by Niall Doherty

In case you didn’t know, I love me some self-discipline.

I love it because I believe self-discipline — and the hard work that results from it — is far more crucial to success than natural talent. And that’s comforting, knowing that even if someone is faster than you or smarter than you or better looking than you, you can still be just as successful as they are, if not more so.

But to get there you have to be disciplined, and you can’t rely on someone else to keep you in check. You have to do it yourself.

Don’t eat the Marshmallow

Here’s a speech given at TED in February 2009 by a guy named Joachim de Posada. It’s just over six minutes long:

The key quote from that speech:

That child, already at four [years old], understood the most important principle for success, which is the ability to delay gratification. Self-discipline.

That Stanford study did a great job illustrating the correlation between self-discipline and success. It essentially proves that if you can knuckle down and make some sacrifices in the short-term, you’ll be much better off in the long term. That’s the importance of self-discipline.

Born or made?

After watching the video you might be thinking that, because those kids were so young, those who succeeded by not eating the marshmallow were simply born with good self-discipline while the other kids were out of luck. That’s probably true to an extent, but you best believe that self-discipline is a skill. And like any other skill, you can work at it and get better at it.

I’m a good example of that. Self-discipline helped me overcome shyness; it helped me run a marathon in under four hours; it helped me finish top of my class in college; it helped me find a great employer here in New Orleans to sponsor my visa; it helped me build a Hornets website that is now affiliated with ESPN and greatly appreciated by Hornets fans; and right now it’s helping me become the best public speaker the world has ever seen. (Okay, maybe I exaggerate a little with the last one, but I know that through hard work, focus and regular attendance at Toastmasters, I’ll eventually be really good at public speaking.)

Sometimes I like to practice self-discipline just for the hell of it. A few years ago I went without eating for three days, just to see if I could. Yes, that was kind of a crazy thing to do, but besides feeling really hungry afterwards, I also felt powerful.

If could will myself to not eat for 72 hours, I could will myself to do anything!

I’ve had similar experiences this year being vegetarian and then vegan. I decided to try those diets out of curiosity, and they turned out to be excellent exercises in self-discipline. I’ve stuck with veganism because it works great for me. I especially like that such a diet gives me the opportunity to practice self-discipline every day. In fact, I believe this daily practice pays dividends for me in other parts of my life; I’m constantly reminded that I can do anything if I just put my mind to it.

Improving your self-discipline

So how do you work on your self-discipline? Actually, you might be very self-disciplined in certain areas of your life, but severely lacking in others. How do you balance that out?

I’d suggest the first thing to do is to prioritize. There’s not much point being self-disciplined about something if it’s not going to result in a positive difference in your life. That’s the difference between effectiveness and efficiency. Just because you do something well doesn’t mean it’s worth doing. Aim to be effective, not just efficient.

Once you’ve figured out your priorities and you can see what parts of your life you need to be more self-disciplined in, here are a few things you can do:

  1. Start small: You can dream big all you want and have lofty ambitions for yourself, but start small so you don’t get overwhelmed. Build some confidence and momentum first, then go from there. As you become more self-disciplined, you can set your initial goals higher.
  2. Form a habit: You form a habit by doing something regularly. If you want to be more self-disciplined when it comes to your health for example, you could commit to always taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Or you could commit to making your own healthy lunch every day. Commit to doing something like that every day for thirty days. After thirty days, if it’s making a positive difference in your life, you’ll know it, and that will help you keep going. If it isn’t working, well you gave it your best shot and you have nothing to be ashamed of.
  3. Use metrics: What gets measured, gets managed. Make sure you have some way of measuring your progress. If you’re trying to save money, start recording how much you save every week and see how that matches up to your goals. If you can boil it down to some hard numbers and see the truth of your situation, you’re more likely to take action to improve it.
  4. Make your goals public: This works for me. I’ll usually tell everyone what I’m trying to do. I’ll throw it up there on Facebook or Twitter. Then, if I allow myself to fail and not reach my goal, I have to explain to all those people why I failed. The thought of having to do that is usually a good incentive for me to keep pushing until I succeed.

Those are just a few things you can do. There are plenty more. You’ll probably find a few that work for you and lots that don’t. The key is to keep looking. Don’t be afraid of trial and error. And remember that it’s okay to fail as long as you learn something from it (and there’s always something to learn from failure).

If you get used to practicing self-discipline, you’ll find it much easier to reach your goals, and with every one you reach you’ll have more confidence and you’ll be much better prepared to handle whatever life throws at you.


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