Micro Self-Discipline: How Small Wins Lead to Big Rewards

So you’ve read all the major articles on self-discipline. You’ve prepared a big fat overview of the upcoming year in an expensive journal. You’ve listened to the latest podcasts on the topic of willpower. You even went as far as attending a seminar full of ambitious people to talk how ambitions you all are. Yet, despite all of this enthusiastic desire for self-betterment, you remain blissfully ignorant of your blind spots, which prevents you from progressing.

What is wrong? Why are you still not a self-discipline ninja like everyone on your Instagram feed?

You are not David Goggins for sure. But you are not a typical procrastinator, either. You have a plan for what you want to do, you read books, you eat (kinda) well and (kinda) exercise and (usually) don’t spend more than an hour on TikTok. Why aren’t you still giga rich and sexy when you unshirt yourself?

Well, people all around the world reading, the reason is the following:

It’s not about the big things we aspire to achieve. It’s about the small, consistent things we do every day that contribute to our progress.

As there are micro habits, there are also micro acts of self-discipline that play a major part in how our lives will turn out.

If you want to learn more about the magic of micro self-discipline, do this: Grab your extravagant journal, ruin it by scratching everything you fantasized about that probably ain’t going to happen, and get ready to note down the things that can actually move the needle.

Thanks to the concept I am going to share below, you will finally have a chance against the infinite scroll whispering your name in an attempt to derail your life.

What is Micro Self-Discipline?

We are typically encouraged to think big about our lives. The job title, the house we want to spend decades repaying, the places we want to visit…

This grandiosity prevents us from tailoring how our day-to-day existence should look. What will we do on a micro level.

Micro self-discipline is about being mindful of how you act in the small moments that constitute our lives. It’s about getting to the micro level, finding what types of small daily acts sabotage your progress, and then making appropriate changes.

If self-discipline is recognized as the overall ability to control your impulses, micro self-discipline is your ability to behave in a particular way. Choose discomfort over comfort in the small daily moments of your life.

I know, this probably sounds way too abstract and unactionable. So, to make sense of this concept and understand the importance of micro self-discipline, here’s an example:

Micro Self-Discipline Examples

Your perception of yourself can be quite deceiving. You might think you are doing alright on a macro level, but you can totally suck on a micro level.

Or, as Richard Feynman famously said:

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” Richard P. Feynman

Here’s an example from my personal life…

A couple of years ago, somewhere when I started this site, I believed that I was a thoughtful person. I considered myself as someone who is quite good at being disciplined and result-oriented.

Daily, I did things that aligned with my long term-goals. That is, to become a writer who exercises daily. I wanted to make my site big while also taking care of my body, mind, and spirit (yeah, I know!). I read books, I journaled, I exercised, I attended seminars, I even commented on other people’s blogs to showcase my dedication to self-improvement.

And while I was actively engaged in all of these self-betterment activities, I was still overweight, and my site was still disturbingly unpopular. While I defaulted to blaming others for my misfortunes, the actual reason I was unable to reach my desired state was due to the mistakes I’ve made on a micro level.

Here are some specifics:

  • Right after a 5 km run, I used to consume food that was the equivalent of running 15 km – something I didn’t do.
  • When I sat down to write for my site, I kind of did everything besides writing: checking social media, responding to emails, watching “inspirational” videos, etc.
  • When the weekend arrived, I gave myself a full access pass to all the activities that I normally restrict myself from during the weekdays – drinking, oversleeping, eating whatever, etc.

On a macro level, I was (kinda) disciplined. Enough to fool myself into thinking I was doing the right things. On a micro level, though, my undisciplined actions were far more frequent than my disciplined ones.

Graphs aiming to represent how making progress can be useless if you  remain undisciplined in other areas of your life.
Just because I regularly exercised didn’t mean that I made progress in terms of getting fit. I remained overweight because I was unable to restrict myself from all the other micro activities that added to my weight.

Transitioning from an undisciplined person to a disciplined one can be daunting. But it’s way harder when you wholeheartedly believe you are disciplined, but the reality is that you are constantly misbehaving.

In the example above, what I actually needed to focus on – which I finally do – where these things:

  • Not only exercising, but removing the junk food from my apartment.
  • Not only sitting to write, but ensuring that I’m producing words during my whole writing session.
  • Not only not drinking during the workweek, but not drinking in general.
  • Not only abstaining from using social media occasionally, but quitting social media for good.

Given how I just described the above, it might seem that these are one-off events.

However, that can’t be further from the truth. Let’s get a bit deeper…

How Micro Self-Discipline Works

Your plans for continuous progress are only possible if you are continuously engaged in doing the right things.

