The Ultimate Guide to Developing Self Discipline

The ONE and ONLY.

What is THE QUALITY that separates successful people from the rest?


Talent, IQ level, self-confidence?


I’m sure you can find a lot of talented, very intelligent and even confident people who fluctuate somewhere in what is called “above average” margin.


There are lots of people on this planet who have everything to achieve absolutely amazing results in their lives, but they don’t.


Just because they miss this ONE QUALITY called SELF DISCIPLINE.


“It’s also the world’s loss. For every Steve Jobs or John Lennon or Hillary Clinton or J.K. Rowling or anyone else whose talents have enhanced our lives, there are thousands of people with just as much potential who never achieve much for the world because they waste away their time in the wrong quadrants.”

 The Procrastination Matrix by Tim Urban, Wait But Why



Indeed, what a waste of human resource!


On the other hand, everyday you keep seeing people at work, in press, on TV who are neither especially smart, nor talented, but who are somehow up there. Who set up ambitious goals and achieve them.


I bet you sometimes had a meeting with a senior manager, executive, or another successful person, that left you thinking: “How the heck he/she even got there?”


Well they focused on their objectives and persevered, persevered, persevered….

Persevered daily in spite of any setbacks occurred down the road.

And that’s what brought them where they are now.


This is their big and indeed a bit boring secret.


“Oh, nothing new!” you might say.


Well yes, but this old boring secret is the reason why you still did not succeed in having a body, career, business, recognition, relationships, world domination that you crave so bad.


As a life and career coach I always ask my clients what prevents them from achieving a certain goal. And in 70% of the cases answer is: lack of self discipline. In the rest 30% is something that provokes lack of self-discipline (fears etc.).


Thankfully for them and for the rest of you who think they have plenty of unrealised potential, self discipline is not an inherited trait encoded only in super humans’ DNA. It is a just a skill that can be learned by anybody. And I assure you it can be done faster and easier than, for example, mastering triple loop jumps on ice. Though the latter is not impossible even if you overgrown the figure skating starter age.


If you think that lack of self discipline is the one to blame in the fact that you are not yet a superman/ superwoman that you want to be in studies, sports, health, work, business, parenting etc., then this guide will explain you how to develop such an important skill and make it stick!


1. Why or Why or Why do I do this?

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”


This Nietzsche’s quote was used by Victor Frankl to summarize the idea of the book “Man’s search for meaning”, where he tells his real story of surviving several years in Nazi concentration camps and finally making it out to freedom.


He discovered during his imprisonment that people who have identified a purpose in life to feel positively about and constantly imagining that outcome, are the ones who managed to survive for the longest. They managed to resist starvation, exhausting physical labor in horrible weather conditions, abuse, disease and living under constant threat of death.


After the release Frankl put the principle of BIG WHY (the ultimate purpose) in his psychotherapy method and helped hundreds of people.


And though (I cross fingers for that) you will never ever have to go through what Frankl went, it shows in a nutshell that absence of powerful and meaningful motivation doesn’t let people stick long enough to the chosen goal.


First step towards developing self discipline is to decide on your BIG WHY


                                                                                                   Image courtesy of Ksayer 1


How do you do that?


Well let’s take the example goal: to eat healthy. Ask yourself why do you want to do that?


Let’s assume you want lose weight here and there.

Is this reason meaningful and motivating enough for you?

If it does not seem like it, then dig deeper!

Keep going and ask yourself: Why do I want to lose weight?


To be healthier and have more energy.


Continue: Why do I want to be healthier and have more energy?

To ensure I live longer and be there for my family, to be able to do my job better, etc.

If the last reason sounds empowering and makes you lighten up inside, then this is it.

Otherwise-keep asking why until you hit it!


No matter what your BIG WHY is – it should really empower you even in the times you feel tired and on the edge of quitting. So make sure it is inspiring, motivating and touching.


Now imagine the outcome of your regular and persistent actions as vividly as you can. Emerge into this image and feeling of yourself having lots of energy to do everything you want during the day and after work, looking great, feeling great, spending quality active time with your family (whatever was your core reasons for healthy eating).


You can even write or draw your BIG WHY on post-its and stick in visible places as a constant reminder to yourself.


