Persisting Until You Reach Your Goals
"You can never conquer the mountain. You can only conquer yourself."– Jim Whittaker, American mountaineer and CEO
Marietta wakes up before dawn each morning to exercise. She works very efficiently in the office, ignoring distractions, and devoting all of her attention to high-value projects. In the evening, she attends a class online; she'll be graduating in a few months with her MBA.
How can people like Marietta achieve so much, so consistently? And how can we accomplish as much in our personal lives and careers? Part of the answer lies in self-discipline. This is what pushes us to deliver on our best intentions and goals, even when we don't feel like doing so. If we have self-discipline, we're able to put off short-term pleasure (or endure short-term inconvenience or discomfort) in the pursuit of long-term gain.
This is why self-discipline is so important. In this article, we'll examine what self-discipline actually is, we'll explore why it's useful, and we'll look at how to develop it.
What Is Self-Discipline?
Self-discipline is the ability to push yourself forward, stay motivated, and take action, regardless of how you're feeling, physically or emotionally. You're showing it when you intentionally choose to pursue something better for yourself, and you do it in spite of factors such as distractions, hard work, or unfavorable odds.
Self-discipline is different from self-motivation or willpower. Motivation and willpower contribute to it, as do persistence, the ability to follow through on your intentions, and hard work.
Why Work on Your Self-Discipline?
Self-discipline is useful in many areas of our lives.
For instance, it's what pushes you to do high-quality work, even when you don't feel like it. It gives you the strength to stay professional with your clients, even when you're ready to throw in the towel. It helps you to stick with and achieve tough goals that you set for yourself. Self-discipline also enables you to keep going through to great success, despite what others might see as insurmountable odds.
It can also improve learning and enhance performance. Studies have shown that students with a high degree of self-discipline retain more knowledge than those without self-discipline. Additionally, researchers discovered that students with strong self-discipline are more careful in their tasks, which improves their performance. 
Research has also shown that measuring a person's level of self-discipline is a more accurate predictor of success than measuring their IQ. 
How to Develop Self-Discipline
Self-discipline is like a muscle: the more you work on developing it and using it, the stronger it will become.
However, it's just as important not to start out with goals that are too ambitious. Instead, set small goals, and increase the level of challenge slowly over time. The more you practice, the better you'll become.
Follow these five steps to start developing your self-discipline:
1. Choose a Goal
Begin by choosing just one goal that you want to focus on to develop your self-discipline.
For instance, perhaps you want to start exercising every evening, or you want to read one leadership book a week to enhance your skills. You could even practice self-discipline on very small goals such as concentrating on a piece of work for an hour without checking your messages, or avoiding unhealthy food for one day.
Remember, starting small is the best way to start developing your self-discipline. As your discipline gets stronger, you can spread the focus to more areas of your life.
Make sure that the goal you set is SMART – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound – and break the goal down into smaller sub-goals, where you can.
2. Find Your Motivation
Once you've chosen a goal, list the reasons why you want to achieve it. Try to express these reasons in a positive way.
So, instead of saying, "I want to exercise three times a week to lose weight," say "I want to exercise so that I have the energy to play with my kids and work successfully." Or, instead of saying, "I want to get this task off my To-Do List," say, "I want to do this task, so that I can meet my objectives, get praise from my boss, and feel satisfied with my day's work."
When you list the reasons why you want to achieve something, you'll find it much easier to get the job done.
Our article on Motivating Yourself has additional strategies for finding and developing your self-motivation.
3. Identify Obstacles
Now you need to identify the obstacles that you'll likely face when working toward your goal, and devise a strategy for overcoming each one.
For instance, imagine that your goal is to read one leadership book a week to enhance your skills. In the past, you've faced a number of obstacles in reaching this goal. For example, when you find a book you like, it's hard to find time each night to read. Between work, dinner and the kids, your time is taken up until late in the evening, and you get distracted by messages coming in while you're reading.
Once you've identified obstacles, come up with a strategy to overcome each one. In this example, you could do the following:
- Instead of going to a bookstore, spend an hour looking at leadership books online. Find several that interest you, and that have good reviews. Order all of them at once, and download them to tablet so that you always have a book on hand to read.
- Find more time in your day to focus on reading. Perhaps you could read during your lunch hour, or while you're waiting to pick your kids up from school.
- Turn your phone off when you want to focus on reading.
Often our self-discipline crumbles because we haven't identified the obstacles that we'll face, and we haven't developed strategies to overcome them. When these obstacles show up, we're unprepared to deal with them, and this shakes our resolve. Don't skip this step!
4. Replace Old Habits
When we're developing self-discipline, we're often trying to break a bad habit and replace it with something more productive. However, if that habit is tied into a certain time of day or routine, breaking it can leave a hole. If we don't replace that habit with something else, then its absence becomes even more noticeable.
A good example is if you're trying to stop yourself shopping online when you take a break at work. This bad habit destroys your focus and attention, because you're likely to be online for 20-30 minutes each time.
Once you've resolved to stop, identify a new behavior that you can engage in when you need a quick break. Instead of online shopping, you could do some stretches in your office, get a cup of coffee, or take a quick walk outside. These behaviors will help to support your goal and strengthen your self-discipline, instead of leaving you with nothing to do on your break.
5. Monitor Your Progress
As you work on your self-discipline, pay attention to how you're feeling as it develops and strengthens. You might feel free, happy, proud, and energized.
Also, think about keeping a journal to write down your self-discipline goals and to track your progress. This reinforces the positive changes that you're implementing in your life, and gives you a record that you can look back on to see the progress that you've made.
Over time, your self-discipline will strengthen, and you'll be able to apply it to lots of other areas of your life.
More Tips for Self-Discipline
- Try to avoid distractions when you begin to develop your self-discipline. Make it harder to engage in the activity you're trying to avoid.
- It's important to reward yourself when you experience success. Celebrating your accomplishments will keep things fun, and strengthen your resolve to keep going.
- Don't let a fear of failure or an occasional setback discourage you. All of us experience setbacks and failures – they're parts of life! Acknowledge that you slipped up, learn the lesson, and move on.
It's important to develop self-discipline in life. Self-discipline is what enables us to do high-quality work. It keeps us pursuing our goals through tough times. And it helps us to stay professional, even when we're not feeling great.
To develop self-discipline, follow these steps:
- Choose a goal.
- Find your motivation.
- Identify obstacles.
- Replace old habits.
- Monitor your progress.
Self-discipline is an essential quality, and it's a key differentiator between people who are successful in life and those who aren't.
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