How To Improve Self-Discipline (by Exploring Our Emotions)

So you watched a bunch of Ted videos on the topic of self-discipline. You’ve read a plethora of articles about habit change. And while enthusiastically consuming all of this, you remain utterly undisciplined even though you say to yourself, “Oh, yes, this makes so much sense. I finally know how to improve my self-discipline!”

There are more than enough resources discussing the topic of how to improve self-discipline.

They all sound logical.

Most of them are even based on scientific studies.

However, there is a problem.

Despite the legitimacy of the resources and their best intentions. We, people, still do stupid stuff.

Not because we are dumb bastards with peanut-sized brains (well, not always). But because we are emotional creatures.

Meaning that…

It’s reasonable not to spend most of your days in bed, smoking weed, and playing video games while chewing another burger from the local junk factory.

However, it’s emotionally challenging to stop doing these harmful activities.

Why is that?

Here’s the short version:

Our brain is wired to want to feel good all the time. But since our lives are a mess, we keep returning to these vile – but dopamine-releasing – activities. The main reason? To experience pleasure.

It’s like a devious loop:

We feel bad about our current state – messy apartment, messy relationships, messy thoughts. Thus, we reach for activities that alleviate the pain.

the-loop-of-doing-stupid-stuff-to-cope-with-challenges
We feel bad about our current condition. Thus, we consume things to cope with the challenges. However, we fail to recognize that the more we consume, the more our current condition worsens, which only makes it harder to escape the devious loop.

Our desire to feel pleasure is a key player here.

To improve self-discipline, we need to start with why we want to feel good all the time.

Emotions and Self-Discipline

As emotional creatures, it’s scary to find out that emotions are precisely the ones that can significantly impact our ability to exert self-discipline.

Yes, while emotions help us express ourselves, connect with other people, avoid danger, and a bunch of other delightful benefits. Emotions are also the ones that impair rational decision-making and lead to impulsive actions.

Naturally, you’d ask yourself: “Why is that? Shouldn’t my genome optimize for my well-being and absolute supremacy over my surrounding environment?”

In theory, it should. But it’s mainly concerned with your happiness over a very short time horizon.

The prime objective of the brain and the neurons circulating our bodies is simple: feel good right now.

The keyword here is right now.

  • You are hungry – even slightly? You want to feel good by eating.
  • You are bored? You want to feel good by playing a video game on your phone.
  • You are anxious? You want to feel good by smoking a cigarette.

Of course, these problems can be resolved differently.

  • You are hungry? You ate an hour ago, you can drink a glass of water and wait for the next meal.
  • You are bored? You can read a book or simply take a moment to observe what’s happening around you.
  • You are anxious? You can reflect on what exactly made you so nervous.

Obviously, these solutions are better than the previous ones. Yet, we all know that we don’t do them. They require more inner work while only bringing half of the satisfaction.

Meaning that we all know that sprinkling your ice cream with thin-sliced crispy chips is not so healthy, but we still do it.

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes a lot of sense.

As soon as your senses detect disturbance or deviation from the body’s optimal state. Your brain sends impulses to your body to restore that balance. And how do you restore the balance?

You open the fridge with a spoon in your hand and terminate a whole jar of chocolate right there on the spot.

Sure, you can do something else. For example, eat an apple instead, reflect on your emotions, or close your eyes and visualize a calming or positive scene to handle the disturbing situation. But who does that?

Pretty much no one I know simply because the level of satisfaction you get from eating an apple is insignificant compared to the act of covering your mouth with chocolate.

Type of Emotions That Disturb Willpower

Since emotions are the main culprits that lead to a lack of self-control. It’s interesting to look at the range of emotions that activate the brain’s reward system and lead us to faulty behavior.

Here are the main emotions that make us crave immediate pleasure:

