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14 Common Mistakes That People Make When Building Self-Discipline

Updated: Jul 22, 2019

1. Trying to run before you can walk.

Self-discipline is a skill. You have to build it in just the same way that you'd build any other skill: starting with the basics.

It's tempting to want to go all out and try to overhaul your entire lifestyle overnight or start studying for 9 hours a day when you can barely manage 1 right now. New, healthy lifestyles and routine changes take a lot of discipline, and you're very unlikely to be successful with it if your current day-to-day life never pushes you out of your comfort zone—because being disciplined involves leaving your comfort zone.

Start small. Start smaller than you think you need to start. Rather than aiming for perfection (which isn't real anyway) or the biggest and best goals that you can think of, aim for the smallest goal you can think of. Discipline means that you do what needs to be done whether you feel like it or not. Your goals need to be goals that you can reach when you're feeling your worst.

2. Not creating specific goals.

If you haven't heard about SMART goals, SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. Almost all of your goals should be SMART goals.

It's important to set clear goals. While you're at it, write them down. It's been shown that people who write their goals down are much more likely to be successful.

When you have a SMART goal, i.e. "I want to run that Halloween 5k that my best friend always runs because fitness is important to me," rather than "I want to run more," you give yourself a clear direction, and the ability to know exactly when you've accomplished your goal and how close you are to reaching it.

3. Using planning and research as a tool to procrastinate.

I know that I got stuck in this rut for a long time when I first set out to improve my life. Don't get me wrong—a bit of research and planning are usually helpful. But unless you're setting out to do something big—like, really big—a day or two of research and planning is plenty.

That first hour or two of research will teach you a lot, but after that, you quickly reach a point where you will learn more by doing than you will by continuing to google.

And yes, it is important to have a plan. Failing to plan is planning to fail. However, it shouldn't take more than a couple of hours to make a good plan, and that's if you've got a big goal. Smaller, simpler goals can be planned out in a matter of minutes.

If you find that you often fall into the trap of researching and planning as a way to procrastinate, set a time limit. Give yourself a couple of hours to research and plan, and after that, no more is allowed until you've taken action.

4. Failing to find your Why.

Finding your Why is the only source of motivation that is somewhat reliable. Everything else is pretty much a crapshoot. But when you know why you want what you want, rather than just knowing what you want, you give yourself determination. You give yourself a reason to get up and keep pushing even when things are hard.

Frequently taking time to reflect on your Why keeps you motivated and excited about the things that are coming as a result of your actions. If you often give up on your goals after the initial wave of motivation wears off, finding your Why will help a lot.

5. Feeling like one failure means you should give up.

Just because you've eaten 17 cookies does not mean your diet is blown and you should eat like crap for the rest of the day. Just because you failed to do your habit for the last 4 days does not mean you should quit for good.

Toddlers fall down all the time as they're learning to walk. Not once do they think, "maybe walking isn't for me." No, they just keep getting back up and trying again.

One failure—or one hundred failures—doesn't mean that you should give up. Each failure teaches you a lesson. Take a moment to reflect on it carefully, learn what you can from it, and then try again.

Discipline is a skill. You have to build it just like any other skill, which means that you'll mess up plenty of times before you start feeling confident in your abilities. Failure is just a part of the game.

6. Not taking time to reflect on what is and isn't working.

If you ask 50 different people how they built and maintained a healthy lifestyle, you're going to get 50 different answers. That's because what works for one person won't work for everyone else. Like, right now there's a big push to wake up at 5 a.m. That works for many people, but it will not work for everyone.

Pick some strategies that sound appealing to you and try them out for a while, but make sure to schedule time to reflect on your actions and how things worked out for you.

This is a new concept for a lot of people because it's rare that people actually give advice with the caveat that it may not work for everyone. If you're not sure how to go about assessing your progress toward your goals and modifying your actions when you figure out what isn't working, a weekly review is one approach. It takes practice, but soon you'll learn to notice which things aren't serving you so that you can modify them for a better chance at success.

7. Staying in your comfort zone.

Building discipline very often means facing fears. Disciplined people send that email, no matter how scary it is. Disciplined people acknowledge that they want to procrastinate because their work is unpleasant, and then they do the work anyway. Disciplined people do things that scare them every day because that's one of the best ways to make progress in life.

Fulfilling lives are not lived inside of comfort zones. Pushing yourself through a challenging project means getting uncomfortable. If it were easy to build self-discipline, everyone would be disciplined. But they're not, because it's difficult. If you want to build discipline, you have to be willing to feel the fear and do it anyway. It comes with the territory.

8. Aiming for perfection.

Perfect is the enemy of good.

Feeling like we need to be perfect brings unnecessary stress and pressure and very often prevents people from even starting at all. This video does a phenomenal job explaining why you don't need your work to be perfect. It truly is one of those videos that changes lives. I think about it almost every day, and it has definitely changed the way I think and work. And it's only 4 minutes long!

