5 Steps to Self-Discipline

Think about the last time you decided to improve something about yourself, your team, or a relationship. If you’re like most people, you started strongly, then faded slightly, then faded more, and eventually slipped back into the same pattern that motivated you to make the change initially. It bothers you when you think about it, but not enough to recommit and do it right this time. Why is this pattern all too familiar to so many?

The most common misperception about people who achieve and sustain excellence is that they have some quality or combination of qualities mere mortals do not. It is true that many superior athletes have physical Self-Disciplinequalities you may never possess. But in most every sport there are also examples of athletes who would not be considered terribly gifted compared to their competitors — yet still achieve superior results. They are known as “grinders.” In business, it is often not the person with the MBA from the most prestigious school who gets the corner office or C-Suite position. It’s the person who consistently and reliably delivers results. They are called “go-to” people. Most entrepreneurs fail, but not because their ideas aren’t good enough. Rather, their creative ideas are often not matched by consistent, systematic, and purposeful effort. What’s the secret? A common denominator of success is self-discipline.

What is Self-Discipline?

In order to be great in anything, you must be internally motivated. You must have an inner drive that guides you to follow a clearly defined and systematic path. You must regularly evaluate your progress against desired goals and adjust as necessary. Angela Duckworth’s 2016 book titled Grit brought attention to this form of persistence that involves self-discipline. She describes “grit” as the combination of passion and perseverance. Self-discipline is a systematic process of effort, evaluation, and adjustment. Let’s look at the five components of self-discipline necessary to achieve and sustain your own form of excellence.

Step 1: Passion

In order to be a self-disciplined individual, you must be passionate about what you are trying to achieve in some area of your life. It could be personal or professional, occupational or relational, physical or psychological. Excellence does not occur overnight, nor is it achieved via a straight line path. In order to remain committed to the circuitous path resulting in excellence you must deeply care about your chosen endeavor. If you want to be self-disciplined, first ask yourself, “Am I deeply committed?”

Step 2: Plan

Okay, you’re passionate about achieving excellence in some area of your life, now what? Self-discipline requires a plan. Your plan is a structured series of goals, with specific action steps and timelines you will perform to achieve each goal. Your goal plan should consist of:

  1. Your dream goal — the ultimate outcome;
  2. Long-term goals — greater than one year to achieve;
  3. Intermediate goals — six months to one year to achieve;
  4. Short-term goals — one to six months to achieve;
  5. Daily and weekly goals — what you will do every day, and every week, to achieve your goals.

You must understand the different types of goals necessary for sustainable excellence. For more on this topic, see: Process, Discipline & Focus–Part 1.

Step 3: Evaluate

Now your passion has a plan. Unbridled passion is dramatic but often ineffective. When you reach the timelines for your short-term goals, it’s time to evaluate whether you have achieved them. If so, great! Achieving short-term goals builds confidence in yourself and your process. That means your plan is on target for achieving your dream, so full speed ahead and skip ahead to Step 5. However, most of the time I find that even passionate performers do not achieve all their short-term goals. If that’s true for you, proceed to Step 4.

Step 4: Modify

So you fell short on a goal or two. Ask yourself if you truly performed all your daily and weekly goals. Usually the answer is no. If that’s the case, self-discipline requires that you do what you said you would do. In other words, walk your talk! If you did perform all your daily and weekly goals and still failed to achieve a short-term goal, the explanation is one of two things. Either an essential element was missing in your daily and weekly goals, or your short-term goal was too ambitious. Evaluate, then modify. Remember, this isn’t failure — it’s self-discipline. It’s only failure if you quit. For more on Step 4, see:  Process, Discipline & Focus–Part 2.

Step 5: Support

Performers are often so highly motivated that they think they can accomplish great things on their own. Nothing is further from the truth. If you want to be an island, you’ll end up in the middle of the ocean. Regardless of how disciplined you are, you will need the support of others to accomplish your dream. Surround yourself with genuine people who care about you and your success, not merely about success. They will pick you up when you stumble, give you honest feedback to eliminate blind spots, and celebrate with you (for the right reasons) at the finish line!

Self-discipline is a reinforcing process. The more disciplined you become, the more success you achieve. Once you establish the pattern, you won’t want to give it up!

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