“Motivation starts the race, but self-discipline ultimately crosses the finish line.” – Steve Pavlina
Self discipline is something you just can’t neglect if you want to succeed in any major venture in life. A very interesting thing to note is that while you can achieve any goal with nothing but only self discipline, you can hardly achieve anything at all without self discipline.
What Exactly is Self Discipline?
I love this definition of self discipline: “Self Discipline is taking action irrespective of your emotional state.”
Let’s take a closer look at why self discipline is so important – sometimes more important than even passion or drive.
Let us say you want to wake up in the morning at 5 AM so that you work on this website you have just started. Or maybe you want to exercise at home, or in the gym at this hour. Or you may want to spend some time alone journaling and reading before the day starts. All this that you want to do will remain a fantasy unless you have enough self discipline to FORCE yourself to take action at 5 AM.
You may dream of conquering the world but if you hit the snooze button at 5 AM and sleep off, you’re going to get nowhere. Note that it does not matter how intense your desire to do what you want to do at 5 AM is. What matters is whether you REALLY wake up or not! And if you don’t wake up, all you’ll feel later is regret. A person with more self discipline would have achieved whatever you wanted to achieve in the morning with less passion and drive.
Why Is Self-discipline So Important?
All of us have different states of consciousness at different times of the day. This means that sometimes we are very alert and fresh and ready to go. At other times we are lazy and we don’t want to do anything at all. At still other times we seek meaning and purpose in life and think about words like passion and drive. It is almost like we are drifting in an ocean – our emotions taking us here there and everywhere throughout the day. If we go on drifting like that, will we be able to achieve anything significant? No. Or we may achieve results – but results that are very different from the ones we want! We may want to work on a new venture this weekend and end up socializing and watching TV. We may want to prepare for a certain examination or call a certain friend we have not called in years in the evening but we may end up reading a novel or sleeping.
The point I am trying to make is this: we are all flooded with tens of different emotional and physical states through the day – and will end up achieving nothing unless we “lock” certain desires and emotional states and force ourselves to act in accordance with them whether we want to or not. Self discipline means identifying what is truly important to you and then pursuing that important thing by force – whether you feel like it later or not.
Here is an example: let us say you want to learn swimming. You have clarified your desire and you are really sure you want to learn this interesting activity. Done. You lock this desire. Now, you tell yourself – “I am going to practice swimming for 3 hours a day for the next 30 days.” That’s it, from the next day onwards you practice swimming. Note that you don’t feel like swimming for the next few days but you swim ANYWAY trusting the decision you made earlier. You don’t care whether you feel like it or not – ONCE you have made the decision to swim and once you have clarified that this is really what you desire at a deeper level. At the end of 30 days, you are an amateur swimmer.
That’s the power of self-discipline. You can do absolutely anything on earth if you can garner enough self discipline. You want to participate in the Olympics? Check. You want to travel the world? Check. You want to develop a fit body? Check. You want to start business? Check. You see, we all know how to do anything on earth. And if we don’t know, in this age, we can easily find out everything on the internet. The point is actually doing it. And that power comes from self-discipline.
How to Build Up Self Discipline?
Great, you know that self discipline is important but you also know that your self discipline sucks. You never wake up before 9, you are lazy most of the time and a real urgency is required to make you take action. Yet, you want to achieve so many things…
The good news is that self discipline can easily be developed just as you develop any other skill. Since childhood, you’ve learnt walking, reading, writing, talking and many other things, and just like them self-discipline is one more thing you can learn.
The bad news is that you need some basic level of self discipline to build up your self discipline. And while it is not difficult, it is not that easy either.
Well, so what do you do?
Establish a ‘self-discipline scale’ and identify your current level of self-discipline.
You won’t know whether you have improved with respect to self-discipline or not until you “see” the improvement. And to “see” it you need a scale.
What is the one thing that you really want to achieve? Write that thing down on paper. Write down something specific – like ‘crack the CAT examination’ or ‘wake up at 5 AM in a row for 30 days’ or ‘eat home made food for 30 days’ or ‘work for 8 focused hours a day (without a break) for 30 days’. Write down something that you want to achieve but have not been able to achieve because of a lack of self-discipline.
Let us say, you’ve written down ‘work for 8 focused hours a day (without a break) for 30 days.’ (Yes, I know that’s a bit too much but I’ve written down this example to illustrate the power of selfdiscipline). Now, break this achievement down into 10 parts with level 1 indicating hardly any self discipline and level 10 indicating the self discipline required to achieve the task. Then identify at which level you are. Here’s an example:
- Level: Work for 1 hour a day without a break
- Level: Work for 2 hours a day without a break
- Level: Work for 3 hours a day without a break
- Level: Work for 4 hours a day without a break
- Level: Work for 4 hours a day without a break, then take a break of half an hour and then work for 1 more hour
- Level: Work for 4 hours a day without a break, then take a break of half an hour and then work for 2 more hours
- Level: Work for 5 hours a day without a break, then take a break of half an hour and then work for 2 more hours
- Level: Work for 5 hours a day without a break, then take a break of half an hour and then work for 3 more hours
- Level: Work for 6 hours a day without a break and then take a break of half an hour and work for 2 more hours
- Level: Work for 8 hours a day without a break
Write down these levels for your goal – the goal which currently looks like it is unachievable. Which level are you at? Level 1? Level 2? Write down what you will have to achieve to cross a particular level.
