Let’s be honest. For most of us, self-discipline is a work in progress wrapped in good intentions, procrastination, and feelings of failure. But it doesn’t have to be.
You know that you should put down your phone and go to sleep, but you just keep playing Candy Crush. Fortunately, you can retrain your brain to conform to your will with a few psychological tricks of your own.
Self-discipline, after all, is a practice. Not every day you practice will be perfect, but each day – with its failures and small wins – brings you closer to your goal. In this guide, we’ll cover tips and strategies to build self-discipline into your daily life.
What is self-discipline?
Self-discipline is the practice of doing what your brain knows is a good choice, even if your body wants to resist. Self-discipline often means putting off your immediate comfort or impulses in favor of long-term success. For example, if you want to read more, you might need to actively eliminate distractions like canceling your Netflix subscription.
The Benefits of Self-Discipline
Practicing self-discipline can boost your well-being and outcomes in different areas of your life, from relationships to health to your career. It’s been proven to help people.
See common self-disciple benefits below.
1. You’ll achieve long-term goals.
Self-discipline allows people to stay loyal to high-impact, long-term goals and resist immediate wants to achieve them.
Author and researcher Angela Duckworth describes “passion and perseverance for long-term goals,” also known as grit, as a determining factor for whether people will succeed in competitive environments.
2. You can improve your mental health.
Studies of university student habits found that students practicing self-discipline reported higher levels of self-confidence, peace, happiness, and independence. Researchers also found self-discipline to be negatively correlated with anxiety.
3. Your physical health can benefit.
This is likely pretty obvious, but people who demonstrate regular self-discipline can engage in healthy habits and resist unhealthy ones for better physical health.
A study by Osaka University found that people who implemented five or more healthy lifestyle behaviors — even those over 80 or with chronic conditions — added to their life expectancy.
4. Your relationships will be positively impacted.
Individuals with high self-discipline experience positive effects in intimate, long-term relationships and may also see better success in dating.
5. You’ll become more resilient.
6. You’ll feel happier.
The more productive you are, the more creative and happy you are. The more we feel in control of the origin of our behavior, the better sense of well-being we have, and that makes us happy.
How to Build Self-Discipline: 15 Strategies for Change
Self-discipline happens in our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for focus, impulse control, and emotion. That means that it’s a psychological function connected to emotion and impulses.
That’s why it’s often inherently in conflict with the logical, rational part of our brains. In order to change our behavior, we have to tap into neuroscience-backed strategies to change. It’s not enough to rely on willpower alone.
The more you change, the easier this becomes as your brain resets to connect reward centers to disciplined behavior.
Think of a new runner. The first few times running may feel slow or make them sore afterward, but then they start to feel the endorphins and dopamine when they run and start to feel the physical benefits, making them want to run more.
Follow these steps to start working toward a goal in your life.
1. Identify growth areas.
First, start by examining areas of your life that you’d like to improve. Perhaps you have an obvious red flag, like poor results from a health screening, a bad performance review, or a plea from a loved one to make a change.
If you’re not sure where to start, write down how you spend your time in a day. Look at your calendar or phone’s screen time report for cues. Then, reflect on what you value and ask yourself whether your behaviors uphold those values.
There are likely a few things you’re doing each day that don’t honor those values — but hey, that’s true for all of us.
Don’t worry, you won’t be tackling all these areas at once, but it’s good to get the big picture. Once you apply self-discipline in one area of your life, the skills will transfer to all other areas.
2. Choose your goal (and start small).
Now that you’ve identified some growth areas, choose one to focus on first. Start small by choosing an area that you believe is easiest to achieve. That way, you can experience the emotional rewards of success quickly, enabling you to move on to more ambitious goals.
If you have a big goal in mind, choose a smaller version of it to accomplish first.
For instance, if you dream of doing an Ironman competition someday, start with a sprint triathlon or individual running, swimming, and biking races. If you want to lose 50 pounds, start with five.
Start by setting goals for just one week at a time.
3. Visualize your outcome.
Did you know that you’re more likely to reach your goals if you write them down? The act of writing down goals creates a link in the physical world to what’s going on in your head and serves as a reminder.
This can be as simple as a sticky note on your computer monitor or as complex as a vision board.
Visualizing yourself achieving your goals can also give you a greater chance of success. Your brain interprets imagery as real and creates new neural pathways to allow us to follow through. So, when you imagine something vividly, your brain chemistry changes as if you had actually experienced it.
Try saying affirmations out loud (“I can…”) to visualize your success and squash your feelings of inadequacy.
4. Set your environment.
Before you start, make changes to your environment to increase your chances of success. Studies show that your environment makes a difference for people trying to achieve exercise goals.
If you want to eat better, purge all the junk food from your house. If you want to read more, cancel Netflix or delete social media apps from your phone — whatever you know might distract you.
While ultimately you want to practice self-discipline in any environment, removing distractions where you spend the most time can be helpful at first.
Changing your environment also signals to you that something has changed. You aren’t just repeating your life on the same Groundhog Day-like loop.
