3 Strategies to Increase Self-Discipline and Make Wise Choices

“Your life today is the result of all of your choices and decisions in the past. When you make new choices, you create a new future.”- Brian Tracy

Have you ever had one of those ‘old fashioned’ donuts at Starbucks? They are delicious …and about 450 calories. Every time I go there it seems they are screaming at me to buy one of them.

Every day we are confronted with many choices that may seem minor at the time, but over the long term can have a significant impact. Making the right choice involves tapping our willpower.

When it comes to willpower, we have two kinds of struggles: ‘do power’ and ‘don’t power.’

The Challenge of Proactivity

‘Do power’ is when we seek to motivate ourselves to do something. This is what is called the challenge of initiative. This could be going to the gym, filing our taxes or cleaning the basement. Often we don’t ‘feel’ like doing something even though we know we should. Here are three practical strategies to increase your ‘do power.’

1. Act your way into feeling.

Have you ever procrastinated about something, finally started it and really got ‘on a roll?’ Usually the hardest part in overcoming procrastination is simply getting started. When a rocket ship first takes off, it uses a tremendous amount of fuel. As it gains momentum, it uses substantially less fuel. The same is true with us. We expend the most energy simply getting started. But if you get going, even when you don’t feel like it, often momentum kicks in. So remember, motion creates emotion. Act first and the feelings will likely follow.

2. Imagine the future.

Picture yourself having completed the project. Visualize how your clothes will fit when you reach your weight goal or how your basement will look when it is organized. Really let it sink in and envision the positive emotions of achieving the goal. A vision gives hope and motivation.

3. Pre-commit.

It is often unwise to wait until you are ‘in the moment’ to make a decision. Decide ahead of time specifically when you will go to the gym or file your taxes. You can even go so far as putting it on your calendar. As author Jon Acuff says, “crush the discussion with the decision.” In other words, leave no room for wavering; you have already made up your mind.

The Challenge of Restraint

Conversely ‘don’t power’ is restraining ourselves from doing something we know we shouldn’t do. This could be eating one of those donuts, lighting up a cigarette or making an unwise impulse purchase. Let's call this the challenge of restraint.

We frequently have an internal conflict as we make these ‘in the moment’ choices. The tension is between our impulsive side and our rational side. Here are three strategies for this side of the equation.

1. Think ‘as now, so then.’

I have often said to myself, “I can have this donut today and tomorrow I will start eating better.” It is easy to deceive ourself and say “tomorrow we will be better.” We often idealize the person we will be in the future. It is more accurate and effective to understand that if we give in today, we will more likely give in tomorrow as well. ‘As now, so then’ thinking leads down the path of thinking about the consequences of having a donut every day. This thought process is more likely to temper my unhealthy indulgence.

2. Use the 10 minute rule.

Impulses can be fleeting. It is usually a good idea to wait 10 minutes before deciding to indulge. Once we get past the initial urge, the impulse is often not as strong. For example, having a piece of fruit will likely diminish the desire to eat a donut. Or once you are out of the store, that item that you just ‘had to have’ doesn’t seem like such a necessity.

3. Set limits.

I really like French fries. It’s hard for me to imagine not having them for the rest of my life. However, I try to limit myself to eating them only on Saturdays. When I do wait until the weekend, I can actually enjoy them without feeling guilty, knowing I eat them in moderation. (Keep in mind this technique does not work for everything. If you are trying to quit smoking, limiting yourself to once a week simply will not work. If you want to give up something completely, it is far easier to abstain altogether than it is to give in just a little then try to stop.)

General Strategies

1. Focus on positive action rather than prohibition.

Rather than focusing on not doing something, think about a positive alternative. It is much easier to replace a bad habit with a good habit than it is to simply quit doing something.

2. Set up your environment to your advantage.

If you are tempted to help yourself to a big bowl of ice cream after dinner every night, don’t keep ice cream in the house. Rather, keep healthy snacks that you enjoy or pre-packaged smaller portions.

If you intend to go to the gym first thing in the morning, pack your gym back and hang out your work clothes the night before. It will be much easier to get started in the morning. (And remember to put the coffee maker timer on!)

3. Start small.

Willpower is like a muscle that can be trained. It uses the rule of ‘use it or lose it.’ Even minor occurrences of exercising willpower will lead to increased self control.

When you find yourself in the middle of an ‘in the moment’ choice, choose a strategy that works best for you.

Fortunately, when it comes to choices, we don’t have to push ourselves to the limit all the time. We simply need to focus on those critical moments when we are most susceptible to unhealthy impulses.

Our current habits are not our destiny. They can be changed and reprogrammed. New habits can be intentionally designed. But it will take focus and energy.

And if you happen to temporarily stumble, don’t beat yourself up. Remember building willpower takes patience and perseverance. Tomorrow is a new beginning.