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Discipline. Self control. Determination. Focus. Willpower. Tenacity. Mental fortitude.
These are all words and phrases that we use to describe the idea of “making yourself do what needs to be done, without being distracted or giving up.” It’s quite possibly one of the most admirable and powerful skills you can develop. In a study published in the Journal of Personality in 2004 by June P. Tangney, Roy F. Baumeister, and Angie Luzio Boone, it was found that high self control was the single greatest psychological indicator in children of success later in life. More indicative than IQ, EQ, or any other mental measure or test, the ability to exercise self discipline predicted better future grades, relationships, resistance to addictions, better adjustment, and overall personal well being.
If you’re in the fitness or personal improvement realm for any period of time, you’ll constantly hear of people asking how to “stay motivated,” and this is always met with responses along the lines of, “don’t strive for motivation, strive for self discipline.” The problem is, this is frequently where the advice ends. How does one build discipline? What is the starting point? Is it even possible to gain self control?
Before we go any further, let me put that last question to rest. Yes, it is possible to increase self discipline, to “learn” the skill of exerting it, and “train” to increase your brain’s capacity for self control. I know this both from research from the likes of Roy Baumeister, and also from my own personal and anecdotal experiences.
More often than not, people looking to build self discipline take cues from movie (or anime show) montages, and throw themselves into some sort of ridiculous training regimen of some sort. They may start some ridiculous rigid diet plan, or resolve to take ice cold showers every single day. Shortly after making this change, they run out of steam, fail, and then feel horrible about themselves. Or, people just think about that kind of personal training, and give up immediately because of how absolutely drastic it is.
Yes, maintaining a strict exercise regimen, a measured diet, or a cold shower regimen can build self discipline. But for most of us, especially those who are asking the question, “How do I build self discipline?” that’s kind of like trying to deadlift a car when you’ve never even picked up a barbell. You’re setting yourself up for failure, and the one rare person who succeeds is the mother whose child was trapped under that car.
So, then, how do we do it? How do we increase our own self control?
The answer is quite simple, actually.
You know how your grandparents told you to sit up properly in your chair, or to stop chewing with your mouth open, or to make your bed every morning? There’s actually some serious merit to that. Your grandparents probably lived through a time of much fewer resources, and a much more reserved culture, where self discipline was actually key to survival, and these small habits actually increase your personal self discipline significantly.
Don’t believe me? Here’s another example: In any given modern military, a recruit goes through rigorous initial training, usually referred to as boot camp. In boot camp, you’re taught many, many new skills, and have to relearn even more new skills. You’re punished for having an unmade bed, an un-presentable uniform, or for not following any procedure to the letter, even the most mundane. Sometimes especially the most mundane. This is part of the break-you-down, build-you-back-up process that’s part of every boot camp, however the building-back-up portion usually has almost every single daily task regimented and practiced to the point of complete habit.
Think of the most successful people you know. Heck, think of the most successful people in the world. All of them have mundane, sometimes insignificant habits that don’t make much sense to you or I, maybe. Maybe these habits seem like they don’t have any purpose. Make no mistake, however, these habits are the very core of their inner strength.
Habits, my friend, are the secret to leveraging and building self discipline. They actually build your self discipline in two ways. First off, the act of developing, reinforcing, and adopting a new habit works your mental “discipline” muscles. Self discipline is a skill that you must train your brain to perform, and building a new habit is the equivalent of a sparring session for a martial artist, or an hour of shooting free throws for a basketball player. Building a new habit, no matter how big or how small, trains your neurons to reinforce their own positive connections better, faster, and more efficiently.
Secondly, the act of building a new beneficial habit actually improves your life, while taking a load off of your brain. Your willpower is a limited daily resource. Making decisions (even pleasant ones,) abstaining from bad things, and enduring stress all deplete your willpower. Food helps replenish it by giving your body glucose, and sleep will basically restore you back to full. Building habits requires adding at least one extra decision to your day, depleting your willpower, however once that habit becomes, well, habit, and you no longer have to think about it consciously, then you have added a beneficial element to your life permanently without your brain having to devote energy to it any longer.
This decreases your overall stress level, increases your physical and mental health, and generally improves you as a person. This serves as a positive reinforcement to your brain, improves your sense of self worth, and gives you a nice shot of happy-chemicals for accomplishing your goal of establishing a new habit. These things ALL contribute to an increase in your own self discipline.
SO, now that we know what we need to do, it’s time to pick a habit! Here’s where we need to be careful. Remember, being too ambitious sets you up for failure. Additionally, any beneficial habit will increase your self discipline, no matter what size. So, I recommend you absolutely start with something super simple. Here’s a few ideas for you to try, all of which have proven results:
- Floss every morning and every night. I actually discuss this in RPG Fitness as well. Flossing has a whole host of benefits, including being linked to longer life span!
- Make your bed every morning. Taking a cue from the military on this one. It can also help you wake up in the morning. Do it the second you get out of bed!
- Self-correct your posture throughout the day. As you go throughout your day, every time the thought of this pops into your head, force yourself to sit up or stand up straight, shoulders back, and make sure your core muscles are engaged.
- Smile every time you think of it. Similar to the posture self correction. Smiling has the additional benefit of boosting your mood and energizing you a bit, even if the smile is “forced.”
- Wash at least one dirty dish every time you’re in the kitchen. If the dishes are all clean, wipe down a counter top, throw out something spoiled in the fridge, tidy up the spices, anything!
- Walk for at least ten minutes every day. No crazy exercise regimen here, just get in at least ten minutes of continuous movement (especially outside, if you can manage.) You’ll probably find yourself stretching this longer if you are able, but don’t worry about that, just focus on the minimum ten minutes, every day.
- Meditate for at least five minutes every day. I try to fit this in once in the morning, and once at night. Haven’t meditate before? Here’s a handy-dandy meditation guide!
Now, yes, those sound incredibly simple, but I’m willing to bet you aren’t already doing all of them. In fact, if you are, I doubt you’d still be reading this article as you probably don’t need much help in the self discipline area. There are, of course, other habits you can go with, as well. You’ve probably got a couple ideas yourself, as well (just make sure you do them daily, and that they are super, super simple.) Now, here’s the other key: PICK ONE.
I cannot stress this enough. Pick ONE of those things to incorporate into your life at a time. The general rule of thumb to acquire a new habit is that takes around 21 days, however I would say spend a month on each one, to make sure it’s really drilled down in there. We’re only on April 4th right now, so it’s the perfect time to pick up a new one! Now it may seem tedious, and useless to spend on the above exercises, but trust me, the changes in your life will expand far beyond the single task you’re putting upon yourself every day.
If you work to acquire even six new habits every year, and you keep that schedule up, I guarantee you will become the most productive, happy, and self-disciplined person in your social circle. If you really stick to it, and add one simple habit per month, for a total of twelve a year, you may very well become one of the most outstanding human beings in the world.
I’m not joking about this. The inherent power in building self discipline through simple habits is incredible. Speaking as someone who has effectively re-engineered his life over the past nine months, I can tell you that the life-altering abilities that developing self discipline will grant you are almost immeasurable. What starts as flossing every day, may one day turn into becoming a millionaire, or a world famous athlete, or an internationally recognized athlete, or a CEO of one of the most powerful companies in the world.
You can effect great change in your life, by adding just one small change at a time.
Live boldly, change the world, and continue to be awesome.
Dan “DaRatmastah” Wallace