How to Develop Self-Discipline: 7 Habits to Make You Stronger

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Power of Discipline" by Daniel Walter. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you start the day off right? When you lose motivation, do you push past the moment? When was the last time you left your comfort zone?

Self-discipline is hard. But, you can strengthen your ability to self-discipline. In his book, Daniel Walter argues that the best way to improve this ability is to get rid of bad habits and replace them with good ones that support discipline.

Continue reading to learn how to develop self-discipline with good habits.

How to Develop Self-Discipline

Habits are things that we do regularly without even thinking about them: for example, scrolling on social media every time we feel bored. When we allow ourselves to form habits that are contrary to our best interests, we lessen our chances of adopting positive habits and thus weaken our ability to self-discipline. Walter explains how to develop self-discipline by developing seven habits that support discipline.

(Shortform note: While Walter argues that building good habits is one of the best ways to strengthen your self-discipline, Gary Keller explains that this might actually drain your ability to practice self-discipline (what he calls willpower). In The One Thing, Keller says that we have a limited supply of self-discipline. Doing things like building new habits uses up our discipline allotment quickly and makes us more prone to giving in to temptations at the end of the day. To recharge your self-discipline and continue practicing good habits, Keller recommends eating plenty of complex carbohydrates and proteins throughout the day.)

Habit #1: Create Morning and Evening Routines

Walter explains that following a healthy morning and evening routine makes it easier to engage in productive behaviors and make good choices. Making these routines a habit will help you to resist unproductive temptations—like sleeping in, eating poorly, or staying up too late—that decrease your self-discipline abilities.

For your morning routine, plan out what time to wake up, eat breakfast, leave for work, and so on. Your evening routine should start an hour before bed and incorporate things that make it easier to fall asleep. For example, if your bedtime is at 10:00 pm, start your routine at 9:00 pm—brush your teeth, wash your face, set your clothes out for the next day, journal, and then get into bed.

How to Make Routines Into Habits

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg agrees that routines are central to adopting good habits. He also notes that changing core habits, like your morning and evening routine, helps with resisting temptations and sticking to good habits throughout the day. However, he elaborates that simply creating a routine isn’t enough for it to become a habit. There are two more elements involved in the habit-forming process: a cue that signals the start of your routine and a reward that comes after. Without these additional elements, your routine won’t become a habit; rather, it’ll be something you must force yourself to do every time.

Your morning routine has a natural cue built in: waking up. However, you may need to intentionally curate this routine so there’s a reward at the end—for example, arriving at work 30 minutes early so you can make a cup of coffee and read a novel before the day begins. On the other hand, your nightly routine might have a built-in reward—a good night’s sleep—but not a natural cue. This can prevent you from starting it on time or at all. Instead, ensure that there’s an obvious trigger for you to begin your routine, like an alarm set for 9:00 pm.

Habit #2: Create Plans to Achieve Your Goals

Walter explains that big goals are daunting and can lead to inaction if they seem too lofty—and as previously discussed, failing to take active steps toward your goals is a bad habit that weakens your ability to self-discipline. To avoid inaction, clearly identify your goals and create a plan of action for accomplishing them. Your plan will consist of the numerous daily tasks and sub-goals that must be fulfilled before you can achieve your larger goal.

Being clear about your goals and breaking them down into daily actions will make it easier for you to practice self-discipline, and it’ll make you more likely to succeed. This is because you’ll know exactly what needs to get done and when, so you can hold yourself accountable.

To create an effective plan of action, you first need to be clear and realistic about your end goal. For example, don’t just say you want to move abroad immediately: Say you want to move to Argentina by April. Next, break down the tasks you must do to reach your goal—for example, apply for residency, find an apartment, research the cost of living, and so on. Once you’ve outlined the tasks required to accomplish your goal, create a daily schedule so you can accomplish a task (or subgoal) every day. 

An Additional Method to Create Fool-Proof Plans That Facilitate Self-Discipline

In Eat That Frog!, Brian Tracy agrees that creating clear goals and a plan for completing them is crucial to avoiding inaction and making efficient progress. Like Walter, Tracy also emphasizes the need to break large goals down into smaller tasks that can be completed on a daily basis to keep you motivated and on task. 

