In one way or the other, freedom is the ultimate goal most of us are chasing after — freedom to buy what you want, freedom to travel to wherever you like, or even freedom to spend your time on whatever you enjoy doing.
However, self-discipline is required in order to accomplish these freedoms in life. In the book Discipline Equals Freedom, former U.S. Navy SEAL Jocko Willink states that:
Find your will, find your discipline — and you will find your freedom.
Unfortunately, self-discipline was often seen as the opposite of freedom. For many, being disciplined means having rules that tell them what not to do. For them, discipline equals constraints. At the same time, it’s incredibly challenging to develop self-discipline especially for people who don’t know how to master their own minds and behaviors.
Instead of forcing yourself to do what you’re resisting and beating yourself up in the process, here is how to develop self-discipline by taking small, sustainable steps.
Tell me if this is true.
You made a to-do list and scheduled five tasks for the next day. Unfortunately, you got distracted early in the morning and only started tackling them in the late afternoon.
After completing the first two tasks, your boss called you in for a last-minute meeting. When the meeting was over, you quickly rushed back to your desk and tried to squeeze in the third task in the remaining time you had left.
By the end of the day, you were far from clearing your to-do list. And now you had additional input from the meeting without knowing how to organize it. You were exhausted and overwhelmed.
Worse, you started to feel guilty for not getting everything on your list done by the end of the day. You knew it was your fault because you weren’t being disciplined and got distracted in the morning.
Most people get paralyzed by a sense of guilt and never take any action. Some try to push themselves to work harder, working late at night, adding more tasks the next day, taking shortcuts to work faster, all in the hope of making themselves feel less guilty.
The truth is that both inaction and action taken based on guilt will only make matters worse. When we’re getting distracted, falling off track, and losing discipline, guilt is not a good strategy to make things right.
Instead of feeling guilty, unpack the reason behind your feeling. Why did you feel guilty? What happened? Instead of committing to a series of actions immediately, find out why you didn’t do what you said you wanted to do. Consider things like:
The goal is to find out what happened so you can pinpoint and tackle it objectively. Instead of feeling guilty and beating yourself up, you look at the situation from a new angle and try to fix it with a real solution.
After you identify why you lose focus and discipline, you can start creating a set of solutions — rules, systems, and habits — to correct it.
It’s easier to come up with a solution when you know exactly where the weak links are. And it’s easier to execute these solutions when you plan in advance, instead of letting your Monkey Mind take over at a moment of low motivation, willpower, and energy.
Another key is to make the steps small — so small and easy that you can’t ignore them. Tiny actions reduce the resistance you need to overcome, especially when you’re just starting out.
We all have limited willpower. Forcing yourself do what you’re resisting expends a lot of that willpower. Instead of fighting with your Monkey Mind — which you most often will lose — take tiny actions to cheat it.
You should be well ahead of many people, or at least ahead of your past self, by now. Stop feeling guilty and start taking tiny actions can carry you a long way. You may now notice that developing self-discipline is not all about systems and strategies.
Instead, it’s a living and breathing process and it’s crucial to take your emotions and psychology into account.
Whether you stick to your plan or not, being disciplined or not, staying focused or not, you will quickly notice all kinds of emotions that stir up in the process.
Some of these emotions will empower you to take massive actions and some of them will likely drag you down. It’s great if there are positive emotions that push your forward. However, overly depending on emotions often does more harm than good. Too excited then you can’t get focused; too beat-down then you lose momentum.
Instead of taking action based on how you feel, it’s crucial to take action based on your plan. The secret is to create principles and rules that help guide your decision-making. Calm yourself down, then get things done as planned. This single ability transforms your approach from being situational to being strategic.
Getting into the context of developing self-discipline, it helps to detach yourself from perfectionism, fears, and expectations. Put your focus and energy solely on the process.
It may sound like a cliche, but a big part of self-discipline comes down to how bad you want something. This motivational urge won’t be the thing that shapes your habits and behaviors for the long-run, but it’s a crucial element that helps you get started and keep you on track in the face of adversity.
Ultimately, we should capture these moments of motivational spikes and turn them into actions. After that, it’s all about how you work around your Monkey Mind to master your habits and behaviors using the strategies I’ve laid out above.