Now when you will start taking small daily steps towards your goal. For example – waking up earlier every day to prepare yourself a healthy breakfast and snacks for work, always first remind yourself about WHY you are doing this. This will keep you driven and stop you from slipping out of the necessary routine.


2. Befriend your brain


                                                                                                  Image courtesy of Allan Ajifo


Who controls what?


Your willpower is responsible for developing self discipline. The part of the brain that manages willpower is located in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is the area right behind your forehead.


PFC is also responsible for planning, working memory, organisation, anticipation of consequences and controlling impulses. It rationally manages impulsive emotive decisions coming from the “most ancient” part of your brain-amygdala.


Amygdala is a little sneaky thing responsible for your choice of an instant gratification (this huge piece of chocolate cake, mindless social media surfing, TV, going to the bar) instead of concentrating on actions that will lead to long-term results and awards.


Amygdala (two red beans on the image) compared to the whole human brain

                                                                                                    Image courtesy of Tracy Abildskov


When you try to get involved into a task that might not be super pleasant, but lead to great things in the future, this tiny organ feels a threat to your comfort and starts to scream “Danger! Danger!”. Alas, often it makes you choose doing something that will get you back into your comfort zone, instead of working on your goals.


And it is your large and wise prefrontal cortex that helps you to control those false danger alarms. So you can actually keep working on your personal project, going to the gym, learning another language. Instead of sending it all to hell, grabbing a bucket of Ben&Jerry’s, resting your butt on the couch and dissolving in TV/ video games/social networks.


How to stop our “so developed over centuries” prefrontal cortex surrender to the orders of tiny amygdala?


The first thing to understand is that human brain has a mass of only 2% of our whole body weight, but requires 20% of the energy consumed by our bodies. And this is the case when you are not in a very active state-like a lazy stay home weekend.


Most of this energy is consumed by our rational friend-prefrontal cortex. Obviously, as soon as you start to get involved in some kind of advanced mental activity and try to make your mind to focus on a particular action (especially if it is quite new for you), it starts to use even more energy.


What it needs is glucose and oxygen, so that’s why after trying to resolve a difficult task or just concentrating hard on something, you feel an urge for a chocolate or sweet drink.


However if you want to maintain your focus long-term, opt instead for sugars from fresh fruit and vegetables. They have the highest nutrient, oxygen and water content. In addition their sugar releases slower than in processed foods, hence providing you brain with necessary fuel for longer periods.


Based on those facts it is hard to practice self discipline if you are hungry, stressed or tired. At the start of a new routine it is always better to begin when you are rested and have fuelled your brain.


Stop thinking you can do it!


Another thing to keep in mind is that your prefrontal cortex can hold on “its stage” maximum 4 pieces of information at the time. David Rock in his book “You brain at work” clearly explains it on typical everyday examples.


Psychologist Dr. JoAnn Deak says that the brain is only able to focus properly only on one task at a time. You can’t do several things at a time without significantly decreasing efficiency of the outcomes.


Indeed, try to resolve at the same time a math-problem while citing a poem and typing and email to your boss. I’m sure you’ll fail miserably.


And if you say that you can drive, listen to the radio, eat and be on a business call at the same time, well the first 3 actions don’t require significant resources from your PFC as they became mostly automated. So they are being taken care now by another part of the brain-basal ganglia.


Several actions that require mental focus just can’t be done at one time. You surely can just quickly switch from one to another but it significantly cuts down quality of the result.

Stop thinking that you can multitask! It’s a myth!

                                                                                     Image courtesy of Mathias Weinberger


How can it help you with your “Build self-discipline” project?


Always start with one habit you want to develop (exercising, writing, healthy cooking, reading your child a story everyday, learning new language, etc). Try to do it when you well rested, fuelled with slow carbs, and don’t have too many thoughts running in the background.


Work on one thing at a time. If you writing or learning something then don’t try to plan tonight’s dinner or weekend trip in between. Practice a habit everyday for a time available for you. For some this can be 15 minutes, for others-2 hours. You can always start with 15 min period (or even less) and increase gradually every day for 1-2 minutes. Don’t start a different routine, until first one becomes as natural as brushing teeth in the morning.


