The Secret to Self-Discipline and Achieving Your Goals

If you know what you want to do and how to do it, then why isn’t it getting done?


The greatest goal and the best plan don’t get results. Doing stuff does.

That’s why discipline is so magical. It helps us do the actual work that is necessary to accomplish something.

If you worked out every day, you would be stronger.

If you ate well all the time, you would be healthier.

If you worked more diligently on your goal, you would achieve it.

But it turns out that the willpower and determination required to steadily march through the tasks necessary to achieve a goal can be difficult to muster and sustain.

Discipline is elusive.

It requires focus. It requires energy. And it requires doing something right now that you would rather put off until later.

This is why I have trouble maintaining a regular workout routine. It’s why I had a big handful of bacon at breakfast the other day. And it’s why many goals have slipped by the wayside.

And yet I have also achieved many things. Become fit enough to complete 200-mile bike rides. Run successful projects. Earned promotions and awards.

Sometimes discipline works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Why is that?

Well, it is because discipline comes from a very specific formula:

Anger + self-loathing = motivational energy and drive to get the damn thing done

Just kidding. That’s actually what we think is discipline, not what it really is.

It’s easy to think that discipline is supposed to be nothing but a hard-knuckled grind.

Maybe that’s true sometimes. But the strongest, long-lasting discipline comes from within. Self-discipline.

The Secret to Discipline and Achieving Your Goals

Discipline vs Self-Discipline

When discipline is imposed on us, we feel it like a bad thing. It is some limit or barrier or other way we must conform to someone’s rule.

When you go outside of those boundaries, you must be disciplined. Which, in this case, means punished.

You might also be rewarded for not breaking the rules. A little bit of a happier spin on things.

With either a carrot or a stick, as they say, you are rewarded or punished in order to maintain discipline.

So, you can work on that report because you know you will get in trouble if you don’t. Or you can deliver your draft presentation a day early because you know that will cause it to be greeted with an approving smile.

The trouble is that the most powerful form of discipline, self-discipline, doesn’t work so well this way. Internal drive fuels self-discipline. Which doesn’t work so well with motivations that are external.

To build up a healthy capability of self-discipline in order to achieve a goal, it is important to cultivate internal motivations. When the goal means something to you personally, you can develop the motivation needed to drive you to follow the process necessary to be successful.

And that second piece is key. To follow the process necessary to be successful.

Because a goal alone won’t get you there. The process will.

Let me explain.

A goal and the discipline process

set good goals

I have always enjoyed sharing ideas and engaging in discussions and debates about interesting things. Things that could help us solve problems in better ways, get better results, or to do entirely new things.

That led me to a lot of conferences, meetups, and seminars. At these events, I sometimes envied the special attention that a speaker would receive. Their ideas often got through most clearly because they had the stage.

I wanted to the stage. But I had no idea how to make that happen. I had not special expertise or credentials. And no speaking experience.

I found it frustrating to have a goal and not know how to reach it. I was motivated but couldn’t figure out how to make the leap.

Until I stumbled onto the realization that it’s not a leap. I needed to just start working on the process of becoming a speaker. And the best way I could figure to do that was to start speaking.

So, I looked for opportunities to sit on panels, volunteer to do a talk at a meetup, and to apply to speak at conference sessions. I read books and blog posts and watched videos about how to get better at public speaking. I joined a speakers group and even hired a coach at one point.

I focused on the process of becoming a better speaker. Which ultimately led me to a variety of opportunities including two teaching jobs and paid speaking gigs.

It wasn’t the love of the goal. It wasn’t any leap. It was the process that got me somewhere.

Discipline and a sense of progress

Embracing the process helps cultivate self-discipline. You must see value in the process or you will never muster up the energy to do the things necessary to reach your goal.

But you need to keep motivated along the way. And that comes from a sense of progress.

Humans like to be challenged just the right amount. We are at our best when we are in “the zone” — facing a challenge that is difficult but not too difficult, and working to improve our skills in a goal area that is exciting but not crazily out of reach.

We may make progress slowly, but that’s ok. As long as we can see that we are making progress, we can motivate ourselves to keep going.

This may come in the form of logging workouts. Or stacking up drafts of the report. Maybe there are small milestones along the way.

In my speaking journey, I kept finding new ways to challenge myself that made milestones to mark progress. Joining a panel discussion. Speaking in a slot on my own. Doing a talk with no slides and no notes. Giving a talk at a major conference. Each of these helped me to feel a sense of progress in developing my skills and capabilities.

Of course, it could be as simple as keeping up a streak of filing weekly reports on time. If you are committed to delivering your report every Friday by 4PM and you keep hitting that, you start to build up discipline. You get a streak going and you want to keep it up. After a while, it would feel downright strange to *not* deliver the report on Friday by 4PM.

It becomes a habit. And that is perhaps the most powerful form of self-discipline. Because that’s when things become more automatic.

Discipline and identity

When habits fuel self-discipline a lot of magic happens. That’s when the hard work of reaching a goal becomes much easier.

There is still work to be done and you still have to do it. But you don’t have to fight yourself to do it.

You embrace the process. You get in the rhythm of doing the things it will take to be successful. And you gain motivation from small signs of progress along the way.

self-discipline and identity

In a way, this starts to reshape your identity. You might shift from thinking of yourself as someone who is on a diet to someone who eats healthy.

Or maybe you shift from thinking of yourself as someone who gets to meetings on-time and well-prepared. Perhaps you think of yourself as someone who takes a leadership role in projects.

That way of thinking, of identifying as someone who has already achieved the goal you have in mind, is powerful.

The more you work to embrace the process and build the habits around those elements of the process, the more you can start to see yourself being successful in reaching your goals.

As you see that more clearly, you are more likely to more deeply embrace the process, ingrain the habits, and appreciate your progress (even the smallest increments).

This is how I think self-discipline can be cultivated and made easier. In this way, it’s really just a natural part of our personal development.

Building self-discipline

building self discipline

Self-discipline is probably one of the most powerful skills you can build in your own personal development.

With self-discipline, you can achieve anything.

But it can be difficult to muster. Because we usually think about it in the wrong way.

The secret is to realize that the most powerful form of self-discipline comes from an internal desire rather than any externally imposed reward or punishment. And we can use this to embrace the process of doing the things needed to reach our goals.

As we embrace this process, we can show ourselves progress–even the slightest increments–that will fuel our motivation to continue. Repeating these patterns can help us to develop habits that make following the process more and more automatic.

As things become more automatic, our internal dialog can help us reshape our identities in a way that helps us solidify a vision of ourselves as someone who achieves the sorts of goals we have been aiming for.

Over time, we can develop this kind of self-discipline more deeply and in more areas. Surprisingly, this can be very effective without having to be packaged with a lot of the negative connotations that the word “discipline” can invoke.

That is the secret of self-discipline.