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How to develop self-discipline

Think of something — a task, a hobby, a project, or a pursuit — where we turned up ready and eager to practice. We arrived prepared to focus: to give it our full attention, curiosity, and care. This is discipline in action. Next time we say, “Oh, I don’t have self-discipline!” remember that we do. Because we all do.

But if we all have self-discipline, then why is it so difficult to act? The mind likes to create reasons not to follow through. It’s from this resistance that thoughts and feelings can get in the way, especially when we don’t feel as eager. The mind might make up an excuse not to do something if we think it’s boring or too difficult. Or we might ditch something before we complete it if we’re feeling stuck or disinterested.

It’s important to remember that it’s impossible to stop our minds from thinking. So, pushing thoughts and feelings away will only make them harder to manage. Instead, the best way to improve self-discipline is to notice, accept, and let go of these resistant thoughts and feelings so we can move on and accomplish whatever we set out to do.

Meditation can help us pay better attention to what we think and feel when we struggle with self-discipline. In fact, meditation is a practice of self-discipline itself. Taking regular breaks to spend time with our mind intentionally is what strengthens our awareness and compassion for ourselves. Plus, the way we show up for ourselves when we meditate is a good indicator of how we'll show up for other things in life where practice or repetition is involved. With these new skills in our mental health toolbox, we can make better decisions that allow us to stay focused and commit to the present moment.

Mindfulness - How to develop self-discipline
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Key takeaways:

  • We can improve self-discipline by noticing the thoughts and feelings that affect our behavior

  • Self-discipline is easier when we let go of trying to control our minds

  • Try meditations for self-discipline with Headspace


What is self-discipline?

Self-discipline is the ability to recognize and manage our impulses, emotions, and behaviors to support our values and show up for ourselves to achieve our goals. It’s not only an admirable skill, it’s also an important part of building healthier, happier habits. If we compare self-discipline with meditation, we’ll notice how similar and simple they both are:

  • Meditation helps us be in the present moment to become aware of our thoughts and emotions.

  • Self-discipline helps us be in the present moment to make the best decision for ourselves and take action, no matter what thoughts or emotions pop up.

Maybe we’re hungry, and we think, “Ugh, I don’t want to cook.” That’s a thought that triggers us to make a decision. Will we order take out or will we cook? Self-discipline comes from our awareness of these decisions and our focus on our goals. Neither option is more right than the other. But maybe we’re looking to save money or have more fun in the kitchen. And depending on our awareness and focus, we can choose the best option for us — knowing that habits take time and we don’t always need to get it right.

Self-discipline and willpower are primarily regulated by the part of the brain responsible for higher-order tasks like problem-solving and decision making. Research shows that people with strong willpower have better self-esteem, fewer impulse control problems, plus better relationships and mental health. Other studies show that self-control is associated with happiness. If we feel good and more fulfilled when we practice self-discipline, why don’t we always do it?


Why is self-discipline so difficult?

Have any of us ever felt like we’re choosing between our “good” self on one shoulder and our “bad” self on the other? It gets pretty tough that way. Many people believe that those with good self-control always win this battle. But self-discipline doesn’t have to be so exhausting.

We tend to use “self-discipline” and “self-control” interchangeably. But it might be helpful to look at “self-control” as one approach to regulating our impulses, thoughts, and feelings. When we work to “control” our behavior, we often use force. Think about how we act to suppress a craving, avoid that feeling, or get a handle on ourselves. It comes from what we “should” do, which can lead to a lot of negative self-talk.

When we get caught up in choosing the “good” or “bad” option or making “right” and “wrong” decisions, we’re falling more into a self-improvement trap than strengthening our discipline. We might find that trying to control our thoughts and emotions when we aim to eat healthily or save money becomes very difficult to maintain.

Instead, we can find easier ways to make decisions that support our values and goals without engaging in an internal battle, like practicing mindfulness. This approach to self-discipline allows us to simply notice our thoughts and feelings and be willing to sit with them.

For example, sometimes a craving needs to work its way through the mind. And practicing mindfulness allows us to understand our deeper values, desires, and even what we need at that moment. If we can realize, “Hey, I’m craving something sweet right now,” maybe it’s because we’re looking to boost our energy and can enjoy something both sweet and energizing, like an apple with some chocolate. Instead of feeling exhausted, we might feel more energized as we build self-discipline.


How to become more disciplined

Everyone has the power to grow their self-discipline. Showing up right here, right now is already supporting that goal, as well as the bigger one of becoming happier and healthier. These easy steps can help us get out of a self-control mindset and lean more into mindfulness. Remember, all it takes is time, compassion, and focus.

  • Build routines.

The easiest way to practice self-discipline is to avoid making on-the-fly decisions. We can do this by building routines. Say we’re trying to save money by not eating out. We could consider making meal prep a weekly routine. Then, after a long day, when the thought comes — “I’m craving take out.” — we don’t need to act on it because our meal is already prepared.