Get more of this grey stuff.


Another practice, which can help you big time to increase focus and build self-discipline, is meditation. If you now think about stopping to read further, because you are not into this woo-woo stuff, I encourage you to hold on for couple of minutes.


Multiple neuroscience studies conducted in the past decades have proven that meditation increases amount of gray matter in your brain and thus boosts it’s power to focus, creativity and better memory. It also helps to reduce stress, anxiety and become more aware of your thoughts and feelings.


No wonder that such companies, as Google, Apple, McKinsey, Deutsche Bank and others now provide meditation training and facilities for their employees.


Even my ex employer-a rather small organisation with quite a conservative CEO is now paying for weekly mindfulness meditation course for its employees.


And you are in no way encouraged to put hippie clothes, sit down in a lotus and start to chant mantras.


Moreover, I heard recently from couple of friends that this approach to meditation in the end of the their yoga session made them laugh, drift in thoughts or even fall asleep and has been completely useless.


The reason turned to be quite simple: the teacher has been making several absolute rookie mistakes. First, she told complete newbies to lie down for meditation, what made most of them to fall asleep within several minutes and even snore. Then she started to say that they should feel their chakras, see how energy moves inside them, changes colours and all this kind of stuff. All these made participants even more confused, so they could not really feel any benefit from meditating.


Best definition of mediation I read is in Tim’s Brownson’s Meditation for Beginners post, which he found somewhere else. 


“Meditation is a concentrated form of focus”

                                                                                                              Image courtesy of yischon

To start to meditate, all you need is to sit in a comfortable position with your back straight, and concentrate on your breathing, a sensation in your body or a particular object outside of you. If a mantra or a particular word or phrase help you concentrate then feel free to use them. I, for example, mediate sometime on “love and peace” or “relax and let go”, but it really can be any word or sound.


In the beginning it will be quite hard to focus, because your mind used to constant chatter will start to come up with thoughts about lunch plans, unfinished reports, necessity to call a friend and other random B.S.


Don’t get annoyed or upset with coming thoughts and voices. Just notice them, and let them go (e.g. imagine they are put inside balloons and released up in the sky) and bring your attention back to what you have decided to focus during meditation (breath, word, object, music, etc). It is absolutely normal and will eventually go down with regular practice.


Try to do it daily, choose a best suitable time slot and start literally with couple of minutes. When you become comfortable-gradually increase the time. Usually 10-20 min a day is sufficient.


The results won’t wait to show up, after several weeks of regular practice you will see that you become more aware, less stressed, more focused and organised. It will tremendously help you in developing self discipline.


The willpower chemical.


Another magical chemical in our brains that helps our willpower, self-control and perseverance is Dopamine. This neurotransmitter literally fuels our motivation for goal achievement and helps to build self discipline. Scientists have identified higher levels of dopamine – also known as the “reward molecule” – being linked to forming lifelong habits, such as perseverance.


The bad news is that dopamine decreases with the age in all human beings. Its lack is responsible for various neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, depression, problems with thinking, memory, reaction times and inability to experience pleasure.


The good news is that you have the power to increase your production of this great chemical by adapting your food choices and changing your attitude and behaviour.


So what are the natural ways to increase dopamine for developing and maintenance of self disciple?


  • Dopamine boosting foods

Opt for food containing amino-acid tyrosine: bananas, almonds, meat, poultry, avocados, beets, lima beans, green leafy vegetables, oatmeal, green tea, coffee, wheat germs, sesame and pumpkin seeds, turmeric, apples.


Consider as well eating foods full of natural anti oxidants: Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Beta-carotene and carotenoids. So add to the previous list: peppers, broccoli, asparagus, greens, oranges, carrots, Brussels sprouts, sunflower seeds.


You can also boost your dopamine levels with additional supplements if you wish. But consult your doctor first to make sure it is safe for you. Way too much of dopamine can be as bad as having low dopamine. Such supplements as L-Tyrosine, L-Theanine, Mucuna, Rhodiola and multivitamins with zinc, folate and vitamin B-6 are said to elevate and support healthy dopamine levels.


