Formula of Five: Self-discipline

October 20, 2015

by Peter Amsterdam

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“The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.”1

Today we’re going to talk about an often elusive quality: self-discipline. The definition of self-discipline is “the ability to make yourself do things that should be done.” Most of us want to have more self-discipline in our lives, because we know that it is central to a meaningful life, but, rather ironically, it takes some self-discipline to install this good habit.

The first bit of good news is that self-discipline is a learned skill. Self-discipline is a muscle; the more you exercise it, the more it will increase. So if you’re not a particularly self-disciplined person, welcome to the club! But you can grow in self-discipline.

So, why do we need self-discipline? What are the benefits? We don’t want to exercise self-discipline just for the fun of it, because quite frankly, it’s just not all that fun. We want and need self-discipline because we want to progress. I’m sure you have a vision of something you want to see done, something you want to accomplish. You probably have a list of goals that you need to reach in order to realize your vision. And as we know, people who are self-disciplined are often more successful; they achieve what they are aiming for far more often and more quickly than those who consistently struggle to rein in their time and focus.

Exercising self-discipline also brings personal benefits to you. When practiced, it boosts your self-esteem, helps you to accomplish your goals, gives you a sense of accomplishment and knowledge that you’re doing your best, and it develops your character, and results in more time available for the things that are important to you.

Perhaps you feel the need to improve your prayer life, develop a morning routine, meditate regularly, spend more quality time with your kids, invest in your marriage, stop eating junk food, exercise regularly, complete a personal development or study course, maybe cut back on TV viewing or gaming, get to bed earlier, or maybe it’s limiting your social media, or any number of daily life issues. Stronger self-discipline is something we could all use, right?

So let’s look at five practical points to self-discipline.

Number 1. Practice delayed gratification.

Or, put another way, be willing to hold out for the “better.” You may have heard of the famous “marshmallow experiment” conducted in the late 1960s. The experiment involved a group of four-year-olds who were given a marshmallow and told that they could eat that one marshmallow immediately, or if they could wait for 15 minutes, they would be given two marshmallows to eat. Seventy percent of the children gave up in less than a minute; only thirty percent were able to hold out for the second treat. Later studies evaluated the same group of kids when they were in their late teens, and in all cases, the children who, as four-year-olds, were able to delay their gratification outranked the others. An article states:

The differences were astonishing. Those who had been able to control their impulses and delay gratification as four-year-olds were more effective socially and personally as teenagers. They had higher levels of assertiveness, self-confidence, trustworthiness, dependability, and a superior ability to control stress. Remarkably, their Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores were also 210 points higher than the "instant gratification" group!2

This study shows there is value in consciously choosing to put off doing something you want to do or enjoy now because you know there’s something more important that you need to do first or instead. This is a key principle to keep in mind in making daily decisions. Thankfully, this is a quality we can grow in—it’s a matter of conscious choice.

Practicing delayed gratification requires that you have a bigger vision; you have your sights set on something long term. It’s not just about the now. You have a plan, goals, and action steps to take in order to reach your dream. The desire to bring your vision into reality enables you to deny something now in favor of something better later. Of course, it comes more easily and naturally to all of us to live for the moment and let tomorrow take care of itself. It takes discipline to forgo the immediately pleasurable for an investment in the future.3 As someone said so well: “Self-discipline is an act of cultivation. It requires you to connect today's actions to tomorrow's results.”4

The nature of self-discipline is sacrifice. It’s not easy, it’s not fun, but it’s effective and necessary.

Number 2. Rely on habits, not willpower.

