7 Strategies Entrepreneurs Can Use to Boost Discipline and Execute Effectively
And how to avoid the self-help industry’s magical tips, but still be productive
Startup entrepreneurs love to quote Thomas Edison’s famous saying, “success is 1% motivation and 99% perspiration”.
Whilst anybody can be temporarily motivated to build the next great company, it’s only those with true persistence, determination, and discipline who actually make it happen.
In this article I’ll discuss 7 specific strategies you can use to maximize your discipline, be more productive, and more effectively execute on your most important ideas.
A Word About Motivation
“Motivation” is a quite a strange concept, especially given how we typically relate to it in today’s world.
On the one hand, it’s a psychological construct that’s meant to account for the reasons that people do what they do.
As Kendra Cherry notes:
“Motivation is the force that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviors. It is what causes us to take action, whether to grab a snack to reduce hunger or enroll in college to earn a degree. The forces that lie beneath motivation can be biological, social, emotional, or cognitive in nature.”
Beyond this basic definition there are also a handful of leading theories of motivation, each having different supporters and degrees of confirming evidence.
On the other hand, there seems to be a kind of unhealthy fascination with, or over-emphasis on, motivation in today’s popular culture.
A huge section of the self-help industry is devoted entirely to alleged techniques for increasing motivation.
People constantly post motivating quotes on their Facebook walls.
And when somebody fails to achieve remarkable accomplishments, it often gets chalked up to “lack of motivation” — e.g., “she just didn’t want it bad enough!”
In this regard motivation is treated as some magical force that inevitably brings success and all sorts of solutions to problems.
It’s what allows people to work 100 hours per week and build a profitable startup in under a year, apparently…
Increasing your motivation is not the key factor on which you should be focused if you truly want to become more productive.
Motivation, after all, is a temporary increase in energy, enthusiasm, commitment, drive, and so on.
Motivation naturally waxes and wanes; for one because our brains have to contend with dynamics of resistance, procrastination, escapism, and fear (both of failure and of success), which dissuade us from constantly making substantial changes to the ways we live.
There’s no such thing as a permanently motivated individual.
Motivation must be re-activated and re-established again and again.
It’s important for getting you started but it won’t carry you through to the end of your goals.
Starting something is relatively easy; it’s getting things done by following through on concrete plans that’s difficult.
When it comes to startups, getting things done — i.e., executing on your ideas — requires discipline and determination, alongside motivation.
As shown in the following graph, motivation is high when you first come up with your startup idea, it then drops heavily once the initial fascination wears off and the real work begins, and it gradually begins to return as you execute on your ideas by making disciplined progress over time.
Discipline and determination, not motivation, ultimately sustain our abilities to pursue our goals as the initial spark burns out but a stronger, less violent fire grows over time.
The key question, then, becomes: What kinds of practices and thinking habits should we adopt in order to boost our discipline and become more productive?
Let’s look at 7 tactics in specific.
1. Build Tiny New Habits Strategically
As with life in general, creating a startup inevitably involves doing many things that you’d rather not have to do.
For instance, you may love to code and hate to write and crunch numbers but if you’re committed to launching a startup with any hope of succeeding then you’ll certainly have to write (blog posts, articles, etc.) about your company and successfully manage your venture’s finances.
So how do you teach yourself to start performing in ways that aren’t exactly the most exciting or enjoyable? You slowly and strategically form new habits.
Entrepreneur and Behavior Science Expert, James Clear, outlines 5 key steps for successfully forming new habits that stick.
1. Start with an incredibly small habit
- Motivation ebbs and flows over time (i.e., it gets “fatigued”).
- Trying to institute a new habit by relying exclusively on willpower will, therefore, fail.
- Instead, choose a very small, easy-to-accomplish habit that requires little if any motivation to complete.
- Example: performing 5 pushups every morning (rather than 50)
2. Increase your habit in very small ways
- “Biting off more than you can chew”, so-to-speak, is destined to lead to failure and disappointment.
- Instead, embrace the tiny gains approach whereby you make 1% improvements each day/week/month in order to accumulate significant success over time.
- Example: writing one extra blog post per week will translate into more than 50 extra posts within a year.