Perfection is subjective. What you may think is a perfectly written story, someone else may have liked better three dozen edits ago. If you ask 10 athletes for the perfect workout, you're going to get 10 different responses.

More importantly, you don't get any better at something by wishing for it. You have to be bad at something before you can be good at it. To create your fiftieth podcast, you have to create your first, and it probably won't be very good, but it puts you one step closer to that great fiftieth podcast.

9. Overcomplicating it.

I see this most often with people looking for apps for every little thing. There are so many productivity apps out there, but in my experience, they serve as a tool for procrastination more than productivity. If you really do think that an app will help you out, search for one that does one thing well instead of being bloated with features that make it clunky to use.

Personally, nearly all of my planning is done on my google calendar using calendar blocking. It keeps me organized and efficient with my time without being complicated or time-consuming to use. It's flexible and easy to read at a glance. I strongly recommend trying out basic systems like this one before going out and trying to find the "perfect" app or tool for every job.

If you haven't even taken the first step, rather than trying to figure out all of the little details of the entire journey ahead of you, focus on just the first step. As long as you have a rough idea of where you want to go, that's good enough to get started. Planning out every little detail is often a waste of time anyway because you'll learn things along the way that change your trajectory. (Don't get me wrong, though, a little bit of planning is still essential! Just don't overdo it.)

10. Not setting small goals and celebrating milestones.

Sure, if you really wanted to, you could probably grit your way through pretty much anything. But I'm guessing you don't want to and you'd prefer occasional boosts of motivation.

Setting small goals gives you something to celebrate. Checking those checkboxes off of a to do list makes your brain say, "that was good! I want more!" and you get a little boost of motivation.

Even if it's going to take you months or years to get to your goals, set lots of small goals along the way so that you get little wins every day. Those milestones are meaningful and make the journey more exciting.

11. Not finding a support network.

I would not be where I am if I hadn't found my support network. But the thing is, I don't actually know any of my mentors and supporters in real life.

Having a network of people to cheer you on, give you advice, mentor you, and support you when you need it is a non-negotiable part of maintaining healthy self-discipline. If you can find people like this in real life, that's great! But if you can't, there are plenty of people putting themselves out there on the internet for you to follow and learn from. I learned nearly everything I know about discipline from my online mentors, and they don't know I exist, but their motivational words, organizational tools, and thoughts on life have helped me create change in my own life.

Some of my personal favorites when it comes to inspiring people to follow are Amy Landino, Muchelle B, and Gary Vaynerchuk. And, of course, you can always follow me. :)

12. Not taking advantage of habits and routines.

I'm not a habit expert, so I'll defer to the people I learned everything from to explain why and how you should focus on building good habits. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is one of those books that sticks with you and creates tangible positive change in your life. I also quite liked Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin, if you like reading about habits, and Atomic Habits is recommended frequently, which I haven't read but I do follow the author on Twitter, and he says some great things.

By harnessing the power of habit, you can avoid that internal fight with yourself that pops up every time you need to do something that you don't want to do. When you build good habits, those things happen automatically, and you can use your precious willpower to work on other things. If you aren't working to create habits, you're making self-discipline harder than it needs to be—but I'll leave it up to the habit experts to teach you how to build habits. They can explain it better than I ever could.

13. Trying to do everything the same way that the experts do it.

I know I just said that I'd leave habits up to the experts, but it's also important to understand that the "experts" don't always have it figured out either. They're often doing what works best for them, but discipline isn't one size fits all.

You don't have to wake up at 5 a.m. to be disciplined.

You don't have to take cold showers to be disciplined.

You don't have to do whatever other random tasks are popular in the discipline world to be disciplined.

Do what works for you.

That's probably the best advice that anyone can give when it comes to building discipline. It's easy to want to jump on these "discipline hack" trends because they sound like one-size-fits-all solutions to getting your life together. They're not, because that isn't how discipline works. Try them. If they work for you, cool. If not, don't feel discouraged.

Many of these ideas are rooted in good intentions, but they're taken to extremes, often because extremes are a good way to get popular on the internet. But extremes aren't useful in real life. Sure, wake up a little earlier, but if 5 a.m. isn't doable for you, then don't wake up at 5.

14. Having unrealistic expectations.

I'll be honest, this isn't just a beginner's mistake. I've found myself making this mistake within the last few months.

So often, we want to push ourselves harder than we're capable of because we want results, but for most people, two to three hours of work on tasks that require deep mental focus is pretty much the daily limit. More than that often causes burnout or a "productivity debt."

So no, studying for eight hours a day or trying to code from sunrise to sunset isn't a realistic expectation. After the first few hours, you'll start to produce lower quality work due to lack of focus and quickly expend more mental energy than you have, leading to less productivity the next day. It's important to have reasonable expectations of what we can accomplish in a day.

Recommended Reading:

How to Finish What You Start

I’d Like to Introduce You to Your New Best Friend: Your Future Self

How to Clarify Your Direction With a Life Audit

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