How to develop two important skills that will help you achieve results in any area of life!
I really wanted to do an episode on self-discipline because it’s an interesting topic and it really conjures up mixed feelings.
In over 4,000 coaching hours, one of the most common wishes my clients have is to have more self-discipline or self-control, so they can be consistent with healthy habits and achieve their goals.
Have you had that thought, yourself?
If so, you’re in the right place. Let’s talk about what self-discipline is, how it relates to self-regulation, and the key steps you need to build both of these skills.
Let’s start with a question
When you hear the word self discipline – how do you feel?
A lot of people hear the word self discipline and immediately feel uncomfortable or a sense of dread, or that hard work or punishment is ahead.
I believe that attaching negative thoughts and feelings to words is a big part of the reason we find it hard. We’re making self-discipline into something to be disliked, feared or avoided.
But in reality, discipline is something that we need in order to persist for long enough to achieve anything in life.
You know that if you are disciplined with exercise then you will have a fit and healthy body and a lower risk of disease.
If you’re disciplined with food then you’ll maintain a healthy weight and your energy levels.
If you’re disciplined in your business or at work then you’ll be productive, you’ll get a lot done and you’ll achieve things – and probably make more money.
If you’re disciplined with budgeting and saving then you will accumulate wealth.
Having heard all of that, how do you feel about the word self-discipline, now?
To me, reflecting on the benefits makes it seem more attractive, and something worth cultivating.
I think it gives you a better understanding of your relationship with self-discipline.
That will allow you to unlock your personal secrets to cultivating self-discipline so you can do, be and achieve more in your life.
Along the way, I invite you to reflect on your own thoughts and feelings to see where the truth lies.
Self-discipline versus self-regulation
To define self-discipline we must also look at the word self-regulation.
They are two different things that work together, but come from different parts of your brain.
In reality, discipline is something that we need in order to persist for long enough to achieve anything in life.
Self-discipline is the ability to control your feelings and overcome urges. It is more about making decisions and taking actions in the moment.
Strong emotional impulses happen in your limbic system, which is the primitive, reactive part of your brain.
On the other hand, self-regulation is about reducing the frequency and intensity of those urges by managing stress-load and recovery. It is a longer-term, more automatic thing.
The longer term process of self-regulation is what makes self-control possible, or even unnecessary!
Your prefrontal cortex – the rational, reflective part of your brain – is the part that processes thoughts, makes decisions and takes control and that is where self-regulation happens.
Consider how this works in an example.
The Smell of Doughnuts
Let’s say you’re walking through a shopping mall on a mission to buy something, and then you smell the strong, heady aroma of spicy cinnamon doughnuts.
Your mouth waters.
You look around for the source of that amazing smell.
You see the hot doughnuts travelling on the conveyor belt, people closing their eyes with delight as they sink their teeth into the hot, fluffy dough.
Your brain screams – I WANT SOME!
But suddenly your self-discipline kicks in and you tell yourself – HEY – I am going to say NO.
Your self-regulation then kicks in – that is, your pre-determined beliefs, rationale and coping strategies.
You rationalise the doughnut decision by thinking about your longer term goals – I want to be consistent with healthy eating. I have just had a healthy lunch, why would I want to spoil that with a sugary fat-sponge?
And although you’re tempted in the moment, you use these thoughts and also perhaps a strategy of distraction to refocus on your shopping mission and walk away from the doughnut.
This is an example of self-discipline and self-regulation in action.
So there are two skills to master here:
- Resisting an urge in the moment (self-discipline), and
- Defining your beliefs, standards, goals and how to monitor and uphold them.
The Benefits of Self-Regulation
If you have good self regulation then you have the ability to keep your emotions and behaviours in check.
It means you have the ability to resist impulsive behaviours so that you don’t need to keep relying on willpower, which is a finite resource.
Good self-regulation means that you are able to cheer yourself up, and find motivation to do everything that you need to do.
There are two parts of self-regulation – behavioural and emotional self regulation.
Behavioural self-regulation means that you’re able to consistently act in line with your values and for your best long-term interests.
Even if you don’t feel like doing something you will do it anyway.
For example you might wake up on a Friday morning and not feel like going to work, but you still do it anyway because you know that it’s going to bring you the money that you need to live a healthy and productive life.
Emotional regulation is being able to influence or control your emotions.
It means that you’re able to talk yourself down from catastrophe, or that you can calm yourself down after being angry, get yourself out of a bad mood or avoid emotional outbursts at other people. It means that you’re not overly reactive to the situations around you.
Why are we disciplined in some areas and not others?
Let’s explore this conundrum.
I bet that you show up to work every day.
You probably don’t eat lollies for breakfast.
It makes sense that brushing your teeth is 100% not negotiable.
All of these things show that you are using self-discipline, but more broadly – self-regulation.
Even if you want to lie in bed all day, eat lollies for breakfast or stop brushing your teeth, you simply don’t give in.
As you can tell, self discipline and self-regulation are really important parts of wellbeing.
