It was 2:30 am, the wind was howling and the snow crunched under my boots with every step. I was alone in the streets — and I would be alone at the gym in twenty minutes. Nobody was out at the time, and I couldn’t blame them. It was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey — German winter at its best.
Nevertheless, I was out in the cold. I had just finished an 8-hour study session and needed to blow off some steam at the gym before I put in another three hours of studying afterward.
Was I tired? Yep.
Did I curse the wind and the weather? In every language I knew.
Was I tempted to not go to the gym and call it a night? For sure.
Did I still walk to the gym, blast through my workout, and put in my time going through my scripts afterward? Hell yeah.
When people describe me, there is one word that pops up almost always: Discipline. And it’s true. I am able to push through long after others have given up. When I have committed to something and promised myself that I will do it, there is no way I’m going to throw in the towel.
I don’t want to show off. There are a million things I suck at. And make no mistake, achieving the level of discipline I have now has been a long journey. I haven’t always been this way. It has cost me blood, sweat, and tears — but looking at it now, I am grateful for every ounce of work I had to put in.
Self-discipline is a character trait like every other. You can build it over time and if you tell me that you “just aren’t a disciplined person” you are either unwilling to change or haven’t tried smart enough. No offense, I’m just being honest.
Why should you care? Why should you try to build self-discipline? Why should you take the hard route when there is an easy way out?
I’ll tell you why.
First of all, it feels amazing to be in charge. It feels amazing to have control and be able to push yourself through adversity. It feels amazing to not be tossed about by the waves of life but to be able to swim through the fucking ocean. The boost in self-esteem and happiness you get from overcoming your weaker self is tremendous.
And I’m not the only one thinking that. According to this study, people with more self-control are happier not only in the short run but also experience more overall life satisfaction. If you’ve got high self-discipline, you don’t have to fight all these inner battles about whether or not you should eat that piece of cake, cut your work short or slack off and watch TV for a while. Instead, you follow through and accomplish what you wanted to.
Do you easily give in to temptations?
Do you wish you had more self-discipline?
Do you want to be more productive and slack off less?
Do you want to reach your goals and stay on track more often?
Then building up your self-discipline is what you have to do.
Habits Versus Self-Discipline
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, there’s an important distinction I have to make.
There are two common misconceptions floating around. The first says that by building strong habits you don’t need any self-discipline at all and everything will work on autopilot. The opposing view is that if you’ve got tremendous self-discipline, you can get yourself to do anything without any routine or habit. The truth, as so often, lies somewhere in the middle.
Yes, building strong habits will alleviate the mental work it takes to push yourself to do something because you automate the behavior.
Yet, at the same time, self-discipline makes building a habit much easier in the early stages, when the behavior isn’t automated yet.
The two concepts are closely related to each other: Sticking to your habits makes you a more disciplined person. Over time, you become someone who follows through and sticks to his plans. You become a person with high self-discipline. And in turn, this makes it easier for you to stick to your habits, build new ones, and follow through in every area of your life.
Regardless of the perspective you take, self-discipline is a great character trait to have. So let’s get to it.
Step 1: Preparation
Before we’re taking action, we have to do some groundwork and preparation. Without it, you’re set up for failure. But do this right and you’ve already taken the most important first step.
Know your weaknesses
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War
We’re all different and unique. Saying no to a piece of cake, working without checking the phone, getting up in the morning — we all have our own little demons and things we struggle with.
Before you can build up your self-discipline, you have to know what you’re dealing with. Be honest to yourself and clear about your weaknesses so you know what you have to work on. Make these your benchmarks for evaluating yourself. There is no point pushing yourself to daily workouts when your real problem is always being late.
Become clear about your purpose
It’s hard to cultivate self-discipline if you don’t know what you’re doing it for. Ask yourself why you want to do it. Is your lack of discipline interfering with achieving your goals? Does it keep you from becoming who you want to be?
Whatever it is for you, be clear about your purpose. Be clear about what you’re doing it for. I want to be more disciplined because I’ll feel more comfortable in my body. I want to be more disciplined because I want to have my own business. I want to be more disciplined because I’m tired of being called a lazy fuck.
Write this down. When times get hard and things go south, look at it and remind yourself why you started in the first place.
The thing about building self-discipline is that you will frequently have to leave your comfort zone. That’s hard and it’s easy to chicken out. To avoid this, commit to yourself.
No half-hearted attempts. No could, should, or try. The ocean of self-discipline isn’t easy to navigate and without full commitment, you won’t even make it out of the harbor.
Step 2: Execution
Now that you have prepared, it’s time for action! There are two important things you have to keep in mind.
First, building discipline requires you to leave your comfort zone and do things that you don’t want to do every now and then. As such, it will make you uncomfortable and be hard. Don’t complain, keep going. Always remember why you’re doing it in the first place.
Second, it will take some time. If you have given in to tons of temptations for years, your mind will take a while to adjust. You’re not used to resisting your own desires, but you will get there. Just keep moving.
Take small steps & do the little things
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
When you think of your future self, it’s easy to imagine it with iron discipline and will, cutting through the biggest of life’s adversities like a hot knife through butter. Unfortunately, it’s a long way to get there and you’re just learning to walk. So get used to doing the little things that now feel uncomfortable to you. Make your bed in the morning. Take out the trash the second you see it’s full, don’t wait until it smells like three-day-old roadkill. Say no to that cigarette.
If you have trouble with sticking to your diet, start small by cutting out sugary sweets. Then sugary drinks. Next, it’s the McDonalds meals. And so on, in baby steps, always moving forward. You get the idea.
