Welcome to the fourth and final installment of our Unlocking Consistency series. Up to this point, we’ve covered the meaning of consistency, the process of breaking bigger goals into concrete actions, and what it takes to turn a single action into repetition. To close things out, it’s time to hone in on what it takes to repeat a difficult but beneficial action not just a few times, but to truly do it time and time again until you reach — and push beyond — your goals: discipline.
In part 3, you saw a key equation: consistency = action X repetition. In other words, consistency is the process of repeatedly taking an action that is in line with your goals. Just like with interest in a savings account, the value of an action that you repeat isn’t just the sum of those individual actions: it compounds over time.
You also learned about willpower’s role as the “muscle” you use to pass up short-term comfort and rewards in order to consistently do the hard, right things that take you to your goals. But just like with any other muscle, willpower gets more tired the more it’s used. And the more you rely solely on willpower to guide your actions, the faster you’ll run out of the fuel you’ll need for the journey to your goal. When it’s completely gone, it can be all too easy to suffer setbacks and temporarily fall off the wagon.
That’s where discipline comes in. More or less, discipline means “training to act in accordance with rules”, and it can also refer to the punishments associated with breaking those rules. That’s why the phrase might conjure unpleasant memories of detentions, groundings, or running laps. But this time around, there’s a key difference: you’re making the rules. And those rules are inherently meaningful, because they’re meant to bring you closer to a goal that matters to you.
In the context of consistency, discipline is about creating a supporting structure around your habits that reduces the need for so much willpower. With self-discipline, decisions become less ambiguous because you have rules and processes dictating what you will always or never do in a given situation related to your habits. Think of your self-discipline as both a GPS and a set of guardrails on the road to your goals: it not only saves you the effort of manually calculating what you should be doing in every situation, but it also limits your ability to veer off course.
When it comes to building consistent habits, goals, self-discipline, and willpower all work together. For example, think of the process of getting out of bed in the morning to go work out. Without a long-term goal, you wouldn’t have a reason for thinking that it’s worth getting out of bed and exercising. Without any willpower, you’ll prefer the comfort of hitting snooze and going back to bed. And without any discipline, you haven’t put yourself in a position to follow through on your bigger goals through smaller actions.
Consistency requires all of those three elements to work together. And the good news is that they’re mutually reinforcing: a clear goal gives you a reason to exhibit self-discipline. Self-discipline reduces the amount of willpower you “spend” to make a decision. And when you use that willpower to make the right choices, you reaffirm the value of the goal you’re pursuing.
If willpower is about doing the right thing in individual moments, self-discipline is about creating and obeying a more universal set of rules so you leave less to chance. Someone with a strong sense of self-discipline consistently takes the smaller, day-to-day actions that fit into the bigger picture of who they want to be. From the outside, it may look boring and rigid. But in reality, it’s about freeing up time and energy for what really counts by reducing decision fatigue.
Self-discipline isn’t about following a universal set of rules. If it was, then it wouldn’t really be “self” discipline at all. What’s so great about it is that you set the terms. By considering who you are and what goals you want to pursue, you can define a set of rules, practices, and that change the framework of your daily life for the better. When properly instilled, self-discipline molds your behavior for the better by making it easier to make the right choices, build routines, and avoid temptation. Why? Because you’ve set a standard for yourself, and have a set of guideposts to refer back to in any situation that requires you to use your willpower. It’s that set of GPS directions that makes it easier to take the next step and do what you need to do.
Whether you’re trying to lose weight through diet and exercise, get better sleep, or increase your dedication to a hobby, there are some universal strategies you can use to arrive at a set of self-disciplinary practices. Though you’ll see five unique tips here, they really boil down to being honest with and understanding yourself. The more you keep those two ideas in mind, the more you’ll get out of the process.
“Whenever I'm about to do something, I think, ‘Would an idiot do that?’ And if they would, I do not do that thing.” — Dwight Schrute, The Office.
When it comes to creating habits and instilling discipline, identity is a powerful thing. As habit formation expert James Clear has said, one key way to create a sense of self-discipline isn’t just to have a goal — but to think of yourself as someone who embodies the traits necessary to achieve that particular goal.
Getting there is about applying that Dwight Schrute-ism in reverse. Work backwards from your goal and break it down into the actions you’ll need to consistently perform. Then, start to think of the kind of person who consistently takes those actions, and put yourself in their shoes. What does that person do, day in and day out? If your goal is to lose weight, you can identify as someone who makes time for 30 minutes of exercise or walks a certain number of steps every day. Once you’ve taken on that identity, you have a useful lens for evaluating your choices. Would a person who walks 10,000 steps a day plop themselves right onto the couch at the end of their workday, or would they go for an evening stroll first?
By “faking it ‘til you make it” in this way, you create a powerful set of expectations that you’ll want to live up to, and an easier framework for doing the right thing. In this way, achieving a goal like weight loss isn’t just something that happens to you by accident, it happens because you’ve changed from the inside out.
