7 Ways to Have More Self-Discipline

Self-control (or lack of it) plays a role in choosing a salad or a soda, working out or staying on the couch, and moderating alcohol or getting trashed on a Tuesday. There are times we all wish we had a little (or a lot) more self discipline. Therefore, this week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 7 ways to stretch your self-control.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #151

Tip #3: Track your progress

Think back to high school physics—remember the observer effect? Observation changes the phenomenon being observed? Trying to keep your credit card bill in check may not feel like physics, but it’s the same principle.

Keep a log or use a wearable tracker to monitor whatever sucks up your self-control. Keep a food diary, an exercise log, a sleep diary. It’s called monitoring. Indeed, it’s when we’re not paying attention that things tend to slide. So pay attention and track your progress. Simply observing will change what’s being observed, which just happens to be you.

Watching yourself scarf Funyuns or get sucked into interweb slideshows of “Worst Tattoos Ever” makes it less likely to happen.

Tip #4: Literally watch yourself

If you’re trying to stick to good habits while you’re stuck at a desk, try propping a mirror next to you. It works on the same principle as monitoring. Watching yourself scarf Funyuns or get sucked into interweb slideshows of “Worst Tattoos Ever” makes it less likely to happen.

Tip #5: Externalize time

This is a strategy from ADHD behavioral treatment. When you have to make a lot of transitions, like getting ready for school or work in the morning—shower, dress, eat, brush teeth, gather stuff—set a timer to go off every 3 to 5 minutes. Externalizing time with an audible reminder keeps it from sliding by unnoticed. And while 3 minutes, or even 5 minutes, may seem like a small chunk, you’d be surprised at how much you can actually get done. Plus, if you get sidetracked, the next alarm will jolt you back, and you won’t have wasted much time.

Tip #6: Allow yourself your distractions, just not now 

“I’ll do it later” is the mantra of every procrastinator. But flip-flop what you’ll do later. Rather than doing your big tasks later, tell yourself you’ll do your distractions later. Jot them down as your impulses occur to you: “Is Bernie Sanders vegan?” “Is Mr. T dead?” “How many beers can a frisbee hold?” (Answer to the latter: four—who knew?) Anyway, the point of writing them down is you can still follow your impulses, just not this instant. Which brings us to the next tip ...

Tip #7: Sometimes, just let go

If you’re a workaholic, perfectionist, or another type who expects 110% at all times, let yourself follow your impulses at least sometimes. Bright shiny items are particularly alluring when we don’t ever allow ourselves to pick them up.

So allow yourself some pointless, indulgent time-wasters, especially when your brain is fried anyway. Go ahead and google “duct tape prom dress,” watch New Edition videos, or otherwise gratify whatever you get distracted by. And hey perfectionists, guess what? It’s not so pointless and indulgent after all. In fact, it’s called rest.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.