How Self Discipline Can Unlock Your Business Success

Do you want to start your own successful small business? Or grow your existing business? Maybe you have no interest in owning and running a business, but want to be more productive at work?

“I could do that,” you think to yourself.

So, why haven’t you?

To accomplish any of these things you’ll need self-discipline. As the late business philosopher and guru Jim Rohn said,

Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.

Merriam-Webster defines self-discipline as:

 the ability to make yourself do things that should be done

It sounds so simple. But before you stop reading and think you already know what you need to do, we bet there are a few tips and tricks that you probably haven’t seen when it comes to self-discipline. Worth a few more minutes of your time?

Paradoxically, living with self-discipline is not as easy as it sounds. And yet, it’s vitally important to your success. Author, business coach and consultant, Dan S. Kennedy asserts,

In the entrepreneurial environment, there’s a lot to be said just for showing up on time, ready to work. The meeting of deadlines and commitments alone causes a person to stand out from the crowd like an alien space ship parked in an Iowa cornfield. The ability to get things done and done right the first time will magnetically attract incredible contacts, opportunities and resources to you. All of this is a matter of self-discipline.

Self-discipline has the power to transform your life for the better. Imagine how much you would accomplish if you completed every task you set out to do; or if you established healthy, productive habits and actually followed through. Self-discipline very well may be the key to unlocking your untapped potential.

If you’re tired of “what ifs” and ready to do what it takes to reach your goals, check out these 9 tips for strengthening your self-discipline.

1. Change Your Perception of Willpower

2. Acknowledge Your Weaknesses

3. Leverage Goals to Counter Temptations

4. Take it One Step at a Time

5. Prioritize

6. Show Yourself Compassion

7. Lean into Discomfort

8. Stay Focused

9. Cultivate Your Internal Resources with Self-Care


1. Change Your Perception of Willpower

Our very first, possibly most important, tip for increasing your self-discipline is to not give up before you even begin. So many people claim that they have no willpower. And in so doing, they absolve themselves of the responsibility of behaving as though they have willpower, so they don’t even try.

In psychology circles, this is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Good Therapy, a therapy advocacy group, explains:

A self-fulfilling prophecy can be directed at oneself, another person, a group, or even inanimate objects. Our thoughts can dramatically alter our behavior. Our behavior, in turn, can affect the likelihood of getting things we want, the frequency with which we engage in self-destructive activities, and our ability to make good decisions.

The fact is that willpower is not something that you either have or don’t have. It may come more naturally to some, but it is a behavior that can be practiced and learned – if you’re so inclined.

The results of this study by Stanford University “highlight the critical role of beliefs about willpower in self-control performance.” The study reports:

Although people induced to hold a limited resource theory and a nonlimited theory of willpower found an initial demanding task equally fatiguing, only for those with the limited resource theory did the extent to which they found the task fatiguing predict worse performance on the next self-control task.

In other words, the participants who thought they had limited willpower performed more poorly on tasks of self-control than those who believed that willpower was an endless resource after performing the same initial activity. This research supports the idea that our perception of our willpower shapes our execution of tasks requiring willpower.

Those who believed that they had willpower, had more self-control. So, stop making the excuse that you have no willpower. You do. If you believe you do.

So, stop making the excuse that you have no willpower. You do. If you believe you do.

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2. Acknowledge Your Weaknesses

At some point, behaving with self-discipline inevitably means resisting the temptation to do something more fun than that responsible task on your to-do list. So, if you know that you’ll need to occasionally resist temptation, it’s a good idea to know where temptation lies.

What are your weaknesses? What activities, foods and material things tempt you into behaving in ways that are counter to your productivity, efficiency or well-being? The first step to defeat such weaknesses is to identify the things that regularly derail your good intentions.

As Peter Bregman of the Harvard Business Review points out:

Changing a habit doesn’t have to take long, but it’s hard. Really hard. But when it comes to counterproductive habits… turning our knee-jerk reactions into something healthier and more productive is essential. The first step is to be aware of your reactions. You can’t change something if you don’t realize you’re doing it.

Knowing your weaknesses so you can effectively navigate them requires self-awareness – the first of the four pillars of emotional intelligence. As we wrote in “How Emotional Intelligence Can Make You a Better Leader,”

Self-awareness also gives you a better perspective to identify the traits that serve you well and the traits that don’t serve you at all. You can modify your behavior for the better if you can identify your own bad habits and catch yourself when you’re doing them.

One bad habit that impacts nearly everyone is the noisy world of notifications. As we wrote previously:

On an average day, people check their phones over 150 times between 6:00 am and 10 pm. And that’s just their phones!

In fact, science proves that notifications are mostly bad for us. According to a study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology, interruptions as short as two seconds long are enough to double the number of errors made in a task. Such brief interruptions were found to be extremely disruptive because they broke the flow of the task by diverting attention, making it difficult for participants of the study to properly focus on the task at hand.

