The Complete Guide on How to Develop Focused Self-Discipline


We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

What is Self-Discipline Really?

You have probably heard on numerous occasions people talk about the importance of having self-discipline; about how it is a vital component to the attainment of any worthy goal. However, have you ever considered what self-discipline really means? Have you ever taken the time to consider what it’s all about?

This of course isn’t an easy question to answer. Let’s therefore look at a definition of self-discipline from several perspectives to help us fully grasp what it truly means.

On the surface self-discipline essentially comes down to having a reason to do something and sticking to it for the long-haul. This of course boils down to having an internal desire and motivation to bring a goal to fruition over the long-haul. However, this is not just about the process of pursuing a goal. It’s more specifically about your ability to control your desires and impulses to stay focused on what needs to get done to successfully achieve that goal. As such, self-discipline involves committing to long-term gains without falling prey to instant gratification along the way.

Developing Self-Discipline

As nice as this definition is, it doesn’t really outline what it truly means to discipline ourselves to completing a task or achieving a goal. In that regard we need to break this down another way and relate it all back to habit formation.

Self-discipline is the process of building specific habits over time that can help you obtain a desired outcome, objective or goal. In other words, it’s about taking small consistent actions that help you form the habits that subsequently help you attain your goal.

This definition is better, but still doesn’t quite give us a complete picture of what self-discipline is all about. So let’s break this down even further…

Having self-discipline isn’t just about consistently doing something, it’s rather about consistently regulating and correcting your behavior in order to adapt to the changing conditions and circumstances you face. Moreover, it’s all about proactively training yourself to follow a specific set of rules and to live up to a specific set of standards that will help you effectively shape and align your thoughts and behavior to the task or goal at hand.

Given this, it’s quite clear to see the value of cultivating self-discipline. Not only can it boost your level of productivity through greater focused effort, but it also has a tendency to enhance your level of confidence. It does this through the greater sense of control you feel while working on tasks and projects. No longer are you easily sidetracked or distracted. You now have a greater level of tolerance and can subsequently get more done in less time with seemingly less effort.

What is Self-Discipline

What it Takes to Develop Self-Discipline

Self-discipline isn’t something that we are born with. It is rather something that we can develop over time. In fact, it’s very much like a muscle that strengthens the more we use it.

In order to begin cultivating self-discipline you do however need certain factors to come into play. Some of these factors come from within and other factors can come from your external environment.

Having a Reason WHY!

For starters, to have self-discipline requires first having a strong desire to achieve a specific goal. Without a strong desire for something there is little hope for self-discipline. Self-discipline needs fuel; and that fuel typically comes in the form of either inspiration or motivation. You need one or the other to fuel self-discipline or otherwise you will struggle to stay focused for the long-term. And this essentially boils down to having enough good reasons for undertaking the task or project at hand. Ask yourself:

What do I want?

Why do I want this?

Why specifically do I need to follow through and get this done?

The more good reasons you are able to identify, the more fuel you will have to keep self-discipline alive for the long-haul.

Having an Unwavering Commitment

Now of course reasons alone are not enough. You will also need an unwavering commitment to doing whatever is needed to accomplish this goal. This of course is never easy. Long-term commitment in itself takes discipline; and typically this isn’t something that most people are good at doing alone. What these people are lacking is accountability.

Keeping Yourself Accountable

A long-term commitment to something requires that we either hold ourselves accountable in someway, or we have someone else hold us accountable. Either method works, however both in-action together will garner you the best results.

Having Rewards and Penalties

So now you have reasons for doing what you’re doing and you are also committed to accomplishing your desired outcome. This is a great start, however your motivation levels will undoubtedly ebb and flow along this journey. At certain times you will be highly motivated, and at other times you will go through periods of hardship where you will struggle to get through certain tasks and activities.

In order to avoid these peaks and troughs and to keep yourself disciplined along this journey, it can be helpful to put some penalties and rewards in place that help direct your choices and behavior.

You can, for instance, reward yourself for making specific choices or for partaking in certain kinds of behaviors. Likewise you can penalize yourself for indulging in other types of behaviors or for making poor choices. These penalties and rewards will just add another ingredient to the fuel that keeps self-discipline active and alive.

It All Comes Down to Your Personal Standards

All this of course essentially comes back to your personal standards. Ask yourself:

What personal standards will I uphold?

What behaviors and choices will I accept?

What behaviors and choices will I not accept?

How will I correct things when I get off track?