  • Stress: We all experience stress to some degree. Yet, we all respond differently to stressors. Some people gravitate towards the liquor store when under stress, others shout, while third may completely shut off.
  • Lack of feedback: Receiving feedback about our work, how we look, and who we are as a person fuels our ego. It’s vital for having positive self-esteem and internal balance. However, when we don’t receive any feedback for an extended period, there are consequences. We start to doubt ourselves, our motivation diminishes, and our enthusiasm disappears.1
  • Boredom: Being unstimulated is probably at the top of your list of things you don’t wish to ever experience. Technically speaking, being alive today means that you never have to deal with boredom – there are more than a million YouTube channels, and new trendy TV shows are popping up every quarter. Yet, compulsively watching “stuff” all the time negatively affects a lot of other areas of your life.
  • Negative emotions: Anger or sadness quickly arm us with an unescapable desire to crave bad things – alcohol, cigarettes, sugar, and even drugs. Regardless of how disciplined you think you are, hot emotions like rage can make you forget your moral code and push you to do some nasty things.
  • Positive emotions: Yes, even positive emotions can lead to the decay of willpower. Usually, this happens: you accomplish a goal, you go out to celebrate, you use the event as an excuse to indulge in a drinking frenzy. And here, reaching a milestone can be anything: from completing a project to simply surviving till the end of the work week. This type of behavior is also known as self-licensing – we license ourselves to act foolishly after doing something positive.

While these are the main triggers, there are others: procrastination, a lack of second-order thinking, and a desire for external validation.

Gosh, I know. It seems like everything can trigger self-destructive cravings.

So, how do we handle all of this?

Here are some instructions…

Steps How To Improve Self-Discipline

Progress needs determination. It needs concentration. It needs time. And most importantly, progress needs the ability to delay gratification and avoid temptations.

All of these things sound logical. Yet, they are quite difficult to do when we have a stressful day at the office, our spouse is acting strange, or our kids are roaring.

The expectation to act diligently in a chaotic environment looks like a mirage when we are emotionally weak.

Is there a way we can persist despite our emotional wounds? Can we improve our self-discipline even when we are currently no better than a sloth? Can we cultivate self-discipline in the face of our Netflix binge-watching habits?

Yes, yes, and perhaps even yes!

The online world abounds with tips and tricks on how to improve self-discipline. But suffocating yourself with a ton of advice won’t do you any good.

I’ve selected the following action steps that will be enough for you to elevate your self-discipline and escape the “No Self-Control” club.

1. Leverage Self-awareness

improve-self-discipline-with-self-awareness
If we continuously check on ourselves during the day. We can catch ourselves when we are underperforming and thus correct our inferior behavior.

We undermine the power of self-awareness.

People are aware of their location and what they are doing. But fail to see beyond these surface-level facts.

The real power of self-awareness consists of two things:

  1. Comparing yourself to standards.
  2. Self-regulation.

When we develop a deep understanding of our emotions, triggers, strengths, weaknesses, and values. We can check if our current behaviors align with these self-created standards. From there, we can regulate ourselves to follow our own inner values instead of obeying external factors trying to diminish our progress.

Personally, I think that we progressively fail at monitoring our behavior because we never exit the consumer phase. We are so preoccupied with checking stuff that we forget to check on ourselves.

Our ability to monitor our behavior is heavily reduced because we are engrossed in digital consumption. And as self-awareness declines, self-control declines as well. From there, all kinds of negative consequences are observed: excessive drinking, smoking, shopping, eating, damaged attention, and procrastination.

Even if we do happen to disengage from the vile activities for a moment – which will re-activate our self-awareness. We’re usually so disgusted by what we have done that we want to quickly get back to consumption – which temporarily relieves us from the emotional discomfort.2

Being self-aware means knowing where you should be in relation to your standards. When you are constantly checking on yourself. You can spot deviations from your standards. Thus, course-correct to get back on track.

2. Orderly Habits Improve Self-Discipline

improve-self-discipline-with-orderly-habits
“I thrive in chaos”, is a myth. Order and tidiness allow us to progress.

How do you feel when your desk is a mess? When piles of clothes and toys are scattered around the house?

Most people start to feel disorganized and even stressed – a study on the topic suggests.3

Conversely, think about how motivated you are to tackle your to-do list when your home, desk, and even the files on your computer are well organized.

Most likely, you’ll get a nice mood boost. You’ll feel more inspired to tackle the task and overall gain a sense of productivity.

For many people, disorder often leads to a lack of productivity paired with anxiety. Meaning that keeping your surrounding environment clean and tidy is essential for your overall progress in the world.

However, there is one problem…

To have a clean and organized home, you need to expend energy. And as I mentioned in my article on self-discipline challenges. The more stuff you do, the more your power decreases along with your willpower – it gets depleted.

So, is it worth constantly arranging your surroundings and exhausting energy to keep your home and office well organized?

Yes, and yes.

