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.