This all comes down to making simple agreements with yourself and then following through with these agreements through a process of accountability. And this of course essentially boils down to regulating and correcting your behavior whenever you get off track. In a nutshell, that’s pretty much what self-discipline is all about. However, there is one more layer that we have yet to discuss.

Having a Competitive Environment

This final layer effectively boils down to having a competitive environment in place. Now this of course doesn’t mean that you are necessarily competing against others. You can by all means put yourself in the frame-of-mind where you are trying to outwork and outperform others. This is certainly one way to discipline yourself to the task at hand. However, there is also another way to do this.

The other way to do this is to compete against your best self.

Measuring your current results against past results can be an effective method that helps you stay focused, motivated and disciplined. In fact, it could be the one key ingredient you need that will keep your self-discipline active as you work toward the attainment of your goals and objectives.

The Self-Discipline Process

Now that you have some clarity about what self-discipline is all about, let’s now break down a six step process that will help you practice self-discipline whenever you desire to call it forth into your lives.

Step 1: Define What You Want

The first step of this process involves getting very clear about what it is you want to achieve. Self-discipline can only exist if it is channelled toward something specific; and that something specific in this instance is a desired outcome you have in mind that can come in the form of a goal, habit, or a change of some sort.

To gain clarity about what it is you want, ask yourself:

What is it that I want to do, be, have or achieve?

What new habit would I like to develop?

What behavior would I like to change?

What is the one thing that I want to focus on in this moment?

Step 2: Describe the Changes Required

Once you have clarity about what it is you specifically want, it’s time now to describe this desired outcomes in terms of the behaviors you would like to adopt and in terms of the person you would like to become as a result of achieving this goal.

Every goal we set ourselves brings with it a definitive set of behaviors/habits that we must partake in that will help us to achieve that goal. Gaining clarity about these behaviors will help you figure out what it will take to achieve your desired outcome.

Have a think about your goal and ask yourself:

What specific behaviors will I need to cultivate to achieve this goal?

What specific habits will I need to adopt to achieve this goal?

While answering these questions it’s important to also keep in mind your core values. The behaviors you cultivate and the habits you adopt must reflect these values. That is the only way to ensure that you will have enough long-term staying power to stick with this goal.

Secondly, the journey towards achieving a goal changes people. We learn and grow along this journey and this therefore helps transform how we see ourselves, others, circumstances and how we interact with the world around us. What this essentially means is that you will need to change and adapt in some respects in order to have this goal in your life. In other words, you need to become the person that deserves to have this goal in his/her life. Ask yourself:

With this goal in mind, what person will I need to become in order to achieve it?

What qualities will I need to adopt?

How will I need to think about myself, my life, and my goal?

Answering these questions is important because self-discipline grows from a level of certainty you have about something. When you have more certainly the easier it is to muster up self-discipline. However, when certainty is lacking then it’s easy to become sidetracked and distracted along your journey.

Developing Self-Discipline

Step 3: Find Role Models

It’s time now to look outward for answers in order to strengthen your self-discipline. Specifically let’s identify some role models (friends, family, colleagues) who have already achieved the goal you are working towards. Ask yourself:

Who is doing this right now?

Who has successfully achieved this goal?

Who has successfully mastered this habit?

Who has successfully made this change?

Who has the necessary discipline in this area?

What can I learn from this person that can help me along my journey?

If your role models are people you know, then take the time to approach them and ask how they disciplined themselves to follow through with specific actions that got them their desired outcomes. Then use their experience to help you better discipline yourself along your own personal journey.

Step 4: Identify Reasons and Obstacles

You should now have a higher level of clarity about what it will take to achieve your desired outcome. With clarity of course comes more certainly, and with more certainly it becomes easier to muster up the self-discipline needed to stick with the actions you set yourself to get the job done. However, as with all journeys you will inevitably confront obstacles that will test your discipline and resolves. Ask yourself:

Given my goal, what obstacles could stand in my way?

What specific things could sidetrack me along my journey?

The less compelling reasons we have for achieving something, the more likely we are to become sidetracked along our journey. Therefore, in order to avoid getting sidetracked, you must specifically write down why you want to achieve your desired outcome. For instance, you could ask yourself:

Why specifically do I want to achieve this goal?

Why specifically do I want to develop this habit?

Why is this of primary importance for me right now?

Why do I really want this in my life?

What are the potential rewards I will gain from doing this?

