The 4 Steps Smart People Use to Develop Self-Discipline

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Freelance Writer & Nonprofit Information Officer
April 22, 2024 at 3:24PM UTC
Sometimes, resisting temptation and regulating our behavior is relatively easy, other times, not so much. 
For example, running every day might not be too hard if you have a team or a big race coming up, but if you’re trying to run just because you think you should, getting up the motivation to put on running shoes and get out the door can be tough. Often, we can keep up a certain level of discipline for a short amount of time if we have a very specific goal in mind. But we still must ask ourselves: how do we regulate our behavior and maintain self-discipline as a way of life?

Why we need self-discipline.

1. Self-discipline can be extremely important for achieving goals, embodying success (whatever that might mean to you) and living a healthy life. Being able to regulate our behavior and track our goals, knowing our specific end-goals without forgetting where we started, helps us be effective in our personal and professional lives. 
2. Consistently reminding ourselves — especially when it gets hard — how and why we set a goal and what we will have achieved when we’re done, not only helps us achieve our specific goals, but it can improve our mood by giving us a level of satisfaction and shows us that this behavior can be a way of life. 
3. Visualize yourself having control of your life and accomplishing whatever specific goal you’ve set: it’s a powerful feeling. Consistently tell yourself how far you’ve come and how proud you are, don’t forget to treat yourself kindly with your words and your actions, remember that self-discipline shouldn’t mean denying yourself all your favorite things and being miserable.
4. Consider how you want your day to day life to look. Self-discipline is the tool that allows us to enact sturdy plans, ward off procrastination, and identify our weaknesses. To make the changes we want to see in our lives, we have to proactively consider what we want to see changed, how we can go about getting there, and what is most likely to get in our way. Creatively and intuitively determining your own weaknesses and knowing how you can prevent them from happening is a skill that comes with self-discipline. 

4 steps for developing self-discipline.

The difference between achieving one goal and making self-discipline a way of life is the creation of habits
You can still use goals to create habits, so long as you recognize that habits are for the long haul, not one and done goals. Erin Falconer, the author of “How to Get Sh*t Done,” says there are four steps: choosing a habit, committing to start, building consistency, and  lastly, repeating; we have modified her four steps here. 

Step 1: Choose one habit.

Fostering self-discipline in your personal and professional life is progressive. You have to build it up brick by brick, one habit or change in mindset at a time. If you can establish one good habit, it becomes easier to establish a second, third and fourth. It is easy to get sucked into behavior that makes us feel bad. 
For example, watching one episode of Grey’s Anatomy might feel great but watching eight in a row on accident might make a person feel sick. Eating some potato chips as well may be delicious but finishing a whole family-sized bag in one sitting might not be so enjoyable. 
Often, we can identify a lot of behaviors we want to change and so we make the decision to “turn a new leaf” and change everything, be a different person. This rarely works out well. Changing everything at once can be excruciatingly difficult and it makes a villain out of our past self who got us into these “bad habits,” which is never a positive starting place for change. 
It is hard to appreciate incremental gains when you are trying to change everything so instead, focus on one habit. Flossing every day, going to bed a little earlier, eating more fruit, drinking more water, exercising every day: choose something you know how to do but haven’t been dedicating enough time towards and focus on incorporating it into your schedule. 

Step 2: Learn how to start.

Sometimes, starting is the hardest part. My high school cross country coach used to tell us that the hardest part about training over school holidays was tying our laces. He said if we were having a hard time getting out the door don’t focus on how many miles we were supposed to run that day or the weather outside, or even how we were feeling, just focus on tying our laces. 
Once we were on the road, we could think about how we were feeling, how far we were up to running, and all the other discouragement factors. Focusing on laces instead of running made it easy to get started. Building self-discipline is all about training yourself how to start and the best way to do this is to make it really easy to start and really hard to say no. 
Think about the first action you need to do: lace up your shoes, grab the floss, find a piece of fruit. Then, only think about the start, be mindful and conscious while you are doing it, this makes it easier to remember the next day and harder to get discouraged since all you have to think about how the laces feel in your fingers and how the shoes hug your feet. 

Step 3: Build up.

If you go on a run one day, assume you have that habit in the bag and move on, you may find yourself falling down on all your goals. According to Erin Falconer, “Being consistent isn’t about never missing a day; it’s about missing a day, learning why you missed it and doing everything you can to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” 
An effective way to build up your habit is to track your progress and celebrate your successes. Set goals for how many days in a row you can meet your habit, and acknowledge it when you complete your goal, otherwise you may feel like you are in a swimming lesson and the instructor keeps moving back, you want to feel like you are in control of your own habits. Notice what works and what doesn’t and establish structures that foster the conditions that work. 

Step 4: Keep the momentum going.

At some point, you may feel that the new behavior is a habit, you no longer have to make yourself do it, you enjoy it even, and would rather keep doing it every day then stop. Stop tracking your progress and give it a week or so to see if your habit wavers. If it doesn’t, if you no longer need to convince yourself to do it, if there’s no going back and forth, you’re there. 
This isn’t the time to stop paying attention or stop telling yourself that you are proud of the change, it just means you don’t have to put as much energy into that habit so you can begin focusing on another. 
Choose a new habit and continue from step one, remembering to congratulate yourself on your first habit and pay attention to ensure you are on it if the first habit starts slipping and you need to start dedicating more effort to it again. Self-discipline professionally and personally is built progressively, one habit at a time.

Sound hard?

Mastering behavior regulation and self-discipline is hard. Even starting is hard, in fact, for many of us, it can be the hardest part. Building self-discipline skills can help you cease bad habits, accomplish long-term and short-term goals, and change your life for the better. 
But if you are starting from a place of feeling that you have little to no control over your life, changing one thing might sound hard enough, so building “self-disciplined” as a character trait could seem impossible. It’s up to you to want to try, to tie your laces, and then do it again. 

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