommend writing your reason down on a sticky note and putting it somewhere you’ll see it every day. Here are a few places to consider:
- Next to your bed
- By your computer
- On your refrigerator
- Your bathroom mirror
- Your front door
This way, you’ll have a constant reminder of why you’re working to increase your self-discipline. It will be much easier to let your thoughts (rather than your emotions) drive your actions if you can constantly see your “why.”
Just as you build muscle when you consistently lift weights, your self-discipline muscles will get stronger the more you exercise them.
To exercise your self-discipline muscles, I recommend a regular practice that will push you out of your comfort zone and accustom you to avoiding the path of least resistance.
Here are a few daily self-discipline exercises you can do:
- Take cold showers
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator
- Sign up for an early workout class (preferably one that costs money, to add some extra incentive)
- Walk or bike for errands instead of driving
- Read a book instead of watching TV/YouTube/Netflix
Personally, I build self-discipline by doing some kind of exercise each morning. Usually, this means either a long bike ride or going bouldering. But it could also be as simple as some calisthenics or a long walk.
The exact activity doesn’t matter; the point is to consistently start each day with something that makes me a bit uncomfortable, but is ultimately rewarding.
Whatever you do, just do it regularly and make sure it’s at least a bit uncomfortable (but not painful or dangerous).
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