Doing the same goal-focused activity, like exercising or meditating, at the same time each day builds habits into our daily routine without much extra thought. Next time we feel like skipping our morning walk, we can sit with that feeling and say, “Well, I already have this 30-minutes carved out, and my tennis shoes are by the door.” When we make it easy for ourselves to build habits, we’ll feel happier doing it.

  • Write it down.

There’s also an emotional side to self-discipline. When we’re coping with cravings or trying to regulate an angry outburst, it can be helpful if our thoughts and feelings have somewhere to go. Instead of suppressing or distracting ourselves, which can eventually lead us to “give in,” we can give our emotions the space they need to breathe by writing them down.

We can keep notes on our phones, write on sticky notes, start journaling, or keep a small notebook at our desks. Simply writing the situation — our immediate thought and the resulting emotions — can help us distance ourselves from what’s top of mind.

Here’s an example: We might write, *“My boss cut my project’s budget. I should just be grateful I still have the project, but I’m upset and feel like this wasn’t fair.” *

Now, we can process. It’s frustrating to have something go wrong at work. And that’s okay. We don’t need to force ourselves to “be grateful.” Self-discipline comes from our ability to react with a clear head. Maybe we go back to advocate for our project, or maybe we move on to plan the next one. There are no wrong answers.

  • Meditate.

Mindfulness and meditation are already acts of self-discipline because showing up to sit with the mind regularly strengthens our sense of commitment. Meditation also trains the mind to let go of thoughts and feelings. Studies show that meditation improves activation and connectivity in the parts of the brain related to self-regulation. So we can also think of meditation as a powerful tool for developing discipline. The more we meditate, the more we discover how to let go of resistance or temptation.

Founder of Headspace and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe says, “Meditation can help you find stability. A way of stepping back from the thinking mind where you can change your perception and set the foundation to potentially change our behaviors.”

Also, the benefits of meditation make it easier for us to cope with challenging emotions and thoughts. Thousands of studies have shown mindfulness and meditation can positively impact mental and physical health. If we feel less stressed, get quality sleep, and find more focus, we will have more mental energy to get self-discipline. And it’s easy, too. We can meditate to strengthen our willpower anytime, anywhere.

  • Try noting.

Noting is a great meditation technique for noticing the thoughts and feelings that affect our decisions and behaviors, especially for beginners to meditation. Noting allows us to recognize when we're getting caught up in thinking, when we’re chasing thoughts, or when we’re resisting them. Then, after noting or labeling the thought, we can take a step back.

Wherever we are right now, we can give this technique a try.

First, take a big, deep breath through the nose and out through the mouth. Then continue with our natural rhythm, whether it’s soft or deep.

Let’s take note of how the body feels. Being aware of physical sensations like restlessness, hunger, aching, or stillness in the body can help us recognize how our bodies feel when we have a craving or impulse.

Next, get curious about what’s on the mind. If we’re thinking about a craving, simply label it for what it is. Say things like “craving” or “thought.” If we feel bored or irritated with something, we can say “feeling.”

This simple technique requires us to note what’s happening in the mind without judgment. By adding this to our meditation practice, we can begin training our minds to do this throughout the day, too. Over time, we’ll become more mindful of our self-discipline.

  • Get more sleep.

If we’re getting less than 6 hours a night, our brains won’t be able to recruit the systems needed for impulse control. It’s heavy lifting for the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that keeps long-term goals (saving money, for instance) and core values on the front burner. When our brains are sleep-deprived, research shows that the threshold for perceiving stress can be lowered, which may lead people to report greater stress, anger, and anxiety in low-stress situations. In other words, to best support our goals, our brains need good sleep.

  • Practice self-compassion.

As we let go of self-control and embrace mindfulness, we’re naturally working from a place of self-compassion. But when we get caught up in negative self-talk, skip our routine, or just have an off day, it can be helpful to remind ourselves that having self-discipline isn’t about being hard on ourselves.

Flexibility is just as necessary as discipline when creating a healthy routine. We might have a plan to work out in the morning or go to the golf range at a particular time, but life can get in the way. Instead of being hard on ourselves, we can treat ourselves compassionately and allow ourselves to adjust our plans. That can mean letting it go today and committing to follow through tomorrow or whenever it fits our schedule. And we’ll start to realize our sense of discipline doesn’t need to be derailed by the clock or rigid schedules and that no matter what, the best way to improve self-discipline and get our habits to stick is to be kind to our minds along the way.


Meditate for self-discipline with Headspace

The Headspace app has hundreds of guided exercises to help you build your practice. Start by searching these three meditations for self-discipline. A happier, healthier you is only a few breaths away.

  • Reflecting on Your Needs meditation. Ask yourself what you need. Let your mind answer.

  • Coping With Cravings course. Create the conditions for healthy change.

  • Managing Financial Stress course. Approach your finances with skill and self-compassion.


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