How to build unstoppable self-discipline

Once a participant in a HabitStrong bootcamp lamented to me, “Yesterday, I wasted my whole evening watching TV – I just could not stop myself. How can I change that?” 

And he was not alone. Many of us have felt that frustration of getting sucked into doing things we regret later – be it wasting time on our smartphones, binge-eating pizzas, or just idling our time away.

We can all dream of doing big things in life, building fitness, and making enough money to retire rich. Dreaming is the easy part. The hard part is grinding it out, day after day, even when life looks bleak and our motivation fluctuates. 

In those moments, there is only one thing that comes to our rescue – self-discipline. 

But can self-discipline be built? Absolutely yes. That is what we will talk about today but let us start by understanding what self-discipline exactly is. 

What is self-discipline exactly?

Normally, our feelings dictate our actions. When we feel motivated, we work hard and pursue our goals. But when our motivation dips, so does our effort. 

In other words, quite often, our emotions determine our actions. 

The idea of self-discipline is simple: Break that link between feelings and actions. Do what you have to do regardless of how you feel.

But first, let us understand the benefits of self-discipline. 

Benefits of self-discipline

  1. Without it, we can’t achieve our goals: I have been fortunate enough to meet global fund managers, billionaires, and renowned entrepreneurs. And not one of them did it overnight. They showed up consistently. And that would not have been possible without self-discipline.
  2. Lowers stress levels: Self-discipline helps us avoid procrastinating and experiencing feelings like guilt, besides consequences such as penalties on late payments, which tend to increase stress and impact our mental and physical health.  
  3. Leverage the power of habit: Positive habits compound over time and help us build a good life. And without self-discipline, it is practically impossible to build good habits
  4. It helps us focus: In today’s age of unending distractions, staying focused on the task at hand is a superpower. With self-discipline, it gets increasingly easy to be focused.     
  5. It helps us achieve mastery: The only way to become exceptional at anything is through deliberate practice – you have to constantly push yourself beyond what you are already comfortable doing. And that requires self-discipline. (Anders Ericsson beautifully explains the concept of deliberate practice in his book).
  6. Stay motivated even when results are delayed: Nothing worthwhile in life happens instantly. Seeing results for any goal—becoming fit or learning a new skill like coding—takes time. When the outcomes are delayed, self-discipline helps us keep our eyes on the prize. 

Where does self-discipline come from?

We often think that self-discipline is some esoteric quality that people are either born with or not. For the most part, that is wrong. 

Self-discipline is like a muscle. Just as we build muscle by exercising in the gym, we can build self-discipline with the right ‘exercises.’ Remember – there are no shortcuts in life but we can build self-discipline in a scientific manner. 

Let us start by understanding the poor habits that may be holding you back from building self-discipline.

Poor habits that sabotage self-discipline

Poor habit #1: Not embracing discomfort

One big mistake we make is always seeking comfort and ease. But you might ask, ‘How can we avoid that? Is that not what our mind is wired for?’

Well, yes and no. 

It is true that we are programmed to seek pleasure. But our mind also makes certain hard things feel pleasurable. Why do people go on long treks, run marathons, or climb mountains? Surely these are extremely painful! 

People do those things because we think of them as exciting and desirable. How we think about things changes how we feel about them. 

Our minds are excellent excuse-making mechanisms. But they can also help us change the story. 

Find excitement in doing hard things – embrace them. Change the story. Push yourself and pat on your back for doing that. You will soon see your self-discipline skyrocketing.

Poor habit #2: Relying too much on willpower

While we want to have high self-discipline, try not to use willpower as your primary go-to strategy for doing something that is tough or unpleasant. There is only so much willpower that you can exercise, and soon you will tire yourself out.

There are much easier and more effective ways of doing things rather than pushing yourself through willpower. Design your surroundings in such a way that it becomes easy for you to take the action. Make it easy for you to be disciplined.

If you want to run in the mornings, lay out your shoes and gym clothes on a chair so you can easily get ready the next morning and head out. 

To study undisturbed for a couple of hours, go to a quiet library without your phone. 

If you want to eat healthy, keep fruits on your table.

Willpower has its time and place, but it should be your last resort, not the first.

