Master Self-Discipline: 10 Easy-to-Follow Strategies that Work

Master Self-Discipline (Easy-to-Follow Strategies that Work)
Table of Contents

Have you ever noticed that some people seem to have swallowed a pill for mastering self-discipline? They’re relentless when it comes to exercise. They visit the gym as often as others visit their refrigerators.

And what about those who can walk by a lush buttercream cake without feeling the slightest temptation to take just a little nibble?

You may think these people must have been blessed with natural self-discipline, like an artist gets kissed by his muse.

Many people think that mastering self-discipline is something innate. You’re either born with it or not. If you find yourself struggling to stick to your goals, you may feel that you are in the latter camp.

Thankfully, researchers have confirmed that self-discipline can be learned. You can improve with knowledge of specific strategies, practice, and methods to support self-discipline. We can even learn to enjoy the hard work that comes with it.

So, let’s roll up our sleeves and build self-discipline.

But first, let’s look at how self-discipline is defined and its benefits.

What is self-discipline?

Self-discipline has many names. We call it self-control, determination, drive, or simply discipline. Psychologists often refer to it as willpower.

Self-discipline means having the ability to forgo immediate desires in favor of your long-term goals. So, it makes you do things you know you should, even if you don’t feel like doing them.

In other words, self-discipline is the delay of instant gratification.

For example, if you want to save for a vacation, self-discipline helps you resist impulsive purchases to reach your savings goal.


Don’t give up what you want most for what you want now.
~ Richard G. Scott


Mastering self-discipline is hard – this is why

Battle of the Brains

The prefrontal cortex and the limbic system are two parts of your brain that are in constant battle with each other.

Limbic System and Prefrontal Cortex

The limbic system controls your emotions and instincts. On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex is governed by logic. Its motto is “let’s think this through before making a decision,” while the limbic system is all about gut reactions.

The limbic system is powerful and fast. It is the seat of your fight-or-flight reaction and was designed to manage life-or-death circumstances without time for forethought.

Think about it – back then, when saber-tooth tigers meant a real threat to one’s survival, taking the time to analyze whether the big tiger in front of you fancies a snack would have tremendously decreased your chance of survival. So those that analyzed life or death situations tended to perish—and thus couldn’t pass on the trait of analyzing decisions in-depth before taking action.

The limbic system also contains the brain’s reward system. Within this system, specific brain regions produce a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which creates positive feelings like pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. When you engage in a behavior that causes a dopamine release, you are more likely to repeat that behavior.

It’s naturally ingrained in our brains to seek pleasure and avoid pain – a tendency that does not support self-discipline (e.g., not eating that piece of chocolate cake in favor of future health goals).

Therefore, when the limbic system is in control, you are likelier to procrastinate or cave to instant gratification. This can erode your willpower and make it more difficult for you to maintain consistency.

Fastest vs. optimal reaction

And herein lies the dilemma. The limbic system wants the fastest reaction, while the prefrontal cortex wants the most measured response. And both want to make the call for you.

However, the limbic system has the advantage of responding automatically, which preserves valuable brain energy. And since your brain doesn’t like to waste energy, it can put the prefrontal cortex at a disadvantage for fast decision-making. As a result, it often takes second place after your limbic system in decisions.

In fact, a study from the University of British Columbia shows that our brains are hardwired to conserve energy [1]. That’s why building habits is essential to master self-discipline. When a habit becomes automated, carrying it out uses much less brain energy. However, before habits become second nature, you must rely on your prefrontal cortex to take action.

But before you go on and curse the limbic system, let’s take a step back and acknowledge that it is ultimately beneficial. Just think about its essential fight-or-flight response, e.g., jumping out of the way of an oncoming car.

As you can see, both of these brain systems are valuable. We only need to make sure that the prefrontal cortex wins more often in the battle of our wanted behaviors.

The benefits of self-discipline

There’s an ever-growing body of evidence around self-discipline and how it may positively impact your life. If you learn to help your prefrontal cortex win more decisions, benefits to look forward to are:

  • Stable, healthy weight
  • Fewer medical conditions in adulthood
  • Fewer mental illnesses
  • More successful careers
  • Higher educational achievements
  • Higher self-esteem
  • Better interpersonal skills
  • Fewer cases of substance abuse
  • More committed relationships
  • Less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors
  • Being more trusted by others
  • Stable romantic relationships

Overall, it’s unsurprising that various studies confirmed a link between high self-discipline and higher life satisfaction [2].

