A Practical Guide to Developing Self-Discipline

I have a confession to make. As I sit here and write this, I have absolutely no desire to make it happen. Putting these words on paper make me cringe – I’d rather be eating a bag of Cheetos, and truth be told, watching Sherwin-Williams paint dry. Developing self-discipline has been a rough go. But it’s kicking my ass in a good way, allowing you wonderful people to experience reading this.

“But Adam, how can you say that? You write because you love it.”

Yes, I do enjoy writing about the topics I’m passionate about. But I’m also not stupid enough to believe doing the things we want, especially when it becomes your actual job, won’t lead you to a lot of moments where you don’t feel like doing it. This is about the bigger picture – the picture of developing self-discipline – necessary to accelerate your life to the level you want, and simultaneously, deserve.

We Lack the Practical Discipline Life Requires

We absolutely love to take the easy way out. We’ve been blessed with the brains that make us the smartest living creature on this planet, and because of that we’re always creating efficient ways to deal with tangible things and processes. That’s a good thing. It saved your long-ago ancestor’s ass on a number of occasions, and you can thank them for their attempts at efficiency. Because otherwise, you honestly wouldn’t be around today. Cave life wasn’t exactly the creature comforts we expect today.

But where it takes a wrong turn is when we try to apply that same logic to life itself, and attempt to skip out on the intangible things and processes…all the stuff our brain is responsible for. You know, the stuff like hard work, applying yourself to a task, learning or growing, and taking risks. That’s a bad thing. We’re now living in a time where careers, success, money, relationships, developing self-discipline, and self-growth are at an all-time high; most things our ancestors never really had to deal with.

There’s a perfect word to describe our half-assed attempt at doing things; it’s known as lazy. Science confirms it – we’re a lazy society. And we’ll expend more energy trying to find the easy way from point A to B than if we just applied ourselves in the first place, and dove in head first.

Yes, you read that right. How fucked is that? We’ll study any way we can to take the path of least resistance, without really taking action. I guess some people could argue being efficient is considered a form of self-discipline. But efficiency isn’t the same as effectiveness. If you spend all your time trying to find the best way to do something without actually doing it, one could argue you were efficient because you found a hack. But since you didn’t move the needle, you weren’t exactly effective.

Without the desire or ability to create the proper discipline in your life, you’re like a piece of burnt toast – some people may feel sorry for you and give you a second chance by eating you anyway, but most people will toss you aside for something better (a fresh piece of toast) if you can’t execute.

Here’s another conundrum – developing self-discipline is a lifelong battle you’ll constantly wage. You’ll always be at war. You can make it somewhat of a habit, but don’t believe anyone who says you can easily develop self-discipline and put it on autopilot. That’s a load of crap. It can become easier, yes, but it won’t be as easy as tying your shoe.

Here’s the good news, though – if you want to develop self-discipline or sustain it at a high level (which should both be a resounding yes), then there are a few practical and simple notions you can follow to make it a reality.

Without further ado:

The Simple and Practical Guide to Improving and Developing Self-Discipline

Define What You Want

How do you know what you’re supposed to do if you don’t know what you’re going towards?

Before you implement any kind of process, you need to have a goal. In other words, you need to know what you’re trying to achieve. I’m not going to spend this time explaining how to choose your goals. Make them count, though. This is probably the easiest step, so enjoy the relatively simple “did he really just say the obvious” advice here. I just gave you the good news first. You’re welcome.

Find The Motivation

How does a fire burn for hours? It needs some form of gas or fuel. Think of your goal as the fire, and your motivation as the wood chips. You want a slow, continuous injection of motivation to keep you on track with what you’ve defined you want. Ideally, you want that steady state. Why? Developing self-discipline doesn’t become a habit in short bursts; you aren’t having things “stick” as a habit that way. It becomes a habit with constant application.

With that out of the way, what is your motivation?

There’s two ways to get motivated – the things you want as a result of obtaining your goals (such as becoming CEO, owning your own business, driving a Ferrari, whatever else), and the things you don’t want (like your less-than-ideal current life, or the less-than-ideal life you could find yourself in). In my opinion, the best form of motivation is the latter; thinking about all the things you probably won’t achieve if you fail to implement the proper development of self-discipline in your life.

