The Art of Self-Discipline
Few words in the English language spark the same heady mix of youthful enthusiasm, stubborn rebellion, and a vague sense of “should-be-doing-better” guilt like self-discipline.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had my own (not-exactly-positive) associations with self-discipline, and I wish there was another word to describe this quality that wasn’t quite so… off-putting.
But here we are.
Self-discipline is helpful. It enables us to get s— done. It helps to build our self-esteem (actions aligned with principled goals = higher self-esteem). Depending on where we practice self-discipline within our lives, it leaves us healthier, more learned, more self-aware, higher performing, more satisfied, and more.
I am not a self-discipline master – I’m all too aware of how easy it is for me to fall off the wagon and want to stay in bed watching Dead Like Me instead of getting up and doing the things I need to do. Because of this, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be self-disciplined and what the not-so-secret ingredients are. Here are some of the things that have helped me…
8 Tips for Cultivating More Self-Discipline
“Self-discipline is the ability to organise our behaviour over time in the service of specific tasks… It requires the ability to defer gratification in the service of a remote goal. This is the ability to think, plan and live long-range.”
– Nathaniel Branden
1. Accept that your self-discipline is your responsibility
No one cares about your wellbeing and future as much as you do. The only person who will be self-disciplined for you is you. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) this isn’t something you can delegate to other people or expect them to do for you.
Accepting that it’s your responsibility to be self-disciplined requires you to see things as they are, embrace reality, and act based on that awareness. It sounds easy when I put it like that, but the number one obstacle that blocks people from doing what they want to do is part of their sub-conscious is waiting to be rescued. They are waiting for someone to come and make all the hard decisions, endure the discomfort and take responsibility for them.
This isn't going to happen.
You are responsible for your levels of self-discipline, and you’re also responsible for the consequences of practising or not practising self-discipline. That means it’s your responsibility to make sure your goals are aligned with your values, and you’re working towards your best long-term interests (rather than things you’re doing to make other people happy or to slap a temporary band-aid over an old wound or need).
2. Set your non-negotiables
Like the name suggests, non-negotiables are things you commit to doing every single day (or week, depending on your goals). They are the things you need to do to keep your life heading in the direction you want. Being aware of your non-negotiables and honouring them whatever the weather is a solid foundation for the art of self-discipline.
Your non-negotiables might shift over time, depending on what you’re working on and what’s happening in your life at any given point. The important thing is awareness: staying conscious of what your non-negotiables are, why they are non-negotiable, and how you can best honour them.
Commitment involves accepting there will be days when you don’t feel like doing your non-negotiables, and that that’s OK: you can feel demotivated, experience that, and sit with it, without letting it control you.
At the risk of downplaying the complexity of topics like motivation and habit formation, sometimes it is as simple as deciding “This week, I will get up at 7.30 each morning to meditate/go running/make my lunch/study French/walk the dog” and honouring that commitment. That means adopting an approach of firm compassion.
When you have firm compassion for yourself, you notice, accept and empathise with the resistance, and then do the thing you’re resisting anyway. There’s no guilt or self-flagellation involved – it’s more about healthy internal guidance.
4. Develop a routine
I find it helpful to do my non-negotiables first thing (although this doesn’t always happen). Developing a routine can be very helpful, especially as you’re exploring your relationship with self-discipline for the first time. When you have a set time at which you do a set activity, it’s easier to overcome resistance. You’re not waiting to “feel like it” to do something—it just happens at this time.
“A purposeful, self-disciplined life does not mean a life without time for rest, relaxation, recreation or random, even frivolous activity. It merely means that such activities are chosen consciously with the knowledge it is safe and appropriate to engage in them.”
– Nathaniel Branden
5. Learn your favourite excuses
If you only implement one thing from this list, PICK THIS ONE. Excuses will be at every corner, luring you in with their promises of lie-ins and free candy, but listening to them is a sure path to regret and dissatisfaction later down the line.
Acknowledging that a) you make excuses, and b) they work, is challenging. No one likes to admit they fall prey to their own internal mind gremlins, but it happens to everyone (it happened to me this morning) so give yourself a break and acknowledge that hey, this is expected.
Pay attention to your internal dialogue and make a mental note of all the excuses that front your feelings of resistance. Here are some of my favourites to get you started:
I’m too busy
I don’t have time
I’m too tired
I have all these other things to do
I don’t think insert person’s name will be pleased if I do that now
I’ll do it tomorrow (no really, I will…)
[Insert situation here] is happening and even though it’s out of my control I will dwell on it anyway. Then, I can’t do insert goal here because I don’t feel like it and situation is taking up too much of my headspace
6. Keep a ‘have-done’ list
I get a sense of satisfaction and reward from ticking things off my ‘to-do’ list, and that’s what a ‘have done’ list is all about. A have done list is a record of everything you did in a day or week. It might be small (“made the bed”) or it might be big (“submitted that huge project proposal”), everything counts.
When you fall behind or skip a few days of work on our goals, it’s easy to focus on this and dwell on all the reasons you’re not capable of meeting your goals. Maintaining some kind of list or chart for my goals helps me maintain a positive perspective on how I’m doing. If I skip a few days of exercise, I feel a lot more motivated to start again when I look at how many days I fit in before that, and what a great roll I was on, than when I focus on what I haven’t done.
7. Do it mindfully
When you’re conscious of how good it feels to exercise, tidy up the house and so on, you’re more likely to see the intrinsic rewards in the activity. This is super helpful for your motivation down the line because when you experience resistance, you can say “Hey, remember how great it felt to clean the kitchen? And how you smiled a little on the inside every time you walked into the room and last night’s dinner wasn’t still caked onto the stovetop?”
As kids, we often have negative encounters with discipline that go something like, “If you don’t do this, something terrible will happen.” The sad irony of this kind of motivation is it’s demotivating. This kind of motivation teaches us to do things to avoid pain, rather than seeking growth and self-actualisation. It’s the difference between saying “I’m going to the gym because I don’t want to be fat,” and “I’m going to the gym because I want to feel energised, be healthy, and enjoy the endorphins.” It’s a subtle difference but the first statement is rooted in what we don’t want (and if we are bigger than we’d like to be, self-judgement). The second is rooted in the things we want and the positive outcomes for the future.
Switching from extrinsic “I’m doing this because bad things will happen if I don’t“-style motivation, back to intrinsic “I’m doing this because good things will happen when I do“-style motivation can be tricky, but you can do it. Being mindful of how you’re motivating yourself to do things, is an important first step.
8. Give yourself a chance
If you’ve been trying to motivate yourself through being mean to yourself or focusing on what you don’t want, shifting your approach to self-discipline will take time. When you change the way you’re motivating yourself, you’re forging new neural pathways and this is a slow and steady process. The longer the existing pathways have been there, the longer it takes to course correct. Each time you use your new way of motivating yourself, however, that new pathway gets stronger.
As you explore your own self-discipline, be gentle with yourself. Remember, the key lies in firm compassion, not whacking yourself over the head with a metaphorical mind stick. Accept that you will fall off the wagon many times over (and you will), then pick yourself up and get back on it.
Showing up and doing the best you can do: that is what self-discipline is all about.
Do you have any tips for self-discipline? Leave a comment and let me know.
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