If there ever was a real super power, it’s got to be self discipline.
Imagine if you could will yourself to follow a nutrition plan flawlessly. And to complete a daily workout routine without fail.
Maybe you would apply self discipline to your finances and investing wisely over the long term to build enormous wealth.
You might even decide to earn more college degrees or learn a new trade or skill.
With self discipline you can do anything. It’s one of the biggest super powers actually within human reach.
I buy into all of that.
I find the vision of being healthy, wealthy, and wise to be tremendously tantalizing. And energizing!
I can see a better future for myself. Fit, accomplished, happy.
Then I stay up late watching some bullshit TV, wake up groggy and rush off into a frazzled day, eating poorly, and scrambling to keep up…never mind get ahead.
Self discipline is alluring, but also elusive.
That is, until I figured out a few hacks that really made a huge difference. Not perfect self discipline, but improved self discipline.
And, perhaps most importantly, improving self discipline. Because improving in this area really does pay dividends in many other areas of work and life.
Hack #1 – Automatic Self Discipline
“The first and best victory is to conquer self.” Plato
Grit and grind work wonders. But they are not easily sustainable.
In fact, they sort of work backwards over the longer haul. You end up burned out.
What works better is to develop habits.
Habits take self discipline and make it automatic.
I’ve tried a lot of things on the health and fitness front. Some stick for a while. Most die out over the long term.
Although, there is one simple habit that has stuck with me for years now. Every morning, I start my day with a healthy smoothie. Kale, bananas, raspberries, almond butter, and flax seed combine to make a Halloween-green drink that is my primary fuel for the first few hours of the day.
I’m able to do this not by sustaining self discipline like a Rocky movie montage, but rather because it’s become a habit.
I don’t even think of alternatives. When I’m at the grocery store, I automatically gather the ingredients and put them in the cart.
There is no dread or drudgery or fighting with myself about what I should or shouldn’t eat in the morning.
I just make the shake. Because it’s a habit.
It’s automatic. Which makes it EASY.
And I can think of no better way to increase self discipline than by making it automatic, saving my grit and grind for other tasks that aren’t yet habit.
How to form a habit
First, I like to think about my habit building as small experiments. I’m going to try something and see how it goes, I tell myself.
This takes the pressure off of trying to go from zero to perfect.
After all, it’s likely that I will falter in the early days. That’s ok, I let myself know. Just get back on track after that.
Like learning to ride a bike.
Next, I like to be a little “meta” about the whole thing. If I “watch” myself trying something new to see if I can build a new habit, it becomes interesting in a new way.
It also helps me to see the goal a little more clearly, perhaps because my view becomes a little more objective from this perspective.
In the case of eating healthier, I experimented with lots of things. The morning health shake is one that stuck.
I think that’s because I had a good sense of my overall goal, which helped me keep on an overall track even as other attempts (going vegetarian, packing my lunch, avoiding ice cream) slipped by the wayside.
This gave me wiggle room to find some things that did work.
I think this was better than a totally “all or nothing” approach.
Finally, I have found great truth in Harvard Professor Shawn Achor’s 20 Second Rule from his book The Happiness Advantage.
In the book he talks about efforts to practice guitar. Efforts that ultimately succeeded when he simply made it easier to activate the habit.
He went from keeping his guitar in its case in the closet to keeping it out of the case on a stand in the living room. That simple change, eliminating the extra 20 seconds to get the guitar out of the closet and the case, made all the difference.
All this self discipline stuff is hard enough. There’s no reason to make it harder. And a lot of benefits to making it easier.
That’s where the real progress comes from.
“Through self-discipline comes freedom.” Aristotle
HACK #2 – Supercharged Self Discipline
“Success is the progressive realization of a worthy goal or ideal.” —Earl Nightingale
Another way to supercharge self discipline efforts is to make sure your vision of the bigger picture as clear and compelling as possible.
Because the goal is not to conquer the task at hand. The task is to achieve a goal.
Many times, though, we don’t spend a lot of time really envisioning success and how it might evolve.
