Developing self-discipline isn't easy. Procrastination is the enemy of self-discipline. Here's a perfect example:
“I'm going to start the keto diet tomorrow because I want to lose 20 lbs for my wedding. I'm trying to be more disciplined about how I eat.”
Does that sound familiar? Most of us like to talk about how we're going to work on our self-discipline regarding fitness and finances or just life in general. We all know that we should improve our self-discipline to get better results and get more done.
We don't know where to start, and it's easy to feel overwhelmed when developing self-discipline. That is why I wanted to address this topic today based on years of research and to try everything out personally.
How can you build self-discipline? Let's look at 12 ways to develop self-discipline even if you've already tried everything.
People have accused me of being disciplined in the past. Often, I don't know how to respond. Why? In my mind, I feel like there's always more to get done. I've done my best to test out different ideas and try to create a disciplined life to get more done and save more money for what I want to do.
In this article, we're going to look at what you need to know about self-discipline and the different ways that you can develop self-discipline right now, even if it feels like you've tried everything.
What You Need to Know About Self Discipline
Most information out there on self-discipline is just annoying and unrealistic. It's easy to feel discouraged when advice surrounding self-discipline in a self-help book feels condescending.
In the perfect world, we would all wake up at five in the morning, meditate for 20 minutes, and then go through our day without any interruptions or temptations. In reality, this isn't what happens at all. Life comes at us quickly. We start the day off with the best intentions and still waste time or not getting much done. We don't always eat the best, nor do we get as much done as we should.
There are two things that you need to know about developing self-discipline:
- You're not a bad person if you have cravings or are not constantly feeling disciplined. You're not a robot, and that's okay. Don't let anyone on social media shame you for not being perfect.
- You can always work on your discipline. You don't have to stay stuck at your current level. That is a skill that can be developed and worked on overtime. Nobody's born being 100% disciplined, just like nobody's completely undisciplined.
Are you ready to get started?
12 Ways to Develop Self Discipline
I've put together the best tips that I could find, along with actionable quotes from books and authors that have helped me develop self-discipline over the years.
Here are 12 ways that you can develop self-discipline.
1. Set Small and Realistic Goals
Are you setting realistic goals? Have you thought about starting small to make some progress?
Too often do we fail to stay disciplined because we set unrealistically audacious goals. We don't even know where to start or how to begin, so we end up doing nothing.
In the book “Essentialism” the following point is brought up on setting small goals:
“Instead of starting big and then flaring out with nothing to show for it other than time and energy wasted, to really get essential things done we need to start small and build momentum. Then we can use that momentum to work toward the next win, and the next one and so on until we have a significant breakthrough—and when we do, our progress will have become so frictionless and effortless that the breakthrough will seem like overnight success.”
The trick is to set small and realistic goals to not set yourself up for failure.
2. Stop Trying to Do So Many Things at Once
Social media has convinced us that we need to be the hardest workers in the room who constantly work on various projects. That couldn't be further from the truth. To develop self-discipline, you need to ruthlessly eliminate it from your life and figure out what you need to focus on.
In the classic book “The One Thing” Gary Keller brings up an excellent point on accomplishing your goals:
“It is not that we have too little time to do all the things we need to do, it is that we feel the need to do too many things in the time we have.”
Try to focus on one thing at a time so that your mind isn't all over the place. It's much easier to be disciplined when you're only working on one important thing.
3. Change Your Environment
Did you know that your environment could be holding you back? There's a reason so many people work out of coffee shops; or why CrossFit classes are such a hit.
According to James Clear in “Atomic Habits,” it's more important to change your environment than it is to try to rely on will-power:
“The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least. It’s easier to practice self-restraint when you don’t have to use it very often. So, yes, perseverance, grit, and willpower are essential to success, but the way to improve these qualities is not by wishing you were a more disciplined person, but by creating a more disciplined environment.”
When you want to improve your self-discipline, consider changing the environment.
Here are a few examples of how you can make this happen:
- Don't keep a bag of chips on the table when you're trying to lose weight.
- Have a specific space for work so that you're not trying to finish that article while you're on the couch watching the evening news.
- Hang around with people who are working on similar goals.
4. Make It Easy to Stay on Track
Whatever you do, try to set yourself up for success by making it easy to stay on track. The trick is to set everything up so that you don't have to struggle to stay disciplined.
How can you make your goals easy?
- Know yourself.
- Work within your limits.
- Focus on progress over perfection.
On that note…
5. Hold Yourself Accountable
Are you being held accountable? The truth is that most of us can't stay disciplined on our own. We need people around us that will keep us accountable so that we have a responsibility to do what we said we would do.
How can you hold yourself accountable?
- Hire a coach so that you're financially committed.
- Find co-workers/friends on a similar path.
