The art of self-discipline: 10 ways to build good habits and break bad ones (according to psychology)

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Mastering self-discipline is a bit like taming a wild horse. It’s about harnessing your natural tendencies, not trying to suppress them.

The art of self-discipline isn’t about being hard on yourself or living a restrictive lifestyle. It’s about finding balance, setting achievable goals, and creating healthy habits that can last a lifetime.

Psychology offers us some great insights into creating this balance and breaking bad habits while establishing good ones.

In this article, I’ll share with you 10 practical ways to build good habits and break bad ones, all backed by psychological research. 

Let’s get started. 

1) Understand your triggers

Let’s start with the basics. Before you can break a bad habit or form a good one, you first need to understand what triggers those habits in the first place.

Triggers are the specific situations or emotions that kickstart our automatic behaviors. A cup of coffee in the morning might trigger your habit of checking social media. Feeling stressed might trigger your habit of biting your nails.

Renowned psychologist Charles Duhigg in his book “The Power of Habit” says, “The brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.” Recognizing your triggers is the first step in this reprogramming process.

Once you’ve identified your triggers, you can consciously decide to respond differently when they occur. Instead of checking social media with your morning coffee, for example, you could read a chapter of a book. Instead of biting your nails when you’re stressed, you could practice deep breathing exercises.

Self-discipline is not about suppressing your natural tendencies but directing them towards healthier outcomes. And understanding your triggers is a powerful first step in that direction.

2) Start small, dream big

A common mistake when trying to build self-discipline is biting off more than you can chew. We set ambitious goals for ourselves and then feel discouraged when we can’t meet them.

I remember when I decided to start running. I ambitiously aimed for 5 miles every day. Needless to say, I couldn’t keep up and quickly lost motivation.

Then I remembered a quote from the famed psychologist B.F. Skinner who said, “A behavior followed by a reinforcing stimulus results in an increased probability of that behavior occurring in the future.”

In other words, if you want a new habit to stick, you need to reinforce it with positive feedback.

So, I revised my running goal. I started with just one mile a day. Gradually, as my body got used to the exercise and I began to feel the positive effects of running, I increased my distance. Today, running is a non-negotiable part of my daily routine.

Building self-discipline is about making small, manageable changes that accumulate over time. Start small but dream big. Each small success will reinforce your new behavior and motivate you to keep going.

3) Embrace failure

Let’s be honest, self-discipline is hard. It’s not a straight path, but rather a bumpy road with plenty of setbacks. And the truth is, you’re going to mess up.

I’ll give you an example. After I successfully incorporated running into my daily routine, I decided to tackle my diet next. I vowed to cut out all junk food. For a few weeks, I was successful. But then one stressful day, I found myself devouring a bag of chips.

Rather than beat myself up about it, I reminded myself of a quote from psychologist Carl Rogers: “The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination.”

This failure wasn’t an end-all-be-all. It was a bump in the road, a part of my process towards a healthier lifestyle.

When you embrace failure as part of your journey towards self-discipline, it no longer becomes this terrifying monster but rather an opportunity to learn and grow.

Be gentle with yourself when you fall short and remember, it’s all part of the process.

4) Accountability is key

Self-discipline can sometimes feel like a lonely journey. But it doesn’t have to be. Having someone to share your progress and setbacks with can make a world of difference.

When I started my journey towards self-discipline, I set a goal to wake up earlier. For the first few days, it was easy. But as the novelty wore off, hitting the snooze button became increasingly tempting.

That’s when I decided to find an accountability partner. I asked a friend who was also trying to wake up earlier to keep tabs on my progress and vice versa. Knowing that someone else was aware of my goals gave me an extra push to stick to them.

Psychologist Albert Bandura once said, “People who believe they have the power to exercise some measure of control over their lives are healthier, more effective and more successful than those who lack faith in their ability to effect changes in their lives.”

Having an accountability partner helped reinforce my belief in my ability to change my habits. It also made the process more enjoyable.

Don’t be afraid to seek support on your self-discipline journey. You don’t have to do it alone.

5) Reward yourself

This might sound counterintuitive when we’re talking about self-discipline. After all, shouldn’t the satisfaction of achieving our goals be reward enough? Well, yes and no.

Yes, achieving our goals is rewarding in itself. But sometimes, especially when we’re just starting out on a new habit, we need that extra incentive to keep us going.