Learning and mastering something takes tons of repetitions — discipline is no exception. The easiest way to get them in is to build a routine, like when you’re getting up in the morning or going to bed in the evening. It will give your day structure and teach you to follow through with something even if you don’t want to.
Apart from that, you can always adjust your routine so it’s in line with your goals. Start it at the same time every day to become more punctual. Include reading and turning off your phone while doing it to learn focused work. Make physical exercise a part of it to get you closer to a fit and healthy body.
Be creative. The most important part is to get as many repetitions of disciplined behavior in as you can.
Out of sight, out of mind.
I know what you’re thinking. The ultimate goal of being disciplined is to be able to resist temptations altogether, so why should I remove them? As soon as I go out and see a piece of cake, I’m going to indulge in it.
Look, the goal of every marathon runner is to be able to run for 42 kilometers straight. But do they start out that way? No.
In the beginning, you aren’t disciplined enough to run for 42 kilometers. There is no point in getting into that race if you don’t even know how to walk.
Resisting temptations is already hard as it is. Make it easier for yourself in the beginning. Don’t buy sweets anymore so you don’t have them laying around. Hide your TV remote and put a book in its place instead. Turn on airplane mode on your phone so you don’t have any notifications you can check all the time.
In the beginning, it doesn’t matter much if you’re resisting the temptations or don’t face them at all. The important thing is that you don’t give in to them and if you achieve that by removing them altogether, so be it.
Don’t beat yourself up about your mistakes — keep moving forward
Fall down seven times, get up eight.
— Japanese Proverb
Let me be honest with you: You will fail. Just like I did. Just like everybody did. The thing that separates the disciplined from the non-disciplined isn’t that the disciplined don’t fail. No. They just get up again and keep moving forward.
There is no point in beating yourself up about when you fail. Yes, you’ve eaten the cookie even though you wanted to abstain from sweets. Yes, you’ve slept in even though you said you wanted to get up early. Who cares? It’s the past. It’s gone. Get up and do better next time.
There is only one rule to giving in and making mistakes when you’re building discipline. Never fail twice in a row. It’s OK, we all have weak days and give in to our weaker selves every now and then. But if you did, use it as a reminder to not do it again the next day. Never fail twice in a row. Keep moving.
Step 3: Little Helpers
What’s better, working hard or working smart? The answer is both.
You won’t get anywhere without commitment and elbow grease, especially when it comes to building iron discipline.
But why would you go the hard route instead of working smart and making it easier for yourself?
That’s why I have put together a couple of little helpers that will make it a lot easier for you.
Proper sleep & healthy nutrition
When you’re hungry or tired, your brain has a hard time working and focusing, let alone resisting temptations and pushing yourself to do things that are outside of your comfort zone. LeBron James says that it’s crucial for his performance that he sleeps up to twelve hours per day and I have a hard time thinking of anyone more disciplined than a world-class athlete. Go figure. Eat foods that are rich in nutrients, keep you full for a long time, and get enough sleep. Making the transition to a more disciplined person takes a toll on the body and mind, so make sure you give them the rest and regeneration they deserve.
Tracking & journaling to reward yourself
There are two ways to motivate someone to do something. Positive and negative. Positive motivation focusses on where you want to go to and the rewards you’ll get from it — like envisioning a fit and healthy body or financial freedom. Negative motivation refers to avoiding something — like being out of breath after going up a couple of stairs or being broke and living under a bridge.
They’re like the carrot and the stick, and you need both to motivate yourself to keep going. The problem is that while we often give ourselves the stick when we messed up, we don’t use the carrot as frequently.
You can accelerate your progress by using a tracker or a journal to measure it. That can be as simple as putting a green mark into a calendar on days you got up on time or ate no sweets and a red one if you didn’t. Then, celebrate your achievements. If you went a whole week with green marks, be proud of yourself. Splurge and do something nice for you, like a massage or a fancy dinner. Then, it’s back to the next week full of green marks.
It’s easy to break promises you gave to yourself. You’re quick to come up with excuses. Ah, I’ll start next week. Uh, the brownies were on sale. Oh, I had to watch that late-night special and sleep in.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to judge you. I’ve been there. That’s why I know how important it is to have an accountability partner. Tell someone you trust what you’re about to do and ask them to hold you accountable and check in with you every week or so.
The subtle psychological pressure of having someone who is going to witness if you follow through or not will make it a lot easier for you to do so.
Discipline is Freedom
We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.
— Jim Rohn
Becoming more disciplined will be hard at times. You will want to give up. It will hurt. Why? Because it requires change and growth.
Saying no to the temptations you have been giving in to will hurt. Forcing yourself out of bed when you’re tired will hurt. Doing what you have to do instead of what you want to do will hurt.
But do you know what will hurt even more? Not being in charge of your life but instead being tossed around by it. Not having the mental power to live the life you want and resist the temptations that you know will not make you happy ultimately. Regretting what you could’ve been if you just were a little more disciplined and pushed a little bit harder.
Disciplined people who stick to their principles are often viewed as less free and their lives as more restricted. They can’t eat that chocolate bar because they stick to their diet, can’t play video games because they have to work, can’t stay up late because they have to get up early.
Actually, it’s the opposite. They can eat that chocolate bar, play games, and stay up late. But they choose not to. And if you don’t have the discipline to resist so you can choose yourself — that’s when you are a slave to these temptations.
That’s why self-discipline is awesome — it makes you free.
Discipline and habits often go hand in hand. Master both and you’ll become close to unstoppable:
How to Hack Your Brain to Build a Habit That Sticks Like Superglue
The only habit-building blueprint I hope you’ll ever need
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