To compensate for the problems caused by notifications, we pretend to multitask, trying to assess reminders about future events or answer questions, while still completing our work. This too often becomes counterproductive (not to mention, error-prone). Multitasking costs the economy $450 billion dollars annually because this loss of productivity often increases stress and creates a cycle of disruption.

Before you can delete that bookmark for a site that has photos of cute kittens, check the new email or text message you just received, or plan a new route home that takes you past the gym instead of the Starbucks, you need to acknowledge that kittens, notifications, and Starbucks are your weak spots. But, once they’re on your radar, you’re in control. You can prioritize more disciplined, responsible choices.

3. Leverage Goals to Counter Temptations

It’s all well and good to scope out the potholes in the road ahead; but, if you don’t want to hit them, you should probably swerve.  Set SMART goals to help you outsmart the bad habits that usually undermine you.

SMART stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

Setting goals that meet these criteria will set you up for success and are more likely to deliver real results. Here’s how it might look in practice… You know that you tend to get bogged down answering emails from co-workers who always come to you for answers they could find themselves. You lose track of time and your own to-do list suffers.

In this scenario, your SMART goal for busting the email habit might look like this:

I will complete one task on my to-do list before I spend 20 minutes responding to emails. Repeat as necessary.

This goal is specific (1 to-do item/ 20 min of emails), easy to measure (if you can count to 20, that is), attainable (adjust the terms as needed to make your goals work for you), relevant (specifically addresses your challenge – reprioritizing your tasks over co-worker email), and timely (this goal can be repeated multiple times a day, reinforcing a success feedback loop).

Strategically couple SMART goals with your biggest willpower busters and you’ll see your productivity soar.

4. Take it One Step at a Time

It’s easy to become overwhelmed if a goal is too large; so overwhelmed, in fact, that you give up. So, for larger goals, break them down into smaller, more easily manageable pieces.

Deep Patel, author of A Paperboy’s Fable: The 11 Principles of Success, shares:

Acquiring self-discipline and working to instill a new habit can feel daunting at first, especially if you focus on the entire task at hand. To avoid feeling intimidated, keep it simple. Break your goal into small, doable steps. Instead of trying to change everything at once, focus on doing one thing consistently and master self-discipline with that goal in mind.

This will help you avoid becoming discouraged when trying to establish a new practice of self-discipline. After all, you’re probably giving up some things that you really enjoy in exchange for your new productivity superpower. So, set yourself up for success by tackling larger goals with an action plan.

Action plans are structured lists or spreadsheets that outline exactly what needs to be done, by whom, and when. Use these free action plan templates from Smart Sheet to break your goals into smaller, actionable steps. Then obliterate that goal – one small step at a time.

5. Prioritize

Self-discipline is about self-control. It’s also about making good decisions.

Self-discipline is choosing to tackle that project that you’ve been dreading instead of drinking three more cups of coffee while stalking your new crush on Facebook.

So how do we make our choices wisely? We prioritize.

Time Management Guide explains:

Prioritizing is about making choices of what to do and what not to do. To prioritize effectively you need to be able to recognize what is important…

The important, or high priority, tasks are the tasks that help us achieve our long-term goals or can have other meaningful and significant long-term consequences.

But, what is the most efficient strategy for prioritizing your tasks? Obviously, projects with deadlines move up the priority chain as the deadline moves closer. And, tasks that need to be completed so that other teammates can do their part should be rated fairly high as well. But, what about everything else?

Psychologist and Entrepreneur contributor Sherrie Campbell recommends:

As you plan your day discipline yourself to accomplish the tasks which require the most effort and discipline from you. Get your big stressors out of the way. When you accomplish your more stressful tasks first, not only will you begin to do this with more consistency, but you will be less stressed throughout the rest of your day, allowing you to be more productive on your other, less important activities. In this way, you learn to turn a mess to greatness.

This “save the best for last” mentality can be a great motivator. Knocking out the biggest, ugliest tasks first makes the rest of your day more enjoyable. So, not only will you be more productive, you’ll also reward yourself with a more relaxing afternoon.

6. Show Yourself Compassion

During your journey to increased self-discipline, there are bound to be some setbacks. You are, after all, only human.

Setbacks are inevitable, but they’re not an indicator of failure. Your reactions to setbacks (and successes) are far more important than the setbacks and successes themselves.

Don’t let your first setback (or second or third or fourth) derail your efforts. Reacting harshly and with judgment – or giving up altogether – will not serve you well. Mindfulness coach and Harvard Business Review contributor Christopher Germer advises that self-compassion may be needed to recover from a failure.

What does it take to rescue yourself and begin to address the situation effectively? You need to treat yourself with the same kindness and support that you’d provide for a friend.

There is a substantial and growing body of research that shows that self-compassion is closely associated with emotional resilience, including the ability to soothe ourselves, recognize our mistakes, learn from them, and motivate ourselves to succeed.

