If you’re reading this article, you already know that learning how to develop self-discipline is crucial to your success and happiness.
The things you want in life come with a price, and that price is discipline.
This may seem odd, but it’s important to note that you’re already displaying incredible self-discipline on a daily basis!
If you’re a procrastinator, you’re disciplined when it comes to putting off things that are important to you. If you hit the snooze button three or four times every morning, you’re very disciplined about being a late sleeper.
The problem is that those behaviors don’t serve you, they destroy you.
It’s easy to deploy self-discipline and repeat toxic habits that keep you stuck. However, when the focus shifts to positive behaviors that move your life forward, this is where things get tricky.
Since we became apex predators, our brains have always loved instant gratification. Choosing to discipline yourself so that you can achieve your goals involves winning the battle against your hard-wired survival instincts.
In this article, you’ll learn how to develop self-discipline by using a framework that actually turns your brain into your ally, as opposed to your enemy.
What is Self-Discipline?
Not much needs to be said here, but let’s just briefly define what self-discipline is.
Self-discipline is doing what you know you need to do whether you feel like it or not. There’s many ways to define it, but that’s just the definition that I like to use.
Put even more bluntly, self-discipline is about embracing boring shit. If you really think about all of the daily actions you could take to improve your life, you’ll notice a common theme – they’re not very exciting.
Take a second and think about a goal that you’ve been trying to achieve. Thrust yourself into the future and imagine what it would feel like to accomplish that goal.
What kind of emotions would you feel?
Now think about the daily actions that you need to take to hit that goal. Imagine what it feels like to put in the work required to get you to where you want to be.
What kind of emotions are you feeling now?
Different story? Yep, that’s exactly how you should feel.
It feels incredible to imagine what it would be like to lose 50 pounds and finally get the body you want. But when you think about the daily habits you’ll need to develop – working out consistently, ditching sugary foods, and taking care of your body – you feel a sense of dread knowing the sacrifices you’re going to have to make in pursuit of your goal.
This is the battle that we all fight when it comes to developing self-discipline. Goals motivate us to take action, but our brain’s natural preference for behaviors that feel good in the moment sabotage our progress towards those goals.
As much as we like to think our decisions are grounded in what’s logically good for us, they’re not. Logic can influence our decisions, but it’s ultimately our emotions that determine what we do.
Can You Teach Yourself Self-Discipline?
Just like talking to people, getting better at a sport, or improving your confidence, self-discipline is a skill that you can improve with repetition.
There’s a wide body of research that shows self-discipline is like a muscle. If you continually train it, it will grow stronger and you’ll start applying it to other aspects of your life.
You see this all the time with people who develop keystone habits that transform their entire identity.
Someone starts to develop a consistent workout regimen, which takes a bunch of self-discipline to maintain. All of the sudden, six months to a year later, they’re eating better, more confident, and more productive at work because they have more energy.
Personally, I noticed that the discipline of refusing the snooze button at 6 a.m carried over into other areas of my life. I rarely missed workouts, my diet improved slightly, and I was significantly more productive during my morning work sessions.
It’s almost a guarantee that implementing self-discipline into one area of your life will create a ripple effect that spills into other areas as well.
Right now, there’s only one thing stopping you from teaching yourself self-discipline. And no, it’s not your lack of willpower or the fact that you haven’t found your true purpose yet – it’s your habits.
Learning how to develop self-discipline starts with untangling years of choices and habitual thinking patterns that have landed you where you are now.
You don’t need to start practicing mindfulness, or chanting a bunch of affirmations, you just need to change what you do every day.
When you change your habits, you change your identity. And when you change your identity, you change your life.
Basic Principles of Building Self-Discipline: Laying the Groundwork
Before we get into the framework for how to develop self-discipline, it’s important to cover a couple mindset shifts that you’re going to need to make.
Principle #1: All or Nothing Thinking Will Destroy Your Progress
It’s easy to look at successful people and form the belief that they’re robots when it comes to self-discipline. But they’re not robots, they’re people just like you and me (although I’m not sure about Elon Musk).
They feel the same urges, desires, and temptations that you do. And guess what? They fuck up too.