3. As you build up, break habits into chunks
- As you start gaining momentum you’ll notice that you’re doing lots more each day.
- To avoid becoming overwhelmed, break your habits into chunks in order to keep them reasonable.
- Example: Run on the treadmill for 25 minutes in the morning and for another 25 in the evening rather than doing the full 50 minutes in one session.
4. When you slip, get back on track quickly
- “Missing your habit once, no matter when it occurs, has no measurable impact on your long-term progress. Rather than trying to be perfect, abandon your all-or-nothing mentality, ” adds James.
- Recognize that every so often you will fail but, the same time, dedicate yourself to getting back on track immediately.
- The danger comes not from failing once but from failing two times in a row.
5. Be patient. Stick to a pace you can sustain
- Find the “sweet spot” between laziness/quitting and burnout/being overzealous.
- The only way to sustain habits long-term is to be dedicated yet patient (a kind of “Rome wasn’t built in a day” approach).
- Example: Set a goal of attaining slightly fewer new followers on social media than you believe you can attain in a given period of time rather than aiming for an unrealistic objective.
2. Develop a “Growth Mindset”
Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and author of the influential Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, argues that two basic kinds of psychological “mindsets” — i.e., the “fixed mindset” and the “growth mindset” — can be identified amongst the population.
“In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.
In a growth mindset, people understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”
Fixed mindset individuals are generally apprehensive when it comes to receiving criticism and performing challenging tasks at which they might fail.
They typically fear the success of others, seeing it as detrimental to their own chances of doing well.
Alternatively, growth mindset individuals recognize criticism and failure as opportunities for learning, self-improvement, and change. They’re more willing to pursue difficult projects and do not ascribe to a zero-sum game mentality.
The following infographic outlines the key differences between these two defining mindsets:
As an entrepreneur, it’s especially important that you dedicate yourself to cultivating a growth mindset.
Approaching life as if little-to-nothing can be done to change things, make improvements, learn from mistakes, and constructively incorporate feedback from others is not only defeatist and depressing but also entirely incompatible with the process of launching, growing, and scaling startups.
Successful entrepreneurs require a specific mentality, one premised on the ideas that virtually anything is possible and that mistakes are inevitably going to be made, necessitating adjustments and pivots along the way.
Fortunately for those currently locked into a fixed mindset, it’s possible to transition to a growth mentality.
Dweck lists 3 steps to making the switch:
1. Learn to hear the inner voice of your fixed mindset:
- Pay attention to the kinds of things you say to yourself in different types of situations, recognizing when you’re using defeatist language.
- Examples: “At least nobody will make fun of you if you don’t try”, “You’re not good enough to do this”, “Why did you put yourself in this situation? You knew you didn’t have enough skill!”
2. Realize that you decide how to respond to these thoughts:
- It’s your choice how you react to the suggestions coming from your fixed mindset.
- You can choose to accept them as obviously true, as indicating that you’re not worthy or even capable of improvement, or to reconfigure how you think of the current situation, recognizing that you’re being given an opportunity to get out of your comfort zone, to sharpen your abilities, to improve from the insights of others.
3. Talk back to your doubting self with a strong growth mindset:
- Instead of, “You’d be able to do this easily if you had the talent”, say to yourself, “Anything worth doing well takes effort and perseverance; lots of successful people stumbled along the way”
- Instead of, “How could they expect me to do any better? This is just the way I am”, say to yourself, “I showed strength and courage here: doing and saying more than I ever have before, showing I can improve”
It’s also helpful to practice “mental contrasting”, a technique in which you visualize in detail what you wish to achieve, how you plan to achieve it, the various kinds of obstacles likely to stand in the way of you fulfilling your objective, and what steps you will take if/when the obstacles materialize.
Planning for setbacks before they emerge is often quite helpful in overcoming them when you actually face them.
3. “Hack” Your Social and Physical Environments
This is a relatively simple yet effective strategy for increasing discipline and focus.
Essentially, it consists of purposely changing your social and physical environments in order to decrease the chances of becoming distracted and/or apathetic to the work that must be done.
Here are 3 simple techniques that you can implement quite easily:
- Use apps explicitly designed to eliminate distractions: FocusBooster, FocusWriter, Forest: Stay focused, K9 Security, and Self Control are all effective programs/apps worth checking out.
