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Waking up in the morning and knowing what you want to do is a great feeling. It fuels confidence that you are going to have a great day. However, there is a difference in having a plan and executing the plan. Once the day begins, you face all sorts of resistance and distractions. Productivity experts talk about planning your ideal week or day – and they are right. Most productive people can make a plan. It is not a question of how it is supposed to happen. The real magic is making it happen. For that, you need something called self-discipline.

What is Self-Discipline?

Self-discipline is the bridge between planning and execution. It is the difference between to-do and done. When you know you need to do something, self-discipline is the capacity to do it. Knowing what to do is not enough. Having a desire to do it is not enough. Self-discipline is the x-factor. It is how real work gets accomplished. In most cases, the missing ingredient in success is not knowledge or skill (or even a lack of time). The missing ingredient is self-discipline.

New York Times best-selling author, speaker, and consultant for the world’s largest corporations and organizations, Andy Andrews, says,

“Self-discipline is the ability to make yourself do something you don’t necessarily want to do, to get a result you would really like to have.”

According to www.dictionary.com, self-discipline means to train oneself, usually for self-improvement.

In this article, we will tell why self-discipline matters, the benefits that result from it, and what you can do today to improve it.

Why Does Self-Discipline Matter?

The short answer is that it will make you more productive. That is not just a random comment. It is backed up by significant amounts of research. Improved self-discipline can result in accomplishing more in life and achieving more of your important goals.

Delayed Gratification

One way to think about self-discipline is delayed gratification. Imagine you are shopping. You have some extra money, and you are tempted to spend it on an impulse purchase (new shoes or the latest tech gadget). However, you also have a goal to save money for a vacation. Self-discipline is the capacity to say no to the immediate desire to gain a more significant future benefit.

What happens in a decision-making moment like that is something that has regularly been studied by researchers. The more we understand it, the better we can become at practicing it.

The Marshmallow Experiment

In 1972, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a now-famous experiment in delayed gratification. It came to be known as the marshmallow experiment.

In this study, a child was brought into a private room with a researcher. The child was seated at a table and given one marshmallow. The researcher explained that he was going to leave the room. If the child could wait until he returned, the child would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Hundreds of children were tested, and the results were amazing.

When I say results, I do not mean just what happened in the room. Some of the children decided to eat the marshmallow immediately. Others chose delayed gratification to double their prize. However, the real results were seen in follow-up studies years later. Researchers found that the children who opted for the delayed gratification experienced many long-term benefits in the quality of life as measured by SAT scores, body mass index, lower levels of stress, above-average social skills, and other objective metrics.

The Benefits of Self-Discipline

Making a commitment to improving your self-discipline is an investment in your future self. The gift you give yourself includes things like:

  1. Achieve long-term goals
  2. Decrease anxiety
  3. Improve physical health
  4. Improve personal relationships
  5. Feel happier

Self-Discipline overcomes procrastination

In a professional sense, self-discipline can make you more productive by equipping you to face and overcome procrastination that happens through avoidance, busyness, and distraction.

One common form of procrastination is avoidance. Is there something important on your task list you know you should do, but you keep putting it off? When you avoid a task that you dread, you feel a sense of relief. The brain interprets this as a reward. The avoidance is training your mind to repeat this behavior. Over time this kills your productivity.

Busyness can be another form of procrastination. When you are avoiding a task, you may find other ways to make yourself feel productive. You might even be doing good things, but you are also reinforcing procrastination.

How Self-Discipline Can Help you to Overcome Procrastination

  1. Commit to writing. The simple act of writing down your most important task is like an anchor for your productivity. When the waves of distraction are trying to carry you away, the anchor of your pre-determined commitment can keep you focused.
  2. Schedule the time. Use your calendar to define what you will be working on during a specific time. As a bonus, set an alarm to remind you it is time to keep your commitment to focused work.
  3. Just get started. Sometimes, the hardest part is the beginning. Make an agreement with yourself to start the task even if you are unsure you can complete it. The act of beginning can give you invaluable momentum you need to make progress or complete your most important task.

These simple habits have made a big difference in my own life. I’m a writer. So, where do I face my battle with self-discipline? Yep, in sitting down to write. The key to defeating the resistance is through self-discipline. In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, author Stephen King said, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

4 Simple Strategies To Improve Your Self-Discipline

Once you understand the importance of self-discipline, the next question is, “How do I improve it?”

Here are some actions you can take today to develop or improve your self-discipline.

1. It starts with you

By definition, self-discipline is something that you do. It is a choice you make. It is a lot of right decisions that get repeated to improve your self-discipline. Think of it like a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it becomes. When you make a mental shift from “I need to be more self-disciplined,” to “I am going to be more self-disciplined,” then you have taken your first step.

2. Remind yourself why you want to be self-disciplined

Productivity expert Michael Hyatt says, “People lose their way when they lose their why.” When you are pursuing a worthy goal in your personal or professional life, it helps remind yourself why you are doing it.

The most successful business people may receive a financial reward, but they are working for more than a paycheck. A good salary is not enough on its own to produce true greatness. Pushing past the resistance you face in the pursuit of self-discipline requires commitment and sacrifice. It means you will act according to your purpose even when you do not feel like it. That kind of resolve is the result of a deeply held belief. You need to be inspired by a great cause to develop this kind of inner strength. If you have that, then you will be able to create unbreakable self-discipline. In his book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, author Simon Sinek said,

“What you do simply proves what you believe.”

  1. Why do you want to be more self-disciplined?
  2. What are some of your most important personal or professional goals?

3. Build daily habits that promote self-discipline

The real work of developing self-discipline is accomplished in small decisions you make daily. Think about it like a good habits system that works together to give you a self-discipline superpower.

A simple decision like making your bed each day can lead to building more self-discipline. Some other habits that promote self-discipline include:

Incremental change

Habits work through incremental change. It means that through consistent repetition, you can produce significant and lasting change.

In the past year, I have lost a lot of weight. I started at 207 lbs (94 kg). As I write this, I am at 178 lbs (81 kg). It is a big difference, but it did not happen in one moment. I went to the gym every day, but I did not see a difference in my weight or appearance every day. It was gradual. To build your habits, you have to be committed to incremental change.

Celebrate small wins

In a related theme, learn to celebrate the small wins. Building the habits you need for unbreakable self-discipline happens in small ways every day. There were some days in my fitness journey when just showing up was a win. If I got out of bed and made it to the gym, I celebrated. I would tell myself, “Today, I win because I chose to do something I did not feel like doing to accomplish a goal that is important to me.” Even if it was not my best physical workout, celebrating the win gave me the encouragement I needed to keep going.

4. Give yourself a reward

Building self-discipline can seem like a slow process. A dose of encouragement in the form of a reward can keep you going when you think about giving up. It is what psychologists call positive reinforcement. The purpose is to reward good behavior in a tangible way.

Choose a reward that is related to your goal. In my exercise, I would take a day off to reward hard work. Likewise, it is common for people who are dieting to have a cheat day. Whatever works to keep you motivated is the right choice.

Next Actions

  1. Write down the one most important task you are going to do tomorrow
  2. Make an appointment on your calendar for when you will work on this task (bonus: set an alarm to remind yourself)
  3. Work without interruption during your scheduled time…even if you do not feel like it.
  4. Give yourself a reward

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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