5 Timeless Strategies for Building Self-Discipline

5 Timeless Strategies for Building Self-Discipline

Self-Discipline Vs. Self-Control

Self-discipline is about leaning into resistance. Taking action in spite of how you feel. Living a life by design, not by default.

But most importantly, it’s acting in accordance with your thoughts – not your feelings.

You might not feel like writing a blog post, running eight miles or waking up before dawn, but you know doing them is conducive to your happiness, wealth, and success in the long-term.

You never need to feel motivated when you know what must be done.

That’s self-discipline.

Self-control, on the other hand, is refraining from immediate gratification; it’s what Kelly McGonigal calls “won’t power”. “I won’t order dessert because I’m on a diet”. “I won’t watch Netflix because I have an essay to write”. “I won’t be unfaithful because I love my wife”.

If we want to increase our happiness and success in life and work, we need self-discipline.

Here’s how we build it.

How to Build Self-Discipline

1. Set Big Hairy Audacious Goals

Google co-founder Larry Page believes that the only true failure in life is not attempting the audacious. “Even if you fail at your ambitious thing, it’s very hard to fail completely”, says Page, “that’s the thing that people don’t get”. [1]

Set, what Jim Collins, calls, “Big, Hairy Audacious Goals” (or BHAGs). After all, you can’t build self-discipline without knowing exactly what it looks like for you.

Is it waking up before 6:00 A.M.? Saying no to a doughnut offered in work? Or running every Tuesday and Thursday? Is it something else?

Exercise: Buy a pack of 4” x 6” index cards and write down ONE goal you’d like to achieve and on the back why you’re committed to achieving it.

But we know writing down our goals isn’t enough; we need a system to move us towards them. We need habits – and we need to make them tiny.

2. Build Tiny Habits

Tiny Habits are behaviors that are easy to do. Doing one push-up. Drinking one glass of water. Eating one portion of fruits and vegetables. Behaviors that, in other words, are so easy we can’t say not. But, unfortunately, they’re also behaviors we laugh at because of their simplicity.

Changing things is hard, but it’s especially hard when you need motivation. The problem is motivation ebbs and flows; it’s unreliable and when we need it, it’s seldom available.

“You need to pretend motivation doesn’t exist”, says B.J. Fogg, a research at the Stanford Persuasion Lab. To build self-discipline, make behaviors you want super simple to do – even if it seems laughable.

Remember: “Success starts at the bottom”.

3. Celebrate Small-Wins

Small wins come from committing to your Tiny Habits and stretching yourself, consistently—but you must recognize them.

Sadly, we live in a society where we’re conditioned to believe success is only significant when it’s big. But going for a run, resisting a temptation and saying no to a colleague when you’ve never done it before is big – if you permit yourself to believe so.

At the end of every day, write down three reasons why your day was awesome. This can be an email your received from a colleague thanking you for your covering them, getting a promotion or cooking a delicious meal for your spouse.

Give yourself the credit you deserve.

4. Choose a Power Word

Some habits are easier to say no to than others, even when they’re simplified. Take waking up as an example: it’s easy in principle, but hard in application.

I’m not a morning person, but every morning, when my alarm clock buzzes at 06:00, I wake up. Not because I have to, but because I choose to. I don’t feel like waking up, but I do it because I know, by doing it, I’m building self-discipline.

I hear my alarm clock and instead of hitting the snooze button, I say a word to myself, my power word: Discipline. I walk to my bathroom and repeat to myself, “Discipline. Discipline. Discipline”.

A power word is any word that evokes a positive emotional response in you when you say or hear it. Think of it as an affirmation, only summarized in one word.

“Discipline” for me, is a value; one that represents who I am and what I’m committed to. Choose one that you’d like to be described as and honor it taking action regularly.

Saying “Healthy” as you ignore discounted candy bars in the supermarket; repeating “Confidence” before you cold call a prospect; whispering, “Focus” before stepping out on the court. These are all examples of anchoring yourself to a word that empowers you.

Remember: let your values decide your behaviors.

5. Remove Roadblocks

If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

If you think you don’t need to plan, you’re mistaken.

“People who think they have the most willpower are actually the most likely to lose control when tempted”, writes Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct. [2]

The reason? We fail to predict when, where, and why we will give in.

So to build self-discipline, identify what your potential roadblocks could be and plan how you’re going to deal with them.

One practical strategy that’s useful is using an implementation intention or an “if/then” strategy.

An implementation intention invites you to consider what obstacles could affect your progress and consider how you could overcome them. “ If X happens, then I’ll do Y”.

For example, “If I feel tempted to surf online when I’m writing my essay, then I’ll turn on Stay Focused on my browser”.

Building self-discipline is a skill. And like most skills, it requires practice. So enjoy yourself and remember: practice makes perfect.