- Make your goals public.
- Write your goals down everywhere.
- Use a planner to track your progress.
It would help if you were held accountable to ensure that you're going to follow through.
6. Know What You Want to Do
Too many of us set vague goals. We want to be healthy or wealthy. We wanted to be more disciplined, but we don't know what that discipline looks like.
James Clear brought this up in the aforementioned “Atomic Habits” book on habit building:
“Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity. It is not always obvious when and where to take action. Some people spend their entire lives waiting for the time to be right to make an improvement.”
Direction is much more important than speed.
Speaking of motivation…
7. Never Rely on Willpower or Motivation
Willpower is the last thing that you should rely on. You won't always feel motivated. You won't always feel like doing the right thing. The trick is to change your environment, hold yourself accountable, and set small goals so that you never have to worry about being motivated 24/7.
8. Ignore the Noise
There's no easy way to say this. You have to avoid the noise. You have to find ways to ignore the noise to focus on what matters to you.
You can't develop self-discipline if you allow any of the following to distract you:
- Everything that's happening on the news
- Notifications from 8 different social media apps
- Arguing with strangers on Facebook
- Getting upset over every comment that you read
In the book “The Daily Stoic” this point is brought up on focus and attention:
“Think of all the interests vying for a share of your wallet or for a second of your attention. Food scientists are engineering products to exploit your taste buds. Silicon Valley engineers are designing applications as addictive as gambling. The media is manufacturing stories to provoke outrage and anger. These are just a small slice of the temptations and forces acting on us—distracting us and pulling us away from the things that truly matter.”
You're going to get pulled in every direction. You have to do whatever you can to block out what doesn't matter so that you can accomplish your goals.
9. Think of Why You're Doing This
I'm not one of those corny motivational people. I want to remind you that it's important to remember why you're trying to accomplish that goal that requires you to develop self-discipline.
Here are a few things to consider:
- You want to lose weight to be healthier so that you can live longer to meet your grandkids.
- You want to pay off that debt so that you can finally quit your job.
- You want to save up so that you can take your partner on that dream vacation.
- You want to grow that side hustle so that you can follow your dream of being a writer.
That leads to the next point.
10. Find What You Enjoy Doing
Too many of us focus on goals that we don't even care about.
“Everyone’s motivated at something. It just depends on the thing. Even the people that we say are unmotivated are suddenly really motivated when they’re playing video games. I think motivation is relative, so you just have to find the thing you’re into.” — Naval
You'll develop more self-discipline when you focus on goals that interest you and keep you excited.
11. Celebrate Your Wins
Being disciplined isn't just about saying no to everything. It's okay to celebrate along the way. I'll even say that celebrating small wins is essential to developing self-discipline for the long run. We all need to look forward to something.
12. Identify Obstacles That Are Holding You Back
You have to figure out what's holding you back from being more disciplined. The goal is to eliminate your obstacles so that you can replace them with more productive activities.
This one quote opened my eyes to distractions and obstacles:
“Most people don’t want to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that distraction is always an unhealthy escape from reality. How we deal with uncomfortable internal triggers determines whether we pursue healthful acts of traction or self-defeating distractions.” — Nir Eyal
When things aren't going your way, you must take a step back to identify the barriers holding you back to know what you need to work on to develop self-discipline.
What if you find yourself still struggling with self-discipline?
It's pretty much impossible always to feel motivated. You won't always do the right thing, and you're going to make plenty of mistakes. There's nothing wrong with admitting that you're human. The goal will always be for progress over perfection.
I turn to this excerpt from BJ Fogg on building tiny habits:
“Most people operate under the assumption that they’ve got to go big or go home. They think that in order to kick a bad habit, destress, or make a pile of money they’ve got to do something radical. Go cold turkey. Sell their house and move to the beach. Put all their chips on the table. Go all in. Those who take these extreme measures and succeed are lionized.
If you’ve ever watched a special about an Olympic athlete who’s been training twelve hours a day since she was three or a successful businessperson who sold everything and moved to Italy to find true happiness, you know what I’m talking about. There’s nothing wrong with taking bold action. Life and happiness occasionally demand it. But remember that you hear about people making big changes because this is the exception, not the rule. Narrative drama comes from bold action, not from the incremental progress that leads to sustainable success.”
The key message to remember is that it's important to focus on the next small task in front of you instead of worrying about 20 different things that you have to do. You won't develop self-discipline overnight. That will take some time and effort.
Good luck with developing more self-discipline. Don't forget to enjoy the ride.
Martin Dasko is the founder of the blog Studenomics (https://www.studenomics.com/). Martin doesn't just write about finance, he lives it. He's made $123k profit on an investment property, graduated from college debt-free, written 5 books on personal finance and been featured in Lifehacker, NY Times, and Forbes