- Recruit others into your discipline-boosting efforts: Explicitly involving others in your plans to develop new habits makes you statistically more likely to commit to your new ways of behaving (examples: 1, 2, 3). In other words, social pressure can be used to bring about positive change. Explicitly share your goals with friends or co-workers and ask them to hold you accountable if you start veering off the right path (e.g., forcing you to do something embarrassing or undesirable, such as donating to your lease favourite political party or singing karaoke at a bar in front of dozens of strangers). You can also find accountability partners online, using websites like r/ProductivePenPals and r/GetMotivatedBuddies on Reddit as well as apps designed for the purpose.
- Make small yet meaningful changes to your workspace: place your cell phone and other distracting technologies in a room different from the one in which you work. Stick post-it notes with messages of positivity around your computer and on your walls. Try using motivational posters to give you that extra “boost” first thing in the morning or toward the end of the day. Keep pictures of loved ones and significant others close to you.
4. Engage in Physical Exercise
From yoga, sports, and weight training to running, swimming, and balance training, engaging in physical exercise on a regular basis has tons of proven health benefits, many of which can contribute directly or indirectly to your discipline, dedication, and productivity levels.
Amongst other benefits, regular exercise has the potential to:
- Increase energy levels (short- and long-term);
- Decrease stress, anxiety, and depression;
- Elevate mood;
- Encourage more restful sleep;
- Improve memory and other cognitive skills;
- Enhance creativity and elevate concentration; and
- Positively impact the brain’s neuroplasticity (i.e., it’s ability to change and develop) (sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
Essentially, rigorous exercise can make you feel much better overall, both physically and emotionally, thereby increasing your sense of what you can learn and accomplish.
There’s no right or wrong when it comes to when you should exercise.
Some people prefer to get in a workout or play a sport before going to the office whereas others like to unwind (or “burn off steam”) after grinding away during the day and then hitting the gym or field in the evening.
Choose whichever works best for you. The key is to be consistent.
5. Try Meditation
For some, meditation is a spiritual or religious experience.
For others, it’s incorporated into deep breathing exercises intended to promote relaxation and calmness.
Whatever your personal views on meditation, it’s important to recognize that, like physical exercise, meditation is correlated with many positive effects on physiological health and psychological wellbeing.
A number of the benefits that result from daily meditation practices can enhance your ability to focus and work hard whilst remaining calm, present in the moment, and undistracted by worries about the future.
Amongst others, here are some of the ways in which meditation can improve your quality of life:
- It can decrease anxiety, stress, depression, and feelings of loneliness;
- It can boost emotional intelligence, feelings of connectedness, and self-control;
- It can positively impact the structure of the brain by increasing grey matter and augmenting the volume of brain areas connected to emotional regulation and positive emotions; and
- It can improve focus, attention, creativity, memory, and the ability to multitask (sources: 1, 2, 3)
Meditation teaches you how to become less distracted over time by concentrating on the present moment and allowing each of your thoughts to arrive, pass through, and depart.
This exercise stimulates the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, allowing you to become better at returning to focus after becoming briefly distracted.
The increased capacity for mindfulness that comes with meditating regularly can also positively impact your ability to deal with stressful situations at your startup by promoting recognition of the importance of the present moment over and above anxiety about the future.
6. Get Enough Quality Sleep
Proper sleep — i.e., sleep that is deep, uninterrupted, and sufficiently long in duration — is crucial to human health and happiness.
Poor sleep can contribute to a variety of physiological and psychological complications, including high blood pressure, diabetes, weight gain, heart disease, paranoia, mood swings, depression, and anxiety (sources 1, 2).
Inadequate sleep is also a productivity, discipline, and motivation killer.
There’s no question that the average person performs more poorly, feels less motivated to work hard and do a good job, and struggles more with focus and attention when he/she is sleep deprived versus well rested (sources: 1, 2, 3, 4).
Quality sleep is, thus, essential to performing at your best.
Here are 5 techniques for improving the condition and length of sleep you get each night:
- Aim to go to bed and wake up at the same times each day as this will help promote a natural and dependable sleep cycle.
- Dedicate 30–60 minutes of “downtime” before bed where you put away all electronics and engage in a calming, relaxation-promoting activity such as light reading for pleasure.
