How to Build Self Discipline

By Ali Luke

September 19, 2010   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

You’ve been on your diet for two days … and you’ve already given in and eaten a giant slab of chocolate cake.

You’ve told yourself you’ll tidy out the garage this weekend … just like you’ve been saying for the last four months.

You’re determined that this is going to be the month when you get that business plan done … except you’ve not written a word of it.

You swore you wouldn’t check your email till lunchtime … but it’s ten am and you’ve already cracked.

Any of those sound familiar? Maybe you’ve told yourself that you need to be more self-disciplined. Perhaps you’re convinced that you just need to keep trying harder, dammit. Or maybe you secretly fear that you’re never going to manage to pull yourself together and stay focused.

It’s frustrating, because without a certain amount of self-discipline, you know your goals are going to slip away. But there are strategies for building up your strength and will power:

  1. Don’t Beat Yourself Up
    First, don’t keep guilt-tripping yourself. It’s not very productive to get angry and upset every time you fail to do something.

What is helpful is to figure out where it went wrong:

  • Did you jump straight in, without thinking about your strategy for facing possible problems?
  • Did you have a clear plan of action?
  • Did you get swayed by another person?
  • Did something unexpected crop up?

You might spot patterns. Perhaps you have great intentions, but they crumble in the face of reality. Maybe you stick to your diet when you’re feeling good, but you turn to chocolate every time you’re stressed.

Rather than spending a lot of energy trying to power on through these situations, focus on coming up with ways to deal with them before they crop up next time.


  • Focus on Specific Behaviors
    It’s really difficult to be self-disciplined if you’re fuzzy about what exactly you’re trying to change. For instance, telling yourself “I won’t eat any junk food ever” is overwhelming. But saying “I won’t stop at McDonald’s on the way home from work today” is much easier.


Often, half the battle is just getting started. If you’re really struggling to focus on your goal, tell yourself you’ll just spend ten minutes cleaning the garage or writing the report or whatever it is. Once you’ve got going, you don’t have to overcome your initial inertia – you can keep on without much extra effort.


  • Find Tools and Techniques Which Help You
    When we think about being self-disciplined, we have a tendency to assume we need to do it all ourselves, by the sheer force of willpower.


This isn’t generally necessary. There are all sorts of tools and tricks which can help you stay on track. For instance, if you’re on a diet, try keeping a food diary – it makes you more accountable and gives you a boost to your will-power. If you’re trying to check your emails less often, make it difficult to open your email program (or switch off your internet connection altogether).


  • Keep Track of How You’re Doing
    As your self-discipline gets stronger, it’s a good idea to track how you’re doing. This can be really encouraging when you see the progress you’ve already made; it’s easy to forget how far you’ve come.


The way you keep track will depend on the particular goals you’re trying to achieve, but you might try:

  • Keeping a journal where you write down your successes each day (e.g. “turned down chocolate cake at mum’s”)
  • Marking successes on your calendar so that you get a string of Xs (e.g. mark each day that you go for a 20-minute walk)


  • Seek Support From the People Around You
    We’re social creatures and easily swayed by other people. Want proof? Think about any time that you’ve ordered dessert (or not ordered it!) just because everyone else at the table was doing so.


It really pays to surround yourself by self-disciplined people who’ll encourage you. Maybe your friend goes for a run every day, and can encourage you to exercise. Or maybe your spouse always does his/her chores without fail, and you want to match up to that example.

Don’t just look for inspiration, though. Tell other people what you’re trying to accomplish. If your friends know that you’re trying to start up a business, they can support you – by offering useful contacts, or by encouraging you, or by celebrating your successes with you.

And don’t underestimate the power of accountability. If there’s something you’re really keen to get done, tell your friends that you’re going to do it – and you’ll find it’s much harder to weasel out.

What tips do you have for improving your self-discipline?

Written on 9/19/2010 by Ali Hale. Ali writes a blog, Aliventures, about leading a productive and purposeful life (get the RSS feed here). As well as blogging, she writes fiction, and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing. Photo Credit: *Zara
Ali Luke

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