How to Develop Self-Discipline: Three Fundamental Mental Shifts You Need to Make

By Dean Yeong on July 9, 2018

Self-discipline is a critical part of achieving success in life. It is at the same time a challenging aspect that many people are trying to develop. Whether you’re trying to improve your skills,  lose weight, or do better at work, there is always going to be resistance that sways you away from being disciplined.

There are many tactics that can help you become more self-disciplined such as setting priorities, creating strict rules, and seeking external motivators. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, so many of them won’t work for you.

How to develop self-discipline

Just how do you develop self-discipline in both your personal life and at work? Often, self-discipline is built with a combination of motivation, willpower, grit, and many other mental traits.

Instead of focusing on vanity tactics, here are three simple mental shifts you can make to boost your self-discipline almost instantly.

Trigger: From Motivation to Habit

What did your friend do when he said he wanted to lose weight? Watched a bunch of YouTube videos about fitness. Bought and read Men’s Health all day. Made an image of a naked model his iPhone wallpaper.

Most people first seek what motivates them when they want to get disciplined. There is no problem with that. But then they stop, as if motivation alone would take them to where they want to be. They mistake the act of becoming motivated for the work itself. And it’s exactly what block them from getting disciplined in the first place.

In a study of 210 females trying to quit smoking, participants who only imagined major success with few obstacles were less likely to reduce cigarette consumption. In other words, positive motivational thoughts can actually make it harder for you to achieve your goals. They stop you from taking action because by getting motivated with visualization, your mind tricks you into believing that you’ve already achieved your goal. Therefore, you can actually feel that no action is needed.

Here is what disciplined people do: instead of focusing on being motivated, they focus on the work — the habits and routines required to accomplish their goals. Think about the things you should do and start building systems to make them a part of your daily routine.

  • If you want to write more, don’t write only when you’re feeling motivated. Instead, write every day.
  • If you want to lose weight, don’t workout only when you have spare time. Instead, make a plan to workout three to four times every week.
  • If you want to save more money, don’t just save when you want to buy something. Create a financial system to put aside a portion of your income.

If you want to use visualization as a technique, visualize yourself doing the work and conquering the challenges along the way. This will prove useful and more effective than just visualizing yourself achieving the goals.

Emotion: From Hot to Cool

We all have two brains: the emotional brain and the logical brain. The first brain makes you feel high and low. It signals you to take immediate action based on how it feels. The second brain helps you think clearly. It analyzes both objectively and logically before pointing you in the best direction.

Which one do you think you should pick when it comes to getting more disciplined?

The answer is obvious: the logical brain. But often, our emotions get hyped up when we want to get something done and it rarely works. There is a better option: by moving from hot emotions to a cool and calm mental state.

  • Want to make five more sales calls? Instead of focusing on the rah-rah motivational hype, acknowledge that you’re doing this for the good of your business or company. Then do it.
  • Can’t have a beer because you’re on diet? Instead of going through endless debates in your head, acknowledge your urge to drink and say NO.
  • Going to write a blog post during the weekend? Instead of trying to give yourself countless excuses on why this is — or is not — the right time to write, acknowledge how you feel, sit down, and start writing. You can edit your work later.

If you haven’t noticed yet, the keyword here is acknowledge. To move from hot emotions to cool, zen-like calm emotions, you need to acknowledge how you feel, be honest with yourself, and then default your thought process to the logic-self.

Hot emotions are useful in many cases, but like moving away from motivation to habit, hot emotions are not what you should depend on to become disciplined. It’s because the seemingly positive, sometimes overreacting emotions come from the exact same source of resistance that finds a thousand excuses to distract you: the emotional brain.

The truth is, you can’t control how you feel at any moment in most cases, but you can choose your reaction. Instead of letting your emotions drag your around, acknowledge them, and make the right choice by using the logical brain.

Optimization: From Easy to Hard

Optimization always means to make things easier and to get them done as fast as possible with the least effort as possible. It’s always been this way; smart home system, self-driving cars, productivity life hacks, and more.

While doing so, we need to avoid falling into the trap of over-optimization. This can lead us to start dwelling on the small stuff that doesn’t make any impact. The goal of making things simpler and easier is not about doing less, it’s about eliminating the inessential things so you can focus only on things that matter.

Highly disciplined people make many areas of their life simpler and easier, but they then intentionally optimize — to make it harder — for what they’re trying to improve on. Athletes take ice baths to recover faster, authors force themselves to write a certain number of words before breakfast, musicians bury their heads for hours to get a single note right.

Imagine what you want to do consistently, and then imagine that you’re doing a 2xs harder version of it. How do you feel about your original routine now? It must be easy. And you will have no problem doing it consistently.

Pushing your limits incrementally doesn’t just help you get better at what you want to do, it also makes the base-level habits and routines easier and less daunting.

  • When you push yourself to run ten miles from time to time, running three miles on a normal day becomes easy in comparison.
  • When you challenge yourself to write 3,000 words for a day every week, writing 1,000 words the other days produces less resistance.
  • When you frequently pick a more challenging song for your guitar practice, the regular practice sessions become effortless.

Just like Bruce Lee had said:

Don’t pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure the difficult one.

Highly disciplined people live with it and so should you if you want to develop more self-discipline in your work and life.

Learn from What Seems Easy to You

You can set priorities and rules. You can develop a strict schedule that tracks your time down to the minute. You can announce your goals on social media in hope of getting motivated by peer pressure (truth: no one cares).

But these tactics only work when you get the fundamental psychology right. So as a recap, here is what you can do if the tactics you’ve read elsewhere have yet to work for you:

  1. Focus on building habits rather than depending on motivation
  2. Act with a zen-like calm mind instead of a cocktail of emotions
  3. Stop optimizing to make things easier instead, make things more challenging for growth.

Here is a relieving truth: you’re already doing these things in some areas of your life without noticing it. For example, it’s easy for me to keep intermittent fasting as a habit with a calm mental state, while at the same time, challenging my body from time to time. But it’s hard for me to do the same when it comes to writing (Yes, I still need to get more disciplined in my writing habits).

Observe your routines and think about how you already implement these three mental shifts in other areas of your life. How did that make you feel? And then think about how you can do the same in the areas of your life that you care the most about.

How do you develop self-discipline in both your personal life and at work? Often, self-discipline is built with a combination mental traits.

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