“If there’s no enemy within, the enemy outside can do us no harm.”- African proverb

Summer is almost over, and soon most of us are going to be back at our daily grind. But, I won’t. I decided to leave my job and pursue what I love to do; that is to write.

Writing is the kind of activity that requires an immense amount of discipline to do well. In fact, self-discipline is a necessary precursor to doing anything of value well. Without it, we can easily get off track and slowly let go of the promises we made to ourselves and to others.

Self-discipline is the idea of taking consistent action regardless of the emotional state you experience. Rain or shine, you’re out there delivering and following through. Now imagine what difference self-discipline can do to the areas where you want to see yourself improve the most. Think of the impact self-discipline can do to your health when you gladly choose to work out instead of eating junk and watching TV. What if you could consistently follow up with your clients, business associates, and pursue potential leads? Not only would you be able to push your business forward, but you would feel significantly more fulfilled. In fact, a recent study shows that exerting self-control can make you happier not only in the long run, but also in the moment.

On the other hand, if you lack self-discipline, your life will be driven by your mood swings. One day you work harder than all of your friends and colleagues, and on other days, you’re so behind that you’re about to give up.

1. Psychology of Self-discipline

When people talk about self-discipline, they do so in light of the regret they experience when they fail to commit to their goals. They experience this regret because they realize that they failed to follow through on their better judgements. But if that’s the case, why did they not follow through? We would normally expect people to follow through on what they believe to be best, and if they chose not to, then it seems as though they have freely and intentionally acted contrary to their better judgement.

But that seems puzzling.

How can one judge something to be good to do but not do it?

What’s going on in the psychology of such a person?

Let’s assume that John genuinely thinks that going to the gym is overall a better judgement than staying home and watching TV. However, when the time comes, John becomes averse to going to the gym and changes his mind. I believe that this change of mind takes place as a result of comparing the reward of going to the gym versus staying at home at face value.

lazy catThe excitement promised by staying home and watching his favorite TV show appears to override the original inferiority of that option. From an immediate pleasure standpoint, the pleasure of staying home begins to outweigh that of going to the gym. This in turn leads John to conclude that staying at home and watching TV is a superior decision to going to the gym. And in this way John has succeeded in convincing himself to stay at home.

Well done. Well, not really.

In the overall scheme of things, John appears to have made a terrible mistake. To that extent, he has fallaciously misconstrued the comparison in favor of staying at home. John has over-estimated two things about his options. He over-estimated how pleasurable it would be to stay home and watch TV, but he also over-estimated how painful it would to be to get to the gym and work out. Additionally, John has measured the expected rewards of each option against a shortened length of time, and doing so dramatically increased the pleasure of staying home in comparison to going to the gym, hence, John opted to stay home.

Unfortunately, that’s the very same mental gymnastics that a lot of people use to act against their best interest. If this has happened to you, then I truly empathize with you. It’s hard to see yourself slack on your goals and commitments and to realize that you did so intentionally. But there’s a way out.

Let’s get started with the fundamentals of self-discipline to solve this problem.

You might also benefit from this post: Why You’re Not Sticking to Your Goals and How to Fix it.

2. No Disciple, No Discipline

For the purposes of this article, it’s important to distinguish between two kinds of self-discipline.

First, the ability to choose the option that’s better overall and gladly act on it; and second, the ability to choose what’s better overall but have to fight an opposing urge to act on it.

If you haven’t focused on developing self-discipline much, then you probably fall in the latter camp. You know it’s better overall for you to go to the gym than stay home and watch TV, but you have to fight the desire to stay home until you eventually drag yourself to the gym. Whereas, if you were a member of the former camp, you would choose to go to the gym and you would do so without having to fight or overcome any opposing impulse. In fact, you would look forward to going there.

However, most people remain stuck in the first camp…well, until they eventually quit. People in the first camp fail at building sustained self-discipline because they’re moved purely by their will-power. They push themselves to go to the gym, to write, and to do what they have to do by exerting a tremendous amount of energy as well as a great deal of conscious activity to fight against the opposing urge. However, relying solely on will-power to discipline yourself will inevitably cause you to crash. Yet, that seems to be the common approach.

People stick to this approach because they haven’t cultivated the right knowledge about the fundamentals of self-discipline. They have a vague idea of how to develop their self-discipline and assume they have to use a harsh formula of commands to whip themselves into shape. For example, they say to themselves “go to the gym 3 times a week,” and they somehow expect that command to become their anchor for committing to their goal. This approach simply doesn’t work.

3. Endorse Your Goals

In order to become disciplined for the long haul, you must endorse the goal you’re working on. Studies have shown that self-endorsed goals are strongly associated with making positive progress. This further means that you have to become a diligent student of the goal you want to realize. In fact, the word discipline comes from the root disciple; someone who follows and adheres to certain practices and instructions. So if you have a desire to become disciplined to go on a run, then you have to learn more about running techniques, workouts, and events. You might also want become a member of a community of runners and/or become engaged online with various blogs and forums on the topic. When you do these things, you slowly begin to identity yourself as a runner, and when that happens you will want to run and to do so gladly. However, if you don’t become actively involved in your goal, you will never have enough discipline to work on it, no matter how hard you try.

Here are 4 tips that I recommend that you follow to help you endorse your goals and become more self-disciplined:

  1. Most people lack self-discipline because they don’t have compelling reasons for what they want. Ask yourself, why do you want to commit to going to the gym on a regular basis? Why do you want to write every day? Do you have a plan? Do you have or need a coach to help you? People who can’t sustain their self-discipline usually articulate their whys in a non-compelling easily forgettable language. They haven’t thought well enough about it. On the other hand, there are those that do articulate their goals in a captivating language, yet they never update their why. That’s not sufficient either. If you don’t regularly update your reasons, your motivation levels will decrease and cause you to fall behind. For more see this post and this post.
  2. Building self-discipline is the same as building any other skill. It’s learned behavior. The great thing about this skill is that practicing self-discipline in one area tends to increase your overall self-discipline. So regardless of the area in which you want to see your self-discipline grow, I recommend that you train yourself to become more self-disciplined in general, but do so with the little(est) of things. So instead of taking the elevator, take the stairs. Instead of throwing your dishes into the sink, wash at least one right away. This will strengthen your self-discipline muscle.You should also firm up your values, see this post for more.
  3. If you want to become more disciplined to, say, go to them gym or write or drink more water, then you have to make it easier to physically execute. This includes having the information and material you need within the vicinity where you spend most of your time. Seeing these things in front of you will remind you to stick to doing them.
  4. If you stop working on your self-discipline, then you will slowly begin to lose it. Self-discipline is not a one-time login where you login once and enjoy a lifetime of benefits effortlessly. You have to keep working on it. You can recharge your motivation by watching motivational videos, listening to motivational music, read motivational stories, etc. Please recognize that you will encounter difficult days, as we all do, and you might slip. If you do, then please forgive yourself 🙂 you will get better next time.