I would argue that, through this contemplation, one can begin to shift motivation from the specific task at hand to the achievement of the overall goal.
It’s easy to “crack” in the moment. But harder when you contemplate how you will look back on that moment from the future.
In other words, contemplating “what do I really want?” in the moment can help build a stronger commitment over time to the ultimate vision of success.
More importantly, this line of thinking can help reinforce that success is incremental.
You might be building a habit toward a loftier goal. Now, as you contemplate that further, you can more easily recognize that progress will come in steps. You can start to more clearly connect the dots between individual actions and a future vision.
Which all happens over time.
This goes back to that “meta” thinking described above. It is in the act of watching yourself from a broader perspective that all of this can be seen more clearly.
The same way you might reduce stress in the moment by contemplating how you will look back on something in the future can work in reverse.
By envisioning how your choice right now will impact your future, you can see that the change or sacrifice of the moment will add up to a meaningful boost to your future.
How to stay motivated
First, get a clearer vision of a brighter future. You can do this through simple and fun exercises that tap into your right brain a bit more.
It’s time to loosen up and use your imagination a bit. This might be done through a vision board, some drawing, or with journaling.
Thinking about your future state in a less structured and more relaxed way can help you to *feel* it a little more clearly. Let yourself contemplate it more fully in this way.
Next, make it visual. This can be as simple as marking Xs on a calendar. Or using a spreadsheet to track your activities.
Here, you are simply trying to acknowledge your *effort*. It’s not really about results. We already know the goal and why we are doing it.
Now, you are trying to be sure that you are doing things within your control to help your odds of success.
You might, for instance, set an objective of writing 500 words a day to work toward your goal of completing a book. The vision is for a completed book with all that encompasses.
But the activity today, that you will look back upon, is the task of writing 500 words. That’s what you need to focus on. That’s where the effort is needed.
You can make progress on that front more visceral by checking a day on the calendar every time you complete that activity. It doesn’t matter if those 500 words are perfect or not, it matters that you took a concrete step toward your goal.
Finally, set interim goals. While your book writing tasks may consists of a lot of 500 word writing sessions (along with editing, proofreading, etc.), the big goal can be broken down into smaller ones.
And celebrating these small wins is very motivating. You can go out for an ice cream sundae as you complete each chapter, for instance.
Rewarding yourself can help keep you motivated. It’s also a good way to step back and see the bigger picture and the long-term goal.
HACK #3 – Take Care of Yourself First
You may want more self discipline to advance your career. Maybe you are working toward further education, putting in the extra effort to earn a promotion, or some other big effort to move up the corporate ladder.
You may want self discipline to fuel something more personal. Like writing that book, finding more time to volunteer, or improving your relationships with family and friends.
Whatever the case, all of your efforts will be improved if you take care of yourself first.
Because you are the foundation for your own success.
Putting your health and well being first is not selfish. It’s strategic.
Just like they say on an airplane, you’ve got to put the oxygen mask over your own face before you try to help others.
Things like eating healthy, resting well, and exercising are obvious areas to focus on. But so is improving your finances, reading more, and downtime.
Making it a priority to work on these areas is a great way to strengthen your foundation. It’s also a great way to practice everything we’ve talked about in this post.
Self discipline is a true super power within human reach. But it is elusive because grinding self discipline is both hard and hard to sustain.
Fortunately, you can hack the system.
You can make self discipline automatic by developing habits in key areas. This takes the burden off of your regular decision making because habits aren’t something you think about. They are something you just do.
As we have learned, an experimental mindset can be very powerful as you try to work through habits to find some that will stick for the long run.
You can also supercharge your self discipline by working on your motivation. A clear view of the big picture, tracking progress in activities you can control, and rewarding yourself for reaching interim milestones go a long way in keeping your motivation high.
Finally, you can make tremendous progress across the board when you first focus on taking care of yourself. Improving your health, finances, and relationships pays dividends in all areas of your life. These are also some of the best areas to practice everything we talked about in this post.