However, Tracy adds two important recommendations that will arguably make it even easier for you to practice self-discipline with regard to your goals and tasks. First, assign a priority level to each task when creating your plan—this will ensure that the most important or foundational tasks get completed on time and don’t delay your progress. Second, review your goals daily to ensure that they still align with your desires. Repeatedly revisiting your list of goals will motivate you and inspire you to work hard (and practice self-discipline) to achieve them. 

Habit #3: Gain Control Over Your Impulses

Walter explains that one of the habits most detrimental to self-discipline is acting on our impulses without thinking. This habit can come in the form of giving into temptations, like the urge to give up, or giving into instant gratification—choosing something that’s immediately rewarding even if it’s bad for us in the long term. Walter recommends developing two habits that will help you control your impulses: keeping in mind the 40% rule and following the 10-minute rule.

The 40% rule states that, typically, you’ve done only 40% of the work you’re capable of completing when you start to lose energy and feel ready to give up. Instead of giving up at this point, acknowledge the discomfort and try to push past it. This will help you practice self-discipline and reach your full capabilities.

(Shortform note: Experts agree that the urge to give up is common but detrimental to self-discipline and success. They explain that these urges arise because the closer we get to a goal, the more we fear failure and become stressed. To escape the fear and stress, our minds urge us to give up and let go of the goal altogether. While using the 40% rule is a strategy to “push through the pain,” psychologists recommend overcoming the urge to give up by replacing pain with positivity and motivation. For example, find a “why” that gives meaning to your goal, stop comparing yourself to other people, or find a mentor to support and inspire you.)

The 10-minute rule is designed to help you overcome your impulses for instant gratification. When you feel the urge to make an unproductive decision, wait 10 minutes and see if the urge fades. The 10-minute gap will help you think more logically about what the best choice is, and your impulse for instant gratification might dissipate.

Applications of the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a method for avoiding instant gratification that’s similar to Walter’s “10-minute” rule, but it’s specifically designed to improve time management. Despite this difference, the technique can prove beneficial to avoiding instant gratification in general.

Like Walter’s method, the Pomodoro Technique recommends that you set a timer for 10 minutes (or longer) when you feel the urge to procrastinate. However, whereas Walter doesn’t specify what you should do in that 10-minute time span, the Pomodoro method says to fill that time by doing something productive. Many experts believe engaging in productive behaviors during these 10 minutes will make you more likely to continue to be productive afterward and less likely to give in to instant gratification and other temptations.

These benefits can arguably help you avoid instant gratification even outside of a work context. For example, if you feel the urge to binge eat, you can spend 10 minutes doing yoga instead. You’ll be less likely to feel the urge to do something that harms your health after spending 10 minutes doing something to benefit it.

Habit #4: Become Familiar With Discomfort

Walter explains that self-discipline can be uncomfortable because it often involves making ourselves do something that we don’t want to do—for instance, working instead of going to a party. However, by observing our urges to engage in unproductive behaviors and instead choosing to practice self-discipline despite its discomfort, we’ll strengthen our ability to resist those urges and persevere in hard situations.

Walter explains that one of the best ways to familiarize yourself with discomfort is to actively seek situations that take you outside of your comfort zone. For example, if you feel uncomfortable being on stage, the next time your friends want to go to a karaoke bar, join them and do a duet. This will be really difficult, but it’ll familiarize you with the feeling of discomfort and help you be more resilient to these feelings in the future.

(Shortform note: In addition to improving your self-discipline and resilience in difficult situations, experts explain that stepping outside of your comfort zone will make you more confident, creative, and in touch with yourself. However, they caution against stepping outside of your comfort zone too quickly and becoming overwhelmed: Trying new things arguably won’t be that beneficial if you’re stricken with fear the entire time. Psychologists make a few suggestions to help you embrace discomfort in a sustainable way: Stop comparing yourself to others, take baby steps, and start by entering uncomfortable situations with a friend.)

Habit #5: Practice Mindfulness and Meditation

Walter argues that practicing mindfulness—focusing on the present and controlling your thoughts and emotions—is key to improving self-discipline. This is because it’s harder to self-discipline when you’re overwhelmed by negative thoughts and emotions—especially ones about the future. If you can focus on the present moment and control your thoughts and emotions, they’ll be unable to influence your ability to self-discipline.