Part 2 of this series touched on the need to remove temptations from your environment, but it bears repeating in the context of the relationship between willpower and self-discipline. Willpower is what you draw upon to say no to temptation, but self-discipline is about proactively avoiding situations where you’re even faced with a conscious choice.
Cutting out those distractions, obstacles, and excuses starts by taking an honest inventory of them. Think of those guilty pleasures you enjoy, any idle pursuit that feels rewarding, or time wasters you’ve gotten sucked into in the past. If you’ve already started on the path to your goal, reflect on any instances where willpower alone wasn’t enough to inspire action. What distractions were present? Is there a way you can either remove yourself from the context or environment of these temptations, or else adopt a supporting habit to improve the odds of making the right choice?
For example, if you find that mindlessly scrolling through TikTok or Instagram interferes with your plans for an afternoon workout, block your access to those apps during the period of time you’ve set aside to exercise. In the morning exercise example from earlier, you can reduce your temptation to reach for an excuse by laying out your clothes the night before, meaning there’s one less thing to think about between opening your eyes and getting moving. Being disciplined enough to proactively prevent temptations and anticipate excuses makes it that much easier to embody the consistent habits that move you forward.
Remember how willpower is a muscle? In its own way, self-discipline is, too. Just like you shouldn’t attempt to squat 400 pounds the first time you walk up to the rack, you shouldn’t hold yourself to unrealistically high standards with your self-discipline right away. No one goes from undisciplined to a perfect saint overnight.
Build your confidence by starting with small behaviors you can perform consistently wherever you are right now. If you’re trying to identify as a regular gym-goer, there’s no need to force yourself to spend hours there when you don’t even know what exercises to do. Build discipline by making it a habit to just show up at the gym, even if you only stay there for five minutes. Really! As long as you don’t take on too much change too quickly, you’ll gain the confidence, momentum, and internal motivation that leads you forward.
This is where the other definition of “discipline” comes into play. Sure, the promise of a reward compels action, but so does the desire to avoid punishment. So why not use both?
Creating a sense of accountability to something or someone greater than yourself gives you yet another reason to practice the self-discipline you preach, by making it harder (or more unpleasant) to make excuses or abandon your commitment to your goal. Share what you’re trying to accomplish with a person you trust to keep you honest. While avoiding that person’s judgment and disappointment is often enough motivation, you can raise the stakes with a “habit contract”, requiring you to complete some sort of punishment or make a payment if you don’t hold up your end of the bargain. Putting your commitment out into the world publicly can help, too. But even just putting a post-it on your mirror to remind you of the change you wish to make can create a needed sense of accountability to your past (and future) self.
No matter how you create accountability, the fear of not facing punishment or letting someone else down will lead you to act consistently at times when you might otherwise make excuses. When taking what seems like the easy way out suddenly comes with an added cost, you’ll have yet another reason to stay on the road to your goal.
Just like with any other meaningful challenge in life, progress with discipline isn’t linear. Whenever you find yourself falling short or not exhibiting the standard of self-discipline you’ve set for yourself, know that failure is ok. Use those occasional slip-ups as a chance to reflect on how far you’ve come and refine your process so you can find the motivation to get back on track. As you go, you’ll get a sense of what does and doesn’t work for you, which ultimately will make the process of following through on your habits that much simpler.
Just like the relationship between willpower, goals, and self-discipline, these practices build on each other. For example, you can identify as someone who gets a little bit of movement or exercise every day, and tell a friend or family member about this new way that you see yourself. If streaming your favorite shows on the couch is something you see as a temptation, you can have them both hold you accountable and remove temptation by hiding the plug for the TV until you’ve checked in from the gym or gone for a walk that day. And by practicing small habits like laying out your workout clothes the night before, you’ll start to experience what it feels like as a small act of self-discipline gradually becomes an easy, automatic habit.
Self-discipline seems difficult, but it’s really about making habits and routines in your life simpler. What’s even better is that once you’ve used self-discipline to achieve one goal, you don’t have to start from scratch as you start to pursue the next one. Tapping into this structure and strength builds a bridge between any goal you’ve envisioned and the reality of achieving it.
Life is unpredictable. It’s always going to be full of challenges, stressors, and distractions that tempt us with comfort and convenience. But with help from the tips offered above, and the other elements we’ve covered in the Unlocking Consistency series, you’re equipped with everything you need to find your “why”, establish your plan, and do what you need to do — again and again.
If you’re looking for an excellent source of structure, accountability, and guidance, teaming up with a Future coach can be your key to finding self-discipline and unlocking consistency. No matter your goal or your starting point, your coach will be standing by to offer encouragement and advice as you work through a customized approach to fitness that’s made to move you. Whether you need someone to keep you on track, learn from your mistakes, or celebrate your wins, your Future coach is available whenever and wherever you want to create consistent habits.
Take a small, easy step towards self-discipline and successful change when you try Future completely free for your first month. Tap into a better way to access truly personal training here.