How to Build Self-Discipline in 4 Easy Steps

Harry S. Truman once said, “In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves… self-discipline with all of them came first”.

But for the rest of us, self-discipline often comes second… if at all.

Every day, we admit defeat to self-indulgence when we choose to snooze over waking up early, watch T.V. instead of study and eat junk food when we should exercise.

There’s no doubt about it: if you want to achieve your goals, be it lose 14 pounds, write a best-selling children’s book, start a non-profit or enroll on an online class, you need to build self-discipline.

But self-discipline isn’t something we should be afraid of and contrary to popular belief, it isn’t that difficult to build…

Once you know how.

Step 1: Start with ONE Habit

Success in life and work is built sequentially – ONE habit at a time. If you can master one habit, you can master any.

As a coach, I work with many clients who regularly allow their bad behaviours to get the better of them, and one of the most common problems I see is when they try to change everything at once.

They want to discipline themselves to go to bed before midnight, leave their phone outside their room, wake up early, write a blog post, meditate, get things done and everything in-between.

But this doesn’t work because trying to fix everything at once is like building Rome in a day. You overwhelm yourself, you don’t notice marginal gains and you lose interest on the cusp of victory.

So, instead, just concentrate on changing ONE habit.

And to make it easier on yourself, focus on one you already know how to do, but perhaps have been either neglecting or doing inconsistently.

These include washing up immediately after eating, making your bed, going for a walk, flossing, etc.

Choose ONE habit and become consistent in doing it.

Step 2: Commit Only to Starting

Starting a habit we’ve been procrastinating on is always difficult. And sometimes, the mere thought of putting on our running shoes, preparing a salad or writing a thousand words is enough to discourage us from starting – even when they’re easy.

Build self-discipline is about getting good at starting. And the secret to starting is making behaviours so easy you can’t say no. [1]

Think of a habit as a sequence of tiny behaviours. Let’s use going to the gym as an example. If you’re like most people, when you think of going to the gym, what you’re really thinking isn’t exercise, you’re thinking about how you have to pack your gym bag, go to the gym, change into your exercise clothes, warm up, exercise, warm down, shower, change back into your street clothes and go home.

You’re also thinking about how long the habit is going to take.

But by focusing on the first action – say, packing your gym bag – and being fully present as you do it, you avoid talking yourself out of doing it.

So, with your one habit, focus on the first action you need to take and commit to it.

Be mindful while you’re doing it. This prevents you of thinking about what you need to do next and not starting at all.

Fill up the sink with warm, soapy water and bring your attention to how it feels on your skin. Then wash one cup. And then another, and another, and so on.

Slip your feet into your running shoes and tie the laces. Loop, swoop and pull. Become mindful of how snug your feet feel in your running shoes.

Type one sentence and listen to the sounds of your fingers clicking the keys. Your book begins to come to life, one sentence at a time.

Take care of the first action and the remaining actions will look after themselves.

Step 3. Build Consistency by Counting

“I have no problem with starting habits, but committing to them, that’s my problem”. I hear this a lot.

Consistency is hard – but only when your expectation is unrealistic to begin with. That’s why we make behaviours simple; it’s impossible to not do them.

The secret of being consistent is to fall in love with the boredom of the process and not concerning ourselves with the “all-or-nothing” mentality.

Being consistent isn’t about never missing a day; it’s about missing a day, learning why you missed it and doing everything you can to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

As UCLA Bruins Coach John Wooden said, “Process is primary”.

If you want to be consistent, start tracking your progress. Try and make a game out of it. How many days can you do your habits in a row? Have a target and meet it – then move the goal posts apart.

Step 4: Rinse, Wash, Repeat

There comes a point when you no longer have to track your progress. The behaviour becomes a habit. You no longer need to rationalise or decide to do it. There’s no rationalisation and no resistance. You simply do it.

That doesn’t mean you stop bringing your full attention to what you’re doing or stop trying; it simply means it’s become easier to do. You become self-disciplined.

The next step is to choose a new habit and repeat the process.

Remember: success in life and work is built sequentially, one habit at a time.

Sam Thomas Davies scouts the leading edge of the human sciences for what’s new, surprising, and important. He writes about research-based ways to improve habits, add new skills and sustain excellence. To learn how to seize the potential of your life, read his free eBook.


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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