How to Cultivate Self-Discipline (and Why That’s Important)

Posted on December 4, 2018 by in Business | 28 comments

How to Cultivate Self-Discipline (and Why That’s Important)

Many people have amazing talents. The problem is, raw ability and intelligence aren’t enough to carry you through life. To succeed, you also need self-discipline in order to focus those talents.

If there’s a single skill that can determine how far you’ll go in life, it’s self-discipline. Without it, you’ll fumble around without clear goals and potentially squander natural gifts or even hard earned skills. Given this, we’ll talk about five ways you can cultivate it. However, before this, let’s talk a bit more about the importance of self-discipline!

Why You Need Self-Discipline to Succeed

Let’s set the scene. It’s late evening, you have an important project due the next day, but you haven’t started working on it yet. Ultimately, you’ve been waiting for inspiration to strike, which has obviously impacted you starting the project. The problem is, the inspiration and motivation often doesn’t come when you need it most. Instead, you need to ‘will’ yourself into doing what you need to when necessary.

This drive to get things done, even when you don’t feel like it, is what we call ‘self-discipline’. Studies have shown it’s one of the most important success indicators, and here’s why:

  • Discipline often translates to a better work ethic.
  • The more disciplined you are, the more likely it is you’ll stick to healthy physical and mental habits.
  • With enough discipline, you can focus on the tasks you need to accomplish, even if you’re feeling unmotivated.

At one point or another, you’ve probably run across a person who gets so much done, you’re suspicious they’re a robot. They’ll juggle classes, work, hobbies, clubs, and more, all while excelling at almost everything they do. In some cases, you can put that down to raw talent, but it’s usually all about amazing self-discipline. However, natural intelligence and skill will only get you so far if you don’t have the drive (or self-discipline) to put them to use.

5 Steps for Cultivating Self-Discipline

Self-discipline is like a muscle. You need to exercise it regularly until it’s a part of you are, like a habit (only a good one, in this case). In the next few sections, we’ll go over five steps to help you cultivate self-discipline methodically.

Step #1: Set Goals and Hold Yourself Accountable to Them

To exercise self-discipline, you’ll need a target to aim for. This can be any goal you want, from getting into shape, increasing your productivity at work, getting up earlier, and practically anything else. Having a goal to work towards will enable you to cherish your progress as you inch forward. Plus, it will give you an excuse to exercise your self-discipline every day.

To start, make a list of the areas of your life you want to improve. This can include habits you want to form or kick, projects you want to tackle, and more. Then, dive those into two categories:

  1. Short-term goals. For example, forcing yourself to wake up earlier is something you can accomplish from one day to the next. However, you’ll need self-discipline to stick the course.
  2. Long-term goals. Getting a promotion at work is an excellent example of a long-term goal. To succeed, you’ll need to drive yourself to do better in the office, impress your superiors, and remain productive even when you’re not feeling like it.

Once you have clear goals, we recommend you try out a system to help you keep track of your progress. For example, you can use ‘To-Do’ apps to cross off each goal as you accomplish it, or to note when you’re making progress.

Step #2: Take Care of Your Body

Often, our body can be our biggest enemy. Sickness aside, somedays you simply won’t have much energy. You might get a stomach or a headache, or your eyes could be tired from too much screen time.

These can all impact your productivity negatively and sap your motivation to get anything done. With enough self-discipline, you’ll still be able to push forward, though (as long as you’re not at death’s door!).

Let’s be honest, though – it’s much easier to be disciplined when you’re feeling well. Given this, the smart move is to start taking better care of your body, so it won’t let you down when you need to devote yourself to a task. Here’s a quick rundown of how you can go about becoming a healthier person:

However, all of this is easier said than done. Developing each of these habits can take weeks or months, and will usually require discipline. However, the better your body feels, the easier it’ll be to give 100% to whatever you’re working on.

Step #3: Work on Your Tasks Even When You’re Not Feeling Motivated

The hardest part of cultivating self-discipline is forcing yourself to be productive when you don’t feel like it. Even the word “forcing” sound like you’re doing yourself a disservice. However, it’s also the word that most accurately paints the struggle of getting things done by sheer will alone.

Even if you’re feeling great and full of energy, there will be times when you won’t want to get any work done, even if you have to. This lack of motivation doesn’t just affect work either. You might just not feel like going to the gym or cooking a healthy meal. None of these things are the end of the world, but they’re perfect opportunities to exercise your self-discipline.