- Create a comfortable sleeping environment by sleeping on a motion-isolation mattress in a slightly cool (around 65 degrees Fahrenheit) and dark room.
- Use apps such as Sleep Cycle and/or wearable technologies like Fitbit or JawBone Up to track your sleep cycles.
- Take 10–30 minutes naps during the day whenever you become drowsy and feel your concentration “slipping”; so-called “powernaps” can be extremely helpful in enhancing your productivity by boosting cognitive skills, memory, and focus (sources 1 2 3 4).
In addition, it may be worth spending some time learning about, and designing your work schedule around, “circadian” vs. “ultradian” biorhythms:
- Circadian rhythm: your 24-hour (daily) biorhythm that governs your body’s ability to detect and respond to day and night; it significantly influences when, and how much, deep sleep you get as it regulates your body’s natural wakefulness
- Ultradian rhythm: your 90–120 minutes brain wave frequency cycles wherein you gradually shift from alert and focus to drowsy and distracted (source)
Improper sleep can negatively impact your biorhythms.
For instance, your circadian rhythm is liable to operate far less predictably when you consistently receive inadequate sleep, causing the times at which you actually enter into deep sleep to vary widely.
From an entrepreneurial standpoint, understanding and working with your body’s natural biorhythms is important because you are, in fact, naturally more capable of concentrating and being productive at certain times rather than others.
Research shows, for instance, that individuals who are naturally inclined to be “night owls” are liable to suffer depression and have the amount of white matter in their brains (tissue comprising fatty insulating material that speeds up nerve signals) noticeably reduced when forced to embrace a standard 9am-5pm daily existence (sources 1, 2).
How can you track your biorhythms?
A simple method is to use a basic spreadsheet to rate your levels of focus, energy, and mood (e.g., from 1 to 3) every hour each day for a week or two:
Then, calculate the averages for each hour and use the data to create a graph like this:
In this hypothetical case, I’d try and re-arrange my daily schedule so that I tackle my most difficult or demanding work between 6am and 9am and between 3pm and 4:30pm because those are the periods during which I feel the most motivated and manage to accomplish the most.
7. Use Self-Affirmations
As an entrepreneur, it’s very likely that you have your fair share of self-doubt, fear, anxiety, and worry about the future.
After all, startup founders must continuously try and convince not only themselves but also plenty of people around them — co-workers, investors, family members — that their company is built on solid foundations and a winning product that’s going to bring in massive success.
Indeed, building a new business is often a very stressful endeavour.
There are, however, certain strategies you can adopt to help alleviate some of the negative self-talk in which you might be engaging.
Why is this important? Because the less negative self-talk you display, the more productive you become.
In addition to trying to change your mindset from fixed to growth (see #2 above), you can overcome your tendency to tell yourself things like “I can’t do this”, “I’m going to fail”, and “I’m not good enough” by incorporating self-affirmations (or positive self-talk) into your daily habits.
Self-Affirmations differ depending on the nature of the specific situation that’s taking place. In general, though, they can include statements such as:
- I’ve been preparing and working hard at this for weeks; I will succeed!
- I’m healthy, strong, and capable!
- I’ve always managed to figure out difficult situations in the past; I will get through this!
- My colleagues will be there to support me no matter what!
- This is an opportunity to learn from my mistakes and to grow; I will improve and come back even stronger next time!
Self-Affirmations can help decrease the propensity to shy away from challenging situations and fall back on defense mechanisms that excuse our inaction.
One effective way of incorporating self-affirmations into your daily work life is to take an hour or two to explicitly write out why you’re trying to create a new company, what you hope to gain by doing so, what you’ve accomplished thus far, and what your potential future will look like once you’ve succeeded.
Keep this piece of paper/poster close to you at all times (e.g., tape it to the wall in your office).
Then, on days when you’re feeling under-motivated or uninspired, you can re-read what you’ve written and thereby reflect on the major goals and objectives you’re pursuing and the reasons why.
This tactic can serve as an effective means of reminding yourself why you get out of bed each morning.
Thanks for reading!
I hope these 7 specific strategies will help you maximize your discipline, be more productive, and more effectively execute on your most important ideas.