In the immediate moment, it might seem that you are wasting your time and energy arranging your desk. But in the long run, having a nice, clean office will contribute to a calm and focused mind. Furthermore, you will tend to eat healthier food and have a greater capacity to resist temptations.4

There is a correlation between external order and self-discipline. The cleaner the environment, the higher your self-control.

There is an extra benefit here. When putting things in their places becomes a habit, it becomes an automatic behavior. You don’t have to make a conscious decision on whether you will arrange your desk at the end of the day or not. You simply do it. All of this doesn’t require much mental energy.

3. Having a Healthy Distraction

improve-self-discipline-with-healthy-distractions
There are different type of distractions when a task feels particularly hard. Sadly, we usually fall for the ones that undermine our condition.

The mind needs something to endure the dreary monotony of our everyday existence.

Typically, that something leads to our downfall. We gravitate towards consumerism – eating, doomscrolling, listening to music, playing video games, etc. Basically, everything that relieves us from the dullness of our routine activities.

However, there is an alternative way to handle the tedious regularity of our daily lives.

That is, fixating on something external. A person or an outcome that will be unlocked if you manage to handle the current obstacles.

For instance, if you are buried in work, your mind will do everything possible to convince you to check your phone or eat a candy bar. Both things will give you a nice dopamine boost, but distract you from what you should be doing.

Instead of doing these things, you can fixate on how good you will feel when you are at home with your family, for example. You can look at a photograph of your kids, and use this as motivation to push through the wretched tasks that require your attention.

Another example is if a particular project is taking longer than expected. Instead of abandoning it for something newer and shinier. You can remind yourself why you started in the first place. Use this vision as a beacon to renew your motivation.

In the famous marshmallow experiment. The children who kept looking at the marshmallow were the ones who failed. Their willpower was quickly depleted because they kept staring at the candy.

The ones who succeeded and got two marshmallows distracted themselves. They either started doing something else or covered their eyes. Who knows, they probably even envisioned the prize at the end of the experiment – getting two marshmallows.

The point here is simple, things will get tough. When things get tough, you will want to feel better. Instead of crippling your progress by involving yourself in immediate pleasures, have a healthy distraction. A reminder of how your life will get better if you push through the current situation.

4. Healthy Comparisons

When you compare yourself to someone who is slightly better, you feel motivated, as opposed to when you compare to someone who is rich and all-powerful.

A big reason why we give up far too soon. Fall into despair and abandon healthy practices that can significantly improve our condition, it’s not because things are hard per se. But because we are doing these things in a vacuum.

It isn’t necessarily difficulty that sinks us. It’s the lack of a supportive environment and healthy comparisons.

Usually, comparing yourself with others is considered bad. And it is bad. It’s bad because we tend to make unhealthy comparisons. For example:

  • We look at material possessions.
  • We look at the highlights shared on social media.
  • We look at job titles.
  • We look at physical appearance.

However, we can turn this around and focus on a different set of comparisons.

For example, we can:

  • Compare your spending habits.
  • Compare your career progress.
  • Compare your fitness routine.
  • Compare how your time is allocated.

How is this helpful?

A study about energy consumption did the following experiment: people received information on the energy consumption of their neighbors. When folks who were consuming more than average saw the lower bills of others, they started to cut their consumption. The average energy use declined by around 2 percent, and the savings were sustained for many months.5

If you plan to stick to a workout regime, you can compare yourself to someone who is slightly better than you. As you progress, you can then start comparing yourself to someone better than the previous person.

It’s not wise to compare yourself to someone who is world-class at fitness. This will only discourage you. Set realistic goals and adjust them as you move forward.

What else?

Well, there is one more thing about healthy comparisons.

You can feel even more motivated to persist in a healthy daily practice when you start openly sharing what you do.

You might cringe every time you see someone posting a picture from the gym. But since we care more about what other people know about us, the practice of sharing your activities can help you make a desired behavior sustainable.

5. Predicting Your Irrationality

When you compare yourself to someone who is slightly better, you feel motivated as opposed to when you compare to someone who is rich and all-powerful.
You will go a long way if you take some time to predict how you will act under various emotional conditions.

A key factor harming our ability to exert self-discipline is our tendency to overpredict how rational we will be.

For example, imagine that you want to stop eating sugary foods. You wake up one day feeling particularly heavy, and you declare that you’ll (finally) adopt better eating habits. However, despite how good this sounds, a couple of hours later – when hunger finds you – you start to crave your usual meal with extra sugar.

