Improving Self-Discipline

Self-discipline is the cornerstone of getting anything done. Everything you do and don’t do depends on it. Self-discipline is the ability to control what you do regardless of your current state of emotions so that you do things that are productive and not expedient. Many people will choose to do things that are convenient rather than the things that will make them progress in life — they’ll make up excuses to try and justify why they don’t need to do that task now.

Do you struggle to eat healthily, get regular exercise, or get things done that need doing? Do you spend a lot of time watching TV/YouTube by yourself, or endlessly scrolling down social media feeds?

Having strong self-discipline will cause you to take more action that will be beneficial to you and help you resist impulses that will drag you down. It is the delay of gratification that replaces smaller short-term reward with larger long-term gains. It is tied to your self-esteem and the value you believe you have as a person. Do you think the most successful people in the world have the same level of self-discipline as you? What could you achieve if your self-discipline was super strong?

I’m not perfect when it comes to self-discipline, and I don’t think anyone is. I currently struggle with getting out of bed quickly in the morning, and I feel like I’d rather stay under the warmth of my covers than get up and start being productive immediately — though I am working on it and I know I can improve over time. My self-discipline allows me to do things that I thought would have been impossible for me two years ago, like not eating chocolate, not playing video games, and not checking social media daily.

Understanding it

Multiple components make up self-discipline, mainly willpower, but also persistence and work. It also isn’t something set in stone, you can improve your self-discipline with effort — it’s a lifelong skill that you can continually improve over time. It’s like training a muscle. If you train it, it gets stronger, and if you ignore it, then it gets weaker. Here the ‘strength’ is your ability to get important things done and resist impulses. If you have a terrible diet of fast-food and chocolate, then it’ll be incredibly difficult to switch to a healthy diet if you lack self-discipline. Much like trying to lift a substantial weight with little arms — it’ll be incredibly difficult, and you’ll most likely fail.

It would help if you also believed that you could achieve whatever you’re trying to discipline yourself to do. It may sound obvious to some, but if you don’t think you can fix your diet then you’ll struggle to make any meaningful change. It’s not the only part, but an important one, nonetheless.

Another idea is ‘willpower depletion’, which is the idea that your willpower is a finite resource, and as you use your willpower, you end up depleting it over time, so you lose self-control the later it gets in the day. It turns out that this idea has a lot of conflicting evidence, and we don’t know if it is real. But if you believe that your willpower depletes, then you give yourself the option of blaming your depleted willpower for failing to exhibit self-control. So, don’t assume this to be accurate or else it will merely end up being an excuse.

Improving it

If your self-discipline muscle isn’t very strong, the best way to start is by lifting the smaller weights. Taking smaller steps to improve yourself — rather than taking huge leaps that would probably end up with you hurting yourself — is the key to getting better at self-discipline. If you’re a heavy smoker and then suddenly go cold turkey, the chances of success are very low — unless you already have powerful self-discipline. You improve by taking smaller steps of reducing the number of cigarettes each week, trying to resist the impulses one at a time, until you quit for good. If you can start with the easier tasks, try and get yourself to take bigger steps, so your muscle doesn’t stagnate.

The emotion you feel towards a particular task or goal will also heighten the chances of you doing that task or progressing that goal. If you don’t have much emotion behind wanting to lose weight, you’re not going to be likely to do it. If you struggle with finding emotion behind taking action, then you need to find more motivation for that action. The strongest motivation comes from strong emotions tied to a particular goal, so you should realise and feel those emotions — or else it will be much more challenging to get to where you want to be.

For some people, rewards are another thing to have in mind. If you complete a week of keeping to a positive habit, or a week of abstaining from a harmful habit — then rewarding yourself can reinforce the behaviour and help it stick. Just make sure the reward isn’t going against the thing you’re trying to accomplish (like having a cheat meal on a diet). I don’t feel the need for rewarding myself after completing a difficult task, though it could work for you.

Persistence is also vital to develop self-discipline. If you can’t get yourself to the gym one day and you’ve made up some excuse for it, your self-discipline can easily slide. If you miss it again, it’ll probably end up becoming harder and harder to do until you give up on it. Notice when you’re falling into this trap, and make sure you return to your commitment if your discipline fails you once or twice.

In the inevitable event that your self-discipline fails you, you must not beat yourself up about it. Dwelling on past mistakes for too long doesn’t help, learn your lesson and try not to make the same mistake again. Guilt, anger, and frustration will only make things worse. If you start believing that you don’t have the willpower to do something, you are unlikely to exceed your expectations. Have confidence that you can battle through the discomfort to reach the place where the grass is greener — and if you manage it, you’ll end up feeling great.

The final tip I have is to improve your environment to set you up for success. This works best if you’re trying to get rid of a bad habit, though it could work for a positive habit in some cases. If you don’t have any unhealthy snacks easily accessible to you, it’ll be easier not to be tempted — because if you want an unhealthy snack, you’d have to put in more effort to get it. If you exert your willpower when you go shopping for food, then you won’t have to exert much willpower when you’re at home with little to no unhealthy foods to eat — because you didn’t buy any. Changing your environment isn’t practical in a lot of cases — e.g. if you want to battle a caffeine addiction, and there’s a coffee machine in your workplace – but in the instances where you can apply this principle, it can help you massively.

Final notes

Self-discipline is the superpower that differentiates the successful from the unsuccessful. You can blame your bad luck, lack of money, lack of help, or any other of the thousands of reasons you can come up with when you don’t get the results you want.

Self-discipline is the backbone of every skill. If you lack it, then you won’t get anywhere in life, regardless of your intelligence, the wealth of your parents, or the grades you got in school. Take time to develop it, it’s not an instant process. Like everything valuable, it takes time and effort to get. If your self-discipline improves, life will become much easier as a result.