Learning to effectively lead yourself and others all comes down to discipline. Happiness, success, and fulfillment stem from focus and self-control. It may be hard to believe when you’re facing an all-you-can-eat buffet, the prospect of making a quick buck, or the lazy lure of sleeping in versus getting on the Peloton, but studies show that people with self-discipline are happier. Why? Because with discipline and self-control we actually accomplish more of the goals we truly care about. Self-discipline is the bridge between goals defined and goals accomplished.
People with a higher degree of self-control spend less time debating whether to indulge in behaviors and activities that don’t align with their values or goals. They are more decisive. They don’t let impulses or feelings dictate their choices. They are the architects of their own beliefs and the actions they take to achieve the desired outcome. As a result, they aren’t as easily distracted by temptation and tend to feel more satisfied with their lives.
“You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” ~ MARCUS AURELIUS
There are specific strategies you can execute to learn self-discipline and gain the willpower to live a happier, more fulfilling life. If you are looking to take control of your habits and choices, here are the eight most powerful things you can do to master self-discipline—which is imperative for life beyond your comfort zone—and maybe even redefining “extraordinary.”
STEP ONE: Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses
We all have weaknesses. Whether they’re the desire for alcohol, tobacco, unhealthy food, obsession over social media, or the video game Fortnite (what the heck is with this game by the way?!), they have a similar effect on us. Weaknesses don’t just come in the form of areas where we lack self-control either. We all have our strong suits and the stuff we kind of stink at. For example, I don’t care for having difficult conversations, lengthy paperwork that involves digging up old documents I never saved in the first place, holding my temper when someone is shooting at me, or calling into automated phone systems. And therefore, I used to actively (or purposefully) avoid these activities. Now, I strive to tackle them head-on—or I delegate them to others. (Never forget about the subtle art of delegation!)
Self-awareness is a powerful tool for comfort zone expansion, but it requires constant focus and acknowledging your shortcomings, whatever they may be. I suffered from bad allergies and asthma growing up and had terrible eyesight. Those were some significant weaknesses when considering becoming a Navy SEAL. But so what? I trained hard to improve my lung function and used the money I’d saved for LASIK eye surgery. Too often people either try to pretend their vulnerabilities don’t exist or they succumb to them with a fixed mindset, throwing their hands up in defeat and saying, “Oh well.” Know your strengths, but more importantly, own up to your flaws. You can’t overcome them until you do.
STEP TWO: Remove Temptations.
Like the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.” It may seem silly, but this phrase offers powerful advice. By simply removing the biggest temptations from your environment, you will greatly improve your self-discipline. When I decided I was going to pursue the lofty goal of becoming a SEAL, everything in my life had to change. If you want to eat healthier, toss the junk food in the trash. Want to drink less? Throw out the booze. If you want to enhance your productivity at work, improve the management of your To-Do’s, turn off social media notifications and silence your cell phone. Prioritize and execute.
The fewer distractions you have, the more focused you will be on accomplishing your goals. Set yourself up for success by ditching bad influences.
STEP THREE: Set Clear Goals and Have an Execution Plan.
If you hope to achieve greater degrees of self-discipline, you must have a clear vision of what you hope to accomplish, just like any goal. You must also have an understanding of what success means to you. After all, if you don’t know where you are going, it’s easy to lose your way or get sidetracked. Remember to prioritize. At TakingPoint Leadership, when we work with our corporate clients on strategic planning, execution, and organizational transformation, we remind them that having ten priorities translates to no priorities.
A clear plan outlines each time-bound step you must take to reach your goals. Create a mantra to keep yourself focused. Successful people use this technique to stay on track, emotionally connect to their mission, and establish a clear finish line.
STEP FOUR: Practice Daily Diligence.
We aren’t born with self-discipline; it’s a learned behavior. And just like any other skill you want to master, it requires daily practice and repetition. It must become habitual. But the effort and focus that self-discipline requires can be draining. As time passes, it can become more and more difficult to keep your willpower in check. The bigger the temptation or decision, the more challenging it can feel to tackle other tasks that also require self-control.
