Persisting Until You Reach Your Goals

Self-Discipline - Persisting Until You Reach Your Goals

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Resist temptation until you reach your goals.

"You can never conquer the mountain. You can only conquer yourself."– Jim Whittaker, American mountaineer and CEO

Marietta wakes up before dawn each morning to exercise. She works very efficiently in the office, ignoring distractions, and devoting all of her attention to high-value projects. In the evening, she attends a class online; she'll be graduating in a few months with her MBA.

How can people like Marietta achieve so much, so consistently? And how can we accomplish as much in our personal lives and careers? Part of the answer lies in self-discipline. This is what pushes us to deliver on our best intentions and goals, even when we don't feel like doing so. If we have self-discipline, we are able to put off short-term pleasure (or endure short-term inconvenience or discomfort) in the pursuit of long-term gain.

This is why self-discipline is so important. In this article, we'll examine what self-discipline actually is, we'll explore why it's useful, and we'll look at how to develop it.

What Is Self-Discipline?

Self-discipline is the ability to push yourself forward, stay motivated, and take action, regardless of how you're feeling, physically or emotionally. You are showing it when you intentionally choose to pursue something better for yourself, and you do it in spite of factors like distractions, hard work, or unfavorable odds.

Self-discipline is different from self-motivation or willpower. Motivation and willpower contribute to it, as do persistence, the ability to follow through on your intentions, and hard work.

Why Work on Your Self-Discipline?

Self-discipline is useful in many areas of our lives.

For instance, it's what pushes you to do high-quality work, even when you don't feel like it. It gives you the strength to stay professional with your clients, even when you're ready to throw in the towel. It helps you stick with and achieve tough goals that you set for yourself. Self-discipline also enables you to keep going through to great success, despite what others might see as seemingly insurmountable odds.

It can also improve learning and enhance performance. Studies have shown that students with a high degree of self-discipline retained more knowledge than those without self-discipline. Additionally, researchers discovered that students with strong self-discipline were more careful in their tasks, which improved their performance.

Research has also shown that measuring a person's level of self-discipline is a more accurate predictor of success than measuring their IQ.

How to Develop Self-Discipline

Self-discipline is like a muscle: the more you work on developing it and using it, the stronger it will become.

However, it's just as important not to start out with goals that are too ambitious. Instead, set small goals, and increase the level of challenge slowly over time. The more you practice, the better you'll become.

Follow these five steps to start developing your self-discipline:

1. Choose a Goal

Begin by choosing just one goal that you want to focus on to develop your self-discipline.

For instance, perhaps you want to start exercising every evening, or you want to read one leadership book a week to enhance your skills. You could even practice self-discipline on very small goals such as concentrating on a piece of work for an hour without checking your messages, or avoiding unhealthy food for one day.

Remember, starting small is the best way to start developing your self-discipline. As your discipline gets stronger, you can spread the focus to more areas of your life.

Make sure that the goal you set is SMART – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound – and break the goal down into smaller sub-goals, where you can.

2. Find Your Motivation

Once you've chosen a goal, list the reasons why you want to achieve it. Try to express these reasons in a positive way.

So, instead of saying "I want to exercise three times a week to lose weight," say "I want to exercise so that I have the energy to play with my kids and work successfully." Or, instead of saying "I want to get this task off my To-Do List," say "I want to do this task, so that I can meet my objectives, get praise from my boss, and feel satisfied with my day's work."

When you list the reasons why you want to achieve something, you'll find it much easier to get the job done.


Our article on Motivating Yourself has additional strategies for finding and developing your self-motivation.

3. Identify Obstacles

Now you need to identify the obstacles that you'll likely face when working toward your goal, and devise a strategy for overcoming each one.

For instance, imagine that your goal is to read one leadership book a week to enhance your skills. In the past, you've faced a number of obstacles in reaching this goal. For example, when you find a book you like, it's hard to find time each night to read. Between work, dinner, and the kids, your time is taken up until late in the evening. And, you get distracted by messages coming in while you're reading.