Psychologists call this the hot-cold empathy gap – also referred to as simply the empathy gap.6

The hot-cold empathy gap is a cognitive bias where we underestimate the influence of the fundamental urges we have as humans – i.e., hunger, thirst, love, sexual arousal, drug cravings for the drugs one is addicted to, physical pain, and desire for revenge.7

Let’s look at why it’s called the hot-cold empathy gap to understand this concept better.

When you are in a “hot” state concerning hunger, your stomach is growling, you feel tension, you are impatient, and there is also a gnawing sensation that signals a strong need for food. In other words, you want food right now, and you are careless about your future desire to become the next ripped Instagram model.

However, when we make dietary plans, we are usually in a “cold” state. We are fed, well-rested, calm, and uninfluenced by strong emotions – i.e., we have the capacity to apply reason and logic.

In simple terms, the empathy gap aims to explain why we fail to apply our plans for better habits. Well, because we fail to take into account the power of emotions and how these push us toward sinful paths.

But can we do something to tackle this seemingly impossible feat – resisting our strongest emotions?

Yes.

It starts with not trusting what you say during a “cold” state.

It’s easy to declare that you’ll no longer eat chocolate right after visiting a chocolate factory – you are full, after all. However, a couple of days later – hours even – you are back adding various flavors of chocolate to your shopping cart.

Instead of ruining your favorite notebook by noting plans that will never come true. Write down how you feel, and usually act, when you are in one of the visceral states – i.e., hungry, thirsty, aroused, craving drugs or other substances that you are addicted to, angry, nervous, and even bored.

Since all of these states can completely remove critical thinking when making a decision. You need to take some time to investigate how you behave when you are at the peak of impulsivity – totally out of control.

Once you know, you can prepare in advance. You can create a plan that not only tells you what you should do – exercise, for example – but also what you shouldn’t do – avoid places/activities that unlock the beast in you.

Some Closing Thoughts

It’s easy to talk about self-discipline. It’s hard to have self-discipline.

We are tailored to want comfort. And to run away from discomfort.8

From a practical point of view, this makes a lot of sense. Our human instinct wants quick access to a fridge full of high-calorie meals because such types of food can ensure our survival in the present moment.

But while our instincts are great for picking the best for the body in the immediate moment. This is usually bad for our long-term success.

So, how to improve self-discipline?

Here’s a revolutionary idea: instead of adding more items, foods, or stuff in general, that only makes it harder for you to resist the pull toward these things. Start by removing the junk from your life.

Yes, your brain might scream “emergency” when you are about to discontinue your Netflix subscription. But the real emergency here is the answer you will get when you ask yourself this: “Why do I tend to eat bags of chips while binge-watching mediocre shows?”

Initially, you might answer, “Because chips taste good and Netflix is the greatest entertainment platform in the world and you should take that back!”

In reality, though, your inability to escape the cozy embrace of the couch is a form of escapism. That is, you distract yourself with “things” to avoid taking responsibility for your life.

Whether facing career dissatisfaction or other stressors. Nowadays, there are countless things that offer comfort and a break from reality.

In other words, to improve self-discipline. You need to face reality head-on. Understand the root causes of dissatisfaction in your life and take full responsibility for your actions.

Trouble Saying No to Temptations?

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Add to your self-discipline toolset by reading the following:


Footnotes:

  1. There’s a lot more here to unpack. I’ve covered everything in my piece: The Lack of Feedback: The Main Reason You Quit. Check it out, here.
  2. That’s why people who have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol want to start drinking as soon as possible. When they sober up, they recognize how dumb they acted. Thus, they want to escape these thoughts by getting drunk again.
  3. McMains, S., & Kastner, S. (2011). Interactions of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in human visual cortex. The Journal of neuroscience: the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31(2), 587–597. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3766-10.2011
  4. Vohs, K. D., Redden, J. P., & Rahinel, R. (2013). Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, and Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity. Psychological Science, 24(9), 1860-1867. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613480186
  5. Ayres, I., Raseman, S. and Shih, A. (2009) Evidence from two large field experiments that peer comparison feedback can reduce residential energy usage, NBER. Available at: https://www.nber.org/papers/w15386
  6. Empathy gap. The Decision Lab. Available at: https://thedecisionlab.com/biases/empathy-gap
  7. Loewenstein, G. (1996). Out of Control: Visceral Influences on Behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 65(3), 272-292. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1006/obhd.1996.0028
  8. That’s why discomfort training is essential for your ability to move up in the world.
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