How to achieve your goals by improving your self-discipline

Breakfast is not just the most important meal of the day, but also the most important meeting you’ll have: a chance to check in with yourself, remember what it’s all about, and strengthen your resolve to succeed. Success in business means not just managing your assets, your network, and your office, but above all: managing yourself. Ambition and hard work are a good start, but without rhythm and regularity it is easy to lose your flow, and wind up stranded from your original vision.

Simply put, in business there is no sustainability without self-discipline. If you are concerned that your dwindling energy levels are compromising your ability to fulfill your potential, that you are hiding from responsibilities that require regular attention, or that you’re giving in too frequently to distractions, it is time to take a serious look at your levels of self-control.

Fortunately, there are a number of techniques for doing so, many of which have been suggested or verified by experts. These can be as simple as hiding temptation from your sight or avoiding distractions. If you find yourself reaching for your smart phone every two minutes when you know you should be concentrating on your spreadsheets, hide it. Put it in a drawer or, better still, out back in your locker. Tests have shown this works with kids and candy – and what is that smart phone if not candy for your bored eyes?

Then there are more grown-up, professional methods you can try. We all become jaded with our ambitions from time to time. We forget why we got into the game in the first place, or are dragged down by the sensation that our competitors are achieving more with less. Giving in to these feelings will just make things worse. Instead, highlight the positive values that drive your daily work. Make a list of the reasons it’s important for you to stay strong and fulfill your responsibilities. And visualize the end results: not just how they will affect you, but the benefits they will have for other people. These techniques have been shown to strengthen the user’s willpower.

It can also be a question of lifestyle. Poor sleep invariably leads to poor self-discipline. This is not just a matter of fatigue-induced laziness: sleep deprivation actually affects the way your prefrontal cortex operates. That’s the part of the brain responsible for self-regulation, so it’s worth making sure it’s in top working order when it’s online! Another lifestyle factor is the company you keep. You need two kinds of friends (and hopefully they overlap a bit). The first kind is the type that exercise their own self-control in an exemplary manner. Hanging out with well-disciplined people makes you better disciplined. (Probably your mother told you that when you were hanging out with wrong’uns as a child!) The second type of buddy you need is someone who’s prepared to look out for you. Having friends or family members that give you regular reminders to stick to your good intentions can be really effective.

All the same, it’s important to make sure that you’re not chasing somebody else’s dream. It has been shown in studies that our willpower soon runs low if we’re trying to please others instead of focusing on our own desires. If you’re not sure whether this is you, return to our first method: make that list of personal values. If they don’t match the goal for which you’re aiming, maybe you’re honing your discipline towards the wrong goal.

Now that you have a pretty good idea on how to pursue your self-discipline workout regime, one last tip: start with a bang. Don’t try to segue softly into your new mode of operation, but choose instead a specific start point and call it Day Zero. Research has shown that setting a date to start your new regimen can actually make you more likely to see it through.

For a step-by-step plan on how to integrate these ideas and more into your self-discipline campaign, have a run through this new visual guide. Self-discipline is not just a trait you are born with or without: it is a skill you can build on and practice on your rise to the top.

G. John Cole is a digital nomad and freelance writer. Specialising in leadership, digital media and personal growth, his passions include world cinema and biscuits. A native Englishman, he is always on the move, but can most commonly be spotted in Norway, the UK and the Balkans.

Image: Flickr

Immediacy Bias

Immediacy bias

(Source: Flickr)

Whether it be pictures of cats on the Internet, a phone call from a friend asking you to come to the movies tonight, or a university assignment due tomorrow morning, we all suffer from it.

We tend to perceive immediate emotions much more intensely when making decisions about what we should do right now.

Three examples:

  1. People tend to view a charitable cause as more deserving if it arouses more immediate emotions. This helps to explain why scary diseases like cancer attract more donations;
  2. People tend to prefer hot chips with gravy over a healthy salad (although this might just be me); and
  3. People have a tendency to procrastinate, leaving the majority of the work until there is only just enough time to complete it. This is why projects typically set false deadlines (well in advance of the real ones).

The good news is that you can overcome the immediacy bias by exerting your willpower.

Donate to the most deserving charity!

Eat healthy today!

Get it done now!

Unfortunately, though, willpower appears to be a finite resource, and exerting self-control in one activity will reduce the amount of mental energy available for self-control in other activities.

Research conducted by Roy Baumeister and others in 1998 showed that people who initially resisted a temptation of chocolates were subsequently less able to persist on a difficult task.

Psychologists call this “ego depletion” and it has real implications for your performance and productivity in the work place.

How can you fight its effects?

Five suggestions for overcoming ego depletion and maintaining willpower in daily life:

  1. Regular snacking: A number of experiments have connected reduced blood sugar levels with reduced levels of willpower. Instead of having three big meals per day, with blood sugar levels dropping in between, it may be more helpful to graze throughout the day;
  2. Good vibes: People with a positive mood have been shown to exhibit improved willpower and self control. This is an interesting insight because it suggests that motivational speakers and positive affirmations (while seeming hokey) are actually valuable in helping us remain in control of our lives;
  3. Grit: Research has also shown that people who believe in their ability to persist stand better odds of doing so.
  4. Practice: Willpower is thought to be like a muscle. On any given day, exercising your self control will lead to fatigue. But over a longer time period, regular exercise will increase your stamina.
  5. Know your limits: Sometimes you have to know your limits and avoid temptation. Odysseus ordered himself bound to the sails to ensure that he could not be seduced by the Sirens song. In a similar way, you need to know your weaknesses and find ways to restrain yourself. If you have a weak spot for cookies, don’t place a large cookie jar on your desk at work.