- The person at the gym with six-pack abs and a toned upper body has missed workouts and sometimes indulges in a late-night bowl of ice cream
- The early riser who gets up at 4 a.m. occasionally sleeps in
- The productivity machine sometimes has those days where they don’t get much done
- The seemingly perfect couple has fights and disagreements just like everyone else
A cognitive distortion is an assumption that we consider truth based on minimal evidence. There are numerous kinds of these distortions, but the most common is all-or-nothing thinking.
All-or-nothing thinking refers to thinking in extremes – you’re either a success or a failure. This mindset disrupts your ability to integrate new habits into your life.
For example, let’s say that you want to stick to a new diet.
If you think about your new eating habits in all-or-nothing terms, it’s likely that one setback can completely derail your progress. Remember, with this mindset, anything that isn’t 100% successful may as well be a total failure.
If you only display good eating habits five out of seven days of the week, then you’ve failed. Your all-or-nothing interpretation of this failure brings about negative emotions, which furthers the self-defeating mental narrative that you can’t stick to healthy eating habits.
Once that new evidence confirms your belief, it’s inevitable that you’ll start to slack off and end up right back where you started.
If you want to learn how to develop self-discipline, you first have to learn to operate in the gray area. Seeing your efforts to change as black and white is a one-way ticket to decreased motivation and a swift return to your old habits.
You need to look for the shades of grey that represent the fact that you’re making progress, even if you’re not perfect.
#2 – To Build Self-Discipline, You Need to Exert Willpower
If you’re having to exert willpower in order to build up self-discipline, you’re doing it wrong.
Over the course of my life, I’ve tried to make hundreds of changes to my daily routine. I’ve tried to build meditation habits, sleep habits, exercise habits, productivity habits – you name it, I’ve tried it.
Now some of these changes have been guided by the right principles, but most of them have been guided by the wrong ones. It took a bunch of trial and error and thousands of hours of research before my efforts to change were actually in line with the basic tenets of long-term behavior change.
Before that point, here’s what my strategy would look like:
First, I’d get all excited and motivated and vow to start building self-discipline in some aspect of my life.
Then, I’d figure out what I was going to do the next day and commit to doing it – whether it was waking up at 5 a.m, going to the gym to lift weights, or meditating for twenty minutes.
This time, the habit was finally going to stick. This time, I was simply going to grit my way through resistance and stretch my willpower muscle to the limit.
Driven by the ever-so-predictable motivation wave that arises at the beginning of a new behavior change journey, I’d get off to a strong start for about a week.
But eventually, that initial spark left, and the climb became much harder. Because of the fact that I now had to rely on pure willpower in order to show up and perform my new habit, efforts to change fizzled out.
I got sloppy and started missing days, which decreased my motivation. And once missing days became a habit, the plan that I had been so excited about only a couple weeks earlier was left in shambles.
This vicious cycle is something that we’re all familiar with, yet often we insist on making it our go-to strategy for developing self-discipline.
Why? Because big changes are exciting. They fill us with positive emotion and get us excited about the future. The downside is that they’re incredibly difficult to actually put into practice.
It’s really easy to tell yourself you’re going to start getting up at 5 a.m. every day. It’s a million times harder to force yourself out of bed when your snooze button is only a few feet away.
Luckily, you don’t have to repeat this vicious cycle for the rest of your life. The solution is simple – you have to humble yourself and start really, really small.
Drastic shifts in your identity are tremendously difficult to pull off. Why make it even harder by aiming for the moon and setting up unrealistic targets that force you to rely on grit and willpower?
It’s a sure-fire way to end up on the self-improvement hamster wheel.
#3 – Eventually, You Won’t Have to Rely On Self-Discipline
The funny part about self-discipline is that it starts to become less important as you make progress. Once you learn how to develop self-discipline, you actually don’t need to rely on it anymore to perform a specific habit.
Let me give you a perfect example from my own life:
Throughout high school, I was a scrawny guy with zero muscle on my frame. And multiple times, I promised myself that I was going to do something about it.
When I got to college, my dorm room was only a quick three minute walk from the campus’s fitness center, so it became fairly easy for a weightlifting habit to flourish in my daily life.
And once I had been going consistently for close to two months, something interesting happened. Going to the gym no longer required willpower, or self-discipline – it just became part of my identity.
In other words, it didn’t feel like I needed to overcome massive internal resistance or display superhuman willpower to workout 5x per week. It just became something that was a normal part of my day.