So, work on building your self-discipline through daily diligence in a given area associated with a goal. This goes back to step three. In order to practice daily diligence, you must have a plan. Put it on your calendar, your to-do list, tattoo it on the back of your eyelids – whatever works best for you. With practice, anyone can push the boundaries of their comfort zone every day.
STEP FIVE: Create New Habits and Rituals.
Acquiring self-discipline and working to instill a new habit can feel daunting at first, especially if you focus on the entire task at hand. To avoid feeling intimidated, keep it simple. Break your goal into small, doable steps. Instead of trying to change everything at once, focus on doing one thing consistently and master self-discipline with that goal in mind.
If you’re trying to get in shape but don’t exercise regularly (or ever), start by working out ten or fifteen minutes a day. If you’re trying to achieve better sleep habits, start by going to bed thirty minutes earlier each night. If you want to eat healthier, change your grocery shopping habits and prep meals ahead of time. Take baby steps. Eventually, when your mindset and behavior start to shift, you can add more goals to your list.
STEP SIX: Change Your Perception About Willpower.
If you believe you have a limited amount of willpower, you probably won’t surpass those limits. As I mentioned previously, studies show that willpower can deplete over time. But what about changing that perception? The SEAL candidate who believes they probably won’t make it through training won’t succeed. Why assume our will to win can only take us so far?
When we embrace the mindset of unlimited willpower, we continue to grow, achieve more, and develop mental toughness. It’s the same philosophy as setting “stretch” goals. In short, our internal conceptions about willpower and self-control can determine how disciplined we are. If you can remove these subconscious obstacles and truly believe you can do it, then you will give yourself an extra boost of motivation toward making those goals a reality.
STEP SEVEN: Give Yourself a Backup Plan.
Psychologists use a technique to boost willpower called “implementation intention.” That’s when you give yourself a plan to deal with a potentially difficult situation you know you will likely face. To be clear, I am not referring to a backup plan under the auspices that you’ll probably fail at Plan A.
Let’s say you aspire to become a trapeze expert, but tell yourself, “Well, I’m probably not going to excel at this, so chances are I’ll be sticking with miniature golf.” That’s a lame backup plan wrapped in mediocrity. We are talking about contingencies for intentional course correction, not planning for failure. So be bold and keep moving forward. Going in with a plan will help give you the mindset and self-control necessary for the situation. You will also save energy by not having to make a sudden decision based on your emotional state.
STEP SEVEN: Find Trusted Coaches or Mentors.
The development of expertise requires coaches who are capable of giving constructive, even painful, feedback. Real experts are extremely motivated students who seek out such feedback. They’re also skilled at understanding when and if a coach or mentor’s advice doesn’t work for them.
The elite performers I’ve known and worked with always knew what they were doing right while concentrating on what they were doing wrong. They deliberately picked unsentimental coaches who would challenge them and drive them to higher levels of performance. The best coaches also identify aspects of your performance that will need to be improved at your next level of skill and aid you in preparation.
STEP EIGHT: Forgive Yourself and Move Forward.
Even with all our best intentions and well-laid plans, we sometimes fall short. It happens. You will have ups and downs, great successes, and dismal failures. The key is to keep going. A very close SEAL buddy of mine has had a lifelong dream of not just serving in the SEAL Teams but also making it to our tier-one special mission unit. He has every qualification this unit could possibly want, but for some reason, they didn’t select him on his first application attempt. Did he wallow in sorrow? Not for one second. He immediately developed a plan to request even more “schools,” train even harder, and he transferred to a different SEAL Team for a better chance to get picked up next time. Easy day.
If you stumble, find the root cause by asking the five WHY’s and move on. Don’t let yourself get wrapped up in guilt, anger, or frustration, because these emotions will only drag you further down and impede future progress.
Learn from your missteps and forgive yourself. Then get your head back in the game and violently execute. Good luck!