How to Cultivate Self-Discipline - Handel Behavioral Health
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How to Cultivate Self-Discipline

May 3, 2022

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We all have that friend, who, by the time we’re waking up, has made their bed, been outside for a run, and done last night’s dishes. They spend the rest of their day completing their tasks, and pursing their interests. We call our friend self-disciplined.

Why do some of us accomplish so much, while the rest of us get stuck? What’s the secret to cultivating self-discipline, and how can self-discipline transform our personal and professional lives?

In this blog we’ll examine why self-discipline is a critical skill to master, and how you can you develop it!

What is self discipline?

The Definition of Self Discipline

noun self-dis•ci•pline \ – ‘di-sə-plən\

The noun self-discipline describes:

The ability to do the things that need to be done.

The ability to train and control one’s conduct.

The ability to control one’s feelings and desires.

An Explanation of Self Discipline

Self discipline describes the ability to stay motivated, and take forward action, regardless of how you’re feeling physically, or emotionally. With a high level of self discipline, you’re able to face tasks and obstacles head on- you don’t shy away from difficult situations. You’re able to withstand the temptation of choosing the easier and more attractive options, knowing that the comfortable decision does not always lead to growth and success.

Self-discipline is necessary to self-care

Self-discipline allows you to choose, and persist with habitual actions, thoughts, and behaviors, how you want to live your best life. It gives you the inner strength to overcome setbacks, failures, addictions, procrastination, and boredom.

People who’ve developed self discipline understand that true self care is about making choices to live a life that inspires them, and that they don’t need to escape from. Self care is not all about salt baths and dark chocolate bars, while those indulgences can nourish us temporarily, self-care is the dedication to everyday actions that improve our overall health and wellness. True self care is not an indulgence, but a disciplined practice of maintaining (and improving) our physical and mental health.

What happens if we don’t learn to cultivate self-discipline?

People encounter conflicts because they lack the self discipline to follow through with actions, routines, and objectives that they wish to take, but don’t have the self discipline to follow through.

Say you want to start sewing, so you buy a sewing machine, gather your tools and materials, and set-up your machine. When you discover that sewing takes time and practice, from threading the machine to stitching a straight line, you give up on the idea all together. Then you chastise yourself for it. You’re miserable and tell yourself that you can’t keep up with it. 

Giving up on self discipline can have many consequences, including: 

  • Fear of failure
  • Lack of objective and purpose
  • Procrastination
  • Lack of determination, motivation, and ambition
  • Physical and mental decline

To cultivate self-discipline we need to believe that we are valuable. 

To cultivate self-discipline we need to believe that we are valuable. 

When we feel valuable, we will want to start managing our time, organizing our space, taking care of our health, contributing to society, spending more time with our loved ones, and transforming our finances. 

Self-discipline skills can be learned early in childhood.

Take for instance, parents teaching their child that they need to do their homework before they can play outside. The child learns to delay the gratification of play in order to preform their academic duties. 

At first, the child might protest their parents’ rule, but if the discipline is practiced consistently and with structure, the child will eventually decide to complete their homework before playing outside. 

The child learns that play will always be there, but first they need to complete their homework, to improve their academic skills. 

Steps to cultivating self discipline

Find motivation: To cultivate self-discipline, we need to find motivation. Reflect on what you value and ask yourself what behaviors uphold your values, and what behaviors oppose those values. 

  • Write down what behaviors are not serving you, and embrace that feeling. It won’t feel great to recognize and sit with what’s causing us pain, but ignoring the problem will only make it worse.
  • Write down clear goals you want to set, to become the improved version of yourself. Write down what the goal looks like, and what actions you will take to meet those goals. Get very clear on what the goal looks like to you, in your personal life. 

Once you’ve identified what areas you want to improve, develop an honest intention to stop delaying your personal growth!

1. Small Steps

It will be too overwhelming to revamp your entire routine. Choose a few small habits to focus on each week. 

For one week you might choose to start your day with a 30 minute walk, instead of your typical hour of Instagram scrolling. After one week, the habit of waking up and heading out the door might come natural to you- you might surprise yourself with how focused and grounded a morning walk can make you feel.

2. Practice, fail, start over

It’s not that all of us who’ve developed self-discipline never have mornings spent scrolling through our feed, plowing through the box of cookies in the kitchen, and missing our yoga class. It’s that those of us with self-discipline recognize our behaviors (maybe write them down), accept that our behaviors don’t honor our values, move on with our lives, and commit to sticking to our healthy morning routine tomorrow. 

Those of us with self-discipline share the practice, fail, and start-over mentality

3. Develop mindfulness

Along your journey of self-improvement, you’ll likely have the urge to quit doing something hard, or delay it for now. Instead of following those urges, develop mindfulness around those urges. 

Tell yourself that you’ll either complete the habit, like walking for 30 minutes, or you’ll sit down, remove any distractions, and meditate. 

If you choose to meditate, you’ll likely feel overwhelmed by the urge to complete the task. If you feel the urge to procrastinate, and truly feel like procrastination will make you feel good, you’ll likely need to rethink your habits. 

4. Measure your progress

Keep track of your progress to remind yourself that you are succeeding! It can be helpful to write down, before bed, how you succeeded in completing your goal and how it feels.  

5. Be kind to yourself 

Self-discipline does not look like beating yourself up and over-doing it to the point of burnout. If you’re burning the midnight oil to cultivate more self-discipline for weeks or months, and are left exhausted, frustrated, and discouraged, you’re not doing it right. 

So much of self-discipline is being kind to yourself and recognizing and honoring your entire journey of self-improvement. 

  • Mindfulness exercises, like taking short walks, noticing five things around you, or identifying two smells can actually increase your success in the long run.
  • Reward yourself along the way. Instead of depriving yourself of all negative behaviors, find the areas in your life where you can give yourself a reward.
  • Remember that self-discipline is a learned practice, not a personality trait. You will not show up, everyday, in the exact way you want to- but everyday holds potential.

About The Author

Nettie Hoagland Headshot

Nettie Hoagland is a writer with experience in local news reporting, nonprofit communications, and community development. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in Media Studies, Journalism, and Digital Arts from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. Nettie believes in the healing power of the arts to create connection and community. She is passionate about using writing as an instrument for personal and social growth in the field of mental health. She is currently based in Brooklyn, NY.