The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit solidifies itself as part of your identity. Once you repeat an action over and over again, self-discipline won’t even matter because you’re naturally motivated to continue with that behavior.
The key to achieving this state of growth is to cross the 1-2 month threshold without making a habit of consecutive missed days. Once you’ve done this, you’ll feel a natural pull towards the behavior instead of having to fight against your own brain.
How to Develop Self-Discipline: Step By Step Plan
Building self-discipline and changing your identity is a simple two step process:
- Decide the area of your life that you’re going to discipline yourself in
- Prove to yourself evidence of a new identity through small wins
Now let’s talk about how to develop self-discipline by creating a plan that centers around the principles that we just discussed.
Building self-discipline requires prioritizing incremental gains over monumental leaps. Suppose you went to the gym for the first time in a couple years and looked around at all of the exercise equipment.
If you wanted to be bold, you could walk over to the bench press rack and throw on a couple of 45 pound weights, but there’s a couple problems with that decision.
One, you could tweak your back because the heavy weight compromises your rusty form. Two, you’d hate every second of it because you’re starting with one of the most physically demanding exercises there is.
In other words, that first trip to the gym is going to suck. It’s going to take a whole lotta willpower to get up and repeat that process the next day.
On the other hand, what if you chose something simple like walking at a light pace on the treadmill for five minutes? The exercise isn’t difficult, but it still represents a shift in your identity.
After the five minutes are up, you’ll have gotten a decent sweat in, but you won’t feel completely miserable and exhausted.
The result? You’re much more likely to repeat this behavior the next day because it isn’t that difficult.
The key to building self-discipline is to make new behaviors so easy that you can’t say no. This ensures you won’t have to rely on motivation and willpower to show up every day.
Here’s a simple 3 step formula for building self-discipline in any area of your life:
- Choose a new behavior
- Make it so easy that you can’t say no
- Gradually scale it up every week
Suppose you wanted to start meditating every morning. Here’s how you would map out your plan:
New Habit – Daily Meditation
Shrink the Habit – Every day I will meditate for 60 seconds
Scale Up Plan:
Week 1 – 60 seconds per day
Week 2 – 90 seconds per day
Week 3 – 2 minutes per day
Week 4 – 3 minutes per day
Week 5 – 5 minutes per day
Week 6 – 6 minutes per day
Week 7 – 8 minutes per day
Week 8 – 10 minutes per day
Here’s another sample plan…
New Habit – Daily Writing
Shrink the Habit – Every day I will write 50 words
Week 1 – 50 words per day
Week 2 – 100 words per day
Week 3 – 150 words per day
Week 4 – 200 words per day
Week 5 – 250 words per day
Week 6 – 300 words per day
Week 7 – 350 words per day
Week 8 – 400 words per day
Remember, don’t get crazy and continue and scale up your new behavior to infinity. It’s imperative that you set a hard cap for your minimum daily requirement because your only focus is on showing up every day. That’s how you stay on the path of discipline.
If you make your minimum requirement too high, you risk missing days, which turns into more missed days. Missing once is okay, but missing twice is the start of a new habit.
Even someone who’s been writing every day for 5 months will have trouble meeting a daily minimum requirement of 1,500 words. Even someone who’s been doing push-ups every day for 4 months will struggle to meet a minimum requirement of 125 per day.
The idea here is that each week, you are gradually building up new evidence in your brain that you are the kind of person who writes every day, or meditates every day, or exercises every day, etc.
This new evidence will make self-discipline far easier because by week 4 or 5, you won’t have to force yourself to show up and write every day — you’ll just do it because it’s who you are.
What Happens If You Start Missing Days?
Inevitably, there will come a point as you’re scaling up a new behavior where you start missing days, and that’s perfectly fine! You actually want to get to that point so you find a good baseline for your minimum requirement.
If you find yourself missing days consistently during one of the weeks, simply cut back and move yourself down to the minimum requirements from the previous week.
For example, let’s say you’re trying to build a habit of doing pushups every day. Once you get to week 5, you see that your minimum requirement is 20 pushups per day and end up missing two days in a row.
That’s a sign that tomorrow, you need to scale back your efforts and return to the minimum target from Week 4. If the same thing happens for your Week 4 target, then scale back to Week 3’s target the following day.
You don’t get to advance to the next target if you miss consecutive days during a 7 day period.