Instead of spiraling into a self-defeating, negative frame of mind, accept slip-ups as the inevitable part of the process that they are. Then forgive yourself and move on… grateful for the lesson you’ve learned.

And, don’t forget about your successes, either. Establishing a new habit of self-discipline takes effort.  A great way to stay motivated is to embrace your victories. As we pointed out in our article about preventing burn-out,

 Focusing on your successes reminds you that your work really does make an impact, leading you to embrace the meaning behind your efforts.

You’re trying to gain self-discipline in the hopes that you’ll achieve more of these victories. So, don’t forget to reward yourself for actually accomplishing what you set out to do! Rewards provide meaning and make the effort worth it. Psychologists at the University of Tasmania share:

When we get a reward, special pathways in our brain become activated. Not only does this feel good, but the activation also leads us to seek out more rewarding stimuli.

Physiologically, rewards motivate you to repeat the behaviors that lead you to receive that reward. This is a great tool to exploit when trying to develop a new habit – like, say, acting with self-discipline.

7. Lean into Discomfort

Creating new habits means breaking old ones. This will inevitably feel weird, strange, uncomfortable…

And that’s okay.

Feeling weird is part of the process of growth. If it feels uncomfortable, you’re stretching yourself enough to create meaningful change. Forbes article “5 Proven Methods for Gaining Self Discipline” reports:

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, explains that habit behaviors are traced to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia – a portion of the brain associated with emotions, patterns, and memories. Decisions, on the other hand, are made in the prefrontal cortex, a completely different area. When a behavior becomes habit, we stop using our decision-making skills and instead function on auto-pilot. Therefore, breaking a bad habit and building a new habit not only requires us to make active decisions, it will feel wrong. Your brain will resist the change in favor of what it has been programmed to do. The solution? Embrace the wrong. Acknowledge that it will take a while for your new regime to feel right or good or natural.

Mentally prepare yourself for the weirdness and the discomfort.  And remind yourself that it’s okay. You’ve got this.

8. Stay Focused

True self-discipline isn’t a goal to check off your to-do list and then move on with your life. It’s a life-long practice. This means that you’ll need to stay focused to maintain the habit.

Keeping your eye on the prize – which will evolve over time – strengthens your motivation and resolve. Sherrie Campbell, in her article “8 Ways to Create the Discipline Habit,” recommends:

Review your goals each morning before you start your day, or set and review your goals for the next day before you go to sleep….visualize on what you want to achieve in the short and long term. This will help you to set the most important goals on your list for the next day. As you visualize, see yourself achieving your goals and imagine the feelings of success which will come along with this. In this way you start your day in a productive and positive mindset.

Conducting a daily mental review of your goals is a great practice to follow. And, if you want to take it one step further, create a vision board. Vision boards are collages of images and text that remind you of your goals.

If you (like many of us) learn by doing, the act of creating a vision board will help to cement your goals in your brain. And, if you’re a visual learner, seeing images that resonate with and inspire you will help you maintain focus over the long haul.  As your goals evolve, create new vision boards to reflect your new reality.

Whatever method you choose to maintain focus, make sure to take regular stock over time to assess where you are and where you’re headed.

9. Cultivate Your Internal Resources with Self-Care

Humans require food and water to function. But, they require much more than that to thrive. If you want to step up your self-discipline game, plan to give yourself the resources you need to succeed.

Self-care is the practice of checking in with yourself to determine which of your resources are depleted and then acting to replenish them. Are you tired? You’ll need some rest. Are you hungry? Time for a healthy snack.

And, don’t let anyone tell you that self-care is selfish. As this LifeHacker article is so aptly titled:

Self-care is not a reward. It’s a part of the process.

It’s essential to meet your most basic biological needs if you want to have the resources to be more self-disciplined. Self-care includes, and extends beyond, those basic needs.  Remember to refresh your mental and emotional resources as well.

Spend some time with friends or loved ones. Spend some time alone. Cultivate a meditation practice. Hit the gym. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for self-care. Your self-care practice should be tailored to meet your self-care needs.

A car will not go, let alone perform at its best, without fuel. And neither will you. Practicing self-care is a necessity to achieving self-discipline. The alternative – well, it’s not pretty.

As we shared in our article “Wellness Tips from Successful Entrepreneurs and Health Experts,”

…entrepreneurs are people. You are a person. And you deserve to take care of yourself, even in the midst of working or running a business. Not only that, if you’re not feeling your best your work will suffer. And as an entrepreneur, if your work suffers, so does your business.

A self-disciplined you is a more successful you. Possibly even a happier you. Research has shown that people with highly developed self-discipline avoid situations that cause them distress or temptation, essentially setting themselves up for success. This leads to less conflict and fewer negative emotions.

Productivity, happiness, success… Self-discipline offers so many benefits. You just have to do it.

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