  • Get it moving

Practice regular exercise that you enjoy. Pleasure is key word here. So if team sports make you frustrated or you have horrible muscle pain after CrossFit WODs, keep trying various sports and exercise regimes until you find something that you really like.


Even if you don’t want to lose any weight, grow muscles and are completely satisfied with your body, exercise is the easiest way to increase your dopamine to healthy levels.


The main goal of physical activity is not to make you look sexier (though this one is a great extra benefit to have), but to make your feel better and happier. Please keep this in mind. Starting first with building up regular exercise practice will tremendously help you to boost your self discipline for achievement of all your other goals. Even if it is uncomfortable and seems hard in the beginning, after 3 -4 weeks you will start to notice that you feel less stressed and more focused. Remember this feeling. This is one of the major building blocks for the rest of your self-discipline construction.


  • Create deadlines and celebrate mini achievements

Dopamine release increases when you have deadlines. That’s why when you procrastinated for a month to prepare important report for your boss, you are able to work whole day and night to finish it before the due date.


When you split your goal in micro goals –and complete, for example, from 1 to 3 of them everyday-it is up to 3 deadlines and achievements that you can give yourself a credit for and celebrate. This will also boost your dopamine. Make a schedule for all your daily tasks, use reminders and alarms to tell you that it is time to stop working on your project and start family time. Decide on the rewards that you can give to yourself- from making time to read your favourite fiction to getting a massage in SPA – whatever you feel could bring you real pleasure. Award yourself only if your followed and achieved all your micro goals during a day/week.


Celebrate achievement of your daily micro goals

to keep your dopamine levels high


3. Structure your Environment

Creating environment that will enhance your focus is another factor for successful learning of self discipline.


You can have a powerful motivation and great willpower, but if your environment feeds you with tempting distractions all the time, it is usually extremely hard to focus and control immediate pleasure urges.


So what are the key factors of a favourable environment for building self discipline?


Just analyse what you usually tend to do instead of working on your goal and permanently or temporary remove those distractions from your surroundings.


Can’t stop going to the kitchen to grab sweets? Well, stop buying them and replace with healthy options.


Turn off your phone and Internet completely during the time you have to concentrate.


Can’t turn your off your phone? Then this cool Forest app will help you to stay off it.

If you manage not to touch it for at least 30 min, the seed that you planted will grow into the tree. If you could not hold yourself-the tree will disappear. It helps you to monitor your progress every day by watching how your forest grows on the way to your goal.


Internet needed for work? Then choose amongst available tools to prevent yourself going on social networks and other time-sucking sites. These apps keep you conscious about how much time is spent on useless web surfing.


Cold Turkey lets you block websites, apps on your PC, schedule times for these blocks. You can stick to your actions by locking the timer or schedule until a certain time. If you end the app before your block expires, all sites will be blocked until you reboot your PC.


Self Control: similar app for Mac


Focus Out Destructions same principal for Android based phones and In The Zone for iPhone.


Besides switching off your technology, turn off human distractions as well. Tell colleagues, friends, family that you are busy at the moment and will deal with their request in a certain amount of time. Warn them prior concentrating on a task not to disturb you for a certain period of time -unless house is catching on fire or something like that.



To resume all of the above- self discipline is not a magic trait, but a skill that can be learned.


Steps that will significantly ease this learning:


  • Find a BIG WHY for your goal; it should be inspiring and motivating. make yourself aware of the BIG WHY every time you start to do something related to your goal.


  • Make your brain conspire for you. Feed your prefrontal cortex with healthy carbs to maintain energy throughout the day.


  • Do not try to multitask. Concentrate on one thing at a time.


  • Don’t try to build several habits all together, start with one, continue until it becomes a usual routine, than gradually add others one by one.


  • Increase your dopamine with particular foods and supplements.


  • Become more focused and less anxious by adapting short daily meditation practice.


  • Maintain healthy dopamine levels with regular sports and exercise regimen you enjoy.


  • Set up daily mini goals and deadlines that eventually will lead you to the long-term achievement. Celebrate if you stick to them.


  • Get rid of all everything that can destruct you from your routine.



Featured image: courtesy of Leonard Bentley