Be truthful! Sometimes, we think we are at level 9 while in reality we are at level 2. Don’t let this happen to you – be realistic when you estimate your level. Don’t worry if you get your level a bit wrong however. You’ll correct that in the next step.
Step 2 PART 1
Practice the level just above where you are – for a week. That’s it. Simple. If I am at level 1 in the above example (working for 1 hour without a break), my target for the week can be to work for 2 hours for an entire week.
Note that you must stick with that level just above your level for an entire week – sticking at it for one day or two days won’t do. If you fail to stick to this level for an entire week and give up in 2-3 days, that means you wrongly graded your level. Come down a bit. Lower your level and practice that level for an entire week. The point is to practice whichever level you choose for an entire week.
If you want to wake up at 5 AM for example but currently wake up at 10 AM, then level 2 might involve waking up at 9:45 AM. Practice this for a week. After the week is up, move up one level and practice that other level for a week. Then, the next week, practice yet another level. Keep going until you reach level 10! If you are not able to practice any level for a week, come down and practice the previous level for a week.
Step 2 PART 2
One thing you may have done in the past is used willpower as a substitute for self-discipline. This means thinking: “I have never achieved this goal, but this time, come hell or high water I will definitely achieve it. No one can stop me!”
That’s a great attitude but it can’t achieve anything concrete for a sustained period of time if you don’t have the self discipline required. The reason is simple: your saying you will achieve your goal – is simply an emotional response – and just like other emotions this will also die down in a short while. After an hour or two or a day or two you might suddenly find your motivation not that intense at all! Remember self-discipline means “forcing” yourself to act in a certain way because you know that way is what truly matters to you. It is much more than a burst of energy.
So how’s all this relevant in Step 2 PART 2?
Step 2 PART 2 is, “Instead of only using willpower, change your environment to boost your self discipline.” Before you start off with your first level of self discipline, change your environment. Look around. What can you do that will help you increase your level of self discipline?
If you want to wake up at 5 AM – a simple way to do it is to commit to an organization or activity involving other people which requires you to wake up at 5 AM. If you don’t wake up at 5 AM, you will violate a commitment made to others or lose your money. If you want to work for 8 hours a day non-stop, make sure you switch off your phone during that time – also tell everyone around you about this step – so that they can hold you responsible if you don’t do it. Or download tens of motivational audios onto your phone or computer and keep listening to them whenever you are free. Steve Pavlina used this technique to graduate college in 3 semesters. Or paste your goal on the wall.
The point is: ask yourself how you can change your environment so that it supports your goal and your self-discipline building exercise. Then change it so that it helps you.
Off You Go!
That’s it. There are just 2 steps. The rest of it is implementation.
Note that there will be many times when you won’t feel like it. You might kid yourself into thinking: nope – I really don’t want to do this. But are you sure you are not kidding yourself when you give up? Of course you want to lose weight. Of course you want to wake up early or exercise or start a business or do that thing you want to do. So, when you don’t feel like it – force yourself to stretch beyond your comfort zone – just a bit. And bit by bit, keep stretching until you have rocked the world!
Imagine a day when you will say something and “pat!” it’ll happen. You’ll tell your body – get up and run and it will. You’ll tell your mind – I want to start a business – and flash! – there’ll be a business up and running in the next few days. You’ll tell yourself – I want a fit body – and there, you’ll have it. That stage is possible. All you need is to gradually build up your self-discipline.
As I said earlier – self-discipline is simply something to be learnt. You have learnt so many amazing things in your life – this is really nothing! However, just like other skills it takes gradual building up. It is almost like “power” in a game. Once you have built up your “power” to level 10, you can achieve absolutely anything in the game.
Well, all the best. :) Rock your world with the next level of self-discipline!
Meghashyam is a personal growth enthusiast who loves facing his deepest fears, and parallely helps other people face their fears and live their best lives. He's always using words like "conscious", "choice", "heart", "deep down", "honestly" in his daily conversations. He writes inspirational articles at Personal-Development-Is-Fun.com and has authored 2 ebooks: 500 Steve Pavlina Quotes and 100 Incredible Happiness Hacks. He also runs a weekly podcast on iTunes called Personal Development Is Fun.