Building Self-Discipline

For most people, their attempts to increase “self-discipline” have been heroic attempts mostly followed by failures. But it is possible to get your self-discipline muscle in shape.

Imagine trying off and on for years to increase your strength by lifting 300 pounds once or twice every few months. If I then tried telling you that I had a secret new way to increase your strength, which was guaranteed to work, you would be extremely skeptical. The secret, of course would be to lift lighter weights much more often and build a capacity to handle 300 pounds.

You couldn’t simply sit and watch TV and get fit, but it would be a doable path toward strength gains, which was scientifically based, possible for many people to do and which offered timely feedback about whether it was working or not.

If you want to develop more discipline it takes some degree of self-discipline to prime the process, but additional self-discipline can be developed even for those beginning from a below-average starting point. For the few of you who are underrating your abilities, it’s worth noting that if you had no self-discipline you couldn’t read or listen this far. You certainly have some.

Society has developed some polarized views of self-discipline. Lots of different words are used – self-discipline, self-control, self-regulation, self-directed learning or willpower. What I’m talking about is the notion that there’s nowhere for “you” to hide from taking responsibility. When it comes to “self” taking responsibility there are some coaches and certainly a lot of therapist who feel that it is unfair to blame some individuals for not being able to fully control their emotions or actions.

Social policy and attitudes disagree on whether it is productive or not to blame people for addictions and habits that have a strong basis in individual neuro-wiring. Some say it is certainly reasonable to require people to control their impulses and tendencies, that no one should get a “get out of jail free” card? Others point out that if biological wiring makes it very difficult for an individual, how can we insist on something they can’t do?

I encourage you not to get caught in that dichotomy; it misses the full range of possibilities in the real world. We can immediately concede that individual neurology makes it easier for some to control impulses or resist temptations. Those individuals are going to have a more difficult time and may well be deserving of some compensatory time to develop a difficult new habit. But, of course, challenging brain wiring doesn’t mean that those individuals can give up trying to develop control.

It is harder for me to focus on details than it is for many people I know. I can’t imagine that that gives me permission to not work at finding ways to remind myself of particular specifics. Nor can I imagine losing the use of my legs and claiming difficulty as an excuse for not developing some degree of the strength and skills necessary to use a wheelchair.

Research shows that self-control can be developed and strengthened in children and adults. So while I have the potential to increase my capacity to focus on details I hope that those around me will realizes that I have to work harder and will probably have less success than some other people – understand, have patience, give me a chance but don’t simply excuse me or allow me to excuse myself from trying to find an approach to learning that works for me.

For those of us who have wiring that presents difficulties we will need self-discipline to gain some ground. And we can increase the amount of self-discipline we bring to bear on any particular challenge. Increasing your self-discipline capacity will make changing a bit more manageable; this is true whether you’re trying to quit a bad or ineffective habit or desiring to incorporate a new way of doing something.

So, if it takes self-discipline to develop more self-discipline, you need to start small, expect no more discipline than you currently have, and incrementally increase the challenges. Only when you have built your capacity to manage small daily temptations (wait for a snack for the next 15 minutes) and impulses (like the impulse to skip your daily practice routines) will you be in shape to choose to tackle more significant changes in your life.

This doesn’t mean don’t take on a long-standing, irksome habit. You may already have the discipline capacity to implement a change, but don’t set yourself up to fail again, that’s a surefire way to kick the energy out of the motivation you need to manage change across the spectrum of your life responsibilities and down the long road of your lifespan.

Develop your self-discipline muscle first, do lots of repetitions and then try to go for a personal-best record on the bench press if you are so inclined. If you strain yourself while you’re building your strength, you will be reluctant to do the repetitions necessary to maintain your discipline fitness.

Strengthening self-control capacity really is like strengthening a muscle. You build endurance through many, light to moderate repetitions. You need to have the patience to increase the weight (challenge) slowly; about a ten percent increase in energy required each time you are generating success 80% of the time.

Increase capacity comes from challenges that create some successes (50 to 80%) yet generate sufficient failures to stretch your abilities enough to cause growth.  You must also plan to take time to recover (rest). It is during the recovery time that the actual increase occurs. Self-discipline uses up brain energy, so eating and sleeping correctly also seem to help replenish your ability.

