Pascal Okeke

Is it ever too late to learn self-discipline?

If you adopt a growth mindset way of thinking, you’ll understand that you can make big changes in your life if you commit to continue practicing and getting better at something that’s important to you.

In other words, there’s no time stamp on progress. You can learn anything you set your mind to. How powerful is that?

OK, so now that we’ve answered the question, let’s figure out the answer to a bigger question — how exactly can you learn self-discipline?

In practical ways. Read on to find out how I’ve been practicing it in my daily life, and maybe you’ll find a tip or two that will be helpful to you.


Self-discipline tip #1. Today, make a decision that you are going to own your day.

I just want to be clear about this one — making a decision isn’t about mumbling a few words to yourself, it’s not abstract, and it’s not vague. In fact, it’s more about training your brain to get focused on what it needs to do as soon as you wake up. Here’s how I practice it. I start my day with this question: “What is the one thing I am committed to completing today?” This technique gets my brain to start evaluating the goals that are important to me right now and forces me to prioritize one goal that needs attention immediately. In addition, I give myself the time to think about what’s important in my life, instead of letting other people or situations dictate what I should or shouldn’t be doing.

How can you do this?

Put it in writing. Write it in big bold letters on a sheet of paper and hang it on your bedroom or bathroom wall. Read it out loud as you start your day, for example as you’re brushing your teeth or getting dressed. Come up with an answer on the spot and answer it out loud. Then follow up by taking action: focus your energy throughout the day to completing your one thing.

Self-discipline tip #2. Maximize your willpower instead of ignoring it.

When we wake up to begin our day, it’s common for most of us to feel a sense of overwhelming because there are so many things we need to do, from small routine tasks to working on large projects towards bigger goals, both professional and personal. As a result, our first response might be to delay doing anything (because it’s hard to decide what to do and in what order), which translates into a bad habit of procrastinating. That’s a self-imposed obstacle. Why? Because we all have a finite amount of willpower that takes us through the day. And that willpower gets weaker and weaker as the day progresses. So if you think you’ll start writing that essay after dinner, think again. Chances are you’ll put it off some more and turn to your TV instead.

How can you fix this?

Practicing self-discipline means that if you want to focus on priorities, you should work on them early. As early in the day as possible — in fact, start right after breakfast. Do that task that you’ve been putting off all week before lunchtime. Write up a plan for the school or work week ahead of time. Finish up doing homework or reviewing your exam questions that you’ve been procrastinating on for days because you’d rather do something more fun. The benefit? You gain a sense of accomplishment early that will make you feel better about the whole day.

Self-discipline tip #3. Pick one positive habit, keep it simple, and keep practicing it.

OK, so you’ve figured out that there’s something in your life you’d like to change because you don’t like what you’re currently doing (or not doing). It can be a fitness goal you’d like to reach (start running in the mornings as you used to in university), a health benefit (stop eating dinner in restaurants three times a week), or better manage your time (get more sleep instead of watching BBnaija until 2 a.m.). All those new habits you want to acquire will need self-discipline, time, and repetition. If this sounds unappealing, it’s because you make it sound that way: you feel like you “should” be doing something difficult when you’d rather be relaxing.

How can you fix this?

First, stop telling yourself that keeping a life-changing habit is a way to punish yourself. That’s the wrong attitude to have for anything in your life. If you keep thinking this way, you might give up on many things that can make a huge difference for you. Instead, think of a new habit as a choice that you make in order to become a better version of yourself. And next, make the change as easy as possible by starting with tiny steps. Instead of saying you have to hit the gym for two hours each evening after work, do a mini-workout at home for 10 minutes each day to give your body time to adjust. Or, start going to bed 15 minutes earlier and read a good book or listen to relaxing music to help you fall asleep faster.

Self-discipline tip #4. Learn how to discipline “busy” thoughts that run through your mind.

When I was in my teens, I noticed there were thousands of thoughts bouncing around in my mind. The more I read, absorbed new information in school, talked to my friends, interacted with family members, and observed the world as a young adult, the more confusing everything seemed. I started to awfulize about so many things. What’s worse is that I thought it’s just me! Nobody surely thought this way. And then as I grew up I realized that it’s not just me, it’s all of us. The older we get, the more cognitive input we have, and we often struggle to categorize this input. What’s relevant to our life and what isn’t? Which problem do I need to solve? Is this something I can control, or can I let it go?

How can you fix this?

First, it’s important to be aware that if you feel overwhelmed, have negative or self-critical thoughts, or find yourself ruminating on past events and personal failures, you are not alone. The good news is this: even though you may think about it, you are not your thoughts. You are much bigger than your thoughts! And second, start considering a few habits to reign in those thoughts and categorize them as either relevant or just dramatic. You can start with a 10-minute meditation to calm your thoughts and even slow down the chaos. You can devote 30 minutes a day to being outside in a park or by the pool so you can tune out the busy noise around you. And, you can work on adjusting the mindset you have about your own skills and abilities.

Self-discipline tip #5. Say no to distractions that cause you to lose focus.

If you think that all the gadgets and toys we have at our disposal today are to blame for getting distracted easily, think again. Even the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote about this, and the topic is featured in his book On the Shortness of Life. Yes, distractions and pointless activities were very much a challenge for people in ancient Rome! For example, Seneca describes people’s struggles with gluttony, vanity, focusing on materialistic things, and always trying to impress others. Sound familiar? Maybe today we don’t host lavish banquets where we impress guests with an endless feast of food and wine, but we do pay attention to what’s shown on social media and we observe the images of surreal lifestyles on Facebook or Instagram. And that often leads to feelings of dissatisfaction, envy, and self-criticism.

How can you fix this?

First, if you regularly check Instagram, Facebook, or other social media, make sure you take everything you see and hear with a grain of salt. Chances are those pictures and updates are not a real representation of everyday life, but rather a tactic someone is using to sell a product, service, or brand. And second, don’t waste your time on distractions if they don’t serve the purpose of adding value to your life. Set your phone to Airplane mode when you need to focus, especially in the first few hours of the day. Let people in your inner circle know you won’t be available for a few hours until you get important tasks done.

Check email and social media apps in the afternoons and evening, instead of spending the first 30 minutes of your day on them. The same applies to browse the Internet and reading the daily news while you’re at work — close all tabs on your browser that may be tempting you to unfocus from your top priorities for that day.

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