If you want to make any kind of changes in your life, it’s self-discipline that will either help you reach your goal (when you have a lot of self-discipline) or send you back to square one (in case you have little of it).
How do you build self-discipline and resist temptations in order to achieve your long-term goals? In this blog post, I’ll share with you the 5 keys to self-discipline.
1. Powerful Motivation – Your “Why”
No matter how much self-discipline you possess, you can’t force yourself to keep doing something you hate (I know, I’m a college dropout). Consequently, if you don’t have a good, empowering reason why you want to do something, you won’t succeed.
Self-discipline is all about choosing your long-term goals over your temptations. If your long-term goals won’t bring a much bigger reward than the craving you feel now, guess what… Your chances of resisting a temptation are zero. Zilch. Nada.
It doesn’t mean that having a powerful “why” alone will solve all your problems, but it will make things much easier.
So… What is your big “why?”
Let’s imagine your goal is to lose weight. That’s a fine goal, but it won’t be enough when you feel an overwhelming craving to eat chocolate.
This goal doesn’t elicit a powerful emotional response because it’s not specific enough. It doesn’t tell a story. It doesn’t give you a reason why you want to achieve it.
Let’s switch it to something more specific – you want to lose 20 pounds before the end of spring to go to Hawaii for vacation. Now that’s a much better goal, isn’t it?
Imagine yourself on the beach, enjoying the warm rays of sun in that sexy bikini (or cool swimming shorts) and feeling healthy and vibrant in your new body. Imagine running after a beach ball and smelling the fresh ocean. Imagine the energy flowing through your body, fueling you to discover all the Hawaiian islands offer. Imagine all the great memories you’ll take home.
Now look at that chocolate bar. Is it really worth it to give up this powerful vision for a short burst of sugar?
If your “why” is powerful enough, you won’t hesitate with your answer – “Hell no!”
Key #1: Come up with a powerful reason why you want to stick to your goals. Remind yourself of it each time you’re tempted to give up.
What most people don’t realize about habits is that we can use them in place of self-discipline.
That’s right, you don’t necessarily need any more self-discipline than you have now if you use the power of habits to make changes in your life.
Let’s say you have a habit of brushing your teeth right after you wake up (I really hope you have such a habit). Do you need any amount of self-discipline to brush your teeth every single day?
No? That’s what I thought. It would be bad if you did.
Anyway, I digress.
Let’s say you want to introduce some changes in your life, but you have a hard time resisting temptations. Saying no to a craving is hard job, especially during the first few weeks of making changes in your life.
But it needn’t have to be that hard if you know the process of creating habits. Here it is:
- Come up with a cue. It’s a signal to perform your habit.
- Come up with an action. It’s what you do after the signal.
- Come up with a reward. What will motivate you to take the action? It can be drinking a smoothie after a workout. Reading a book for one hour after working on your side business. A night out with your friends. And so on.
Let’s say you want to introduce a habit of eating a cup of vegetables a day. Here’s how you can go about it:
Cue: let’s build this habit on top of another habit. If you usually eat dinner at 3 PM make it your cue to peel vegetables BEFORE you eat anything else or order them first (before the main course).
Action: eating a cup of vegetables.
Reward: ask yourself what would motivate you to keep repeating this behavior. Does the feeling after eating a healthy meal makes you proud? That’s your potential reward. Do you need something more tangible? Reward yourself with something healthy, but pleasant, e.g. taking a brief nap or drinking your favorite tea/coffee.
When your new behavior becomes automated (it takes on average 66 days to form a new habit), you won’t need self-discipline to keep doing it.
What if you want to modify a habit?
- Identify the routine. What’s the negative behavior you want to get rid of? Let’s say it’s eating a chocolate bar right after dinner.
- Identify the reward. Why you do what you do? It takes some testing to find the right answer.
First, let’s find out if it’s hunger that motivates you to eat it. Eat a larger portion than before – so much that you’re stuffed. Do you still crave a chocolate bar? If so, test another potential reward you’re seeking.
Replace a chocolate bar with a candy. Do you still crave a chocolate bar? No? It means you don’t crave chocolate, but probably just something sweet.
Let’s test it further. Replace the candy with an apple. Do you still crave junk food? If not, you’ve identified the reward you’re seeking. Do you still want to eat junk food? Keep searching.
Let’s test another possibility – eat something you’ve never eaten before (or something you eat rarely). Do you still crave that chocolate bar? If not, you’ve identified the reward. Your diet is too bland and you eat sweets to bring some variety into your diet.
- Identify the cue. When and where exactly do you feel the craving? What were you doing before you thought about it? Who was with you? How did you feel? Just like when identifying the reward, isolate different potential cues.
Once you have it all figured out, you can come up with an alternative behavior to your existing bad one. If you always eat a chocolate bar right after dinner because you’re tired of your bland diet, eat a different piece of fruit right after each meal. Or use different spices for your main meal. Or try different food altogether. If it was the need for variation that motivated you to eat a chocolate bar, these changes should do the trick.
Modify all of your bad habits in a similar way.
Key #2: Create habits that will automate your healthy behaviors (and prevent the bad ones).
Have you ever given in to a temptation without paying any attention to what you were doing?
Don’t feel bad, we’re all guilty of this behavior.
Studies show that distracted shoppers are more likely to sample food at the sampling station in the supermarket. And why wouldn’t they? If you’re distracted, the logical part of your brain is gone and you’re left with that nasty, spoiled brat part of your brain that wants everything now.
