Common sense dictates that some level of self-discipline is necessary to achieve worthy goals. Nothing valuable comes easy. But is discipline really all it takes to achieve goals that make one satisfied and happy?
Self-Discipline vs. Self-Control: Why Do We Need Both?
Self-discipline is closely related to self-control. Studies show that people with a lot of self-control are happier. People with a lot of self-control report to also be more satisfied and happy. Interestingly, this is not only true for long-term happiness due to delayed gratification, as the famous Marshmallow Test would suggest. It also matters in the short term.
People with higher self-control seem to be generally healthier, fitter, and in higher spirits. They have better mechanisms to deal with obstacles in life, see things more positively, and, as a result, are more satisfied and happy.
However, it is also curious to know that self-discipline and self-control are not the same. Generally, self-discipline means actively doing something to achieve a goal or to get better. Self-control, on the other hand, means actively not doing something that would prevent you from achieving a goal or from getting better.
So what is self-discipline in the first place?
Two parts of our brain play an important role in controlling — or not controlling — self-discipline: the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the amygdala. The role of the PFC is related to planning, staying on track, and rationally managing emotionally influenced decisions. The amygdala is the part of the brain that tells you to choose the chocolate croissant over a salad. The amygdala is keen on instant gratification and makes sure that you stay in your comfort zone as much as possible. Procrastination is also a great example where the PFC and the amygdala stand in contrast to each other.
The good news is, none of this is genetics. Self-discipline is like a skill or a muscle and can be developed. Before I describe how to develop self-discipline, let's first take a look what other ingredients we need.
Motivation Is Key to Achieving Your Goals! Or Is It?
Typically we assume that motivation is the main driving force for self-discipline and eventually achieving a specific goal. And it is true having a strong motivator (as we will see a little later) is a very important ingredient for hard work towards a goal, like replacing junk food with healthy choices, not checking your cell phone constantly, or spending less time on social media.
But motivation is only the starting point. Lao Tzu once said: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Overtime, motivation fades away.
In order to arrive at your goal, you need to continue taking steps. Willpower is another ingredient for self-discipline, which unfortunately is limited. We only have a certain amount of willpower available each day to actively decide against temptations.
This is where systems come into play. Systems are a great thing because they take the thinking or the active decision-making out of the equation.
That is why successful people like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg wear the same thing every day. They don't waste their energy on trivial things during their morning routine. Systems are a way to form and sustain good habits that make it easy to stick to a plan and eventually achieve your goal.
A Practical Guide to How to Develop Self-Discipline
I want to share some powerful ways that all these ingredients can be brought together and executed effectively. Here’s how to build self-discipline for whatever goal you’ve been dying to accomplish.
1. Understand the Concept of Self-Discipline and Its Ingredients
The essential first step is to actually understand self-discipline and how it's dependent on other concepts like motivation, willpower, and habits. Only then will you be able to create and execute a plan to successfully achieve your goals. By reading the first parts of this article you should now have a good enough understanding.
2. Decide on Your Main Goal and Create a Plan
The next step is to prioritize your main goal. The more important and the deeper this goal is for you, the higher your chances are to succeed. A good way to find a strong goal is the Five Whys technique, which was developed by the founder of Toyota, Sakichi Toyoda. It will help you to find the real why behind the goal, what you deeply and genuinely want.
It is super simple to use. Pick any goal you think you want to achieve. For instance: "I want to eat healthier." Then ask yourself "why?"
The answer could be: "To reduce my body fat." Then ask again "why?"
The answer could be: "I don't want to risk diabetes or heart disease." Then carry on asking yourself "why?" You will know when you have the right depth of the goal. In our example here it could be that the person is worried about dying too soon and not being able to spend time with the kids and grandchildren. This is a pretty strong reason to come up with a plan to eat healthier.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously said: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
3. Start Small
After you have identified your real goal, break it down into smaller steps that are more manageable. Big tasks can be daunting. And a big, deep goal will involve deep tasks. Try not to conquer the whole world on the first day.
Our brain tends not to cope very well with too many changes at once. Chances are too high to procrastinate, stall, or even give up on your goal. It's better to start small. Get in some quick wins early to keep motivation up.
4. Build Systems and Good Habits
Motivation is the driving force to get things started. But it fades. Willpower helps us to stay on track. But it's limited because it requires energy.
In order to make our lives easier and the probability of achieving goals higher, we need systems. Healthy habits are examples for systems. These are procedures we automatically do the same way every day. Habits limit the choices we need to make. When you take the thinking out of the equation, it does not deduct any willpower units from your willpower balance.
Examples for typical systems are standard morning routines like drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning, going for a brisk walk as a form of cardio, taking a cold shower, preparing overnight oats, or following workout routines.
5. Leverage Social Pressure
Most of the time you are not alone. You can use your social environment to your benefit and leverage it to help you achieve your goal.
You can do this by forming a group of like-minded people where all are striving for the same goal. This often works wonders. It could be a workout group where you meet three times a week, or it could be a healthy cooking club with regular meetings and recipe exchanges. When you have tough days where you feel a lack of self-discipline, social pressure from the other group members may just be enough to get you to do it.
Another way to utilize social pressure is to publicly announce your goal, including details about when you want to have achieved what. You can tell your friends and family or post on social media. You can increase the pressure by promising to pay money in case you fail. There are even apps like stikK, Go Fucking Do It, or Coach.me that provide a platform for public goal accountability.
6. Track Your Progress
You build up on all the bigger and smaller successes on your way to your final goal. In order to manage that, you need to measure it.
Every athlete who is successful in any kind of sport has some sort of tracking. We all know that in order to get better in any skill we need to create new stimuli in our bodies and brains. If not, our bodies adapt and we don't improve. Progressive overload is what we use in order to improve athletic performance, for instance. In order to increase the stimulus every time, we need to know what we did last time by tracking every training session.
Another method for tracking any type of personal development aspect like effectiveness, career development, relationships, sleep, or happiness is journaling. Every night before you go to sleep, take five minutes and make some notes in a journal about any of the aspects that are important for you to achieve your goals.
7. Celebrate Small Wins, don't Sweat Setbacks
As I said earlier, motivation fades away over time. In order to avoid this, we need to feed it. This can be done by celebrating small wins. Whenever you hit a certain milestone or mini-goal, celebrate it. Do something nice for you. That does not mean to go all out and binge but some small acknowledgments are very effective. These can really be small things like going for a beer with a friend, sleep longer, buy yourself a book, get an ice cream, or go to a spa. It’s important to actually label it as a reward so that you consciously and unconsciously recognize the achievement and the hard work that went into it. This will generate some more motivation for the work that’s required for the next achievement.
On the contrary, do not punish yourself for setbacks. If a setback happens, don't panic. It is normal. Ideally, try to find ways to just accept it, get over it, and keep following your plan. Bring back to your mind your big "why." This will help you to get back onto the right path to achieving your goal.
How to Develop Self-Discipline? Build New Habits
In order to master self-discipline we first need to understand how it's related to other components. To achieve goals we equally need strong reasons why we want to go after the goal, leverage motivation and willpower, and implement systems in the form of habits. Daily routines or following proven programs are great examples of systems that help us achieve goals.
The good news is that self-discipline is like a muscle. It can be trained and it grows over time with consistent work. Find what's really important for you. Find your why. Derive your goals from it. Then constantly work with your self-discipline and habits to achieve them.