Photo by Hannes Caspar
“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.”
When I recently told an acquaintance I worked at home full-time, she commented how difficult that would be for her.
“I’d never have the kind of discipline to do that,” she said. “I’d get distracted and wouldn’t get a thing done.”
Over the past several years, many people have commented on how disciplined I am, from my workouts to my diet to my career. It’s not to say I haven’t had a few donuts or skipped the gym a number of times, but generally I can motivate myself to do something regardless of how I’m feeling.
Many people think of discipline as a tough-love thing. Conventional wisdom often says the harder you are on yourself, the better off you’ll be. I disagree. I think it’s important to approach this topic with care and compassion. Know your limits — it’s the easiest way to expand them.
While I share these tips to improve your discipline, it helps to think of it as a cumulative process. The more you use it, the more you have. Look at it like you would a language. You’re not going to master it in one week or even a year. But consistent practice will make it second-nature after a while.
1. Find the little tricks that motivate you
You could call these baby steps. What is one tiny thing you could do to push yourself toward the action you don’t feel like doing?
When I don’t feel like working out, I know the easiest way to get me to do it is to put my gym clothes on. When I don’t feel like cooking, making a grocery list gets me more in the mood.
By employing these baby steps, you can often convince yourself you actually do want to finish that project, clean the bathroom or organize a fundraiser. It’s just a matter of taking one step. Sooner or later, you’ll want to put another foot in front of that one.
2. Ask yourself why
Look deeply into the reason you want to quit. Implore yourself: Why don’t I want to start? Chances are the answer isn’t that you’re being lazy (although those rainy days make it hard for me to get moving), it’s that you’re afraid.
Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of criticism. These are huge stumbling blocks for many of us. I had a hard time writing this article; I kept putting it off. It finally dawned on me that I was worried about being criticized.
Once I recognized that I was acting out of fear instead of being frustrated with my procrastination, I could take real action. I gave myself a pep talk, reminding myself of previous times I’d written well with minimal, and mostly constructive, criticism.
Recognizing when you’re acting out of fear gives you compassion for yourself, giving you the opportunity to move forward instead beating yourself down and holding yourself back.
3. Recognize triggers that diminish your discipline
We all have them, and they don’t necessarily have to be labeled “bad” things either. Often it’s just an issue of timing.
For me, I won’t cook dinner if I know I’ve still got some work to finish. In my mind, cooking signals the end of my day. Work-related things sort of melt into the background for me. Most of the time, it’s a good thing. It’s a way to unwind from my day. But if I’m running up against deadline, I’ll ask my husband to cook or we’ll grab take-away.
It’s not as though you have to stop hanging out with that friend who always keeps you out late. It’s just better to skip it if you have to get up early the next morning. Know thyself, right? It goes a long way to cultivating discipline.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you the number of times I just forget to focus. I’ll be in the middle of writing and suddenly I’ll be reading a blog post. Or mucking around on Twitter. How did I get here, I wonder.
When I notice myself doing this, I say the word outloud. “Focus.” Often that’s all it takes for me to return to the task at hand with renewed vigor. Giving yourself a command out loud tends to wake you up a little.
5. Envision yourself being finished with the task
This one works great for me if I’m really struggling. Generally I’m one of those people that will finish something once I start, so if I’m entertaining the idea of quitting half-way through, I know I need to play some mind games.
During a particularly grueling workout, I really considered calling it quits. I had worked hard enough, I told myself. I took a minute and saw myself drinking a glass of chocolate almond milk afterward. It did the trick.
See yourself celebrating after you finish a project at work. Peer into your mind’s eye and you’ll find you’re enjoying a good book in your newly painted living room. Often this is just the thing to get you moving in the right direction.
6. Get to know your willpower
Willpower is a critical part of discipline, although they aren’t exactly the same thing. Discipline is what gets you out of bed every morning to train for that marathon. Willpower is what you need when you had a bad night’s sleep, it’s cold and your bed couldn’t be cozier.
We all have a power source within us that can push us beyond what we thought we were capable of. It’s how we push through a hard day at work when we know we can’t take time off. Or how we skip the beautiful dessert tray at a decadent restaurant.
Pay attention to when you draw on this source. When does it work best for you? When do you feel it wane? I find that my will power is strongest in the morning, so that’s when I schedule things I know I’ll need a little push to get through.
Your willpower is a valuable resource, so get familiar with it. Maybe it struggles if you’re hungry. You could keep some healthy snacks on hand to get you through difficult times. View it as one of your closest friends. Treasure it, nurture it and you’ll be able to count on it down the line.
7. Remember: If it was easy, everyone would be good at it
Make this your mantra. What you’re doing is extremely difficult, so try to be as understanding as you can with yourself.
When I’m pushing my limits, I notice I get really crabby and angry at myself. I should be able to handle this, I think. That’s when I know it’s time to have a heart-to-heart with my brain. I’m allowed to make mistakes. I’m allowed to take time off. This isn’t easy.
Be kind to yourself, especially when first starting on your journey toward improving your discipline. It’s a long road, and if you start out by putting yourself down, you’re not going to make it very far. Hard work is hard work. Don’t make it more difficult with negative self-talk.
Discipline is one of those fundamental skills that make life easier and can help your dreams come true. The more you sharpen it, the better that tool will become. Over time, you’ll be able to do anything you set your mind to.
About the Author
Rebecca is a fierce optimist who believes in the power of making life happen. After realizing optimism doesn’t jive with journalism, she left newspaper to create her own brand of marketing through education and humor. Balance and mindfulness are her latest pursuits, along with learning to knit. Read her blog and follow her on Twitter for her latest enthusiastic (and sometimes witty) remarks.
>> Click here to see all articles written by Rebecca.
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