Self-awareness is a big thing that can make or break your resolutions. If your mind constantly wanders anywhere but where you currently are, you’ll find it hard to say no to a craving. And then your “why” is of no use – you won’t even think about it before a piece of chocolate disappears in your mouth (or before you go to sleep instead of going to the gym).
How do you solve this problem? Obviously, the first step is to cut down on everyday distractions. Social media, texting, and other notifications in your phone can successfully drive you mind away from what you’re doing. And if you happen to be shopping, don’t be surprised your shopping bags are stuffed to the brim with things that weren’t supposed to find their way into your pantry.
The second step, which is actually a huge part of self-discipline, is meditation. Meditation trains your mind to stay focused on the present moment. It takes a lot of willpower to sit still and focus on your breath – even for just a couple minutes.
It’s not just my opinion. Studies show that meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate (don’t ask me, I have no idea where it is, either) which leads to improved self-control. Boom – here’s your new habit to become more self-disciplined.
Start with a 5-minute session every morning. Sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes and focus on each inhale and exhale. Your mind will drift away – that’s okay. Just make an effort to bring it back to your breath.
A couple weeks of such practice will help you calm down your overactive brain and become more aware in the situations in which your self-discipline is tested.
Key #3: Learn how to focus more on the present moment. Absent-mindedness is one of the most common reasons why people are unable to resist their cravings.
4. Your Social Circle
Various scientific studies confirm that social influence is a significant factor in obesity. If a family member or a friend is obese, you’re much more likely to be obese, too. The closer someone is to you, the more influence she has on you.
Motivational speaker Jim Rohn once famously said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Guess he knew before scientists how powerful social influence can be.
What all of this have to do with self-discipline?
Self-discipline isn’t any different from obesity. Just like you’re more likely to pick up bad eating habits when your friends have them, so can they affect your self-discipline.
I have a childhood friend who started hanging out with less than ambitious individuals. A couple months later, his everyday life was pretty much the copy of the lives of these people – playing computer games, hanging out in the neighborhood doing nothing, and consuming unhealthy substances on a daily basis.
Only when he cut the ties with these people a couple years later, his life advanced. He got back on track to make positive changes in his life and his self-discipline improved so much he was able to get rid of most of the bad habits “contracted” from these people.
Does your social circle encourage you to make positive changes or does it have a detrimental effect on your life? Is there anybody who makes you feel particularly good and anybody who always challenges your willpower? How can you reduce the time spent with the person who has a negative influence on your life and spend more time with the empowering one?
In every area of life, the easiest path to success is to hang around like-minded, successful individuals. Here are a couple ways how you can use the power of social influence in your life:
- Participate in online forums and groups. You don’t have to get rid of your friends. Just spend more time interacting with success-oriented folks online to get some of their energy into your life.
- Have a role model or get a coach. If you can afford it, get a coach who will keep you accountable and whose habits and qualities you’d like to have. If you can’t get a coach, find a mentor through books. Have this person in mind when tempted to give in.
- Partner up. Find someone who wants to introduce the same changes as you and keep each other accountable. It can be your friend, family member, or someone met online (or in the real world, say, in the local gym).
Key #4: Surround yourself with people who will empower you instead of tempting you to give up.
Have you ever gave in to a temptation because you wanted to recompense yourself for a bad emotion?
If you’re anything like me (and millions others), it happened to you more than once.
Willpower is just a small piece of a bigger puzzle. If one of the parts doesn’t fit, the rest doesn’t add up, either. One of the factors that has a huge effect on your life and your self-discipline – a huge piece of a puzzle – is something most people underestimate. I’m talking about… stress.
An Australian study on students shows that stress makes you extremely poor at self-control. Students who were stressed because of exams reported an increase in smoking and caffeine consumption. Their diet and sleep deteriorated, they struggled with controlling their emotions, exercised less, paid less attention to household chores and self-care habits. They also cared less about commitments and spending.
All in all, they were in a pretty rough shape. All because of stress.
The moment your mood goes sour, your ever supportive brain starts looking for something to lift your spirits – usually an easy to get reward you want to avoid – eating, drinking, smoking, shopping, surfing the Internet, playing video games, and so on.
Stress is an inherent part of our lives, and it’s foolish to believe we can completely eliminate it. But it doesn’t mean you have to let it affect your self-discipline. Simple activities can greatly reduce the levels of stress in your life. The key is to focus on techniques that provide a longer stress-relieving response, not a quick release of tension.
Here are a couple healthy ways to reduce stress – without challenging your self-control.
- read a book.
- go for a walk (especially in nature).
- meditate. We already discussed how powerful it is.
- get a massage. A professional one is good, but an amateur one from your partner can be equally good.
- spend time with friends and family.
If you fail at resisting a temptation, don’t criticize yourself and don’t make yourself feel guilty. Accept that you had a slip-up and move on. Self-guilt can contribute to your levels of stress, thus leading you to weakened willpower (and even more problems resisting the temptation at another occasion).
Key #5: Don’t overestimate the power of stress. Reduce your tension on a daily basis to stick to your goals better.
These five keys to self-discipline are 20% of the activities that will bring you 80% of the results. If you focus on nothing else but these five things, you’ll definitely improve your willpower and become much more powerful at resisting temptations.
What is your top technique to say no to instant gratification and stick to your goals?
Martin Meadows is the pen name of an author who has dedicated his life to personal growth. Self-discipline is one of his specialties. He covers it in much more detail in his recently released book “How to Build Self-Discipline: Resist Temptations and Reach Your Long-Term Goals” which you can buy here.