“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” – Jim Rohn
You wouldn’t know it if you met me today, but I didn’t use to be a very disciplined person.
I’d say I wanted to do something, like work out, practice the guitar, or get up early… but when the alarm went off, I’d always find ways to justify hitting the snooze button. Put simply, I was lazy and avoided hard work at all costs.
In fact, it’s only recently that I have become a fairly disciplined person. I get up by 6:30 am to write for an hour every single day, work out six days a week without fail, and pursue goals that matter to me without making excuses to avoid doing the work.
Which brings me to something I wish I’d learned ages ago:
Self-discipline isn’t something we’re born with.
Sure, self-discipline may come more naturally to some people than others. But we can also get better at it over time.
One of the main ways to build self-discipline is to teach ourselves to enjoy hard work. In psychology, this is called learned industriousness — or the belief that effort and self-discipline lead to our desired outcomes. In this way of thinking, effort becomes a good thing, rather than something to avoid.
In other words, we begin to believe that the hard work we’re putting into our workouts or other pursuits today will pay off later.
When we reframe effort in this way, the reward-related parts of our brain start firing when we practice self-control or pursue a difficult task. Our brains actually begin to associate hard work with rewards. Hard work starts to become more enjoyable. As a result, it becomes easier to be self-disciplined.
Of course, you can’t just go from wanting to avoid hard work one day to craving it the next. Like any other skill, it’s something you have to build up over time.
As someone who used to avoid almost any form of effort or challenge, I can certainly relate to this experience. I can remember a time not too long ago when it wouldn’t take much to talk me out of taking a break to pursue my goals. Now, I realize I’ve retrained my brain to seek out rewards from effort. I may not always love the work in the moment, but I crave it because I know it leads me closer to achieving my goals.
In addition to learning to enjoy hard work, there are several ways to increase your self-discipline. Here are three science-backed strategies I’ve found personally helpful:
1. Instead of trying to change yourself, change your environment.
Set up your environment in a way that encourages the lifestyle you want to live. If you want to eat healthier, stock your house with healthy foods. If you want to prioritize your workouts, set up your home gym in a way that removes any possible hassle.
Doing this removes any reliance on willpower and makes it easier to do what you say you want to do.
2. Practice exercising your discipline muscle.
Even if you’re not a naturally disciplined person, just deciding that you want to become more disciplined and actively working to exercise your discipline muscle can help improve your stamina.
Small acts of effort such as practicing better posture, forcing yourself to floss, or, of course, exercising regularly can all help to increase self-control and effort at later tasks.
3. Tie your goals to a larger purpose.
Why do you want to become more disciplined? Is it because you admire others who are self-disciplined and would like to see more of that quality in yourself?
Or maybe you have a short- or medium-term goal (to do your first pull-up, build a regular stretching habit, or to study for and pass an important test) or long-term goal (to be healthy and mobile as you age, to make a positive impact in your field, or to get a black belt in martial arts).
Whatever your goal, having a meaningful “why” behind your pursuits and making sure they resonate at a really deep level makes staying disciplined significantly easier.