As you progress through the weeks, your goal is to find a sweet spot for your minimum target. And once you’ve found it, that’s going to be the habit that you commit to performing every day no matter how you feel.
You’re free to test your limits and stretch yourself, but your focus should always be on hitting the minimum target.
If you miss consecutive days and then try to progress to next week’s target, it’s likely you’ll miss even more days and your motivation will start fading – this leads to that vicious cycle that we all know too well.
Your only goal is to build these behaviors into habits so that you don’t need to rely on willpower or self-discipline. You’ll naturally make daily progress towards your most ambitious goals even on the days where you don’t feel like taking action.
3 Additional Strategies For Developing Self-Discipline
That week by week plan outlined above is the easiest way to develop self-discipline in any area of your life.
However, I also want to share with you guys some additional strategies that I’ve had success with that will make your journey a little easier.
These methods should be used as supplements to the plan above. Let’s talk about how to develop self-discipline by implementing strategies that further tilt the odds in your favor.
#1 – The 5 Second Rule
The first strategy that you can implement to improve your self-discipline is the 5 Second Rule, which was created by Mel Robbins. I love this rule because of how straightforward and easy it is to implement.
Essentially, it works to calm your ego – which wants you to stay stagnant and not grow into the person that you should become. Your ego pushes you towards inaction and drowns out the quiet inner voice that tells you that you need to change.
So whenever you find yourself procrastinating or hesitating to perform your new habit, simply countdown in your head “5-4-3-2-1…” and then take action on whatever it is that you’re hesitating on.
The beautiful part about this rule is that as you perform it successfully, it will start to act as a cue for your new habit to take place.
#2 – Get An Accountability Partner
One of the things that we all are genetically programmed to resist is letting other people down. That’s why accountability partners are so valuable – they add an extra layer of motivation into the mix.
Not only do you want to perform your habit because it’s easy and attainable, you also don’t want to message someone you know at the end of the day and say the words, “I failed.”
For best results, you want your accountability partner to be someone that you’re close to. I don’t recommend finding someone from an accountability group on Facebook or just a random person online.
It’s easy for us to brush off the opinion of a stranger halfway across the country, it’s a lot harder to face criticism from someone that you consider a close friend. You’ll be more far more motivated not to disappoint them.
#3 – Commitment Devices
Last but not least, we have commitment devices.
Commitment devices are present actions that lock you into future behaviors. They can be an incredibly powerful tool because oftentimes self-discipline becomes your only option.
When implemented correctly, the cost of not doing something is far greater than the cost of doing it. Here’s a perfect example from my own life:
One of the habits that I used to struggle with was getting up early. At the time, I had a very large motivational Twitter account that was over 100,000 followers.
So what I did was schedule a tweet to go out every day at 6:05 A.M. reading: “I’m not up yet because I hit the snooze button today. I’m lazy and you shouldn’t follow my advice.”
If I wasn’t at my computer by 6:05 A.M. to cancel the tweet, it would get sent out to my entire audience.
Once this was in place, the stakes rose significantly. Before, the only negative consequence of hitting the snooze button was a late start to the day.
Now, I had to worry about 100,000 people mocking me. As you can probably guess, I didn’t hit the snooze button once after that point.
If you don’t have the luxury of a huge social media audience, there are much more practical ways to implement commitment devices in order to develop self-discipline.
One way is simply by penalizing yourself financially.
Skip a workout? Miss your wake up time? That’s $30 to someone in your contacts. If you’re gonna go the financial route, you need to make the penalty stiff enough so that it hurts without obviously putting you in a terrible position financially.
Typically, I find that when people set high numbers for their penalty they often don’t follow through once they don’t take action.
The Importance of Self-Discipline
Learning how to develop self-discipline is actually quite simple when you have the right framework.
Most people insist on making it complicated because we’re naturally drawn to Herculean efforts where tremendous self-discipline and willpower are required.
Building self-discipline is a slow and steady process. You can’t just decide that you’re going to become someone new when you’ve made thousands of choices over the years that have solidified your identity.
You make real progress by humbling yourself and starting small, then gradually working your way up from there.
As you see small wins, your self-discipline and willpower will increase naturally. As long as you maintain consistency for the first one to two months, you’ll eventually reach the threshold where you can take willpower out of the equation.
At that point, you won’t be pursuing behavior change, you’ll just be acting in alignment with who you believe yourself to be.