Can You Learn to be Self-Disciplined?

A lot of people have quite a fatalistic attitude towards self-discipline. They see themselves as essentially undisciplined people who lack the stamina to follow through on their decisions. They might talk about a “procrastination problem” or “no will power”. They blame their lack of self-discipline for their inability to get their business off the ground, or finish college, or successfully quit smoking or diet.

I don’t believe that any of us are lost causes when it comes to self-discipline. I also don’t think that any of us are born with iron wills or great tenacity: it’s something which we learn.

Short-Time Pleasure

A lack of self-discipline is often the result of a focus on short-term pleasure over long-term rewards. You might have experienced this a lot as a teen or in college, prioritising partying or computer games over studying! And, at the time, you might have been quite annoyed by adults who tried to persuade you to knuckle down and get on with your homework. Perhaps you used to blow your allowance money on CDs, only to end up broke and unable to go out with friends.

As we grow up, we learn (sometimes painfully) that it’s often worth enduring some short-term difficulties in order to have longer-term happiness.

How You Developed Self-Discipline

In most cases, we become more self-disciplined as we grow older. If you think back to your childhood or teens, you can probably remember times when you had almost no self-discipline. I suspect that now:

  • You’re able to get up on time when you have to go to work – without dad yelling at you to get out of bed
  • You make sure you have enough money to pay your bills – without mom doling it out in small installments
  • You keep your home reasonably clean: not because your parents are nagging you to do your chores, but because you want to have clean dishes to eat off!

Even though you might feel that you’re not very self-disciplined, you have learnt to delay gratification and to get on with things that aren’t necessarily end-to-end fun – because you know that life’s easier that way.

Growing the Self-Discipline Muscle

In college, I used to regularly drink far too much. I stayed up late at night playing computer games, and often dashed off essays at the last minute. I expect that might sound pretty familiar! However, I now make a living freelancing – and I’ve also written around 200,000 words of fiction in the past year. I probably wouldn’t have had the self-discipline to do what I do today, six years ago.

If you’ve ever worked out in the gym, you’ll know how quickly you can build up muscles. Your self-discipline is a bit like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it’ll become. However, if you try to do far too much too soon, you’ll just fail and end up disappointed.

So how can you actively improve your self discipline?

  • Pick three things you will definitely accomplish tomorrow. Many of us have real trouble in actually getting on with the things which we want to get done – we let interruptions and distractions take over our day.
  • Take a thirty-day trial. If you’re trying to lose weight, take up exercise, etc, doing it for thirty days can give you more motivation and focus than if you simply try to do it indefinitely. You can always choose to extend the trial. (If thirty days is too long, try a week.)
  • Get into the habit of fulfilling your promises – and ask those around you to keep you accountable. If both you and your partner know that when you say “I’ll cook tonight” that it’s not going to happen, then make sure that changes.
  • Talk to friends or read books or blogs which encourage you – either by offering advice or by setting an example to follow. I like Dave Navarro’s no-nonsense Rock Your Day.

Above all, stop telling yourself that you “just aren’t self-disciplined”. Don’t see your levels of self-discipline as something dictated by fate – see them as something you can actively earn and improve upon.

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Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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