And doing the right things on a daily basis is where it gets tough.

Let’s unpack this part based on the example from the above section:

Not only sitting to write, but ensuring that I’m producing words during my whole writing session.

Presented that way, it looks easy. You just sit and write. However, in the moment of writing, things are far from perfect.

Sure, you can get a couple of minutes of full focus, but your mind will eventually try to lure you into doing other activities that offer instant gratification.

For example, these are just some of the things I was thinking about when I was writing this very article:

  • “I am hungry. I should get something to eat.”
  • “I wonder how my site performed yesterday, let’s check my stats.”
  • “This sentence reminds me of the book Peak by K. Anders Ericsson. I should check my book summary for inspiration.”
  • “I wonder what new movies are releasing soon. I should check online now.”
  • “Will it rain today? Let’s take a look…”
  • “Oh, I just remembered that I have to pay the bills. I wonder how much the electricity bill is this month. I will just open my bank account and make a quick comparison with the last 12 months.”

Usually, I fend off these thoughts and I reengage with my writing. Quite often, though, I tend to go with the flow. I do get up to grab something to eat. Or, I do check something online, which usually leads to checking something else, and then something else… We all know how this turns out: you want to check this “one thing”, but you eventually end up checking all of these other random things.

I call these moments points of distractions.

These are like pesky little thoughts that try to divert you away from what you initially planned to do. If we can represent a task – say, writing – as a straight line, there will be numerous distractions on that line that will try to steer you away from the activity. Here’s how it looks:

A line representing a task. On the line, there are circles that represent common distractions that pop in your head and try to sabotage your progress. One example is: "I want to check my Facebook".
While working on a project, various distractions will try to crush your progress.

These so-called points of distractions can vary. They can be in the form of daydreaming, outside noises, thoughts that aim to engage you in other activities, buzzing devices, or complete productivity butchers like ending up watching a video about writing instead of actually writing.

The funny thing is that you can’t prevent these from happening. Unless you’re a black belt monk or something, your mind will constantly produce thoughts aiming to distract you from your desired activity.

That’s where micro self-discipline enters the scene.

While you can’t slay the source of these productivity-killing thoughts that aim to force you towards experiencing immediate pleasure, what you can do is to remain focused despite them.

A line representing a task. On the line, there are circles that represent common distractions that pop in your head and try to sabotage your progress. One example is: "I want to check my Facebook". Right next to this example, there is another thought stating: "I should keep writing, I can check social media later." This aims to steer your attention back on the main task.
While you can’t completely shut the door to the never-ending stream of thoughts that aim to distract you. What you can do is steer your attention back to the task while promising yourself that you can get distracted at a future moment.

And here’s where it gets tricky:

It’s one thing to say, “I won’t open social media!” before sitting down to write. You feel confident. But that can drastically change when you get exhausted because everything you write sounds like total garbage. When this happens, you start to feel like garbage yourself. And since the main function of the mind is to make you feel good, this will open the doors to a variety of activities offering immediate relief from the emerging negative sensations – a.k.a., start watching funny short videos online.

How to Activate Your Micro Self-Discipline Muscles

Knowing what we know now, how can we modify our thoughts in order to stay disciplined? How can we remain focused on the tasks at hand without constantly checking what’s new in the fridge, online, or in our inboxes?

Well, there are some things we can do. The first one is ditching the desire to become a productivity monk.

Yes, there are plenty of folks online bombarding your Instagram feed with productivity hacks and tools that promise overnight success. But where does this leave you? Perpetually unproductive, right?

Let’s be real, we are not configurable robots who can just sit silent for X amount of minutes being perfectly consumed by a single task. We are flawed overthinkers constantly looking for ways to feel good in the immediate moment.

Self-control looks achievable when presented in brief cinematography by some outspoken online celebrity. But extremely unachievable when you try to apply it in a real-life situation.

What should we do then?

Buckle up, you chubby burrito, because we’re about to explore the mental tricks and psychological warfare needed to conquer the distractions constantly getting us sidetracked.

1. One Step At a Time Mentality

Forget about your grand goal of becoming the next president. Bury the ten-year plan organized in a 37-page Notion template you paid $79 to some random TikToker.

In the moment of action, it’s all about micro-victories.

Think about it, if you are reading a book, or in the process of writing a book, daydreaming about your eventual victory as a writer, a poet, or as mentioned, the president, will only shift you away from what you are currently doing.