Exercising your self-discipline is pretty straightforward. First think about the challenges you already have scheduled in your day. You wouldn’t do a hard gym workout the same day as you have 18 holes of golf booked with the club pro. Save most of the discipline energy you presently have for meeting your current challenges. Plan gentle discipline workouts on days that are likely to require other big efforts and postpone larger challenges until you’re rested, fed and have an easy week ahead. For instance, you might decide to make a significant change in your diet when you have a week off.

There are benefits to including a few small workouts on most days. Maintaining a pattern of focused workouts means that the effort you need to remember and initiate will drop sooner because the pattern will become a habit that takes less energy.

Appreciative Coaching

There is an effective and growing approach to helping businesses and individuals change their actions and habits that is based on the principal that positive feedback and recognized success encourages learning and mastery more effectively than does negative critique.

Researchers and experience have demonstrated convincingly that positive feedback is in fact more powerful than negative criticism at “catching” and supporting behavior change. In one study, researchers videoed people bowling and then showed them the playback while pointing out either the mistakes they made or the correct things they did; people improved much more with the positive feedback than with the negative.

Other studies have shown that parents of tough kids improve their parenting when their children’s positive actions are pointed out, and that people can be trained to change actions and behaviors with nothing but positive feedback.

This is crucial information, if you’re trying to change, because there remain a determined block of coaches and consultants who look for problems, talk about what you’re doing wrong and point out each failed attempt at a solution. The types of questions that need to be asked are, “What is working now or in the past?” “What do you do well or enjoy doing?” “Where has your team thrived?”

A growing movement of consultants is asking these questions and more, trying to discover and use strengths and successes. These “Appreciative Inquires” help businesses and organizations solve long-standing problems and develop new business strategies. Those of us who use these practices with organizations also find them powerful with individuals. The label matters little, “Appreciative Coaching”, “Positive Coaching”, and “Strength Based Coaching” all recognize and building on current strengths.

If you want to work with someone who appreciates you and your team’s strengths, choose a coach/consultant who has significant experience in the business world and has demonstrated skill recognizing and building on the positive aspect of your actions. Be certain your coach gives at least 3 to 1 positive to negative feedback and holds a vision of a brighter future that builds on your demonstrated strengths.

This approach uses the power of positive feedback and focuses on where you want to head, not where you tripped.

Common Sense

“John, how can you be so thick as to not ask if you couldn’t figure out how to do it? Don’t you have any common sense? Would you have ever finished it if I hadn’t come looking for it?” Mark shook his head in disbelief, muttering “Damn it all!” then headed for his office.

At my Tuesday morning coaching meeting with Mark he recounted the incident and all but asked me to join in his exasperation. I asked if he thought John was of value to the company and Mark acknowledged that he often was. We then stepped into one of those difficult conversations, “Since you aren’t going to let John go, I doubt that being frustrated with him is going to move him or you forward. Let’s develop a specific strategy that you can use to get better results.”

“Mark,” I pointed out, “your irritability is probably making people anxious. They may try so hard to avoid confrontations with you that they’re spending less time actually solving problems. Let’s help you improve your effectiveness as a manager then you can help John solve his problem.”

“I don’t have time to babysit these people and I don’t have time to train them again and again. Why should I treat them nicely if I’m paying them and they aren’t producing?”

“Do you have time to keep repeating what you’re doing now? It doesn’t seem to be working to solve your problem.  I’m not sure that shows any common sense,” I mused with a grin on my face. Mark grinned back and we began to work out a new strategy for assigning and following projects, a strategy that required an upfront investment of time, but promised a better long-term payback.

It’s easy to see patterns in others, to notice that they keep failing in the same way and trying the same thing again even when it hasn’t produced the results they want. It’s much harder to notice when you’re banging your head into the same wall again and again. Sometimes the wake-up call is the frustration or despair you feel.

Falling into a habitual response to a repeating problem is common; it’s efficient, but not effective. Trying a new approach when you’re frustrated takes effort and makes sense, but isn’t as common. Each of us defines common sense as what looks obvious to us.

Coaching is an opportunity to get an experienced outside viewpoint, and a solution tailored to your strengths and situation. The best coaches can help raise your game to a higher level.