10 Strategies to master self-discipline

Mastering self-discipline can be challenging at first, but we don’t have to get defeated by it. There are many strategies you can use to help you improve.

Remember the battle between the two brains? Emotion vs. logic and fastest vs. optimal reaction. To be more self-disciplined, you should work with the brain’s limitations, not against them. The following strategies work because they don’t challenge the brain’s inclination but go around it.

Strategies to Master Self Discipline

Set specific goals and have a plan of action

Mastering self-discipline means being serious about a goal, making it mandatory and not optional.

You do that by being specific in what you want to achieve and creating a concrete action plan. A goal like “I want to be fitter and be more disciplined with food” is too vague to be helpful.

What does it mean to you to be fitter? Do you want to run a half marathon or just not be puffed out after walking up two flights of stairs? What does it mean to be more disciplined with food?

What will you do to achieve it? Write your goals and the actions that will help you achieve them.

GoalsActions
I want to be fitterI will go to the Nordic Walking class on Tuesday and Thursday and the gym for weightlifting on Sundays.  
I want to be more disciplined with foodI will stop buying Oreo Cookies and Doritos chips. I will replace all sugary drinks with water and eat fruit as my afternoon snack instead of a snicker bar.  

Support your goal with a realistic timeline

Imagine you’re getting all revved up and motivated to take action toward a newly set goal after listening to your favorite YouTuber reveling in a story about how he accomplished something significant.

You have no clue about the topic or how to get started, but hey, “how hard can it be,” and you jump into it naively only to quickly notice, “damn, this is harder than I thought,” to then quit altogether after less than six weeks.

Unrealistic expectations can be an indicator of false hope syndrome. This phenomenon explains how people often enter a cycle of starting and quitting overly ambitious goals, leading to disappointment and a loss of motivation.

An unrealistic timeframe can lead to stress or overwhelm that triggers your emotional brain, making it less likely to bring up the self-discipline to stick it out.

What can you do instead? Be realistic when setting your goals. Consider your starting point, resources, and what you can reasonably expect from yourself. When you accurately assess your goal’s difficulty, you will create more realistic challenges, which in turn will have a smaller impact on your motivation.

Unrealistic Goal/TimelineRealistic Goal/Timeline
Running a marathon in four weeks, but you haven’t been running more than 6 miles (10 km) yet.It takes between 16 and 20 weeks to train.
Earning one million dollars within one year, but you’re a mid-management IT Consultant with no assets or investment portfolio.Consult with a financial consultant to discover your investing options to build up funds for retirement.
Losing 20 pounds (9 kg) in one week.Losing 4 to 8 pounds (2 to 4 kg) in one month.

This brings us to the following strategy to stay on track with your goals. Tricking your brain into believing the goal is much closer than it actually is.

Create micro-goals

Giant goals may not only be unrealistic but also demoralizing.

Imagine you’re an author, and your publisher requires you to write 90,000 words for a book due in six months.  

That’s a pretty daunting task. You may decide that writing 500 words here and there won’t make a difference. So, you may feel too overwhelmed even to get started.

But what if you broke down your goal into smaller milestones? You could aim to write 15,000 words a month and break that further down to 3,500 words per week.

Now your goal is less intimidating. 3,500 words per week is only around 700 words a day. You can even write 350 words in the morning and 350 in the evening. That doesn’t sound too bad.

Beat resistance by creating micro-goals
Beat resistance by creating micro-goals

Setting smaller goals requires less self-discipline because it reduces the required amount of activation energy. Activation energy is the energy or effort required to initiate a particular behavior or action.

In addition, because your goal is small, you trick your brain into thinking the finish line is much closer than it actually is.

For example, as you approach your 700-word count for the day, you’ll start working with more effort. This makes it easier to maintain your self-discipline. In contrast, you may never feel this way when looking at the end goal of 90,000 words.

This phenomenon is called the goal gradient effect, first proposed by behaviorist Clark Hull in 1932. According to the goal gradient, people tend to increase their efforts as they get closer to accomplishing their goals [3].

The takeaway is that smaller tasks are less intimidating for your brain and create the impression that your goal is within reach.

Form routines and good habits

One single action won’t take you to your goal, but a series of repeated actions will. To ensure you are completing steps consistently, incorporate them into your routine. Eventually, these good behaviors will transform into automated habits. Performing a habit takes much less brain power than bringing up self-discipline.