5. Don’t wait for it to feel right.
If you wait for your schedule to clear up, your kids to get older, or your inbox to reach a manageable level, you might never get started on the work that needs to be done. Embrace every moment and try to do your best work.
6. Know how you’ll measure progress.
If you don’t know how you’ll track progress, it will be difficult to know whether you’re succeeding. Be sure to set a goal that’s measurable.
Instead of “be a better father,” you may want to set a goal like “spend two hours of 1:1 time with my daughter each week.”
In a business context, look at what goals you want to achieve and then work backward to see what activities it’ll take to get there. If you want to reach your sales quota for one month, start by identifying how many meetings you should book and set a goal for yourself for each week.
7. Get an accountability partner.
Peer pressure gets a bad rap, but it can also be used for good. Asking for accountability, particularly from someone you live with, can go a long way to build self-discipline.
You can engage in one-way accountability, where you ask someone to check in with you or hold you accountable at regular intervals. The best kind of accountability, though, is two-way accountability where two people commit to hold each other accountable for a set period.
The social pressure of knowing someone will ask you about how you’re doing is a powerful motivator and doesn’t take the self away from self-discipline.
8. Lighten your load.
Dr. Abby Medcalf explains that willpower is an exhaustible resource. You may have a full tank and full motivation at the start of the day, but by the time you hit 6 p.m., your self-control has been chipped away.
Your car broke down, your kids frazzled you, you burned dinner, and now your boss just texted asking you to work on something tonight. At this point, you just throw in the towel and pour yourself a glass of whatever you’re trying to avoid.
Set yourself up for success by taking things off your plate. Get that cleaning service or that meal service to give yourself more free time, or simply say no to some commitments you can live without.
9. Build new reward associations.
Habits are hard to break because. It feels safe to follow patterns we know, and we’ve established reward associations — for instance, the delicious taste of eating a huge bowl of ice cream.
In one study of app-based mindfulness training, participants used a craving tool to report their responses to eating different foods and amounts. After using the tool just 10 times in some cases, participants reduced their craving-based behavior by 40% just by being aware of how they felt.
By journaling or paying close attention to how you feel when you perform an old or new action, you can re-evaluate your old reward loops. This strategy also lets you form new reward associations, like a great night of sleep after cutting out alcohol.
It’s not that those with self-discipline never have days where they eat all the doughnuts in the kitchen, spend 45 minutes on social media, and lose two prospects — all before 10:00 AM. They definitely have these days, but then they wake up the next morning and start over.
Self-discipline is the act of trying, failing, and trying again. Know what your plan is when you fail. Check in with your accountability partner, and be ready to try again the next day.
11. Take care of yourself.
Self-discipline is worth very little if you’re hurting yourself to achieve it. Chasing some goals can come at the expense of your overall health and create new problems.
If you’re burning the midnight oil for weeks or months on end to be more “self-disciplined,” you’ve missed the point.
Part of self-discipline is taking care of yourself. Breaks throughout the day, a healthy diet, time in nature, and healthy relationships will recharge you to help you stay focused on your goal. As Dr. Abby Medcalf says, your day starts when you choose to go to bed and set your alarm the night before.
12. Use time blocking.
If your biggest excuse for change is that you’re too busy, there’s a way to play yourself at your own game. Time blocking is a method of scheduling time on your calendar not just for meetings, but for rest, focus time, and dreaded activities you just keep putting off.
Alongside meetings, there’s time blocked for workouts, focus time, end-of-day admin tasks, and lunch. For a busy executive (or any other person), this ensures that the most urgent tasks don’t nudge out important tasks that need focus time.
At first glance, this may look like there’s no white space in your schedule at all. Time blocking doesn’t mean that every hour is busy, it just means that every hour is intentional.
13. Treat yo’self.
Want your good habits to stick? Reward yourself. Too much deprivation often means we start justifying bad behaviors. This often sounds like, “I’ve earned this,” or “I deserve this.” This is often the beginning of the end of our progress.
Instead, give yourself treats throughout your self-discipline practice. These treats, whether a nice dinner or a new pair of shoes, will help you feel restored and balanced.
14. Forgive yo’self.
Just as importantly, you must forgive yourself when you slip. We talked about it already, but you will fail. It’s inevitable. What’s important is that you move forward. To do that you’ve got to forgive yourself.
Give yourself some grace. Did you fail to meet your goal? Yep. Will you have to work hard tomorrow to catch up? Probably. Will this have any effect on your long-term progress? Nope.
Once you’ve looked at the impact of your slip, you can decide how to move forward and get back on track. Step one? Make sure your alarm is set before going to bed.
15. Set bigger goals.
Once you achieve a small goal, you’ll feel a sense of reward. It won’t feel the same as finishing that bowl of delicious ice cream — it’ll feel different. Inspiring. Next, you can set a bigger goal and use the same strategies to continue or tackle a different area of your life.
Remember, self-discipline is a practice. You will not be perfect every day. What’s important is showing up each day ready to try. So, what changes are you going to make today?