Self-Discipline Tips, Training and Exercises

Lately, I’ve been answering a lot of questions on Quora about achieving self-discipline, e.g.

“How can I improve my self-discipline?”

The Oxford dictionary definition of self-discipline:

The ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses; the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it.

Is Self Discipline Our Tower of Babel?

If we can achieve the Oxford definition, it makes us God like. No wonder everyone wants it.

For anyone not familiar with the Tower of Babel in the Bible, it’s a parable about the folly of humans trying to become God-like by building a tower that reaches to heaven. God takes notice and messes them up for their arrogance by magically making them speak different languages.

That’s my take.

It’s hard to complete a major construction project when nobody can communicate.

Setting fear-of-God aside for the moment, the Oxford definition of self-disciple sounds like a noble quest. If we can control our feelings, overcome our weaknesses and resist temptation—holy crap. Nothing can stop us!

Let’s all learn self-discipline.

Controlling our feelings.

This sounds like a superpower. It would be great if I could ignore the a-hole that cut me off in traffic and not let it bother me. Is controlling confined to simply suppressing feelings. Or, could control include generating feelings?

Maybe I could generate excitement on demand for a project where I reached the burnout state a month earlier. Every solopreneur wants that, anyone that works from home, office workers, students, heck—everyone.

That would be a superpower.

Assuming I gain this ability, how do I know that I’ll use it wisely? What if my feelings align with the likes of The Joker and I want to kill Batman? What happens to Gotham City?

Does the application of self-discipline require a moral compass?

Next comes the ability to pursue what one thinks is right.

Maybe this part of the definition answers that moral compass question.

It clearly states what one thinks is right and that’s pretty subjective, just like a moral compass.

“Using a bootleg version of software isn’t really stealing—it’s not like I stuffed it into my pants and ran out of the store.” 

Hopefully, our sense of what is right isn’t too twisted and distorted? Mussolini probably slept well at night.

In the interest of not going down a bottomless pit, i.e. rabbit hole, let’s assume you have good intentions and a noble cause.

I’m going to provide you some self-discipline help in the form of Tips, Training and Exercises. But, I’m not going to address the wisdom of your goals.

Just promise me one thing.

If you’re going to use my suggestions for improving self-disciple . . .

You Cannot Use this Power to Kill Batman and Destroy Gotham City!

Deal?

Let’s get back to the definition:

The ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses; the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it.

Let’s parse the definition and simplify. It’s all about . . .

Feelings: The source of our motivation. If we can control this, it’s half the battle.

Weaknesses: The enemy of motivation comes in many forms, too many to list. Let’s just call them resistance

Pursue: This is action. It is the outcome of the battle between motivation and resistance.

If motivation wins the battle against resistance, we take action toward our noble quest.

If resistance wins, we spend all day in social media, binging on Netflix, drinking beer and eating Cheetos.

Before we get down to tactics, let’s understand that the solution depends on the size of the problem.

There are orders of magnitude.

Things Big and Things Small

Small things might be a desire to get to work on time, lose 10 pounds of weight or reduce your time on social media.

Example: Self-Discipline for Losing 10 Pounds:

  • Motive: I want to wear last year’s pants
  • Resistance: I love ice cream and hate exercise
  • Action: I must restrict my calories and exercise

(You may not consider losing 10 pounds to be a small thing. It’s all relative. Think of the person that needs to lose 100 pounds.)

The best way to master small things is to make them part of a daily routine, i.e. your habits. Once the new thing is firmly embedded into your habits, it’s on autopilot and takes almost no effort to maintain it.

I have another post specifically on the Power of Habits.

If you’re interested, I also have a 14-Day Challenge (delivered via email) that shows you how to master your habits so they are productive.

My focus is on adding new habits to help you achieve any goal you set. But, invariably some bad habits need to be eliminated, so I address those as well.

For the example of Losing 10 Pounds, the habits might be:

  • New Habit: 30 minute walk after dinner (convince ourselves it’s not really exercise)
  • Eliminated Habit: Dessert after dinner (the craving will probably go away in a week)

Easy smeasy.

Now, what about the big things, such as the self-discipline for students (grad school especially), the self-discipline to stop smoking, or lead a more authentic life.

To develop self-discipline for big things, we need a Vision, a Strategy and Tactics. You’re not going to get through 2 years of graduate school by changing your after-dinner dessert habit.

Sorry if this is starting to sound like a business plan. I’ll make it brief.

Vision

This is the goal, the big idea, the core reason you’re doing what you’re doing – the so-called WHY.

Is it a good vision—does it deserve all the time you hope to devote to it?

If not, develop a new one that deserves commitment.

An example might be a Healthy Lifestyle because you want to care for your family, enjoy life and live to be 100.

This will be the foundation you build upon. Take your time.

Strategy

This is where you get a little more granular. Name the ways you can move closer to your vision.

  • Stop Smoking
  • Eat a Healthy Diet
  • Exercise

Sounds like a great start. So, how do I make this happen?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a switch somewhere in your brain that you can flick and suddenly you make a 180 degree turn. You need a plan.

Tactics

This is about putting the strategy into action.

If you’re the type that is motivated by a calendar schedule, put the things you’re avoiding into the time slots.

If you’re the type of person motivated by task lists, put those things at the top of the list.

Choose a time of day when you’re most likely to have the mental and physical energy to complete the tasks. Try to get into the flow state.

Think back to a time when you were in that state. What preceded it?

Typically, the flow state follows focus. Or is it the other way around? It’s like a feedback loop.

You can also set up a reward deferral system. Make a rule that you can’t have breakfast until you complete Task #1. Repeat for lunch, breaks, etc (I can’t have my 2nd cup of coffee until ____)

Sprinkle reward deferrals like this throughout the day.

Some people like to have accountability partners. You commit to each other that certain tasks will get done.

That hasn’t work for me or anyone I’ve engaged as a partner.

“Did you finish your project? No—I didn’t either, oh well.”

Naturally, here are some apps that tap into this mindset as well. I haven’t tried those. I’m in a sort of anti-app mood lately.

It seems like we’re in a mindset that the correct app can fix anything that is suboptimal in our lives in a quest for some state of perfection, including self-discipline—an app for every itch.

So, I’ve sworn off downloading any more apps.

I’m also out of memory on my iPhone, which might in some way be related.

Now you have the big picture of Vision, Strategy, and Tactics.

How does this relate to the motive, resistance and action we mentioned earlier?

Motive: Our motivation comes from our Vision

Resistance: We overcome resistance with our Strategy

Action: We put our plan into action with our Tactics

This all seems logical and straightforward. But, we know it’s hare as hell to implement. Resistance raises its ugly head in many ways.

How do we stay motivated each day in our quest?

I follow a journaling approach—every day.

There are blank journals and there are formatted journal, like a guide.

Staring at that blank-page journal worked for a while, but not long term. That was a significant form of resistance all my itself. I don’t need resistance first thing in the morning.

I tried various guided format too, but they didn’t feel like a good fit.

What the hell, I’ll just make my own.

It’s all about getting clarity. If you can start the day with a clear mind and focus, self-discipline is a whole lot easier. The process falls squarely into the Tactics mentioned above, because that’s where failure occurs.

We all know how easy it is to develop a Vision. And, it’s not much harder to write down a few Strategies to achieve that vision. It’s the implementation that goes awry 90% of the time, the action steps—the Tactics.

If you’re interested in learning more about my journaling process, check it out.

StartwithClarity