As you are answering these questions it’s important that you don’t just settle on one or two reasons. Keep building the WHYS! The more compelling reasons you have for accomplishing your desired outcome the easier it will be for you to discipline yourself along your journey.

Step 5: Develop Plan of Action

You should now have a significant amount of clarity about what it is you want and what specifically it will take for you to realize this desired outcome. It’s time to use that information in order to piece together a plan of action for accomplishing this goal.

I have already discussed what it takes to build and effective Plan of Action. So I won’t go into any detail here. However, it is worth noting that in order to effectively discipline yourself to follow through with this plan you must create a set of mini-milestones, moreover you must have a clear deadline for the accomplishment of your goal.

Mini-milestones will ensure that you are working towards your desired outcome in small chunks. This tactic puts you in the driver’s seat as it gives you a sense of control over the tasks and projects you are working on. What you don’t want is to experience overwhelm. Overwhelm can quickly digress to procrastination, and procrastination can then lead to stagnation. And of course where there is stagnation, self-discipline cannot exist. It’s therefore paramount that you take progressive steps towards your goal in order to maintain control at all times.

Having a clear deadline in place is also important. A clear deadline will help you discipline yourself because it focuses you on a specific end date for the accomplishment of your goal.

With an end-date in mind, all your resources and energy are channeled in an appropriate way to help you maintain the necessary momentum you need to follow things through to the end. Moreover, a deadline provides you a sense of urgency, and this has a tendency to keep you more focused and disciplined on the tasks at hand.

Step 6:  Make Yourself Accountable

The final step of this process comes down to accountability. You must hold yourself accountable and likewise, you must have someone else holding you accountable for the choices and decisions you make along your journey.

You could, for instance, build a support team around you that can help you stay focused and on track. Heading this support team could be your personal accountability partner (a close friend or family member) who checks in on you on a regular basis to see how things are progressing.

Having another voice encouraging and motivating you will help you to stick-at-it for longer through till the very end. And that’s essentially what self-discipline is all about.

Strengthening Your Self-Discipline

Within this section let’s build upon what we discussed within the previous section and discuss how we can potentially strengthen our self-discipline even further while in the pursuit of our goal.

Make a Wholehearted Commitment

Commitment is one of the keys to self-discipline. We must be fully committed to do whatever it takes to get the job done no matter what challenges we may face along the way.

You can of course make a personal commitment by creating your own contract that stipulates the terms and conditions of the agreement you are making with yourself as it relates to the goal you are pursuing. Alternatively — or in addition to this — you can also make a public commitment by informing some of your friends, family members or colleagues about your plans. This will of course hold you more accountable for your actions, and will likewise help you to stay more disciplined throughout the process.

This is all well and good, however many people will still fail to stick with the commitments they make. They fail because they are just not specific enough with the details of their commitment.

Your commitment must specify the details of what you are committing yourself to. For instance, you have this goal you would like to achieve. Committing to this goal is a fantastic first step, however this really doesn’t mean much because the goal is only the end outcome you are working towards. What you must commit to are all the little actions you will need to take along your journey in order to attain this goal.

In this instance, your actions come in the form of consistent habits that you must develop in order to see this goal through to the end. You are therefore not so much committing to your goal, but rather committing to building those habits that will help you achieve your goal. This of course also requires committing yourself to exercising self-control to avoid getting sidetracked along your journey.

Both these commitments together will help you muster up the self-discipline you need to see your goal through to the end.

The Self-Disciplined Mindset

Self-discipline is a state-of-mind in itself. However, in order to achieve this state-of-mind and practice self-discipline requires that we cultivate certain qualities that will make it easier to practice self-discipline.

For instance diligence, patience, passion, excitement, enthusiasm, tenacity, courage and optimism are typically factors that help support the self-disciplined mind. It is therefore paramount that we take the time to cultivate these qualities within ourselves in order to nourish self-discipline.

However, it’s not only about the qualities you cultivate, but also about the actions you take. A self-disciplined mind is committed to taking consistent action over an extended period of time. Furthermore, a self-disciplined mind is willing to take the necessary risks to get a job done. In other words, a self-disciplined mind never takes a backseat; but rather always keeps moving forward, and is willing to do whatever is necessary to see the goal through to the end.

It’s important to note though that self-discipline thrives within a lighthearted environment where things are pleasurable and fun. As such, it’s important to find ways to enjoy the process; to enjoy each task you perform; to enjoy each activity you partake in. Ask yourself:

What do I enjoy about this process?