Poor habit #3: Being too goal-oriented

Obviously, you need to set goals, but the trick is to not get obsessed with the outcome. Self-disciplined people stay focused on their daily actions and efforts, without getting hung up on the outcome. Focus on the process. Embrace the journey. 

Aim to control your daily actions, not the outcome. You cannot control whether you’re going to clear the UPSC exam. You can control whether you study every day and how often you study.

Realize that you can only control your actions. Consistent actions over a sufficiently long period will automatically lead to your goals.

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Poor habit #4: Extreme emphasis on “feel-good”

This one is a bit controversial, isn’t it? But hear me out. 

We indulge in different forms of feel-good activities because we feel that we deserve it after a long day of hard work. Some examples: Netflix binge, social media, alcohol, and junk food. 

And how do we justify it? We call it self-compassion. 

But it often becomes an overdose of feel-good, and a self-condoned way of procrastinating on important, but difficult things. And in the end, we feel terrible. 

Can consuming poison be called self-compassion? 

I’m not advocating giving up all worldly pleasures and living like a monk. But understand that every time you perform any activity, you’re creating neural connections in your brain. The more self-indulgent you are, the weaker your self-discipline becomes.

It is ok to take a break when you need it. It is good to forgive yourself when you fail at something. But giving up at the slightest resistance is not self-compassion.

Always seeking pleasure sabotages self-discipline. Always think long-term. 

4-step process to easily build self-discipline

Make it easy for yourself to take daily actions that will lead to massive results. Design your environment for success and put a system in place. Trust the system and your actions should become almost autopilot, without your having to dig into the scarce resource of willpower.

Here are four simple actionable steps to build self-discipline and achieve even your toughest goals.

Step 1: Have an end goal that drives you 

To be driven, you need to have an end goal that you want to achieve. Clearly visualize what it would be like once you have achieved that goal versus what your life is like now.

When you have internalized that feeling of success, you will develop the burning desire and drive to push yourself. This is the first and most important step to achieving self-discipline. 

Step 2: Build an identity around your goal

When building a new habit, it’s important to build an identity that is consistent with the type of person you want to be. 

For instance, if you are attempting to run 6 km, don’t frame the goal as “I want to run 6 km.” The goal has to be “I want to be a long-distance runner.” 

Every time you achieve a milestone—for instance, today, you completed 5 km—you further cement your identity of being a long-distance runner. Every action is a vote for a new identity you are trying to build.

Identifying yourself as a singer, runner, or writer, motivates you to be the kind of person who does those things. If you want to lose weight, your goal should be to build the identity of a fit person.

Building the right identity makes you act even on the days when you don’t feel motivated. 

Step 3: Do not renegotiate with yourself at the moment of action

Let us say, you want to build the habit of waking up early to head for a run but feel lethargic. You decide to postpone the run by 30 minutes or push it to the next day.

At that moment, you are renegotiating something you agreed upon the day before. Do not renegotiate. Instead, have an “if-then” plan, which you create in advance.

For instance, “If I feel lethargic while in bed, I shall take two steps away from it and only then snooze my alarm.” This is a simple step but a powerful one to help you stay on the self-discipline track. 

Step 4: Reframe hard things as desirable things 

We think of a trek—walking on an uphill terrain with a backpack—as exciting. On the other hand, our daily commute seems hard or undesirable, even though both activities involve walking for 5 km.

However, we’re willingly subjecting ourselves to the trek because, in our minds, it is desirable, while the daily commute is not. Well, we can change our attitude by reframing our thoughts.

Start by telling yourself a different story. What if you start thinking of your daily commute as a trek, making it more desirable? 

Reframe hard goals as desirable things that you don’t need to do, but want to do. 

In conclusion 

Here’s a true story of self-discipline. The comedian and actor Jim Carrey attempted his first stand-up comedy act at age 15. Though the act bombed, he continued to do stand-up comedy for years at various clubs.

During those early days, he would constantly visualize what success would look like and even wrote himself a check for $10 million for “acting services rendered,” dated the year 1995.

That was the year Jim Carrey received his first payday and went on to become a Hollywood sensation. 

Imagine the self-discipline and grit it would have taken him to become one of the most successful Hollywood actors.

You can write your own success story too, by building the skill and habit of self-discipline.

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