It seems like at least once a week someone will ask me about how to be disciplined when it comes to having a better diet and/or sticking with an exercise routine. A lot of the time the genesis is around not having the will power to give up a poor diet, TV, or some other vice. If you search around the web on the topic, there are many articles and blogs about how to learn to exercise and make stronger “will power muscles” to accomplish goals. The problem with most of that is that the issue is not being disciplined, but rather having enough motivation. This applies to life in general, not just fitness.
Confusing Discipline and Motivation
The problem is with the concept of discipline itself: if you do not feel like doing something, how do you force yourself via discipline to do it? Since most people do not do what they do not want to do, they end up beating themselves up for failing to have discipline. Various discipline self-help books will give tips along the lines of “visualizing the results you want” as a way to build “discipline muscles,” but that is not an example of discipline; rather, that is a form of motivation. Most of the self-help suggestions fall along the same lines – end up being about motivation, not discipline.
Being “disciplined” often is a synonym for wanting to become consistent, i.e. being disciplined about exercise usually is the desire to be consistent about exercise. It is not about discipline, but rather about building habits that become part of a lifestyle.
So, how do you build habits? Start with setting a clear, achievable goal; achieve it; build on there with more goals. Have SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely) goals: clearly defined (and reasonable) goals with a timeframe are more likely to be achieved than generic ones. So, “eat better” or “lose weight” are not SMART goals. Rather, “lose 15 lbs in the next 3 months” is. By having a clearly defined goal, it is much easier to create steps/actions that become habits to achieve that goal.
Another key is that these goals also have to be goals you are motivated to do – and more highly motivated to do versus the alternatives. If you previously have failed over many diets to maintain fat loss because you keep eating a diet of sugary foods, it reflects that your desire for Oreos is stronger than your desire for better health. People beat themselves up unnecessarily about this. I have known smokers who have tried several times to quit smoking; they try to quit because they are nagged by family or their doctor to do so for health reasons. For many of these folks, they are not successful because they, themselves, are not motivated to do so. One smoker I knew enjoyed smoking (beyond the addictive nature of it) because it enabled breaks from stressful office work, hanging out with his buddies, and informally networking with others at work who also smoked. So, even though he knew he should not be smoking, he always went back to it because deep down he was not motivated to stop because of the perceived benefits he was enjoying associated with the breaks. Likewise at the gym, I regularly see people getting ready for various types of competitions often not make it because the need to be extremely consistent about diet and exercise is difficult. Again, many will be upset with themselves that they lack discipline when the reality what they lacked was enough motivation. Those that do make it are typically extremely motivated, not “disciplined,” to resist impulses to skip the gym or eat foods not on the diet plan.
Beyond fitness, the same applies for real life. To regularly accomplish big goals, you need to make a habit of choosing non-easy choices. Throughout the day, every day, we are faced with making little decisions about work, fitness, finances, etc. Many of these decisions are not that important, but some require choosing what is good for us versus what is easy. Regularly making the choice for the harder or riskier paths over time determine how likely you are to accomplish your biggest goals. Consistently taking the easy route is not normally going to lead to changes and that leads to a life of wondering “what if?” and mediocrity.