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Having Difficulty With Self-Discipline?

Change your mindset to bolster your willpower.

Key points

  • Research has demonstrated that what a person believes about self-discipline relates to how successful they are in being self-disciplined.
  • Even if one doesn't already view self-discipline with the most productive lens, there are ways to shift one's perspective.
  • Like a muscle, each time a person exercises willpower and reinforces successful effort, self-discipline grows stronger.

What does self-discipline look like at work? Sometimes, it’s the ability to resist temptation, such as distractions to avoid a particular task. Other times, it’s the ability to persist with a task when your energy and motivation seem to be running low.

What do you believe about the nature of your own self-discipline? Is it something that runs on internal energy that is spent with use? Or is it something that is strengthened as you apply it and persist?

Your answer may make a big difference in how much self-discipline you experience. For years, research in psychology pointed to self-control as a resource that is depleted with use and needs to be restored through breaks, rest, or sleep. More recently, however, research points to the importance of what you believe. If you view self-discipline as an expendable resource, your willpower tends to fade with use. If you believe that exercising your self-control strengthens and fuels it, well, that is more likely to be your experience as you resist temptation or buckle down to get something done that may not be appealing.

If you don’t already view self-discipline as a force that feeds itself, what might you do? Reflect on times that you seemed to have initial difficulty resisting temptation, getting started on something, or sticking with it, but picked up steam and accomplished the task or met the goal. That’s the kind of experience we’re talking about with this particular belief about self-discipline, and you’ve already had such an experience. You’ve shown that it’s possible. When you feel your willpower and motivation waning, remind yourself of those previous experiences and imagine the same happening as you push ahead now.

What if your experiences have always seemed to indicate that your self-control wanes with use, and you need breaks to recharge? There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you can afford to take those breaks. If not, remind yourself that not everyone experiences self-discipline as a depletable resource and that your experience might be different if you focus on mustering more energy at this point rather than focusing on how difficult it is to continue or the need for a break.

Also, if you know someone who seems to be a role model of self-discipline, picture that person in your situation, focusing on what they look like as they plow ahead. Regardless of how you are able to do it, as you push forward to continue to accomplish progress, be sure to mentally reinforce yourself by taking pride in your ability to muster more willpower as you persist.

Of course, like so many things that are good for us, the benefits of exerting willpower accrue with repeated practice. Think of your self-discipline as a muscle, and each time you resist temptation or persist in a task despite a lack of motivation, you strengthen that muscle, leading to less effort and resistance in similar instances in the future. Take pride in each successful effort, further reinforcing the behaviors that created that success.


The Mindset that Brings Unlimited Willpower, by David Robinson

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