Walter explains that one of the best ways to develop mindfulness is to get into the habit of meditating. Over time, meditation allows you to be more mindful more often. It also produces many benefits that are directly linked to the ability to self-discipline, such as focus, rational decision-making, and delaying instant gratification.

(Shortform note: Experts agree that mindfulness and meditation are two of the most impactful practices for increasing self-discipline because they give you control over your emotions and impulses. These practices also indirectly improve self-discipline by increasing sleep quality and alleviating stress. One of the best meditation techniques to help beginners develop mindfulness and awareness of their emotions is “noting:” recording the thoughts, feelings, and urges you’re experiencing in a given moment. For example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by impulses, record the experience. This will help you realize that impulses are just thoughts to overcome.)

Habit #6: Fully Commit to Your Goals

Walter explains that, to effectively practice self-discipline, you must fully commit to your goals. When you make a commitment to “try” to do something, you’ll only make a half-hearted effort to achieve your goal, hindering your ability to self-discipline. To actually achieve your goals and strengthen your self-discipline, you must put 100% of your effort into the necessary work and truly believe that you have the ability to succeed.

(Shortform note: In The 12 Week Year, Brian Moran agrees that you won’t be inspired to hold yourself accountable (practice self-discipline) and shoot for goals if you’re not fully committed. He explains that weak commitments are a product of our subconscious intentions. For example, you might struggle to fully commit to losing weight because your subconscious wants to binge eat. These subconscious intentions have the most power over our behavior when we’re unaware of them. Therefore, to fully commit to your goals, become aware of these intentions. You can do this by identifying the limiting thoughts, beliefs, and habits that are making you subconsciously resist your goals and replacing them with more positive ones.)

Habit #7: Create Positive Associations

Walter explains that using self-discipline to force yourself to do important work won’t sustain you forever. If you truly don’t like the work you’re doing, your negative emotions surrounding the work will eventually burn out your ability to self-discipline. To avoid this outcome and maintain your self-discipline, Walter explains that you must form positive associations with the work you’re doing—even if it’s not something you particularly enjoy.

To form positive associations with your work, create a ritual that integrates things you enjoy into your work process—before, during, and after your work. Walter emphasizes that these routines must be repeated for your brain to form positive associations with your work. 

For example, before you start work, open all the curtains in your office to let the natural light in. During work, light your favorite scented candle. After work, reward yourself by cooking a nice dinner. When you repeat this routine every time you work, it’ll create a positive mental association with the work and make it easier for you to self-discipline.

Change Your Neuro-Associations to Boost Self-Discipline

In Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins agrees that rewiring your negative associations (what he calls negative neuro-associations) is crucial to engaging in productive behaviors, or in other words, practicing self-discipline. If you allow negative associations with necessary activities like work to persist, you’ll struggle to get anything done. 

However, while Walter focuses on building positive associations to replace old ones that cause unproductive behaviors, this might not be enough to completely override the original negative association. To ensure that your old associations are completely undone and replaced by new, positive ones, Robbins recommends taking a few additional steps:

1) Identify the specific change you want to make and what’s getting in your way. For example, you want to be able to work for 5 hours straight without getting distracted. You might be struggling to do this because you get bored and would prefer watching TV.

2) Create a sense of urgency to change. To do this, identify how your current associations are harming you and preventing you from becoming who you want to be. This will motivate you to start rewiring your associations immediately rather than delaying until a “convenient time.”

3) Disrupt your existing pattern of thinking. Whenever you start to feel the negative association with a certain action (like work) hitting you, do something dramatic to interrupt it. For example, whenever you start to feel the dread or boredom of work sink in, jump out of your seat and do 20 jumping jacks while singing your favorite song. This will help you break the old, negative neuro-association by distorting the neural pathways that used to connect boring work with dread and procrastination.

4) Create a positive pattern to replace the old one, and then reinforce that pattern. This step aligns with Walter’s recommendation to create a routine that builds positive associations with the activity. Robbins recommends replacing the old urge with a strictly positive behavior. For example, when you feel the urge to procrastinate, go get a cup of your favorite tea and get back to work. Once you’ve replaced the old pattern, make the new pattern a routine to enforce the new neuro-association.
How to Develop Self-Discipline: 7 Habits to Make You Stronger

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  • What self-discipline is and why we struggle with it
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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