Whether in fitness or any other area of life, working towards a goal often involves changing your internal attitudes and habits. That means learning how to leave your comfort zone behind, and get comfortable doing the uncomfortable things that you should do, even when you don’t want to.
How does that happen? By honing a little something called self-discipline, which can be the difference between achieving or falling short of your fitness goals. But as you’ll soon see, learning how to deploy self-discipline isn’t as daunting (or as solitary) of a pursuit as you might think.
Self-discipline is the ability to do what you know needs to be done, no matter the circumstances. It’s the act of showing up and doing the dirty work, especially when you have an opportunity or an excuse to take the easy way out. Even when the action doesn’t feel exciting and the effort doesn’t feel rewarding, someone with self-discipline will show up day in and day out.
Right now, you might be thinking that self-discipline isn’t all that different from motivation. In a way, you’re right, because they’re essentially two sides of the same coin: if you’re trying to pursue something meaningful or form new habits, motivation is what gets you started. But it’s self-discipline that ensures you follow through. A sense of motivation can inspire you to say you’re going to get up in the morning and go for a run or hit the gym. But it’s discipline that gets us out of bed and on the move when our every instinct tells us to hit snooze.
Compared to motivation, which tends to be focused on longer-term outcomes. Self-discipline is more related to the day-to-day process. That’s why motivation can wane over time as you lose sight of the connection between effort and outcome. On the other hand, self-discipline is more persistent and enduring, as it’s the one thing that can consistently compel you to act, well, consistently in pursuit of a goal. Think of motivation like the proverbial carrot, and self-discipline as the stick. Motivation is what makes you want to show up in order to achieve something, but self-discipline is what makes you feel like you need to show up and follow through, no matter the cost.
It certainly takes discipline to achieve peak health and fitness. And from the outside, it might seem like some folks are healthy and fit because they’re born with an endless reserve of self-discipline. In truth, self-discipline is NOT a fixed character trait — it’s a skill that anyone can train. Self-discipline is also an incredibly transferable skill, and its value for your physical and mental health can extend far beyond your initial goal.
Just like learning any other new skill, creating your sense of self-discipline is all about having a plan you can put into practice. Now, let’s look at how to create the mindframe, structure, and support system that can help anyone turn disorder into discipline.
One key way to change your approach to self-discipline is to start seeing yourself as the person you want to become — even before you get there. Think about the work you’ll need to put in to achieve your goal, and think about the kind of person who makes doing that work part of their daily life. By then adopting that identity, whether it’s “runner”, “weightlifter” or just “someone who’s committed to fitness”, you create a standard that you’ll feel obligated to live up to.
Say your goal is to get up off the couch and run your first 5k, which will involve setting and keeping a consistent running schedule as you ramp up to race day. Though you may not feel like it yet, tell yourself, “I am a runner, because I run at least three times a week.” Write that down somewhere you can see it prominently. Turn it into your mantra you can repeat when your willpower is tested. As you internalize this belief, you’ll feel obligated to act in a way that’s consistent with your newfound identity.
In the absence of any other external punishment, the desire to avoid the cognitive dissonance of identifying one way and behaving another can compel you to do the right thing. Once you get past any hangups you have about “faking it ‘til you make it”, establishing this standard for yourself to live up to is a powerful force.
Now that you’ve told yourself who you want to be and what you’re going to do, it’s time to figure out when and how you’re going to do it. That means working backward from your goal and breaking it down into a series of weekly or even daily activities.
Be as specific as you can, both in terms of timing and structuring your activities. If you want to develop a health and fitness routine, start by determining at what time on which days you’ll work out, and what you’ll do. But to truly follow through, get a bit more granular by thinking about the steps you can take to make it as easy as possible to check each workout off your to-do list.
For example, say you want to lose weight by making more time to work out. Given your schedule, maybe you’ve decided it makes the most sense to exercise first thing after waking up, before the rest of your day gets too hectic. Don’t just put that on your schedule, but add a reminder to lay out your workout clothes the night before. By breaking down the activities that require discipline into a series of smaller steps, you’ll find it takes less willpower and effort to follow through.
Behavioral studies have shown time and time again that humans are wired to take the path of least resistance. Even if a harder route leads to a greater reward, we have a tendency to take the easier way out. That’s why the secret to self-discipline isn’t fighting against human nature. It’s about identifying ways to make those “easier ways out” not seem as easy or attractive.
Start by making a list of the guilty pleasures, bad habits, or other pitfalls that might interfere with your ability to stick to your schedule. If you’ve tried to improve your health and fitness habits in the past, this is a perfect opportunity to reflect on and learn from your mistakes. Even if you’re just starting, you’ll also have plenty of opportunities to learn and refine as you go.
For each of those past or perceived obstacles, consider what you could do ahead of time to prevent these distractions from derailing you. Does endless scrolling eat into your workout time? Keep your phone on airplane mode, or use software that blocks social media apps when it’s time to get moving. Does working out first thing in the morning fit your schedule best, but you love hitting the snooze button and getting your beauty sleep? In addition to laying out your clothes, put your alarm out of easy reach so you have no real choice but to get up and go.
You don’t get extra credit for taking the harder route to doing the right thing. By anticipating obstacles and planning ahead, taking steady steps to your goals can start to feel a whole lot easier.
Pursuing any meaningful goal inevitably comes with stumbles and setbacks. Acquiring self-discipline is no different. Every moment that feels like a failure is really an opportunity to learn. Instead of beating yourself up whenever you haven’t lived up to the standard of your disciplined identity, ask yourself some clarifying questions. What was the situation, and how did you respond to it? What led you to take the easier route, and what actions would make you less likely to repeat the same mistake in the future?
With self-discipline, failure isn’t final. Just because you made one mistake doesn’t mean you have a free pass to abandon your efforts and fall off the wagon. If anything, dusting yourself off and recommitting to your process right after making a mistake is a sign that you’re moving in the right direction.
Even though the word “self” is in self-discipline, there’s no rule against leaning on family and friends for support. Tell them about what you’re hoping to achieve and the changes you’re making to get there. Create accountability by sharing your schedule and having them check in on your progress. Enlist their help to keep you from accessing distractions, or indulging in (too many of) the guilty pleasures that test your willpower. When you remember that the people who care about you want to see you succeed, the burden of living up to your own expectations becomes easier to carry.
In the end, there’s no single path you must follow to achieve self-discipline. The best way to get there is to create the process that feels the easiest to follow consistently. It may feel like a lot to handle at once. But once you realize that you have the power to become more self-disciplined than you are today, taking that first step will feel so worth it.
Working closely with a Future coach can make that road to self-discipline a lot less lonely. Your coach will get to know who you are and what makes you tick so you can both move towards your goal together. No matter where, when, or how you need to summon self-discipline, they’ll be standing by with the extra bit of accountability or expert advice that gives you a will and a way to achieve what matters to you.
And now, doing the more rewarding thing actually can be easier. Find your ideal coaching fit, and they’ll help you realize how modern personal training and a little self-discipline can make your health and fitness dreams come true.