Procrastination is a universal experience. Almost everyone has experienced at least one moment where they have put off an important task in favour of something more interesting, like a book, article, or video. In the worst cases, it can be in favour of simply doing nothing. However, while satisfying in the moment, acting on such impulses often leads to heightened anxiety, stress, and pressure later on. The key to breaking free from this cycle lies in self-discipline, enabling us to achieve more while reducing stress.

The Power (and Struggle) of Self-Discipline.

Self-discipline is defined as the ability to consciously resist impulses in pursuit of long-term goals. It is a highly influential characteristic in professional development and success. Research by psychologist Angela Duckworth has shown that self-discipline is a more potent predictor of academic achievement in adolescents than intelligence, significantly impacting final grades, attendance, and homework completion. Additionally, self-discipline is linked to positive career outcomes, contributing to both occupational success and satisfaction. Self-discipline is undoubtedly important. Yet, it is a struggle for many. Research has revealed that self-control ranks low among character strengths in both adults and children, scoring 22nd out of 24 in the UK and last in the USA. Duckworth attributes this to the difficulty of balancing resources between our present desires, such as social interactions (spurring the urge to check your social media), and our future aspirations. The ability to hone self-discipline is essential for achieving your professional goals and living up to your full potential. The good news is that self-discipline is a habit that can be cultivated over time. While it might be challenging to start, the more we practise it, the stronger and more automatic it becomes. And the stronger your self-discipline, the more you will experience changes in your professional life and mental health.  Today we will share our favourite tricks to help you improve your self-discipline and work smarter.

1: Find what is tempting you to self-monitor

To cultivate self-discipline, it is essential to recognise that it is personal. Everyone has distinct temptations and tendencies. For example, some individuals may struggle to control their social media usage, while others may spend their time watching TV series. Identifying these barriers to self-control is a vital first step in developing strategies tailored to address your specific weak points. Furthermore, identifying your temptations will allow you to self-monitor, tracking your behavioural patterns throughout the day. This allows you to determine whether your strategy is successful or requires refinement. By personalising your approach to self-discipline and self-monitoring, you lay a strong foundation, allowing you to devote your energy to effectively enhance your self-control to achieve your goals and improve your professional outcomes.

2: Look to the Future

According to Duckworth, having a goal-oriented mindset is fundamental to improving your self-control. Research studies have shown that setting specific, difficult goals enhances performance, especially when these goals are made public or shared in a group. Setting goals enables you to focus your attention on a specific outcome, and effectively allocate resources to its achievement. Furthermore, breaking down a goal into smaller, more manageable sub-goals, has been linked to higher levels of productivity and commitment by making tasks appear more doable. This can enable you to maintain your motivation and sense of progress when working towards challenging goals.  Once these goals are set, it is crucial to create a plan for their achievement. A proposed strategy for planning is known as mental contrasting and implementation intentions. This visualisation technique involves envisioning the positive outcomes associated with your goals and contrasting them with the current obstacles standing in your way. Through this process, you gain valuable insights that inform a detailed plan to tackle these obstacles effectively. Studies have linked employment of this strategy to significant increases in achievement and motivation. By adopting a goal-oriented mindset and implementing strategies like mental contrasting and implementation intentions, you equip yourself with tools to overcome obstacles and achieve your professional goals. This will empower you to resist impulses and approach your work with more self-discipline.

3: Manipulate Your Environment

Sometimes the easiest way to exercise self-discipline is to change your environment in a way that dampens a temptation. Doing this is known as a situational strategy for self-control, and is observable when someone hides their phone away at work, or puts up controls to prevent procrastinatory webpages from being accessed on their computer. In taking steps to remove the temptation from your environment, you are reducing the salience of the temptation in your mind, and minimising your impulse generation associated with low self-control. This will allow you to regulate your impulses and focus your attention on your work to achieve more.

4: Practise Healthier Living

A healthy lifestyle significantly contributes to improved self-discipline. We’ve all had that day where we felt like we couldn’t think clearly due to a lack of sleep, or skipping a meal. It is in these situations where our self-control seems to diminish the most, and this is because a healthy mind is essential for mental clarity and good decision making. Therefore, regular exercise, a balanced diet, and quality sleep are all vital for enhancing self-control. This will also help you to build a foundation for better self-discipline in the future.

5: Engage in Mindfulness

Mindfulness strengthens self-discipline by increasing self-awareness and curbing impulsivity and stress. Embrace mindful meditation to observe thoughts and emotions without judgement, fostering a calm and focused mindset. This will allow you to “surf the urge” without needing to act on your impulses. Simple deep breathing exercises serve as powerful tools to stay focused in challenging situations, empowering you to make deliberate choices rather than succumbing to distractions or negativity. By incorporating mindfulness into your daily routines, you enhance focus and self-control, reducing procrastination to pursue your long term professional goals. As you implement these practices, you will hone your self-discipline, enabling you to achieve your full potential in your work. Remember, it’s a journey of progress, not perfection, and implementing even one of these techniques will bring you one step closer to achieving your professional goals. Ready to work smarter?

References

  1. Duckworth, A.L. and Seligman, M.E.P. (2005) ‘Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents’, Psychological Science, 16(12), pp. 939–944. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01641.x.
  2. Choi, I. et al. (2018) ‘Comparing two roads to success: Self-control predicts achievement and positive affect predicts relationships’, Journal of Research in Personality, 76, pp. 50–63. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2018.07.001.
  3. Park, N., Peterson, C. and Seligman, M.E. (2006) ‘Character strengths in fifty-Four nations and the fifty US states’, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3), pp. 118–129. doi:10.1080/17439760600619567.
  4. Duckworth, A.L., Milkman, K.L. and Laibson, D. (2018) ‘Beyond willpower: Strategies for reducing failures of self-control’, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(3), pp. 102–129. doi:10.1177/1529100618821893.
  5. Duckworth, A.L. et al. (2013) ‘From Fantasy to Action: Mental Contrasting With Implementation Intentions (MCII) Improves Academic Performance in Children’, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(6), pp. 745–753. doi:10.1177/1948550613476307.
  6. Duckworth, A.L., Gendler, T.S. and Gross, J.J. (2016) ‘Situational Strategies for self-control’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(1), pp. 35–55. doi:10.1177/1745691615623247.
  7. Savage, M., Boni, G. and Duckworth, A. (2022) The mental hacks that level up your self-control, BBC Worklife. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20191217-the-mental-hacks-that-level-up-your-self-control

LAST UPDATED 2024.02.01