These newsletters often discuss the difficulty of changing our behavior, especially regarding becoming organized and using our time well (see newsletter articles on my website for February, March, June, and August of 2013, May and June of 2012, and many others). Some of this difficulty arises from the power of habits and environmental cues, some from the often unrecognized power of our thoughts and emotions, but the rest is the inherent weakness in willpower that we all suffer from.* Weak willpower is not a fault in any individual but a matter of evolution and training. No one is born with self-discipline – we all have to learn it, sometimes multiple times. Some families gently teach self-discipline skills. The rest of us have to train ourselves in these essential skills that underlie all accomplishments.

Most books and articles on change tell you that positive change requires self-discipline, but if you don't already have self-discipline, how do you create it? Building self-discipline is similar to the process for accomplishing any major project:

A) Identify the components of the self-discipline skill you want to build; for example to build self-discipline around doing 15 minutes of cleaning or clearing every day, the component skills might be:
     - creating a clear, realistic, comfortable, livable goal – it should not be to clean your whole house in a single day, organize all your files in 15 minutes, or to conquer your self-discipline goals in a major push, but to consistently make small progress, which will be more valuable and important than big, sporadic efforts

     - identifying what blocks you from cleaning or clearing, what supports those barriers (such as having other activities scheduled, thoughts that resist cleaning or clearing, or feeling overwhelmed), and what you can do to reduce each barrier (creativity in identifying solutions will be needed). If you can’t find a solution for each one, brainstorm with friends or classmates.

     - setting aside time to engage in your self-discipline activity, in this case cleaning or clearing, and no other activity, and preventing distractions from deflecting you from your intended activity

     - arranging resources needed for your self-discipline activity, such as cleaning or clearing supplies, to prevent breaks in your practice time

     - identifying where to work and the goal for your designated time; if you do not know where to start, then any place you pick will be good to begin. Every tiny task you complete contributes to your goal of a clean and cleared out home and to your mastery of a self-discipline skill.

     - analyzing (not beating yourself up for) failures or mistakes, that is, learning from them how to better plan your next session so that it will be more productive. Failures and mistakes can teach us than our successes. Use these slips to identify better techniques that will lead to success. The best techniques often involve tiny changes that stick and positively influence other helpful behaviors. Visualize yourself acting the way you wish you would; this mental rehearsal will make it easier and more likely for you to act as desired the next time.

B) Identify why you WANT to do the thing you need to do; this is the most important step. Review and add to your reasons for wanting to do this activity or make this change every day, or even multiple times a day. How will applying self-discipline in this area improve your life? Add to your list of strategies for success often (every day would be great).

C) Withhold rewards. Schedule your rewards for after you have completed your self-discipline task. If you do not do it, do not allow the reward (but don’t beat yourself up either; allowing or denying rewards should be a matter-of-fact process). Make yourself earn your treats but also be generous with praise, rewards, and celebrations for doing the right thing. Maintain parity between work and play, especially if these have been out-of-balance for a long time or the work need is very pressing.

D) Practice achieving self-discipline in an area that has no emotional baggage, that has less opportunity for upset. Practicing self-discipline by journaling, which fosters the development of insight, builds a healthy habit, and often has low resistance may provide many rewards. Meditation has similar rewards and low resistance. Save developing self-discipline in the area of highest resistance for last, after you have already mastered it in multiple areas that have less emotional charge (reading this and this on overcoming resistance might help also)

E) Congratulate yourself on every tiny step you take in the direction of greater self-control. Keep a list of every small accomplishment towards your desired self-discipline and add to it frequently for reinforcement and support for those times when you feel like you are going nowhere.

F) Remember that everything you do and every day that you practice the skill you want to build matters enormously. Never tell yourself that self-discipline in a small area doesn't matter. These thoughts are just your demons that want to remain in control, that lie and deceive to keep you from changing and dethroning them. Do not skip your practice for trivial or preventable reasons. Every time you let yourself off the hook from doing what you know you need to do, you undermine your future. Your future MATTERS.

G) Add new areas of discipline or habit onto existing dependable practices. So to develop greater discipline about completing items on your daily to-do list, write your list while you are having your morning coffee or tea, or other dependable daily practice, and checking it frequently during each day. This will help you visualize the coming day and how to use the opportunities it presents, avoid wasting time on lower priority activities, and reduce distractions. (Each tiny piece of this behavior is a big change that may require strategizing to find ways to support each of the related changes, such as keeping your to-do list with you all the time, clearing a spot for it on your desk, remembering to check it often, etc.)

H) Develop “implementation intentions” that specify how you will cope with roadblocks that arise on the way to establishing self-discipline. For example, to develop the discipline of opening and processing** mail every day when it comes in, writing an intention statement that addresses difficulties that prevent this may keep you from being sidelined or giving up. So an implementation intention statement for the mail might be something like ‘If I am too busy to deal with the mail when it arrives, I will work on it while watching TV this evening’. Make your back-up strategies practical and realistic, as making them too extreme undermines your chance of success, which in turn undermines your faith in yourself. You need an intention statement for every roadblock you are likely to encounter.

I) If you lapse on your practice, review your motivators and strategies from the beginning – not as punishment, but to strengthen your skills and behaviors so that they will be more firmly fixed in your mind and muscles.

J) Accountability, perhaps in the form of a self-discipline buddy (someone who is also working to improve in a similar or related area), a friend or family member, or even a spreadsheet or journal, will greatly increase your chances of success. Making yourself accountable to another person says that you are serious about wanting to develop self-discipline.

* see The Willpower Instinct, How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

** Processing mail means opening, evaluating, and putting each item in its most appropriate location. If this isn’t easy, you have a systems gap, and need to think about how to (or get help to) organize this essential activity.

© Gloria Valoris, 2014

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