What is exciting about this?

In what ways does this benefit me?

How can I make this task/activity more enjoyable?

How could I make this more fun and exciting?

The more ways you find to enjoy yourself, the easier it will be to practice disciplining yourself to the task at hand.

Visualize Your Desired Outcomes

One of the most effective ways to keep yourself focused and motivated is to spend time daily visualizing your desired outcomes and goals.

Regular periods of visualization can help provide you with more clarity about the goals you are working towards as well as about the actions you need to take to achieve them.

This clarity-of-mind is then likely to provide you with more certainty moving forward, which is a required ingredient that can help you nourish more self-discipline throughout the day.

Creating a Supportive Environment

You can be in the right state-of-mind, but if your environment does not support this state then there will always be friction and you will subsequently struggle to find the self-discipline you need to achieve your desired outcomes.

Given this, it’s absolutely critical that your working environment supports this goal. Or to be more specific, it must support the habits and the consistent actions you take that will help you accomplish your goal.

Have a think about your working environment and ask yourself the following questions:

What habits and rituals are required to help me achieve my goal?

What consistent actions do I need to take to achieve this goal?

How well does my environment support these habits and actions?

What changes might I need to make to build a more supportive environment?

In the end your work environment must support the new habits you are building and the consistent actions you are taking to achieve your goal. At the same time it must also keep you inspired and committed over the long-haul.

Prioritize Tasks and Activities

When it comes to self-discipline, priorities are absolutely paramount because they help give your day structure and flow. No longer are you wondering what needs to get done or what you need to focus on next. Instead you already know what’s most important and how you need to structure your day.

A self-disciplined mind always works with structure. In fact, the more structure the better because the less decisions you effectively need to make throughout the day, which essentially helps you avoid getting sidetracked with irrelevant tasks and activities.

Tracking Your Progress

The self-disciplined mind also thrives when it can see the progress it is making. As such, it’s important to build a process that can help you track the progress you are making toward your goal using a calendar or journal.

When you track your results and can effectively measure the progress you are making this will naturally help keep you motivated and focused on the tasks at hand. And even in situations where you are failing to reach the milestones you have set for yourself, tracking your progress can help you to make the necessary adjustments to stay on track.

When it comes to tracking progress it’s important to not only monitor your results but also monitor the temptations that get in the way and end up sabotaging your efforts; then making the necessary adjustments to avoid those temptations altogether.

Remember that rarely will things ever flow perfectly. There will always be speed humps along the road that you must learn to navigate. This is just a part of the process. However, with self-discipline in your pocket you can successfully get through absolutely anything that life throws your way.

Guidelines for Developing Self-Discipline

Self-Discipline When Facing Adversity

At the beginning of any journey, it’s easy to assume that everything will go smoothly. There is all this excitement, anticipation, enthusiasm and energy that motivates us to push forward. However, this soon dissipates when all of a sudden we face our first big hurdle. What seemed like a sure-thing is now clouded in uncertainty. No longer are we enthusiastic but rather maybe a little confused, frustrated, overwhelmed and even fearful about what might come about.

It’s during these times of adversity when it is more important than ever to discipline ourselves to follow our actions through till the end.

Within this final section let’s take a look at what it takes to keep self-discipline alive when facing the hardships and setbacks you will inevitably need to deal with along your journey toward the attainment of your goal.

No Excuses or Complaints

When it comes to dealing with setbacks and adversity, in general, you must throw all your excuses and complaints out the door. Making excuses or complaining about your predicament will never help bring about a solution, in fact it could even exacerbate the problem.

Bad stuff will always happen when you least expect it. But that is really only your opinion of the situation. In fact, things might be a little different than you imagine; you just need a shift in perspective. Jumping to quick conclusions and letting your imagination run wild will only sabotage your efforts. Instead, use your imagination constructively to help you refocus your efforts on what you need to do to get the job done.

If you don’t take control of your imagination, then you may very well fall prey to anger and/or frustration. Once in this state, it’s easy to indulge in excuses and complaints because they will immediately make you feel better about yourself and about your predicament. However, that’s certainly no way to work through the situation.

You must therefore at all times discipline yourself to keep your emotions in-check. When your emotions are in-check you can refocus your efforts on what needs to get done to help you accomplish your goal.

Avoid the Perfect-ination Trap

Perfect-ination comes in the form of the two Ps: Perfectionism and Procrastination. You cannot practice self-discipline when you indulge in these two self-sabotaging forces.