Then why, oh why, can’t we be like this in ALL areas?
You’d be surprised how many thousands of unconscious thoughts you have running through your mind; so well practised and ingrained that you barely notice them.
If you are mindful and watching your thoughts then you’re able to catch those thoughts before they lead to automatic actions.
Maybe you have trained your brain to give into urges – that is, to reward those urges – so they keep getting stronger.
Maybe you haven’t made decisions about what is appropriate behaviour and what isn’t.
You might be starting a new habit that you’ve never done before, and you haven’t sorted out your standards, reasons for change, motivators, and how to monitor and get back on track, so you are relying solely on willpower which research shows, is a finite resource.
These are skills gap for a lot of people. And that certainly explains why so many people fail to stick to new habits; they simply aren’t aware of what’s required to develop self-discipline and self-regulation.
It’s one of the reasons why working with a coach is so important – to learn the process of managing urges and developing self-regulation, and to get accountability and support to work through both.
Cultivating Self-Discipline / Managing Urges
The process of managing urges is simple, and it draws on three things:
- mindfulness and
Here are the steps to manage an urge when you feel tempted.
Step 1 – watch your thoughts and feelings through the day
Step 2 – notice when you are tempted to do something e.g. work late, or give in to doughnuts.
Step 3 – allow the urge – sit with it the moment and notice that you have it. DON’T resist it – feel it. Be uncomfortable for a moment without judgement.
Step 4 – notice when the urge decreases.
Step 5 – reward yourself with something positive.
It’s a really simple process that simply requires practice. You will build an incredible amount of self-discipline if you follow this process.
Now let’s talk about developing self-regulation.
Building self-regulation is more of a process of deciding in advance what you truly want and what feels aligned with your values, how you want to act, and how you will monitor and stay on track with that.
For any area you want to change, you could simply ask yourself these questions for any ONE area that you want to change:
- Why is that important to me/what will I get if I do?
- What would a realistic (and enjoyable) standard look like?
- How will I monitor myself?
- What are my triggers for falling off track?
- What are some strategies I can use to stay on track when I notice those triggers?
These questions will allow you to discover what you truly want and why, and to arm yourself with ways to check in with yourself and manage urges.
Here’s an example.
Let’s say that health is a really strong value of yours because you want to remain active and avoid disease as you age.
You know that exercising three to four days per week would be both realistic, and about the right standard for you.
You decide that an exercise schedule in your diary will be your best way of monitoring your exercise.
You also choose to monitor your thoughts about the exercise on those days so you can work out your triggers for doing it or not doing it.
During that monitoring, you might notice yourself sometimes trying to get out of the workouts:
- You have a busy day so you tell yourself you’re too tired or it’s too cold.
- You are feeling emotional so you tell yourself that you don’t feel up to it, or you feel too fragile
It’s your ability to notice that sort of mental chatter and then to do the work out anyway that defines self-regulation.
That’s where your strategies come in.
Perhaps you decide that after a busy day you will do a different kind of workout, or call a friend for accountability.
Maybe you decide that on emotional days, you will go to a PLAN B session time that you have penciled in just in case that happens.
These are just examples, but you can see how the thinking work right at the beginning can determine your success or failure.
A Word on Standards
Something that really stands out for me in that model of self-regulation is that we often try to live up to other people’s standards instead of our own.
Or we may have unrealistic standards for ourselves because we haven’t really reflected on what’s realistic and achievable given everything else going on in our lives.
So if you want to become better at self-regulation and self-discipline, the first thing to do would be to get really clear on what your standards are what’s in what’s achievable and realistic.
This can also be hard for some people. It means you really need to step up and take responsibility for your own actions – including any win, loss, pass or fail. That can feel a little scary, but that is way better than the disappointment of inaction!
Self-discipline is your ability to control urges as they come up, whereas self-regulation is your ability to control your emotional and physical behaviour in line with your beliefs and moral compass.
Although you may have a negative view of the word discipline, combined with self-regulation, it is really important for your well-being.
People who are stronger in the area of self-regulation are more self-confident, they have greater life satisfaction, supported and are able to deal with stressful situations or difficult people more easily. They are more likely to persist and achieve goals.
Building self-regulation is more of a process of deciding in advance what you truly want and what feels aligned with your values.
Cultivating self-discipline requires self awareness and an ability to say no to urges and temptation so you can uphold your own personal standards for behaviour or emotions.
Cultivating self-responsibility means taking the time to set those standards, monitor them, and develop strategies to uphold them.
It can be super helpful to work with a coach to help you cultivate these two important skills for greater wellbeing and a more fulfilling and successful life – especially if you are someone who typically expects a lot of yourself, consider yourself to be a perfectionist, or lack confidence in your ability to stay on track.
Ready to develop better self discipline and self regulation?
These skills will increase your confidence, give you greater life satisfaction and help you achieve your goals! If you’re truly ready to break old habits and get out of the rut I encourage you to check out the Habitology membership.
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