“To get what you want, you have to be disciplined.” I remember first hearing these words as a thirteen-year-old girl from my soccer coach and thinking to myself, “Yeah, whatever!”. What did discipline have to do with winning soccer games or anything else for that matter?
Cultivating a sense of self-discipline is the foundation upon which you can successfully start reaching your goals and refine your habits to enjoy life every day of the week. And a little self-discipline is often the magic sauce that helps you get from where you are to where you want to be.
In this article, I will help you better understand how you can start embracing self-discipline and use it to your advantage to get exactly what you want out of life.
What is discipline exactly?
When I first hear the word, I automatically associate it with a negative meaning like punishment or being a rigid person with no sense of flexibility.
Research psychologists have formally defined self-discipline as:
The ability and will to do what needs doing for as long as it needs to be done and to learn from the results of one’s efforts.
When put this way, I almost associate self-discipline better with the word determination. When I started viewing self-discipline in this light, it became a desirable trait instead of sounding like someone who avoided having fun.
And according to the research, it seems the earlier we learn the art of self-discipline the better. A study in 2011 found that children who exhibited better self-discipline were more likely to be successful as adults regardless of their IQ score or socioeconomic background.
While thirteen-year-old me probably wouldn’t appreciate the data regarding self-discipline, adult me finds it a pretty convincing case that makes it a trait worth cultivating.
Discipline predicts success
When I take the time to reflect on where I have succeeded and where I have failed throughout the course of my life, it often boils down to whether I was practicing self-discipline or not.
I know that my success throughout grad school was a result of staying disciplined in my studies and prioritizing my studies over weekends spent going out for three dreadful years. And when I fail to run a race at my goal pace, I can easily point to skipped workouts or poor nutrition the night before the race as the culprit for my lack of success.
It was never talent or luck that predicted my success or failure. It was almost always self-discipline that could be identified as the underlying factor that determined my fate.
And the research confirms that we have to stop using a lack of talent or luck as an excuse when we don’t succeed. A study in 2005 found that self-discipline was a better predictor of academic success than IQ.
In other words, you can be born with the right toolbox, but if you don’t practice the art of sharpening your tools you simply are not as likely to succeed.
In many ways, I find this data encouraging because it puts me back in control of my own destiny. And this is what has convinced the older version of me to pursue the continual art of learning self-discipline.
5 ways to be more disciplined
So if you’re ready to take back control of your life and become the type of disciplined person who achieves their goals, then these 5 tips were made just for you.
1. Remind yourself of your why daily
Developing more discipline becomes a real drag if you don’t know the why behind your behavior. It’s important to start by understanding exactly what it is that you want to achieve or develop within yourself.
And once you know that “why”, you have to consistently remind yourself of it so that you stay disciplined for the long term.
When I first started to rock climb, I had a particular route that I really wanted to be able to climb by the end of the year. The factor that limited me in being able to finish the route was one particular hold that relied on what is called a “crimp” grip. In other words, you had to be able to confidently hang from just your fingertip pads on a small hold to be able to do the move.
I knew in order to be able to do this I had to start doing hang board training, which is where you hang for sustained durations from small holds on a wooden board. I found this type of training terribly boring and would much rather just climb with my friends instead.
But I decided to get serious about this goal and I taped a picture of the route on my bathroom mirror. Each day when I brushed my teeth I saw the picture and it motivated me to want to get on the hang board to do my holds.
Without a “why”, it would have been easy to blow off the hang board training. But the consistent daily reminder helped me form a habit that allowed me to successfully climb the route by the end of the year.
2. Take baby steps
When it comes to self-discipline and achieving goals, it can be tempting to go from 0 to 100. But what typically ends up being more sustainable is focusing on becoming 1% better each day.
This one is particularly helpful for me when it comes to my diet and nutrition. I used to be the kind of girl who said, “Okay that’s it! I’m cutting out sugar completely”. And then two days later I would binge three Little Debbie cakes and feel disappointed in myself yet again.
By instead focusing on drinking an additional cup of water each day and replacing my chocolatey desserts at night with whole fruits, I was able to make long-term changes that helped my nutrition and overall wellness.
Whether it’s your diet or some other area in life, don’t put your foot on the gas pedal if you want to cultivate true discipline. You’re better off setting yourself up for a smooth ride by easing in using cruise control.
3. Give yourself obvious cues
If you’re struggling to stay disciplined or find yourself easily knocked off your rocker, you may want to be intentional about giving yourself obvious cues for the behavior or mindset you want to cultivate.
As a very visual person myself, having obvious cues has been incredibly powerful in helping me stay disciplined in pursuit of my goals. I still use this tip when it comes to my nutrition.
I started to set out fruit on my counter to make it an easier snack option. And I started to cut my vegetables and put them in storage containers that were easily accessible on the top shelves of my fridge.
You’d be surprised how simple cues like this encourage you to perform desirable behaviors and make staying disciplined that much easier. Manipulate your environment to help you succeed.
4. Eliminate unhelpful temptations
And on the note of manipulating your environment, you can also make less than desirable behaviors harder to do by reducing unhelpful temptations.
Yes, I’m talking about that undeniably delicious bag of Doritos or that video game controller that sits out on your coffee table calling your name each night. Once again, you can use the power of cues from your environment to help you develop a better sense of discipline.
And you might be thinking to yourself, “Am I really being disciplined if I have to remove the temptations from my environment?” My answer is yes because it takes discipline to be intentional about placing yourself in an environment that sets you up for success.
And if skipping the chip aisle in the grocery store isn’t considered a form of self-discipline, then I don’t know what is.
5. Use a habit calendar or tracker
You know that feeling you get when you cross something off your to-do list? It’s a perfectionist’s form of reaching daily nirvana I’ve decided. But being able to consistently put a little checkmark on my calendar next to a new habit or behavior I am working on gives me a similar sensation.
It also helps keep me motivated because I am reminded of what I am aiming to achieve every day.
You could use your phone calendar or fill up a jar with marbles each day you successfully demonstrate discipline in relation to the behavior or change you are trying to make.
It may seem simple, but being able to check off the “move your body” box every day on my calendar gives me the nudge to get out the door for my workout on the days when the couch is calling my name.
And with enough time, you’ll find that you may not need a tracker any longer because self-discipline and behavior change just become a natural part of your life.
💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, we've condensed the information of 100's of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇
Instantly Improve Your Mental Health For Free
Thrive under stress and crush your goals with these 10 instant tips for your mental health.
Being disciplined is not a trait reserved for fuddy-duddy folks who never smile. If you use the tips from this article to develop self-discipline, you will find yourself experiencing a new form of freedom and success that may have once seemed unattainable. Take it from “adult me” who wishes she would have actually listened to her soccer coach all those years ago when he said, “To get what you want, you have to be disciplined.”
Do you consider yourself to be a disciplined person? What's your favorite tip that has helped you become more disciplined? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!