“At its essence, willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.”5 For example, you might call on willpower to see you through a difficult choice or circumstance, whether it’s resisting that piece of cake, trying to prod yourself into hitting the gym, or digging into that important work assignment that you’re dreading. A burst of willpower can be effective in getting you over the hump, but it’s important to understand that willpower is a limited resource that can be depleted. So willpower is not an entirely reliable resource to depend on, because it will only take you so far. Self-discipline is what provides the daily follow-through, the consistency required to make progress. Being disciplined is what keeps you going and doing day in and day out, even when you don’t feel like it. Especially when you don’t feel like it. Discipline is the conscious application of choice, over and over and over again.6

Thomas Huxley boiled down the secret to success into one sentence: “Do what you should do, when you should do it, whether you feel like it or not.” There are hundreds of success principles and thousands of books on the topic, but a man who studied the topic of success for over 50 years wisely said, “Without self-discipline, none of [the other success principles] work.”7

Jim Clemmer said:

“A key difference between successful people and those who struggle to get by is self-discipline. As Confucius wrote, ‘The nature of people is always the same; it is their habits that separate them.’ Successful people have formed the habits of doing those things that most people don't want to do.”8

So let’s look at a way to maximize our self-discipline. It has to do with building good habits.

Habits are the foundation of self-discipline. Many small habits, repeated over and over, determine your character, your level of success, your spiritual health, your reputation, almost everything. Habits are a powerful influence in each of our lives, though we don’t often give enough time to considering the habits that we’ve adopted. Are they serving us well? Are they moving us in the direction that we want our lives to go?

You’ve probably heard that it takes 21 days to build a habit. Recent studies note that, in fact, it takes closer to 66 days to build most habits. As we know, it takes focus, thought, and work to form a habit. But once you have the habit, it comes easily, almost naturally, and eventually well-worn habits become second nature. You don’t even have to think about doing them, you just do them. And that is where the secret lies. You want to purposefully build habits that help and support your commitment to self-discipline, and as your self-discipline is consistently applied towards your goals, in time you will experience greater success in the things that are important to you.

In brief, experts advise us to put our limited willpower toward the process of habit-building. It takes some oomph to build a habit, to do something every day for 66 days, for example, at which point the “habit” of the activity starts to take over so that we do it almost automatically, and it then doesn’t require willpower or so much conscious effort on our part. The real key is in choosing what habits we build, because whether we are aware of it or not, we have already built many habits—some good, and some bad. If you build good habits that will automatically move you towards your goal, you will have essentially installed a quality of self-discipline in your life. And you can repeat that over and over and over again.

Let’s say your vision is to write a book, finish a study course, or learn a musical instrument within a certain timeframe. You could consciously map out a new habit to adopt toward that goal. Using the example of writing a book, let’s say you want to have your book written within one year. You decide that the most effective habit you could form to move you towards your ultimate goal is to wake up 30 minutes earlier each day and write for 30 minutes every single day of the week, rain or shine. So you draw on your willpower to get up 30 minutes earlier each day and to write, no matter what. As you regularly practice this one new goal of getting up earlier and writing for 30 minutes, you will eventually cultivate a new habit that will enable you to reach your big goal. If you habit-build for 66 days and keep your why in mind, you will develop the habit of rising earlier, and it will gradually become easier for you to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and write that book. And once the dynamic of habit takes over and you’re in the groove, you can turn your willpower towards another goal. As Jim Rohn wisely said, “Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishments.” You can apply this concept to any goal you want to reach.

Aristotle made the link clear between habits and excellence in human performance when he said: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

The topic of habits, habit-building, habit-breaking, and hooking new habits onto existing habits is a fascinating one. If you’re interested, a good book on this topic is The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg.9

Number 3. Know your “why.”

Exercising your self-discipline muscle will require some sacrifice and even personal discomfort as you give up some activities and replace those with new activities. You will need some motivation to stick with these changes. You need to know your “why.” What you’re working toward as you build greater self-discipline has to be more valuable than what you’re giving up. You have to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. What is your why? Or, put in other words, what is the purpose and aim of what you’re trying to achieve? What is the dream or vision that you’re working towards?

Your “why” should stem from your personal desire and conviction, what God is leading you to do. It’s a personal thing, between you and God. Your why shouldn’t be based on feelings of guilt or being driven by what you feel someone else wants or expects you to do. Your why is like your guiding star. It is what you will keep looking to. It will motivate you, help you to build good habits, and help you slog through the sacrifices as you make the sometimes long trek toward reaching your ultimate goal, so it’s vital that you’re crystal clear on what your why is. Keep your why in the forefront of your mind. It will give you strength and help you to keep going, even when your natural strength and drive wanes.

