“Discipline” is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot, especially in the world of health and fitness. From recreational and pro athletes to bodybuilders, proponents suggest that discipline is paramount to success in all sorts of health and fitness endeavors. But how many of us know exactly what it takes to achieve it?
To help you reach your goals, we asked health coaches and sports psychologists to demystify the concept of discipline and offer a step-by-step guide to cultivating it.
“I think of discipline as consistent strength to follow through on intentions,” says Haley Perlus, Ph.D., a sports psychologist and performance consultant.
When it comes to health and fitness, your intentions might include eating greens at every meal, walking at least 15 minutes a day, or getting in three workouts a week. Discipline is your ability to get those things done, even when your motivation is at an all-time low.
Still, since the term “discipline” can sound harsh, it may help to think of discipline as a commitment you’ve made to yourself to make healthy lifestyle changes. “It’s following the plan you’ve strategically created as best as you can,” says Maxine Yeung, R.D., C.P.T., a registered dietitian, personal trainer, and board-certified health and wellness coach.
Can You Learn Discipline?
You probably know people with annoying amounts of self-discipline. They wake up before dawn, run five miles, meditate, eat their fruits and veggies, and make it seem effortless.
It’s easy to compare yourself with those people and assume you’ll never reach their level of discipline. But the truth is, you don’t have to be born with discipline; anyone can learn it.
“Self-discipline is developed over time, so even if you think you don’t have much of it, with a little bit of help, you can gain and strengthen it,” says Emily Schmitz, an Institute for Integrative Nutrition certified nutrition coach.
How To Cultivate Discipline
So, how exactly do you transform from someone who can’t stick to a workout routine or eat those veggies into an early-morning gymgoer or green smoothie connoisseur? Follow these steps.
Step 1: Stop The Negative Self-Talk
Contrary to popular belief, you can’t shame yourself into becoming more disciplined. Ask yourself: Has it worked for you so far? Probably not.
“When I discuss discipline with my nutrition coaching clients, I explain that they first need to stop any negative self-talk they’ve been doing and start giving themselves some compassion, just like they do with their friends or family members,” Schmitz says.
Specifically, cut yourself some slack if you haven’t been successful in reaching your goals yet. After all, you’re a human being, not a machine.
By choosing to use setbacks as learning opportunities instead of reasons to bash yourself, you’ll have an easier time cultivating self-discipline—and enjoy your journey more. “Slip-ups happen, but what’s most important is how you respond to that slip-up,” Yeung notes. Instead of falling back on self-shaming thoughts, consider the possible reasons why you got off track and what you can do to right the ship.
Step 2: Be Specific About What You Want
One important strategy for avoiding setbacks in the first place is to be crystal clear on what behavior(s) you intend to follow through with. The more specific you can be, the better.
For example, simply saying “I want to eat more greens” or “I want to exercise” won’t cut it, Perlus says. Instead, try “I want to eat greens at every meal” or “I want to exercise three days per week.”
To be even more specific, you could get into details like the amount of greens you’d like to eat and the minimum dose of exercise you’ll aim for each workout.
Step 3: Be Realistic
Being specific is fantastic, but you also need to feel confident in your ability to follow through with your goal behaviors. “If you start with self-doubt, it will be harder to be disciplined,” Perlus warns.
And the key to feeling confident? Being honest and realistic with yourself. For example, if you haven’t been exercising regularly, it might be tough to get in five classes a week at your local CrossFit gym. Or, if mornings are your most hectic time of day, you might be setting yourself up for failure by saying you’re going to meditate for 30 minutes as soon as you get out of bed.
Modifying your goal behavior (think three weekly workouts or five minutes of meditation) will serve you better in the long-term, Perlus says. Once you’ve established consistency with those goal behaviors, you can always ramp them up to the next level.
Step 4: Take Advantage Of Existing Habits
There are so many things we do every day without a second thought. Many of us drink coffee in the morning, brush our teeth, watch TV, walk the dog, check the mail, meet with coworkers, break for meals, change our clothes or shoes… you get the idea. Pairing a goal behavior with an existing habit (a method known as “habit stacking”) may make it easier to follow through, Perlus says.
For example, you might add 10 minutes of stretching to your existing habit of watching TV in the evening, drink water with lemon with your morning brew, or go for a walk around the neighborhood before you check the mail.
By tacking a new behavior onto a habit that’s already part of your daily routine, you won’t have to build that behavior from scratch. This makes you more likely to follow through.
Step 5: Be Prepared To Pivot
As we hinted earlier, slip-ups are bound to happen. But if you feel like you’re spinning your wheels and just can’t make your desired behaviors stick, it may be a sign that you should actually be working on other behaviors first.
What that means: If you’re having trouble staying disciplined in maintaining morning workouts because you still feel exhausted when your alarm goes off, you may need to focus on your bedtime routine before tackling a workout routine, Yeung suggests.
Another sneaky reason you may be struggling with discipline? Your priorities just aren’t aligned with the behavior you want to make stick. If meditation often gets cut from your morning, re-evaluate how important it really is to you. If it doesn’t truly feel compelling or beneficial, you’ll have a hard time doing it consistently. Maybe another early morning routine will better serve you.
However, if you decide you truly do want to be a person who meditates, you may want to pivot a little by moving meditation to a less-hectic time of day, trimming the time commitment, or working on other behaviors that will make meditation more doable. Those other behaviors could include waking up after your first alarm instead of hitting snooze, leaving texts and emails unchecked until a specific time, or preparing your breakfast the night before.
Remember, discipline only works if the behaviors are realistic and meaningful to you, so instead of writing yourself off as incapable of consistency, be curious about how a perspective shift might make you more successful.
The bottom line
Luckily, discipline is something you can cultivate over time. Want to become that person who makes things happen, whether it’s morning workouts or spot-on nutrition? Be specific and realistic about your goals (and why they matter to you), using existing behaviors to your advantage, and be prepared to pivot in order to set yourself up for success.