Examples? The career or even career potential you’ll never achieve because you got lazy. The money you’ll never have because you procrastinated. The house you won’t live in or the car you won’t drive or the partner you’ll never get because you absolutely suck at life .

This produces a lot more internal emotion than dreaming about the car you could be driving one day. I find it more realistic and upsetting to think about the car I would be driving if I don’t put my ass into high gear.

Man in car frustrated
After his 1985 truck wouldn’t start for the 54th time, John realized he needs to develop a bit more self-discipline.

Setup a System When You Lack The Desire

Inevitably, you’ll run into a wall. Chances are you’ll run into walls on a pretty regular basis. It’s about doing things when you don’t always feel like doing them. That to me is what defines self-discipline and sets it from just doing things to actually defining who you are as a person.

So if you lack the motivation and you lack the desire to accomplish your goals, setup a system like the Pomodoro technique to make yourself grind it out. Give yourself 20 minutes of distraction-free work, and then give yourself a little break. Repeat as many times as you want in order to make progress.

By the same token, try blocking out all social media or distracting websites for a short time while you focus in on the task at hand. Turn off the TV even if it’s just background noise. Put on your headphones and dial in. Remind yourself of what you probably won’t achieve if you keep procrastinating harder than you did in your college sophomore final exams.

Make it fucking happen.

Reward Yourself For Finishing

Cool, you pulled through. Whether you worked 20 minutes without any distractions or you went the whole day grinding it out non-stop until you completed your task, give yourself a little reward. Online shop for a bit. Step out of the house and go eat something fancy or greasy. Find some way to give yourself a little boost for accomplishing things.

This isn’t the time to adopt the mentality that you don’t deserve a reward because you’ve screwed around long enough. I mean yeah, don’t go buy a new car or a designer purse if you were able to work 20 minutes distraction-free. Make the reward fit the task. But do something.

It’s proven science that we like being rewarded for effort. Don’t fight your evolutionary DNA now. This isn’t the time.

Don’t Hate Yourself When You Don’t 

On the flip-side, here’s a reality check: you will, on a constant basis, not be able to achieve every last thing you set out to do that day, that week, that month, or that year. Maybe it’s because you switched gears and went a different direction and thus accomplished other things, or maybe it’s because you didn’t find it the right fit for your current goals.

Whatever it is, the more time you spend hating yourself the more time you’re wasting not improving yourself. You aren’t a machine and you aren’t likely to check off a list of tasks on a consistent basis. But you can get close. And if you don’t, move on, and check more things off.

Reflect on Your Progress

What works and what doesn’t is an absolutely individual process that is unique for each person. Sure, there are methods out there that exist because they work – and you should try to use them. The question isn’t whether a technique works (because it probably does for a lot of people), it’s whether it fits for you in your life. Try things out, and if you aren’t feeling it, try something else. But try to give something a solid 30 days before you decide it’s not for you. See how it’s helping you achieve your goals, and then make the proper adjustments from there.

Adjust What You Want

I mentioned just a bit ago about how you shouldn’t be hard on yourself if you don’t accomplish something, because there’s a possibility you may have switched directions or goals.

I bring that up now because it’s vitally important that you continually reassess your goals and desires on a regular basis in order to stay on track, while also making sure you’re achieving the things you set out to achieve. If you’re achieving things, but in your mind and on your paper you have a different set of written goals, then naturally you’ll be upset with yourself that you didn’t accomplish it. And in the process, you completely forget about what you actually did achieve.

So in order to avoid this gap of your actual achievements versus your written ones, make sure they both line up so you get your brain adjusted to knowing it actually knocks things out. 

Developing Self-Discipline is a Circular Process

Improving and developing self-discipline is somewhat of a circular process – you define what you want, the motivation you need to achieve it, the processes you implement to accomplish it, and then reassess or redefine what you want in order to start the process over.

Whether the reassess/redefine stage happens because you accomplished a goal or because you want to switch directions, it’s still a crucial step that allows you to keep your momentum going forward and instilling the habits necessary to achieve practical self-discipline.

Go kick some ass, and reward yourself for doing so.

How's your focus and self-discipline?

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