The thought of achieving more self-discipline is always appealing. Who among us doesn’t want to be less bound to their temptations, to learn that new instrument or bang out that dream project? Putting things into in motion, however, gets a little thornier because that requires change and change often puts you on the path of most resistance, which is an easy deterrent.
That’s the first problem along the path of self-discipline. The second is the feeling of not measuring up since everyone else always seems like they have it together. But that’s the destructive myth, one that makes us believe that “the most disciplined people are always disciplined 24/7,” says Trevor Cote, Ph.D., a licensed clinical sports psychologist in Boston. “The truth falls in between.”
Self-discipline is hard and it does mean grinding some days out. It doesn’t, however, mean grinding out every day. While there are things that can help with sticking to whatever routine or habit you’re chasing, nothing will be effective if your initial target is off. So, before you buy or plan anything to help, you must decide what goal really matters to you. Then, it’s about making small changes to focus on that goal.
So what to do? Here, with help from Stoddard, Cote, and acclaimed author Harlan Coben, is how to improve your self-discipline.
1. Figure Out What Really Matters
Writing a book or cooking more might sound good, but if you’re doing anything for someone else or because it’s what you think you should do, you’ll start out strong and “hit a wall” in about a month,” Cote says. “The sustainability is not there.”
Whatever goal you set needs to tie into your values. It doesn’t mean it will be all-the-time fun, but it has to deeply resonate and be more than another item on a must-do list.
“When you reframe it as a choice that matters to you, it can be easier to choose to be disciplined,” Stoddard says.
2. Study Your Environment
If you want to be in Tom Brady-like shape, you can certainly take inspiration from him and see the things you share. But people get tripped up when they don’t see the differences. Brady, for instance, has coaches, chefs, equipment, and a life that supports all-out focus, something that you probably don’t, Cote notes.
You also have to weigh the consequences of devotion, because, “There’s always a cost,” Cotes adds. It could be money, physical or emotional pain, or time away from your family. Maybe you decide it’s not worth it, but it might mean reshaping what you do in order to be doable. That focus is key.
3. Give Yourself Reminders
There’s always a YouTube clip that you find yourself drawn to. But, “Most distractions are self-created,” says Harlan Coben, acclaimed author of Win and 34 other books. What helps Coben is to remember that his life works best when there’s balance in all realms: relationships, exercise, sports, and work. “If I’m not writing at all,” says Coben. “I’m not in balance.”
But it’s also like the gym, he says, where he knows that once he starts, it feels good and once it’s done, he always feels better. For him, there’s no fixed solution of: Do this and discipline will follow. “Most of it is reminders to myself of why I do what I do,” Coben says.
4. Chop It Down
You don’t always have the same energy, so you wait for it to come, and you end up waiting. “In reality, it’s often action that triggers motivation,” Stoddard says. When starting is hard, break up your routine into small steps. Write one paragraph or bike one hill. “There’s this feedback loop of seeing yourself do something,” Cote says. The result is, “That felt pretty good,” and you most likely have jumpstarted yourself to keep going.
But there’s also a redefining element of what staying disciplined means. Maybe you realize you only have 40 percent energy. Rather than taking it easy or taking the day off, you shift your mindset and do the most you can.
Says Cote, “Empty the tank for whatever you have.”
5. Create Visual Markers
Your eyes prime you for a challenge. Put a picture, an inspiring quote, a word, where it will be seen regularly. This isn’t about guilt, but as a reminder that, “This is what I want to do.” It alone won’t be the motivation, but it works in concert with all the other elements. “It’s a form of self-talk, but it’s external,” Cote says.
6. Bring Someone Else On Board
This is the literal or figurative workout buddy. But bringing someone on board is more than upping your accountability. It’s having another person there to share bits of your life with and building a connection. Time also moves quicker and is more enjoyable when you’re talking with another person rather than being alone with your runaway thoughts. “You’re outside yourself,” Cote says.
7. Stay Flexible
While obvious, it’s often forgotten that if something isn’t effective, you have to change it. And continue to change things up. Coben, for instance, will write at his computer, with a pen, or on his iPad. He’ll switch chairs, and stay with something until it stops working. Then he’ll find something else to bring in that sensation of, as he says, “the first dip of peanut butter.”
It pays to have multiple go-to options, particularly when you have young kids and your day can immediately change on a whim. Rigidity will torch your discipline plans as much as anything. So it’s about staying adaptable.
“When you stay adaptable, you’ll always find the next thing to be great at,” Cote says. “You’re always looking for how it can work. It allows you to look for the answer.”
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