Number 4. Set goals for incremental progress.

When you have a big goal you’re working toward, you can’t get there in one jump. Sometimes a goal takes months to reach, sometimes years. When you’re working toward a long-term goal, it’s natural to grow weary in well-doing. To help you stay on track and encouraged, it’s effective to set daily, weekly, and monthly steps of progress. You need to have clear immediate goals that are small enough that you can reach them daily, but that build one upon one another, working toward a plan that leads to where you want to be next month, in three months, in six months, and the next year. You need to be able to plan, recognize, and measure your incremental progress.

When you’re chipping away at a big goal, it’s important to be realistic about the small goals. It won’t help to set goals that aren’t attainable; that will only leave you discouraged and feeling like you should quit now. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Instead, set yourself up for success by setting sustainable goals that acknowledge the many small steps that are inching you ever closer to the fulfillment of your big goal.

Focus on consistency, regularity, and faithfulness. You can’t do a little here or there and expect to achieve your goals. Doing a small thing consistently will develop a powerful habit, which will serve you well. Don’t underestimate small steps. Incremental growth is powerful. Over time you can make big changes in your life by taking small steps consistently.

Number 5. Have a system for accountability.

There are so many things that come up in daily life that threaten to knock us off course and derail us from reaching our goals. I bet we’ve all set a goal, started working towards it, and then a few weeks later realized, “Hey, what happened to that goal I set? I haven’t thought about it or done anything towards it for over a week now.” Maybe you got sick, had visitors stay with you, traveled for work, or were taking care of sick children. The list of interruptions could go on and on.

It’s vital to have a system of some type that points you towards your goals again and again. Some people review their goals daily, or write them out every morning. Others have an accountability buddy who they report in to once a week over coffee or a phone call, to update them on their progress. Some post their commitments and progress on a website where others who are working to reach similar goals can see everyone’s progress, and encourage each other on.

Tracking your progress brings moment-to-moment awareness of the areas of your life that you want to improve. You can’t manage or improve something until you measure it. Tracking is a key to staying on track or getting back on track.10

Research shows that when you tell someone else what your goal and commitment is, you’re much more likely to stick with it. Accountability makes you more likely to succeed, so if you’re going to put time and hard work into something, why not help to ensure your success by figuring out a simple but effective way to hold yourself accountable?

Accountability systems trump intentions. If you don’t have a system, the natural result will be to stray off course. You can avoid the “if I only had” lament by safeguarding yourself and your God-given goals by holding yourself accountable daily.

So, to review the five points in brief:

1.    Practice delayed gratification.

2.    Rely on habits, not willpower.

3.    Know your “why.”

4.    Set goals for incremental progress.

5.    Have a system for accountability.

In addition to these practical tips, as Christians we have a divine source of strength to draw from—God’s power. Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” It takes us planning and the Lord establishing. If you bring your dreams, plans, and goals to God in prayer, and seek His guidance and confirmation on your chosen path, you can count on His strength and grace to help you work towards your goals. As believers, we have a tremendous advantage in our dependence on God and His unlimited power, which can directly help us to achieve our resolutions. We’re not limited to “depending on our own power and strength, but on [God’s] Spirit.”11 And that makes all the difference!

1 Proverbs 13:4 ESV.

2 Jim Clemmer, Growing the Distance: Timeless Principles for Personal, Career, and Family Success (The Clemmer Group, 1999), 97.

3 Ibid., 98.

4 Gary Ryan Blair.

5What You Need to Know About Willpower,” American Psychological Association.

6 Jillian Teta, “Mind-Body 101: 6 Key Concepts,” June 1, 2012.

7 Brian Tracy, The Power of Discipline: 7 Ways It Can Change Your Life (Simple Truths, 2009), 6–7.

8 Clemmer, Growing the Distance, 102.

9 New York: Random House, 2014.

10 Darren Hardy, “Tracking Progress,” DarrenDaily, December 5, 2014

11 Zechariah 4:6 CEV.