When I first started practicing yoga, I found it difficult to maintain consistency. So I decided to reward myself. For every week I successfully completed my yoga routine, I treated myself to a movie night.

As psychologist B.F. Skinner said, “The way positive reinforcement is carried out is more important than the amount.”

The reward doesn’t have to be big or extravagant. It just needs to be something that you genuinely enjoy and can look forward to.

By rewarding myself, I was not only reinforcing my new habit but also creating a positive association with it in my mind. Today, I love my yoga practice and no longer need the reward. But in those early days, it was just the boost I needed.

Self-discipline is about balance, not deprivation. So go ahead and reward yourself for your progress. You’ve earned it!

6) Visualize your success

Visualizing your success can be a powerful tool in your self-discipline journey. It’s not just about daydreaming or wishful thinking, but about creating a mental image of you achieving your goal.

This is something that athletes do all the time. They visualize themselves winning the race, scoring the goal, or standing on the podium. And it works.

Psychologist Albert Bandura said that “People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided.”

Visualizing your success can help boost this assurance or self-efficacy. It reinforces the belief in your capabilities and makes the goal seem more achievable.

When I was working on my procrastination habit, I would visualize myself successfully completing tasks on time and the sense of relief and satisfaction that came with it. This helped me stay motivated and focused.

Remember, what the mind can conceive, it can achieve. So spend a few minutes each day visualizing your success. It could make all the difference.

7) Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of staying present and fully engaged in what you’re doing at the moment. It’s about not letting your mind wander to your to-do list, your worries, or anything else that can distract you from the task at hand.

When I was working on my goal of reducing screen time, I found mindfulness to be extremely helpful. Instead of mindlessly scrolling through social media or watching TV, I started engaging in mindful activities like reading, painting, or simply spending time in nature.

Mindfulness is a way of being in the world that incorporates an acute awareness of your senses and your surroundings, a sense of where your body is in space as well as your mental state.

Practicing mindfulness helped me become more aware of my screen habits and the impact they had on my wellbeing. It allowed me to make more conscious decisions about how I wanted to spend my time.

Self-discipline is not just about doing what’s right but also about being present in what you’re doing. 

8) Accept your imperfections

Self-discipline is not about achieving perfection. It’s about progress, about getting better each day. And part of this journey involves accepting your imperfections.

I have a confession to make. I’m a perfectionist. I used to beat myself up over the smallest mistakes, which only led to stress and self-doubt. But then I realized that this pursuit of perfection was hindering my progress.

Psychologist Carl Rogers said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

Accepting your imperfections doesn’t mean settling for less. It means acknowledging where you are right now so you can map out where you want to go.

Accepting my imperfections gave me the freedom to make mistakes, learn from them and continue on my journey towards self-discipline without the burden of perfection.

Self-discipline is a journey, not a destination. It’s about progress, not perfection. So embrace your imperfections. They’re part of what makes you human.

9) Don’t rely on willpower alone

This might sound counterintuitive. After all, isn’t self-discipline all about willpower? Well, not entirely.

Sure, willpower plays a role in self-discipline, but relying on it alone can set you up for failure. Willpower can be exhausted, and when it runs out, that’s when we’re most likely to slip up.

People with high self-control are people who are skilled in selective control. They know when to exert control and when not to.

In other words, instead of using your willpower to resist temptations all the time, use it to develop good habits that can eventually run on autopilot.

For example, instead of using your willpower every day to resist eating junk food, use it to establish a habit of preparing healthy meals ahead of time. Once this becomes a habit, you won’t need to rely on willpower as much.

Self-discipline is not just about resisting temptation but about creating systems that make success easier. Don’t just rely on willpower. Build habits instead.

10) Stay committed and patient

Finally, remember that self-discipline is not something you develop overnight. It takes time, patience, and commitment.

When I started my journey towards self-discipline, I wanted to see results right away. But I quickly realized that change doesn’t happen that fast. I had to stay committed to my goals and be patient with myself.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth, known for her research on grit and perseverance, said “Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.”

This perfectly encapsulates the journey towards self-discipline. It’s easy to start with enthusiasm, but the real challenge lies in enduring the ups and downs that come along the way.

Staying committed and patient with myself made me realize that self-discipline is indeed a marathon, not a sprint.

Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Stay committed to your journey towards self-discipline, be patient with yourself, and remember to celebrate your progress along the way.

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Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 15 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. Check out my latest book on the Hidden Secrets of Buddhism and How it Saved My Life. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Facebook or Twitter.

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