A Tough Time Being Wrong

When I was in my twenties, I’d know when I was right. Other peoples’ observations were just their opinions and they clearly couldn’t see or weren’t taking into account all the facts. I certainly wasn’t always completely right, but I was never absolutely wrong.

One day when I was 19, a group of people explained to me that I was just dead wrong in my perception of why I did a certain thing. I explained that they didn’t know me well enough and that I was correct. Their response was stubborn and blind. They just said, “Give it up!” There were eight of them and one of me so I tried to let it go.

30 minutes later, as I walked down the street, what they said suddenly seemed so obviously true that it made my legs weak. I stopped and sat right down at the curb until I could feel the shakiness leave my legs – those people had been right, I was absolutely wrong.

That was the last time I was never able to know I was right. And with that experience I stumbled on to a treacherous path of self-discovery.

Kathryn Schulz, in her book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error, takes the whole issue of being wrong and explores it in all its rich historical, philosophical and psychological details. Hers is the most balanced look at rightness and wrongness that any non-philosopher could want. She is entertaining, easy to follow, poses provoking questions and suggests fascinating answers; the kind that start to influence the rest of your life in interesting ways.

One of her key points is that we need errors to help us learn. If we can’t be open to alternatives, if we don’t dare explore possible dead ends, we limit our growth. That is one of the premises of coaching; risk making mistakes to learn what to try next. Discover what we don’t like or do well so that we can correct our course and make another effort.

But if we feel we can’t afford to be wrong, if we can’t afford to rethink what we have believed is the truth, then we’re likely to block realities that are right in front of our eyes and ears. The only way to be truly wrong is to not learn. Now that is an interesting idea, but it may be wrong; I’ll keep my eyes open and see if I can find any evidence to the contrary.


Do You Really Want to Hear It?

“Why would I encourage someone to disagree with me? I carefully think through my decisions and what I want is my staff to implement them.”

I found myself hesitating to say it, but I was thinking, “Don’t worry, they won’t say anything, even the truth, if you don’t want to hear.”

Most of us aren’t comfortable having hard conversations. So, imagine if you or a managing partner, senior supervisor or other person with an assured level of authority feels uncomfortable, then how likely is it that a junior partner, team member or administrator will feel at ease confronting you, with facts or ideas that disagree with what you think you know.

What I have to suggest may not seem important if you’re sure you know the truth, all of it. But I doubt you would be reading this if that described you. So I’m encouraging you to learn to invite team members to tell you the truth as they see it.

A couple of quick facts about truth you may not know: 1) people tend to be confident they’re right in inverse relation to actually being right; 2) the subjective filter we necessarily have to look through often changes the fundamental data laid out in front of us; 3) one way to get a better reading on the truth is to view it from multiple perspectives and see what the common traits are. To get multiple perspectives gather the opinions of a variety people, people with a different perspective than you.

You can’t expect employees will tell you what they’re thinking unless you send them a clear, unequivocal message and guarantee their “safety.” Their discomfort with hard conversations is multiplied because you have control over their work life. And of course you don’t have a way to guarantee you won’t be upset except to demonstrate it over and over on small things.

A recent New York Times interview with Dan Rosensweig, the president of Chegg (they rent textbooks online and by mail) discussed an initial strategy we encourage our clients to try. Rosessweig asks employees, “If you had my job, other than giving yourself more vacation time and a raise, what’s the first thing that you would do that you don’t think we’re doing yet?”

He also asks, “What do you need more of from me? What do you need less of from me? What is it that I’m doing that you would like me to stop doing completely? What it is that I’m not doing enough of that you’d like some more of?”

If you respond welcomingly to these general questions, you demonstrate that you’re open to hearing alternatives. Now when you ask about a specific project or issue you’re more likely to hear dissenting voices and other takes on the truth.

Oh, by-the-way, when my client said he didn’t need his staff’s input, I spoke up, politely disagreed and he still calls me in to help him learn how to be a better manager.

A Clear Decision Making Process

Making a decision can stimulate group tension and dissatisfaction in unexpected ways. Before you ask for input, be sure your team has a clear understanding of how a particular decision will be made. Knowing what the process will be upfront eliminates mistaken expectations and the accompanying surprise and irritation at you.

There are four major forms of decision making:

  1. 1.      My Way – “I have made the decision”

With this approach, the buck stops with you.  You feel you have all the information you need and accept responsibility for how the decision turns out.