If you give your brain a choice between going to the gym or watching another episode of The Witcher, it will default to the path of least resistance. Following a set daily routine removes the thinking process from the equation, which makes it easier to stay on track with your goals.

Let’s say you want to write a book and thus incorporate writing as part of your daily routine.

Your daily morning routine might look like this: Waking up and brushing your teeth, having a shower, putting on clothes, making a cup of coffee, reading the news while enjoying your coffee. After that, you make and eat your breakfast.

To integrate writing into this routine, you can write for one hour before breakfast. So, after making a cup of coffee, you sit down, write, and push reading the news to breakfast time.


You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
~ James Clear


Shape your environment

Make it hard to do the wrong things

Self-discipline is like the life bar of a computer game character. Whenever you resist temptation, the bar —or your willpower— decreases. Therefore, if you design your environment temptation-free, you make it easier for yourself to preserve your limited willpower throughout your day.

For example, leaving a jar of cookies on the kitchen table when trying to lose weight isn’t the best idea.

Whenever you enter the kitchen and may not even think about getting a cookie, you’ll be tempted to grab one on your way out. You might resist the temptation a few times. However, doing it continuously will eventually wear down your willpower and thus result in a cookie in your mouth.

Instead, place all the sweets in a cupboard, or don’t buy them in the first place. Because, often, our behavior is just a response to our environment. In these cases, it’s true to say, “out of sight, out of mind.”

Make it easy to do the right things

Removing temptations is one way to make the environment work in your favor.

Another way to support your goals is to design your environment to support the behavior you want to encourage.

Here are some examples:

GoalShape the environment
Drink 64 oz (2 liters) of water a dayHave two 32 oz (1 liter) water bottles sitting on your desk
Eat more fruitsPlace fruits in a large bowl and put on the kitchen counter or visibly in the fridge
Move more over the dayDrink lots of water, so you have to walk to the bathroom more often, then make an extra round through the office before returning to your desk

Train your willpower

Train your willpower
Train your willpower by gradually extending the activity.

Research suggests willpower is like a muscle; you can improve self-discipline with training [4].

Building up your willpower requires simple but consistent actions. If you crave ice cream, wait ten minutes before you get it from the freezer. Then, slowly add more time between your urge and your action.

You can also use this technique to encourage behaviors you want to do for longer. Tired during a run? Tell yourself to keep going just five minutes longer — next time, run six minutes longer, and so on.

You will slowly build your discipline, and it will become easier over time.

Visualize your future self

Humans make their decisions based on gaining pleasure or avoiding pain. Everything you do in the day comes down to one of those two scenarios.

Bad habits like eating cake, watching Netflix, and scrolling through Facebook all feel great in the moment. On the other hand, a strenuous workout can feel quite uncomfortable in the short term.

This line of thinking can minimize poor long-term outcomes to justify immediate gratification. Smoking is a prime example. People smoke cigarettes despite the risk of future health issues.

The brain places a far higher emphasis on rewards in the present over future consequences, even though these future consequences may, at a logical level, far outweigh the present pleasure.

So, when you feel the urge to indulge, you can get emotional and disconnect from your future self.

In one study, researchers confirmed that people who can connect to their future selves are more likely to make better decisions concerning their future. Participants in that study who were shown edited photographs that depicted themselves at retirement age put twice as much money into their retirement fund than the control group who weren’t shown such pictures [9].

The 10-10-10 exercise effectively makes your logical brain take over again and connect with your future self. Before you give in an urge, ask yourself: How would you feel about your decision in 10 minutes, 10 hours, and 10 days? These questions help you to see how short-term the pleasure is.

How would I feel about eating fried chicken for lunch in 10 minutes? Probably you would still enjoy it. What about in 10 hours? By that time, you might already regret it. And 10 days from now, there is no doubt you wish you would have gone for the salad instead. Try and feel vividly how you would feel then.

Find an accountability partner

Staying on track is easier if you have someone who shares or at least supports your goals. For example, if you and another person want to lose weight — schedule time for joint exercise.

Knowing your buddy is waiting for you at the gym helps hold you accountable to show up when you’re tempted to skip and instead stay in your warm bed.

Accountability friend to stay disciplined
An accountability buddy will help you stay on track with your goals.

You can recruit a friend or family member to be your accountability partner. However, joining an accountability program and partnering with someone you don’t know is best. That’s because you’re less likely to make excuses to people you don’t know well. You’re also more likely to hold each other accountable as you share a common goal and commitment.