Once you've identified obstacles, come up with a strategy to overcome each one. In this example, you could do the following:

  • Instead of going to a bookstore, spend an hour looking at leadership books online. Find several that interest you, and that have good reviews. Order all of them at once, and download them to an e-book reader or tablet, so that you always have a book on hand to read.
  • Find more time in your day to focus on reading. Perhaps you could read during your lunch hour, or while you're waiting to pick your kids up from school. 
  • Turn your phone off when you want to focus on reading.

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Often our self-discipline crumbles because we haven't identified the obstacles that we'll face achieving our goals, and we haven't developed strategies to overcome them. When these obstacles show up, we're unprepared to deal with them, and this shakes our resolve. Don't skip this step!

4. Replace Old Habits

When we're developing self-discipline, we're often trying to break a bad habit and replace it with something more productive. However, if that habit is tied into a certain time of day or routine, breaking it can leave a hole. If we don't replace that habit with something else, then its absence becomes even more noticeable.

A good example is if you're trying to stop yourself shopping online when you take a break at work. This bad habit destroys your focus and attention, because you're likely to be online for 20-30 minutes each time.

Once you have resolved to stop, identify a new behavior that you can engage in when you need a quick break. Instead of online shopping, you could do some stretches in your office, get a cup of coffee, or take a quick walk outside. These behaviors will help support your goal and strengthen your self-discipline, instead of leaving you with nothing to do on your break.

5. Monitor Your Progress

As you work on your self-discipline, pay attention to how you're feeling as it develops and strengthens. You might feel free, happy, proud, and energized.

Also, think about keeping a journal to write down your self-discipline goals and to track your progress. This reinforces the positive changes that you're implementing in your life, and gives you a record that you can look back on to see the progress that you have made.

Over time, your self-discipline will strengthen, and you'll be able to apply it to lots of other areas of your life.

More Tips for Self-Discipline

  • Try to avoid distractions when you begin to develop your self-discipline. Make it harder to engage in the activity you're trying to avoid. For instance, if you need self-discipline to focus on work instead of looking at social media, then use internet blockers such as Freedom or Anti-Social so that these sites aren't available to you at the office.
  • It's important to reward yourself when you experience success. Celebrating your accomplishments will keep things fun, and strengthen your resolve to keep going.
  • Don't let a fear of failure or an occasional setback discourage you. All of us experience setbacks and failures – it's part of life! Acknowledge that you slipped up, learn the lesson, take it to heart, and move on.

Key Points

It's important to develop self-discipline in life. Self-discipline is what enables us to do high-quality work, even when we're tired. It keeps us pursuing our goals through tough times, and it helps us to stay professional, even when we're not feeling great.

To develop self-discipline, follow these steps:

  1. Choose a goal.
  2. Find your motivation.
  3. Identify obstacles.
  4. Replace old habits.
  5. Monitor your progress.

Self-discipline is an essential quality, and it's a key differentiator between people who are successful in life and those who aren't. Make sure that you develop it!

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (10)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi kidzjigz,

    Thanks for that feedback. It's nice to hear that you have identified a practical use for our resources.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago kidzjigz wrote
    This is awesome. I’m definitely going to start teaching my daughter these expressive statements. I think it’s very important to learn how to express your feeling at a young age. Thanks for sharing.

  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi rommell,
    Welcome to the Club!

    I know many people who have great self-discipline all the while they are pursuing a goal, yet struggle to carry on once that goal is achieved! Rest assured that this is quite normal.

    If you think about it, when you have a big goal that you have been pursuing for quite some time, it can take up alot of time, energy and attention. It may be constantly part of who you are and how you are. It provides focus, direction and sometimes even meaning.

    So, when you actually do achieve the goal, many people feel somewhat at a loss as to ... what next? All of a sudden they have what seems like a 'void' in their lives. Their time, energy and attention is no longer taken up with the pursuit of the goal. Some people actually go through a mini-grieving period once a big goal has been achieved.

    Apart from actually simply sitting for a while with the satisfaction of having achieved the goal, the key is to then decide on the next goal. What might be the next thing to focus on and provide direction for? This is not necessarily 'more' of the same thing, it could be something completely different.

    How does all that sound to you? And, what could your next goal be and in what area of your life?

    Hope to see you around the forums and just let us know if you have any questions as we're always happy to help.

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