  1. 2.      Consult with Team – “I’ll make this decision, but I would like your thinking”

The input of others is valued, but you may have other concerns the team doesn’t know about or may not be able to weigh accurately. This decision may be important to the future of the business or to creating a business that reflects your personal style. You alone will be responsible for how the decision turns out.

  1. 3.      Majority Rules – “We’ll take a vote to decide how to proceed”

You’ll do what the majority decides. After listening to all the ideas you’ll vote on the approach that you’ll take.

  1. 4.      Consensus – “We will make this decision as a team and will only proceed when we all agree”

Everyone gets to fully participate and the final decision will more likely be embraced by everyone. This approach takes as much time as it takes – often quite long.


Declare your intentions up front, stick to what you say you’ll do and don’t bemoan the process; it was your decision after all to decide this way.

Emotional Control is Key to Winning

At the top level of sports there is very little difference between competitors’ physical skills; the winning edge is the ability to adapt and control personal emotions to support a top performance. An athlete who can regulate the intensity of his or her anxiety, disappointment and even passion is the one most likely to manage the competitive process and finish in the top tier.

Professionals and business leaders compete in a less obvious arena, but one that also pays dividends to the person who can adjust their emotional pitch and reactions to get the best from themselves and their team. Unregulated and uncontrolled emotions, particularly negative emotions, are poisonous to job satisfaction and consequently productivity.

The primary edge any professional office or business has is in the quality of our people. We cannot compete at the highest levels, let alone “win”, without our pit crew, our sail trimmers, our blockers and tacklers. Teams that have the most experienced, most client-sensitive, most capable people are bound to do better, while also reducing stress for the team leaders.

Unregulated emotions – outbursts or day-long “attitudes” – ruin productivity, demoralize your best people and will destroy your team and business. Take it from somebody with a low frustration threshold, there is nothing effective, nothing justifiable, nothing professional about polluting your team with your emotional garbage.

A possible starting place to help you control your frustration and refocus on how crucial employee fulfillment is to productivity and client satisfaction, might be to strive to be the “Best Place in Your Area to Work”. If you’re not aiming at a goal that ambitious, you’re likely handing some of the best employees as well as clients and their revenue to competitors who are.

Two clear next actions:

  • Either recognize that your people really are your most important asset, or set your best people free to work for a winning team that does realize that. And just maybe think about joining them, you’ll also probably be happier working for someone other than you.
  • Know, learn or remember that most people leave jobs because of the attitudes and style of their direct managers. Make a commitment to become a manager or leader who attracts and keeps the best people you can afford.

To make your office perform at a higher level (be a better place to work) get help learning to regulate your emotional pitch. Don’t allow setbacks or mistakes to turn into excuses to dump your frustrations on team members. Emotional regulation is a behavior you can learn. Every day we teach owners, leaders and key employees simple steps to improve their ability to control their reactions. This isn’t therapy, this is performance coaching, designed to help you achieve your goals.


On Second Thought…

Some interesting research shows that on first impulse we tend to not judge our own abilities very well. We usually overrate but occasionally underestimate our abilities, and it’s only after a moment’s reflection, during which our brain gets a chance to bring its full capabilities to the evaluation, that we can estimate our skills more accurately.

You’ve probably heard of the studies where almost all drivers rate their driving as better than other drivers, a patently unrealistic self-evaluation. (Although, truth-be-told I’m pretty sure my skills do put me in the top tier of drivers. J)

Clearly, we could often do a better job of evaluating ourselves.

When studies go back and re-ask self-evaluation questions after a moment’s pause, people’s answers are a more realistic assessment. How good are you at estimating time? “Excellent?”

Pause – How excellent? “Oh, pretty good when I’m paying attention” “I mean I’m ok.”

This information may be particularly important for those who have a tendency toward impulsive and overly-hopeful projections. Consider those times when you’ve quickly answered a question about when you will be home with “Half an hour!” After pausing for a minute to consider and work out the actual undertakings involved, you might agree that most likely the correct answer would be an hour or more.

If you can develop the habit of pausing before estimating, you will give yourself time to tap into your ability to compute details and you’ll allow your intuitive side time to process relevant unconscious information and experiences. Your reliability is crucial to your reputation and long-term prospects so don’t answer “Sure!” without a pause to deliberate. Put the brakes on your old habit of spontaneous answers; practice a specific reply that is both cooperative and announces that you’re going to take a second to consider your answer.