You can also share your progress, temptations, and setbacks with your accountability partner. By doing so, you tend to learn more by getting another perspective.

Pair something unpleasant with something enjoyable

Matching liked and disliked activities is known as temptation bundling. It’s a proven strategy to help you master self-discipline. Its effectiveness was shown in a study by behavioral scientist Katherine Milkman at the University of Pennsylvania. In the study, the gym visitation rate increased by allowing participants to listen to captivating audiobooks only while working out at the gym [5].

More temptation bundling examples include pairing your favorite music with an unpleasant activity like cleaning the bathroom or ironing your shirts while watching your favorite show on Netflix.

Create a list of things you enjoy to pair with things you need more motivation to complete.

Temptation Bundling
Pair something you love with something you dislike.

Direct inner self-talk (be kind to yourself)

Our inner self-talk is powerful. What you say to yourself often significantly impacts what you achieve. As Henry Ford noted, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

If you repeatedly label yourself as weak, dumb, and useless, it will leave you in defeat mode. Conversely, positive self-talk has been shown to boost discipline and motivation.

Studies, especially within athletics, have shown incredible effects of positive self-talk. In one 2020 study, researchers found that sprinters ran faster when positive self-talk (“I can do it” or “I’m going to beat my last time”) was used, even if the runners didn’t think their speed had improved [6].

Next time you catch yourself being critical of yourself, ask yourself, would I talk like this to a friend? If not, what advice would you give her instead? And that’s how you should talk to yourself too.

Enjoy the process

Mastering self-discipline won’t give us superhuman powers that make us unbeatable. However, research shows that stronger willpower has many benefits.

In the course of mastering self-discipline, we need to remind ourselves that being disciplined isn’t a destination but a process. One, we ought to enjoy trying different things, being curious, and focusing on being slightly better than yesterday.

Sources

[1] University of British Columbia. (2018, September 18). Hardwired for laziness? Tests show the human brain must work hard to avoid sloth. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 3, 2022, from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180918090849.htm

[2] Olga Stavrova, Tila Pronk & Michail D. Kokkoris (2020) Finding meaning in self-control: The effect of self-control on the perception of meaning in life, Self and Identity, 19:2, 201-218, DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2018.1558107

[3] Kivetz, R., Urminsky, O., & Zheng, Y. (2006). The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected: Purchase Acceleration, Illusionary Goal Progress, and Customer Retention. Journal of Marketing Research, 43(1), 39–58. https://doi.org/10.1509/jmkr.43.1.39

[4] Karp, T., Lægreid, L. M., & Moe, H. T. (2014). The power of willpower: Strategies to unleash willpower resources. Scandinavian Journal of Organizational Psychology, 6(2), 5-25.

[5] Mandel, G. H. (2020). “What Happens When You Let the Hunger Games Loose? An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling as a Behavior Change for Good Strategy in the StepUp Program,” Joseph Wharton Scholars. Available at https://repository.upenn.edu/joseph_wharton_scholars/82

[6] K. Bradford Cooper, Mark R. Wilson & Martin I. Jones (2021) Fast talkers? Investigating the influence of self-talk on mental toughness and finish times in 800-meter runners, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 33:5, 491-509, DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2020.1735574

[7] Gardner B, Lally P, Wardle J. Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. Br J Gen Pract. 2012 Dec;62(605):664-6. doi: 10.3399/bjgp12X659466. PMID: 23211256; PMCID: PMC3505409.

[8] Lally P, Chipperfield A, Wardle J. Healthy habits: efficacy of simple advice on weight control based on a habit-formation model. Int J Obes (Lond). 2008 Apr;32(4):700-7. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0803771. Epub 2007 Dec 11. PMID: 18071344.

[9] Hershfield HE, Goldstein DG, Sharpe WF, Fox J, Yeykelis L, Carstensen LL, Bailenson JN. INCREASING SAVING BEHAVIOR THROUGH AGE-PROGRESSED RENDERINGS OF THE FUTURE SELF. J Mark Res. 2011 Nov;48:S23-S37. doi: 10.1509/jmkr.48.SPL.S23. PMID: 24634544; PMCID: PMC3949005.

Ryan Roby
Ryan Roby
I’m a co-founder of Improvement Savvy. I studied counselling and psychology. Over the past 10 years, I’ve specialised in coaching and facilitating workshops on topics like motivation and productivity. Outside work, I enjoy hiking, reading – and eating chocolate.