To ‘force’ yourself to work even when you don’t feel like it, there are a lot of little tricks you can use to get into a productive mindset:

  • Sit down and work on something for five minutes, then stop if you don’t feel like doing it. Often, just the act of getting started is enough to find motivation, so this trick is a favorite.
  • Promise yourself a reward for when you accomplish the tasks you need to get done.
  • Work in increments, so you always have regular breaks built in, as with the Pomodoro Technique.
  • Get an accountability partner who can whip you into shape when you’re unproductive.

All those tricks are useful. However, at some point, you just need to roll up your sleeves and sit down to work without no excuses. This is what lies at the core of self-discipline, and in time, you should be good to go with without having to fool your brain into being productive.

Step #4: Remove as Many Distractions as Possible

Self-discipline is all about gaining a productive mindset, even when you’re surrounded by distractions. However, it’s often much simpler to remove those distractions altogether, so they don’t impact your work in the first place.

If you work using a computer (which is very common), you’ll have a near-infinite number of distractions. You could rely on self-discipline alone to keep you on track, or you could block the websites that distract you the most while you work.

It’s more of a reactive step, for sure – but who’s keeping score? The process of removing distractions will depend on your work environment. For digital workers, here’s what we recommend:

  • Identify your biggest online time wasters. There are usually browser extensions available, such as Webtime Tracker for Chrome.
  • Find a way to block those websites temporarily. As with the previous item, you can also use extensions to block any sites you want.
  • Put away your smartphone while you work. For convenience’s sake, keep it close, but not so easily accessible.

Of course, depending on your workplace, you’ll need to find your own ways to eliminate distractions. Having nothing to take your attention away from the task in hand makes it much easier to remain disciplined.

Step #5: Stick to Your New Habits (And Don’t Let Occasional Slips Stop You)

As we mentioned, self-discipline is something you need to cultivate. To do so, you’ll need to put work in towards staying the distance and accomplishing your goals, even when you don’t feel like it.

However, let’s be honest – everyone slips from time to time. You might end up procrastinating the entire day, eating a whole pizza by yourself, or something else entirely. The important thing is to not let slip-ups derail you. You can always learn from those mistakes, and remain mindful so you can exercise more discipline and improve the next time around.

Of course, this is easier said than done. However, chances are you’ll notice drastic improvements to your life as soon as you begin exercising greater discipline. Momentum is important too, as stopping will cause the positive change to ebb away. Therefore, you need to be consistent while not being too hard on yourself. After all, you don’t want your new-found self-discipline to turn into a restrictive anchor.

Conclusion

If we had to choose between self-discipline and raw talent, we’d go with the former. With enough self-discipline, there’s very little you can’t learn or accomplish. However, it’s something you need to exercise, otherwise, you’ll end up relying on motivation alone – which is too fleeting a thing to deposit your future on.

All it takes is deciding you want to be more disciplined and taking the steps to get there, such as:

  1. Setting goals and holding yourself accountable to them.
  2. Taking care of your body.
  3. Working on your tasks even when you’re not feeling motivated.
  4. Removing as many distractions as possible.
  5. Sticking to your new habits (even if you slip from time to time).

Do you have any problems forcing yourself to be more self-disciplined? Share your stories with us in the comments section below!

Article thumbnail image by Nadia Buravleva / shutterstock.com.

28 Comments

  1. This is really important for me, I work as a marketing adviser and I work from home most of the time. As the saying goes, the TV, the bed and the fridge are the three biggest evils to working from home, and I need to loook what and how I do all the time. But small ideas and tricks seem to work, thi sis why I also love your article.

    • John Hughes

      Great stuff, Peter. Let us know how you get on!

  2. Really nice blog!! Love your content!!!

  3. Great post! Thanks for sharing! I think step 3 is the most difficult, but those tricks are useful for me.

    • John Hughes

      Nothing ever worth doing is easy, Marius. 🙂 Report back and let us know how you get on.

  4. “you’ve probably run across a person who gets so much done, you’re suspicious they’re a robot” LOL! Thanks for this article! I love the variety of article topics that the ET blog team gives. Yay for self development!

  5. Love this article! I’m going to share it with my audience!

    • John Hughes

      Fantastic, Heather. You’ll have to let us know what your audience thinks. 🙂

  6. It takes 3 weeks to create a habit and 3 days to break it. If you stick to that rule, it makes it much easier to create new positive habits.

    • Love that Rule Sean! Thanks for sharing, I’m going to introduce it into my life as of 5 minutes ago.