It’s no doubt easy to procrastinate when facing adversity. Things are not going well and out of fear you might take a backseat in order to wait things out.

Now of course a temporary reprieve might be of value, however the longer you indulge within the procrastination cycle the deeper you sink into stagnation. You must instead refocus your efforts on what matters most. Self-discipline can then become the grounding force that anchors you to your goal. Ask yourself:

What is most important right now?

What should I focus on that can help me move forward in this moment?

Focus on small tasks that are within your control that help you move forward in a big way; and then progressively discipline yourself to upgrade these tasks as you start to build momentum.

When it comes to perfectionism; this is where things get a little tricky. It’s tricky and somewhat deceiving because we often fool ourselves into believing that we are actually making progress. But this is of course just a lie we tell ourselves.

When we indulge in perfectionism we are in fact not making much progress at all. In fact, perfectionism is kind of a defensive mechanism we use to avoid dealing with what actually needs to get done. We instead focus our efforts on irrelevant tasks that give us a semblance of control in the face of adversity.

The major problem with perfectionism is that we often fool ourselves into thinking that we are disciplining ourselves to the task at hand. This may be true, however our self-discipline is being directed onto the wrong things; the things that get you nowhere fast.

In order to break out of this perfectionist trap, it’s important to get some clarity about what you’re doing and what the best path moving forward might be. Ask yourself:

Is what I’m focusing on really that important?

Is this task necessary for the attainment of my goal?

Is there something more important that I should be focusing on?

What should I focus on that could help me move forward in a better way?

The key here is to redirect your self-discipline onto something that matters. However, at the same time make sure that it is something that you have some semblance of control over that can help build the momentum you need to get you through the tough times.

Simplify, Simplify, and Simplify

When facing adversity it’s easy to become angry, frustrated or overwhelmed. While experiencing these emotions it can be difficult to discipline ourselves to the task at hand. It’s difficult because we just feel as though things are hurtling out of control.

In such instances the key is to progressively take back control one step at a time through simplification.

While facing adversity discipline yourself to begin simplifying everything. Simplify your actions, simplify the habits you are building, simplify the steps you take to overcome a problem, etc. By simplifying things as much as possible you progressively start grasping back control over your circumstances. Only in this way can you begin once again building the momentum you need to help move yourself forward toward your goal.

Self-Discipline When Facing Adversity

Make Things Pleasurable and Fun

Dealing with adversity is never really much fun. However, what if I was to say that if you stopped taking things so seriously that you could actually see adversity in a very different light. Yes, it might still not be fun, but it may very well become quite a valuable learning experience.

When we stop taking things seriously and instead begin seeing them from a different vantage point, all of a sudden it’s easier to refocus our efforts and discipline ourselves on what’s most important. Adversity essentially becomes very much like a game we play with ourselves rather than a frightening obstacle that we must deal with. It just becomes so much easier to discipline ourselves with such a perspective in mind.

Given this, take time to ask yourself:

What’s the value in this experience?

What are the lessons here that I must learn?

How could I make this experience a little more enjoyable and fun?

It’s certainly easier to stay disciplined when things are a little more enjoyable and fun. 🙂

Find Inspiration

Self-discipline is very much intertwined with commitment. After all we need self-discipline in order to commit to something long-term. However, commitment can certainly waver over time; especially when we are lacking inspiration.

When facing adversity inspiration becomes paramount when it comes to keeping self-discipline alive. With inspiration you will often maintain a high level of commitment to stick with things for as long as possible. However, without inspiration your commitment will be lackluster and this will subsequently make it more difficult for you to practice self-discipline.

Given this, it’s critical that you keep your unwavering commitment alive by looking for inspiration to keep that fire burning. You can for instance gather inspiration from books, from people, from quotes, from movies, from current events, from magazines, through a vision poster, through journaling your learning experiences, etc. You can even find inspiration through other people’s stories of how they overcame adversity on the road toward achieving their goals.

There are therefore plenty of possibilities here. However, you must constantly search for inspiration in order for self-discipline to thrive.

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Adam is a life coach, mind mapper, doodler and visual thinker. He founded IQ Matrix in 2009 and has created over 350 self-growth mind maps. He also has a Free 40 Day How to Doodle Course where he teaches how to doodle using simple daily lessons. Read more about Adam's story, and how he created the concept for IQ Matrix. Feel free to also get in touch and send Adam a message here.