How To Stay Disciplined When Times Are Tough

“May you live in interesting times.” 

It’s a saying that’s been quoted by everyone from Arthur C. Clarke to Hillary Clinton, and while we might not be sure of its provenance, we all understand that it’s a curse, not a blessing. Its lesson is that upheaval, conflict, and change in our lives can consume so much of our mental and emotional reserves that it can become impossible to focus on anything else.

With that in mind, this year certainly has been… interesting.

Perhaps you set goals for 2020 way back in January; you may have even created a plan for achieving them. But then (*waves arms around*) all this happened, and your plans fell by the wayside. Now you’re left thinking about what could have been—should have been—and wondering how you’ll ever reach those goals.

The good news is that it’s not too late. Despite all the disruption this year has brought, each new day is an opportunity to reset your outlook, recalibrate your aim, and try again. 

But (and here’s the important bit) in order to succeed, something needs to change. Along with creating a plan for what you want to achieve, there’s one vitally important skill you need to master: self-discipline. Then, when unexpected events occur (as they surely will), you’ll have the strength to resist temptation and stay laser-focused on your goals—no matter what life throws at you.  

What is self-discipline? And why is it important?

Simply put, self-discipline is doing what you need to do, when you need to do it, whether you want to or not. Self-discipline is the voice in your head that wakes you up at 5 a.m. to go to the gym, when all you want to do is roll over and go back to sleep. It’s the voice that pushes you to keep striving (whether your goal is to be a better artist, athlete, entrepreneur, or friend) when you’d rather binge-watch the latest Netflix hit. 

Without self-discipline, your goals are at the mercy of your circumstances. If things go well, you may still reach them; but at the first sign of friction, you’ll quit. As author Jim Rohn said, “Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishments.” It’s the path that leads you from where you are to where you want to be. 

Is self-discipline the same as willpower?

Self-discipline and willpower (or self-control) sound like the same thing. They both require sacrifice and determination—and they’re both really hard to do! But there’s a key difference: Willpower is sudden and immediate; it’s saying no to that piece of cake when someone offers it to you. Self-discipline, on the other hand, is a conscious, long-term decision to do what you’ve committed to doing, without allowing yourself to be distracted.

Willpower is about controlling your impulses and desires, and saying “no” to temptation. Self-discipline is about continual improvement; training yourself to be better today than you were yesterday. So while willpower may be great (even necessary) for reaching short-term goals, self-discipline is the engine that will power your life and lead to long-term success. Think of them as two complementary forces, where willpower is self-discipline in action.

How to build self-discipline in your life

Let’s not mince words: It takes time and commitment to build self-discipline into your life, and you’ll inevitably encounter setbacks. But as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “I am who I am today because of the choices I made yesterday.” Here are three tips for self-discipline training that’ll help you stay strong, and turn you into a goal-crushing machine:

  1. Capture and commit

    We’ve written about this before, but it’s worth repeating: Once you’ve decided on a goal, write it down. Dr. Gail Matthews of Dominican University of California found that simply writing down a goal increases your likelihood of achieving it by 42 percent.

    It makes sense. If you set out to drive across the country without a map, you’ll arrive somewhere, but there’s a very good chance it won’t be where you expected, and you’ll waste time and precious energy in the process. It’s the same with your goals: Without a plan, who knows where you’ll end up?

    Next, ask yourself: Am I chasing what I really want in life, or merely what I “should” want? If you don’t have a burning desire to achieve your goal, you won’t muster the self-discipline to keep going when things get tough. Any goal you choose must spark something in you that can’t be extinguished; something that refuses to take “no” for an answer.

    Take action: 

    • Create a note in Evernote and add a checklist to build an action plan for each goal. 
    • Use Web Clipper to capture anything from the web that helps you visualize the achievement of your goal. This will keep you inspired when things get rough.
    • Review your goals everyday to make sure you’re staying on track and that they still align with your true desires.
  2. Understand your strengths… AND weaknesses
  3. Do you jump out of bed in the morning, full of energy and ready to take on the day? Or are you more of a “Don’t talk to me until I’ve had three cups of coffee” kind of person? Either one is fine (really!), but understanding yourself, and planning your day to fit your style, is vital to achieving success. Try to schedule any ‘deep work’ for times when you know you’re generally more focused, and leave the other times for mundane tasks.

    Likewise, you may have a weakness for social media (hey, we’re not judging). In their book, “Make Time,” Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, the “Time Dorks,” call these “Infinity Loops” because they’re never-ending. You can scroll on and on forever, and while that might be a fun way to pass the time, it can easily derail your plans. Instead, recognize your weak spot so it’s easier to catch yourself in the act and get back on track—before you spend half a day going nowhere!

    On the flip side, you may be great at focusing on a single task once you finally get started. Use that to your advantage! Put your phone out of sight, clear off your desk, and set the stage for some good, focused work.

    What these tips all have in common is raising your awareness of who you are. Once you have a deeper understanding of where you perform best and where you may need a little help, you can play to your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. 

    Take action

  4. Track, reflect, and correct
  5. Now that you have a goal, and understand yourself well enough to work toward it effectively, there’s nothing standing in your way, right? Surely, achieving the goal will take care of itself.

    Not quite. Life isn’t always as smooth as we’d like (hello, 2020!), so you need to be adaptable and open to the possibility that you’ll need to adjust your plan. Unexpected complications can arise, timeframes can shift, so no matter how well you’ve planned, you may need to make changes in order to stay aimed at your target. 

    That’s why it’s vital to know where you stand as you progress along the road. Schedule time every week to review your plans and track the progress you’ve made toward your goals. The most important thing is to be honest with yourself. This means acknowledging your struggles as well as your successes, reflecting on what you could have done differently, and formulating strategies for doing better next time. 

    Finally, a quick word on ‘failure’: It’s easy to get discouraged when you mess up, but don’t let that be an excuse to quit. The fact that you tried is a victory. You’ve taken more steps toward your goals than most people ever will, and learned something in the process: what doesn’t work. Take that information, make changes where you need to, and keep trying until you succeed. Because the only thing that hurts more than failing is quitting.

    Take action:

    • Use Evernote’s Weekly Review template to track your progress and make sure you’re still heading the right direction.

If this year has taught us anything, it’s that no matter how diligently you plan for the future, you really don’t know what that future has planned for you. But as long as you keep an eye on your ultimate goal, and be ready to adjust course if necessary, you can handle whatever comes your way and reach your destination. A little battered and bruised perhaps, but where you always intended to be.

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