      • John Hughes

        This means you should see a result on Christmas Day – you’ll have to report back on how you’ve done!

    • John Hughes

      Good insight, Sean. Concepts like this are important for motivation.

  7. Thanks John, I liked the post. It has made me reflect and I will follow the steps to be more disciplined. Social networks today are a huge waste of time.

    • John Hughes

      Maybe you’re onto something there, Enrique. 🙂

  8. Thank you for the “friendly-framing” of this article. I didn’t want to read a self help guide that puts me down or makes me feel guilty for not doing more. Small steps are incredibly powerful – check out tinyhabits.com to see how small changes can add up and not be intimidating.

    Its tough to be motivated to learn new skills after working all day in front of a computer – but it’s a critical habit to start if you want to keep growing – which I do.

  9. What you refer to as self-discipline, I call commitment. And as T.D. Jakes once said, commitment has nothing to do with your feelings. So in other words, if you are truly committed, then it shouldn’t matter how you feel about the task at hand, you’ll do it anyway. The problem is when we claim to be committed to an outcome, but we’re really not. For that reason, I think it’s very important to make sure the thing you’re needing more “self-discipline” around is truly something you want, and not just something you think you should want. If someone offered you $1M to write an article in 1 hour, I bet most everyone would find the self-discipline to do it. 😉

    • John Hughes

      I like this insight, and you bring up a good point that feelings are transitional to a point. This ties in with the concept of happiness, but that’s another article… 🙂

    • Excellent comment, I was thinking the same thing. It takes commitment for sure! Interesting how this helps you figure out what you really want vs. what you think you want, like you said. I’ve been observing this lately in my day-to-day. You’re almost always in line with your true values. Never hurts to inventory those values once in awhile and assess how they’re serving you.

  10. I love this article, and the last one too about self-destructive behavior. Reason being, we all either go through this ourselves, or have family, peers, or employees who are now or will someday. No one is immune to that. Plus, it’s good stuff to think about. If we are not taking care of ourselves then our work, or our relationships, and/or something else will suffer. When we suffer, it shows, even if you think it doesn’t. Nobody can hide it forever and it’s best to incorporate healthy routines into our daily lives to combat that. Self-discipline to the rescue! Haha… And if you are struggling and think you’re alone, trust me, you’re not.

    Take the first step – try something new today and learn to stretch your comfort zone 🙂

    You won’t regret it…

    Great write up, John!! PEACE!

    • Nathan B. Weller

      Thanks CJ, that’s how we think of these types of articles too. They’re very human and relevant to people actively trying to improve themselves and their performance. It’s hard to separate these topics from success in business and life. So we decided to start covering them!

  11. Great Article, email is a biggest distraction for me! Especially unknown’s with clever subject lines that challenge ones curiosity.

    I say we should blow up email! lol. Actually I’ve just had the thought to kill the new email notification sound on the computer. Now I just need to find that setting in outlook. I’m using Windows 10 with Outlook 2010 if anybody knows a quick way?

    Conclusion: This article hopefully helped lots of us think about what might be distracting us from things we want or need to get done. It certainly triggered my thoughts.

    Thank you John.

    • John Hughes

      Email is a massive killer, Liz. I personally have no notifications, bings, or boops to distract me. I also check my email deliberately twice a day, and block out time to do so.

      I’ve also come across one WordPress business owner who actually disables their inbox outside of two allotted times. This means if you send him an email, you’ll get an autoresponse and he won’t physically get the email until a certain time. Now that’s beating email at it’s own game!

  12. One of the greatest problem I usually encounter in life with regards to discipline is “I cant stay too long doing a particular thing” its like jumping here and there, from one business idea to the other, just randomly testing everything, and its not helping me really.

    @John, any advice for me?

    • John Hughes

      Thanks for the question, Pansy – it’s probably a more prevalent situation than you realize!

      Having solid SMART goals is a big help here, because that gives you the focus if you really buy into the concept (and what you’re doing). We’ve written about it elsewhere on the blog.

      Also, I’m always a fan of assessing your situation holistically. I personally like referring to the Four Stages of Competence at every step. Just recognizing that I’m being “consciously competent” gives me the drive to stick to a task and almost treat everything as a learning experience.

      I hope this helps. 🙂

  13. A good well-written article. No matter what your goals are in life, there is one great law that you need to obey in order to be successful. No one else is going to climb the ladder of success for you. No one else is responsible for your health, wealth, happiness, or success. Only you can choose how you spend your time, and the decisions you make on a consistent basis will make or break your life.

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