Five Techniques for Cultivating Self-Discipline

What do you think of when you hear the word “discipline”?

For me, it has negative connotations: punishment for bad behavior, being denied the things I want, rigid rules and an inflexible schedule, and worst of all, the certainty that as hard as I try to “be good,” I’m probably going to mess up.

As you might guess, up until recently, I haven’t been a big believer in self-discipline.

But as a result of my recent readings on willpower and productivity, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to change my definition of the word.

What if I stop thinking of self-discipline as being strict with myself, and start thinking of it as the ability to get myself to make the right choices (i.e. choose long-term benefit over short-term pleasure) when it counts?

Instead of relying on the usual disciplinary tools (punishment, denial, etc), I could…

Ask myself a question that helps me focus on the long-term consequences of my actions.

Whenever I’m considering eating something, I could ask myself:

“If I eat this food today, will I be thinner or fatter tomorrow?”

When the computer beckons and I’m tempted to entertain myself with email instead of doing the items on my list, I could ask myself:

“When I look back on my day tonight, which of these activities will I be proud to have done?”

When I’m tempted to blow off exercise to keep working or to watch TV, I could ask myself:

“What would a healthy person choose?”

No punishment required, just a simple question that takes me off auto-pilot and focuses me on long-term benefits.

What other ways could I keep myself on the path toward my goals without having to feel the sting of the metaphorical whip?

Adopt real-life role models.

Not quite able to forgive my mother’s latest snarky remark? What would Buddha do?

Having trouble motivating myself to get started on today’s writing? What would Stephen King do?

Should I take a risk and try something new, or play it safe? What would Aunt Tilly do?

By posing these questions, I’m using role models to tap into my desire to become a better person. I want to be as successful a writer as Stephen King, and as enlightened a human being as Buddha, and to live as exuberantly as my late Aunt Tilly, who was like a second mother to me.


Make the right decision when I’m in a good mental space and then put the associated behavior on autopilot, so I won’t be tempted to change it when I’m tired and stressed.

For example, setting up an automatic transfer to my IRA or savings account, so that the money gets saved without me having to decide to do it every month. (In this case, I’m outsourcing the job of being disciplined to my bank.)

Or bringing a healthy lunch to work, so it’s less tempting to spend money on junk food at the cafeteria.

Eliminate temptation altogether.

If I can’t stop myself from making impulse purchases with my credit cards, I could put those cards in a baggie and hide them in the freezer, or cut them up. If I can’t resist stopping at that amazing bakery on my way home from work, I could take a route that doesn’t pass by the bakery.

If the wrong choice isn’t even an option, I’m much less likely to feel as if I’m denying myself.

Practice making the right choice on a small scale and ease myself into good habits.

Yes, even when it comes to self-discipline, it’s an option to take the kaizen approach. 🙂

I could eat my usual diet, but make a rule that I must eat my (low calorie, filling) veggies first.

Or I could switch out my usual potato chips for mixed nuts or baked, whole-grain crackers.

Or substitute a chocolate cookie for that monster brownie I usually prefer.

Or instead of buying a brownie at the cafeteria, make a healthier version at home (the Sneaky Chef has a lower sugar, lower fat brownie recipe that’s bursting with nutrients and chocolatey-goodness).

Mark Joyner, creator of Simpleology, calls this “making a strengthening choice.” And even the smallest strengthening choice can send ripples out through the rest of your life.

Studies have shown that exercising your willpower regularly in small ways not only increases your willpower in the future, but it also tends to bleed over into other areas of your life. In their book Willpower, Baumeister and Tierney describe a study in which students who were coached to exercise regularly also spontaneously began to keep their homes cleaner, smoke and drink less, and procrastinate less on schoolwork.

As you get used to thinking about long-term consequences and making the right choices on a small scale, it becomes easier to do the same when faced with the big decisions.

What do you think of when you hear the word “discipline?”

What methods do you use for keeping yourself on track?

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4 Responses to Five Techniques for Cultivating Self-Discipline

  1. Susan says:

    I’m sharing this with my RWA chapter. Thanks for sharing your secrets!

    • Lynn says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Susan, and for passing this on to your chapter! I’m glad you found it helpful. 🙂

  2. AnnaM. says:

    Thank you. Just what I needed to hear today. I’ll try to put this into practice.

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