5 Practical Ways to Develop Self-Discipline

5 Practical Ways to Develop Self-Discipline
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You desperately want things to change.

In fact, you’ve tried making changes several times, but year after year, you’re no closer to achieving your goals. Despite your best intentions, you’ve made little progress.

On the other hand, you have no trouble keeping up with Game of Thrones (or whatever your favorite TV show is) and regularly checking your email and social media accounts.

It’s frustrating and you’re annoyed with yourself for not being more focused and committed to your goals.

The root cause is that you lack self-discipline.

What is self-discipline, and why is it important for achieving your goals?

The Oxford dictionary defines self-discipline as “the ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses,” while the Cambridge dictionary defines it as “the ability to make yourself do things that you do not want to do.”

Effectively, self-discipline means saying no in the short term, to achieve your goals in the long term. It is a learned behavior and is similar to a muscle, requiring consistent daily practice in order to keep it strong.

Every day we are faced with demands on our time and energy that often conflict with our values and goals. Strong self-discipline is required to manage these frequent demands.

A study by Wilhelm Hofmann and colleagues reported that people with self-discipline were more able to deal with these goal conflicts and control their behavioral and emotional impulses, thus enabling them to achieve their long-term goals. The same study reported that people with high self-discipline were more likely to be happy in the short term. The more self-discipline they had, the more satisfied with their lives they were said to be.

The main reason you lack self-discipline

We’ve established that self-discipline is necessary to achieve your goals. However, as I’m sure you’ve experienced, it can sometimes be impossible to trigger. One of the main reasons people struggle with self-discipline is a lack of clarity around exactly why they want to achieve their goals.

Are your goals your own, or are they goals you were told to pursue? Did you feel pressured into chasing those goals by family, friends, or society?

Knowing why you want to achieve your long-term goals will make it easier to resist daily temptations. Additionally, your goals should inspire and excite you. Self-discipline alone will not be enough to keep you moving forward.

Hoffman’s study found that the urge to watch television, surf the web, check email, and use social media proved to be too much for the participants, and they failed almost half the time when trying to avoid these activities. Therefore it is vital that your “why” is stronger than these daily distractions.

How to develop the self-discipline to achieve your goals

Self-discipline is effectively a habit. According to Hal Elrod, author of the book The Morning Miracle, you can change a habit in 30 days if you have the right strategy.

Here are 5 practical ways that if followed consistently, will help you to develop self-discipline and achieve your long term goals:

Start small

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “life’s a marathon, not a sprint.” This also applies to your long-term goals.

Having a huge goal such as becoming a millionaire will feel overwhelming and while it may motivate you initially, it is more likely to intimidate you when you encounter obstacles and challenges. This is especially true if your goal is something you’ve never attempted before or that you’ve failed at in the past.

Action: Pick one area of your life you want to change and set a small goal. E.g. If your overall goal is to lose 30kgs, you can start with a goal of losing 5 kgs initially.


When you decide to develop your self-discipline, life continues as usual. You’ll still be faced with the same demands and distractions. These act as cues that cause a certain behavioral response. To develop self-discipline, you must resist your typical response and keep in mind your long-term goals.

By visualizing in advance the different scenarios that may challenge your self-discipline, you are more able to control your response when the situation arises.

Action: Think about possible scenarios that may challenge your self-discipline. Consider each in detail — the sounds, colors, and smells. What would your typical response be, and how is it different when you act with strong self-discipline? Make notes and review regularly to ensure you’re prepared should you find your self-discipline being challenged.

Prioritize essential and enjoyable tasks

If you dislike a task, no amount of self-discipline will keep you committed to it over the long term.

Even an extremely compelling “why” may not be enough to motivate you to start a task you hate. If you despise the gym, it is unlikely that you’ll achieve your small goal of losing 5 kgs, let alone your overall goal of losing 50.

You’d be better off participating in an activity you enjoy. For example, if you enjoy dancing, you may want to consider joining a dance class instead.

There will be times, however, when you are required to do tasks you hate in order to move towards your longer-term goals. Author Brian Tracy advises in his bestselling book, Eat that Frog, that you do your most unpleasant tasks first. The premise being once you’ve got the worse task out of the way, things can only get better.

Action: Make a list of the tasks you need to take over the next few months to move you toward your long-term goals. Identify the tasks that are essential and those you enjoy. Prioritize the essential tasks, followed by those you will enjoy or have the skills for.

Spend more time with self-disciplined people

Jim Rohn famously said, “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

This means, to increase your chances of achieving your long-term goals, you need to surround yourself with people who not only have similar goals but who also have strong self-discipline. If you are surrounded by people who simply talk about their goals but take zero action, you will be more likely to do the same and feel less guilty about doing so.

Surround yourself with people who have strong self-discipline and are committed to achieving their long-term goals. It’s probable that you will start to adopt similar behavior and develop stronger self-discipline.

Action: Assess your current environment. Are you surrounded by highly motivated people with strong self-discipline? If not, identify places, events, and groups you can attend to start meeting people who have strong self-discipline. Mastermind groups are often a good place to start.

Avoid temptation

Another finding from Hofmann’s study was that people with strong self-discipline were not necessarily better at resisting temptation, but rather avoided situations that require them to use self-discipline in the first place.

If your long-term goal is to save rs 10,00,000 and you know that every time you go shopping, you purchase the latest gadget or pair of shoes, it’s a good idea to avoid shopping.

Likewise, if your goal is to lose weight and you’re someone who eats out a couple of times a week, it makes sense to start preparing your meals at home to avoid indulging in food that does not support your weight loss goal.

Action: Reflect on a typical week or month and identify the times and places where your self-discipline is at its weakest. Put contingency in place to reduce the chances of temptation. E.g. if you normally meet up for dinner with friends a few nights a week, perhaps you can invite them over to your place for a healthy dinner instead.

Key Takeaways

  • Self-discipline is a habit that is developed over time by consistent training.
  • Identifying a compelling “why” for your goals will help you to maintain strong self-discipline when faced with inevitable challenges and setbacks
  • Your environment has a strong influence on your self-discipline so become aware of the people you spend the most time with and the situations that challenge your self-discipline.
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