How to Develop Self-Discipline By Leveraging The Power of Small Wins

Learning how to develop self-discipline is crucial to your success and happiness.

The art of saying no to negative behaviors and repeating positive ones is the difference between where you are right now and where you want to be. 

The funny part? You’re actually already displaying immaculate self-discipline on a daily basis! Think about it.

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 incredibly disciplined at choosing instant gratification. The problem is, those behaviors don’t serve you. They destroy you.

It’s really easy to apply self-discipline and repeat toxic habits that lead to self-sabatoge. Applying that same concept to positive habits is a different story.

Self-discipline is a skill, and just like any other skill, it can be learned, practiced, and mastered. But how do we master it? How do we create a plan that increases our self-discipline and makes it an integral part of who we are? Those are the questions we’ll answer in this article.

 

How I Developed An Exercise Habit

 

Throughout high school, I was a scrawny white guy with no muscle on my frame. And multiple times, I made a promise to myself that I was going to do something about it.

Yet, like most people who try to build an exercise habit, I failed. Time and time again, I couldn’t stick to a weightlifting routine for longer than three weeks. It’s not that I wasn’t motivated enough, I just couldn’t seem to discipline myself and master the art of showing up every day.

The first couple weeks would always start off strong. Then, I’d inevitably skip a workout. That would lead to another, and then another. And despite my good intentions, I would end up always back at square one with nothing to show for myself.

However, during my freshman year of college, I finally was able to crack the code. To tell you the truth, I don’t quite know how I did it. 

At the time, I knew nothing about behavior change and human psychology. But somehow, relying on sheer willpower, I was able to crack the three week plateau and stick to a weightlifting routine for a full 12 weeks.

Now please, don’t take this as evidence that willpower is an effective strategy for behavior change. To this day, this habit remains the only habit I’ve been able to develop by relying on willpower. Not to mention, it took 6 years for this strategy to finally pan out. 

As a college student, I had a free membership to a beautiful fitness center. Not only that, but it was only a three minute walk from my dorm. These were environmental factors that certainly played a key role in making daily exercise a more attractive behavior.

After the 12 weeks were up, I had added about seven pounds of muscle to my frame. The gains in muscle mass and size were great, but the real gains were more private, and far more impactful. 

As weightlifting started to become a normal part of my week, something interesting happened. 

Going to the gym no longer required willpower, or self-discipline, it just became something I did. Unintentionally, I began cutting back on sugary foods and started eating healthier, protein-filled meals. Despite being in college, and surrounded by alcohol, binge-drinking became far less appealing. Exercise turned out to be a keystone habit.

In other words, as going to gym became a habit, I built up evidence of a new identity in my brain, which resulted in me making choices that aligned with that new identity.

The takeaway from this story is that if you want to build self-discipline in any area of your life, you must give your brain evidence of a new identity through your daily action. As this evidence builds up, it becomes easier to discipline yourself, and achieving your desired outcomes becomes inevitable.

The reason why so many of us fail to make radical changes in our life is because we try to fool our brain into believing we’re someone we’re not.

Your identity is responsible for the beliefs you have about yourself, and your identity formed by your choices. 

If you haven’t been to a gym in three years and suddenly tell yourself, “I’m going to go lift weights 5 times per week,” your brain just isn’t going to buy into that story. It has no evidence that you’re a healthy individual who exercises consistently (your desired identity), so why would this time be any different? 

Why would you think that you can suddenly flip a switch and undo thousands of choices that you’ve made over the past three years? You can’t. It’s just not sustainable. You have a new goal and a new plan, but you still haven’t changed who you are.

Building self-discipline and changing your identity is a simple two step process:

 

  1. Decide the area of your life that you’re going to discipline yourself in
  2. Prove to yourself evidence of a new identity through small wins

 

Now let’s talk about how to build self-discipline by creating a plan that centers around those small wins.

How to Develop Self-Discipline & Achieve Your Goals

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, and it’s going to take a whole lot of 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 10 minutes? The exercise isn’t difficult, but it still represents a shift in your identity. After the 10 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. 

When it comes to behavior change, behaviors that are immediately unpleasant are punished, while behaviors that are immediately rewarding are repeated.

The key to building self-discipline is to make new behaviors so easy that you can’t say no. That way, 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:

 

  1. Choose a new behavior
  2. Make it so easy that you can’t say no
  3. 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

Scale Up Plan:

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

 

Final Note

 

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 turn 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.

By week 12? Or 18? Forget about it. The behavior will be so ingrained into your daily life that you’ll discipline yourself without thinking about it.

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