Some weeks, I am awesome. I get everything done that I planned to. I avoid distractions like Facebook and those terrible click-bait articles. Other weeks I don’t do so well. It’s easy to put off work and spend time on mind-numbing activities. I have so many things on my plate that it can be daunting to just think about where to start. So, what’s the difference between my good weeks and my not-so-good weeks? Why is it that some of my friends are far better at staying on task? It’s the elusive and mysterious quality we refer to as self-discipline. So how do we get better at it? Here are a few practices you can start to help you develop your own discipline.
Learn to set better goals.
First and foremost, if you want to have discipline, you have to have a goal. Maybe your goal is to quit smoking or maybe it’s to call your grandmother more frequently. Whatever your goal is it must have a few qualities. One way of evaluating whether or not your goal is a good one is to use the SMART method.
- Is your goal Specific? Don’t settle for “Do better in my next class”. Instead, try “Dedicate 1 hour every day to my classwork and 2 hours every day to studying.”
- Is your goal Measurable? I like to think of this as being part of making it specific, but it is important that you will be able to determine if you were successful. In terms of school work, this is easy because the performance is graded. But it might be more difficult if your goal is to improve that relationship with grandma.
- Is your goal Achievable? If your goal is to run a marathon and you currently run less than twice a year, then consider an intermediate goal of running two or three times per week for a month. Choose goals that are within your grasp. It’s okay to have bigger goals but try making them more achievable.
- Is your goal Relevant or Rewarding? Is it relevant to your current (or desired) path in life? It might be fun to pursue a goal to learn Origami or gain 500 new Twitter followers, but if you’re just doing those things for bragging rights, you can probably find a better use for your time. Why am I doing this goal?
- Is your goal Time-based. This one is often overlooked, but if you don’t set a time period in which to complete the goal, your motivation may slip because you could always work on it tomorrow.
This exercise isn’t specific to every goal or effort but doing this will help you get in the practice of critically examining and carefully defining your goals. Better goals will lead to better results and make maintaining your commitment easier.
Remind yourself (constantly).
We know that we are incredibly busy (though that may all just be our perception). We have so many distractions! And hundreds of things to keep track of! So, it’s easy to forget our goals. So what’s the key to overcoming this hurdle and having more discipline? Reminders. Constant reminders. There are countless ways to do this whether you’re old-school and prefer yellow stickies on the bathroom mirror, or you’re like me and prefer a random reminder multiple times throughout the day from an app on my phone (Android or iOS).
Measure and review your progress.
It’s important to review your progress and see if you need to double up on your efforts or be proud of the gains you’ve achieved. So take a few minutes and write down how you did. If you’re using an app to remind you it may include a feature to record when you’ve accomplished a particular task. Otherwise, try keeping a simple log by the side of your bed. You don’t need to write a full on journal article (though that may help), but even just a couple of check marks or a simple sentence about how you did on your goal each day will do the job.
Reward (or punish) yourself.
Now that you’ve got a measure of your progress, you can reward or punish yourself. There may be some cautionary notes to be made about punishment but I feel comfortable denying myself social time if I haven’t put in my hours of work on my goals for the week. I’m not suggesting that you need to lock yourself in your room or sit in a corner for twenty minutes, but not going out and partying after a week of poor performance is probably a wise choice. As for rewards, make sure they’re healthy. Treat yourself to a massage, or a $30 spending spree. Try to skip the ice-cream (even if it is vegan and low-fat). Here are a few more examples of positive rewards.
Ask friends or family to help.
Ask a friend to help you out. This might mean that they will work on the same goal and you can be accountable to each other. Or it could simply be that they ask you periodically how you’re doing. A friend’s positive support for making progress can be a great reward. On the other hand, having your mom tell you that she is sad that you didn’t do better in school this semester could also be motivation. (Note to self: write an article about picking good friends for self-improvement.)
Learn to forgive yourself.
You’re still here? Reading this 1000+ word article? Great. Then I can feel good about sharing this last one with you. It is the MOST IMPORTANT key to improving your self-discipline. You need to be able to forgive yourself. So, you had a bad day? You left your healthy lunch at home and decided to eat fast-food for lunch? So. What.
It really doesn’t matter. It won’t affect how well you do tomorrow. It’s not going to prevent you from ever doing anything great ever again. So don’t dwell on it. Instead, do these four things, and move on.
- Acknowledge the mistake and the outcome. “I did x instead of y. As a result, I will not be able to achieve my goal today”
- Accept that we are all failable and that failure is the road to success. (Consider reading some smart quotes about failure from successful people.)
- Commit to doing better tomorrow. Tell yourself, out loud, in front of a mirror, “I will do better tomorrow.”
- Do better.