Motivation ebbs and flows over time; self-discipline is what allows us to continuously exert ourselves in the pursuit of our goals regardless of whether we feel like it or not. Most people, though, tend not to govern themselves in this way.
Instead, they allow themselves to be governed by external stimuli. It’s what makes a dieter load up his trolley with mountains of food in a well-stocked supermarket, or what causes an aspiring marathoner to forego weekend training in favour of a TV marathon at home.
The thing is, though, self-discipline isn’t solely about sheer willpower, though, of course, it’s crucial. It’s also about emotional self-awareness: understanding what inspires and drives you, what turns you off, and what triggers your bad habits. With the right strategies, it’s possible to initiate and sustain good self-discipline in the long-term. Here’s how to do just that.
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Knowing why you’re fighting the good fight will tide you through the storms of life that will beat against your back sooner or later. Without this sense of purpose guiding us, it makes much more sense to throw in the towel, sit on the bench, and say, “At least I tried.”
As Antoine de Saint-Exupery put it, “If you want people to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
The same goes for any endeavour to exercise greater self-discipline in life. Having a clear vision about what you want to achieve and why you want to achieve is essential. Ask yourself what you’re going after at the end of the day: is it skill mastery? Self-improvement? Better health? Better finances? Why is it so important to you that you stick to your guns and persist in working your self-discipline muscles?
Fundamentally, it boils down to reframing your perception of happiness. According to positive psychologist Mihail Csziksentmihalyi, happiness isn’t a passive consequence of what happens to us in life. Instead, it’s about conscious control over the things we engage in and pursue in life; to be happy, one must be intentional about directing one’s life. Self-control plays a considerable part in this.
Realising what your “why” is the first time is a phenomenal experience, but if you want to sustain it, you need to keep reminding yourself of your purpose. If possible, keep a physical memento to trigger this sense of purpose, like a picture at your desk that you can look at every day.
Traditional theories of willpower held that it was a finite resource. Since it’s something you can run out of, you must be economical about how you use it. More recently, though, psychological research has debunked such theories, proving that how you perceive willpower makes all the difference.
If you think you’ve run out of stamina and can no longer discipline yourself anymore, then that becomes your reality. However, if you don’t see willpower as something that can be exhausted, then that will be your reality. Ultimately, it all comes down to perception.
The practice of self-control often involves eliminating bad habits and replace them with good ones. Most people, though, only focus on the “do’s and don’ts” of habit change: they only think in terms of “I can’t do [this bad habit] anymore, I need to do [that good habit].”
This is why they often fail. In his bestselling book, “The Power of Habits,” Charles Duhigg writes that every habit follows a cycle. There’s always a trigger, an action, and a reward. The more we engage in these habits, the more we anticipate the reward. In other words, it’s the reward that drives the habit cycle.
With bad habits, you keep going at it despite knowing it’s bad for you because you can’t get enough of the reward. To change this, you need to find a way to derive the same rewards from the things you want to be more disciplined at.
For example, let’s say you want to give up smoking. Many people smoke despite knowing it’s hurts their health because it provides them some stress relief. When they feel stressed, they light a cigarette and get rewarded by the temporary relief.
Then the cycle repeats itself. To change it, you can’t just say “I can’t smoke anymore because I need to look after my health.” You need to replace the act of smoking with something else that will give you the same reward of stress relief, like meditation.
As positive psychologist Mihail Csziksentmihalyi says, “Most enjoyable activities… demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”
Despite everything, the first few attempts at sustained self-discipline are often hard because your mind resists its rewiring. To minimise this friction, you need to habitualise your mind to self-discipline in such a way that it becomes automatic to you, almost thoughtless. There’s no shortcut to this besides persistence; you need to keep at it until your mind is used to it.
The hard part, of course, is the persisting. We’re experts at giving ourselves excuses. The moment we don’t “feel like it” anymore, we tend to give up self-control. To that end, it’s crucial that you adopt the growth mindset. Growth-minded people don’t take their self-discipline lightly.
Because their end goal is continuous personal growth, they’re ready to treat all manner of challenges in their path as a means to progress. The more they don’t feel like doing something, the more they did it, because they knew that’s what would help them move forward.