“Can you take on this new project? It’s due Friday”

Pause. Take a breath. Now, schedule a longer pause by saying, “Let me check my schedule and task list to be sure I give you a realistic answer.” Knowing what you’d like to answer is not the same as knowing what you’re likely to answer under pressure.

Practice! You’ve practiced saying yes for years, that’s what you’re likely to say unless you practice the new response, “Let me check my schedule and task list to be sure I give you a realistic answer.”

Don’t Re-decide

It is very difficult to contain our impulsive tendencies when we’re buffeted by short-term conflicting emotions and temptations.

A clear, definite choice made when you are thinking and planning with care and then remade when you’re tired, hungry, feeling sexual appetite or irritated is a setup for failure. This re-choice is highly likely to be a short-term, impulsive reaction rather than based on consideration of your long-term best interests.

In answer to your sleepy self asking whether you need to get up right now or can snooze for 15 more minutes, the only answer you should give is a continually repeated reminder that “I already decided this is the time to get up, so get up!”

If you see the chocolate and think, “I can have one piece.” Start repeating, “I already decided to not have any sweets until after dinner, so keep moving.”

It is important to consciously refute the feeling that there is an opportunity to re-decide. The repetition of the thought “I’ve already decided!” helps to block the insubordinate thoughts, images and feeling that there is in fact an opportunity to re-decide.

The process needs to be very deliberate:

  • Make a clear, conscious and unequivocal decision
  • Think through the likely re-decision points (e.g., when the alarm goes off)
  • Decide what you’re going to say to block the insistent notion that there is an opportunity to re-decide
  • Start repeating the saying you’ve decided to use to block tempting thoughts
  • Act on your decision. Start before the re-decision pressure has a chance to take hold
  • Celebrate your willpower
  • Rededicate yourself to not re-deciding the next time

Re-decisions are a major factor in failure to stick to new behaviors. Any equivocations will sabotage your efforts. Be very clear and definite. Don’t look back!


One Approach to Procrastination

If one of your struggles is that you tend to procrastinate until a deadline is on top of you and forcing you to get things done, and you know this is hurting the quality of your work, causing stress to you and probably to your clients, boss or family, then how do you stop procrastinating about dealing with your procrastination?

This might be a fun puzzle if it weren’t so crucial that you find a way to initiate a change in your approach tasks. One of the common side effects of procrastination is that people in your life lose trust in you and get angry. As you well know, this is usually matched by your own anger at yourself. But even this pressure often doesn’t translate into motivation to get started.

If life were a sport and you were critiquing yourself for missing critical shots because you didn’t keep your eye on the ball, I’d be pointing out that your focus on past mistakes is taking your attention away from the current situation, taking your “eye” off the ball again. Drop the self-critique, get a bit of help with your technique and try again.

The best hitters in baseball look for, and can see, the stitching on the ball as it comes at them at up to a hundred miles an hour. Looking for this detail pulls their attention to the ball; just looking in the direction of the ball doesn’t allow them to see the tiny changes in directions that they need to see in order to connect with the pitch. Golfers watch the dimples on the ball as it sits on the tee.

To get started on a project, focus on the details of getting started. What project will you start? Schedule in your calendar when you’re going to start it. What small, discreet aspect of the project will you do? Define it and plan on doing just that much. What exactly will your next action on the project be? Write it out very simply as a task.

Think about teeing up the project – choose which one you’re going to work on.  Keep your head down, your eye on the ball and hit it just well enough to move it down the course and keep it in the fairway – do a small piece of it.  Now you’re ready for the next shot – concentrate on the new swing no matter whether you’re in the rough or on the course.

For you baseball fans, what you’re looking for is a single, not a home run; don’t over reach. Just connect with the pitch. Basketball aficionados, take one step and move the ball down the court. Every foot closer to the basket increases the odds of a score. Tennis players, make a solid smooth hit and get the ball across the net and into the court. Now set up for the next shot.

What do you need to get done? Right now schedule a time to work on it, and resolve to treat it like an important meeting. What is the first little step to getting the project started or moving it ahead? Write it down on your task list.

Procrastination can be head faked that easily.