I’ve been in this situation many times. I set a goal, and one of these two happens (or usually both of them): I spend hours thinking about the outcome. How good will I feel when I finally reach my destination. Or, I get paralyzed when I start to clearly see how much work I need to do in order to get to where I want.

As you can imagine, both of these are distractions.

Let’s unpack this a bit more, taking the book-writing example…

To actually write and publish a book, you need to first sit your ass on a chair – for a prolonged period of time – and actually put some decent words on a piece of paper.

Sure, the whole thing might take you a year, or two years, or even 10 years. But if that’s what you want to do, in the moment of writing, it’s best to forget about the big goal – finishing the book – and focus on the current action – writing the introduction of chapter 1.

The accumulation of the micro-wins is what leads to the good stuff.

Instead of feeling stressed because the project seems like this Sisyphean boulder push. Think of it like binge-watching your favorite show. After all, you wouldn’t skip straight to the last episode, would you? No, you go through all the episodes, appreciating the character development, the plot twists, and the overall journey.

2. Understanding Your Personal Triggers and Weaknesses

What’s your poison?

What’s the main thing that is pushing your progress off the cliff?

In terms of weight, for me, that was chocolate. I always had a sweet tooth. No matter how much I exercised, thanks to the marvels created by master pastry makers, I remained in a relatively circular shape.

It sucked.

But what was worse is how I approached this. My mindset in terms of exercising was the following: “I train, so I can have enough “room” to eat sugar.”

Once I cut ties with my daily consumption of sweets, things changed. But things changed because I changed my mindset first. That wasn’t easy, either. But after a lot of consideration, I concluded that 20+ years of consuming sugar is kind of enough. Sure, there are benefits, like feeling euphoric when you devour a piece of cake. But the downsides far outweigh the upsides.

This in terms of micro self-discipline consisted of the following:

  • In the mornings, I swapped the donuts for carrot sticks.
  • In the afternoon, I replaced cake and coke with apples and water.
  • In the evenings, I set a rule: don’t eat junk food after 6pm.

Don’t get it twisted, this wasn’t some overnight miracle. It wasn’t a light switch flipped, and suddenly, sugar totally disappeared from my life. No, it was a slow burn, a gradual distancing. Besides, I still occasionally indulge in sweet dishes.

The idea is to empower yourself to make progress despite your weaknesses. Understand what are the main things that are blocking you, and make small adjustments to get ahead.

3. Implementing Reward Systems for Sustained Motivation

The famous pomodoro technique is famous because there is a relatively short reward cycle.

For the unenlightened ones, the pomodoro technique consists of the following: 25 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes of rest.

Why does it work?

Because you ain’t some trained AI bot, responding to all sorts of crazy prompts without delay or time off. You are a human. And humans, if you still don’t know, are wired for rewards.

After all, you don’t work for free. If you don’t receive a paycheck at the end of the month, no matter how rewarding your job feels, you’ll show your boss the finger and move to somewhere where your work translates to dollar bills.

The same is true for when we are in the moment of doing high-intensity work.

While I don’t strictly follow the 25 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes of rest schedule, I do give myself some room to slack off when I am writing. At some point, I just don’t have the stamina to continue. When browsing YouTube videos becomes more and more appealing, and when I catch myself thinking about having a second breakfast, I know it’s time to get a quick break.

Whether you’ll have a strict work/rest schedule is up to you. But note that if you don’t set aside some time to rest when working, you’ll most probably end up doing all kinds of random stuff instead of actually doing work that will move the needle. Thus, it’s best to have some sort of system tailored to your needs to prevent yourself from entering the social media vortex.

Some Closing Thoughts

While our ability to pay attention is getting worse, the prime reason we remain overly unproductive is due to our inability to say no to things on a micro level.

We tell others we are readers, but our reading sessions tend to look like a tennis tournament – our focus ping-pongs between the book and social media, never truly grasping the meaning behind what we’ve just consumed.

In these situations, the following rule applies with full force:

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Just because you can click away from what you are doing and navigate to a website offering a dish of overly distracting feel-good videos, doesn’t mean you should.

Sure, sustaining your attention in an increasingly distracted world often feels mission impossible. But by mixing self-awareness with micro self-discipline, we can steer our thoughts back to our current project while postponing highly stimulating activities until after we’re done with our work.

Or, in other words, the next time you are working on your big project, acknowledge the urge, the flashing notifications, the tempting donut box. Then, take a deep breath and remember why you are doing what you are doing. Use that as fuel to return to your work, leaving the feel-good distractions as a reward when you’re done.

“Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.” Cal Newport

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

Trouble Saying No to Temptations?

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