A while back I sent out a survey to my blog readers to learn more about the challenges and problems they face in achieving their health and wellness goals. In one of the questions, I asked why they thought a particular area of health was so challenging. One of the responses I got simply said, “Romans 7:15”.
Of course, this made me immediately grab my Bible to figure out what this person was talking about. Here’s the verse (in the NLT version):
“I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.”
Paul goes on to say in future verses things like, “I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway…I have discovered this principle of life – that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong…there is another power within me that is at war with my mind…Oh, what a miserable person I am!”
This is like the epitome of being human. I don’t know anyone who could read that section of verses without nodding their head in full agreement. Even if you’re not a Christian, the principle that when you want to do what is right but inevitably do what is wrong is probably something you’ve experienced in your own life in some capacity.
In nearly every area of life, it is not more knowledge that we need. We know what is right and good. We know what to do. The issue is not even desiring to do the right thing. The problem we have is getting our actions to match what our minds are trying to tell us to do!
We need to figure out how to develop the self-discipline that is required to overcome our human nature and train ourselves to do what we know we need to do.
Here are some practical things we can do in our everyday lives that will help us develop self-discipline and the power to do what we know is the right thing to do in the situations we face.
Recognize your weaknesses and temptations
If you were to put me in a room filled with chocolate, say a chocolate fountain, and chocolate brownies, and chocolate cookies, and bars, and all the chocolate things you can imagine I would be unfazed. I’d actually probably start feeling somewhat queasy and I’d quickly begin looking for the nearest exit.
I hate chocolate. Chocolate is not a weakness or a temptation for me in any way.
I know, I’m crazy. People tell me this all the time. But the point is, chocolate has zero power over me. Even when I try to like it, I just can’t figure out what it is that everyone thinks is so incredible about it.
On the other hand, if you put me in a room filled with cheese, we’d have an entirely different situation. Let’s say we have a queso fountain surrounded by plenty of chips and fries. We’d also have authentic Wisconsin cheese curds, a heavy duty sprinkle of cheese on every savory food imaginable. There’d be pizza with all the cheeses. We’d have cream cheeses and tart cheeses and stinky cheeses. And All. The. Cheese.
Well then, my friends, I would be in heaven. I’d eat and eat and eat and enjoy all of the precious delicious bites until I was well beyond queasy.
I know my weaknesses and temptations and cheese is most certainly one of them.
This applies to every area of your life. Pay attention to what tempts you to make poor choices. Notice the times when good decision making feels that hardest.
While we can do hard things we can also just make the wise decision to avoid putting ourselves in situations and circumstances that require us to work so hard. If chocolate is your weakness, don’t go to the chocolate room. Stick to this advice both literally and metaphorically. Don’t go where the temptations are.
Have Specific Goals and Action Plans
I run every single day and I’ve made it my goal to run a race of at least a half marathon distance every 3 months. While I do enjoy running and I really love earning medals at the end of each race, I don’t actually do these things because of my deep love and addiction to running.
The reason I run every day and the reason I regularly run long races is because I desire to be healthy, fit, and strong. I can want to be healthy, fit, and strong all day, but unless I actually do something about it, I know that I won’t be. If I set a goal of “improve my health” or “get stronger” I’d struggle with fits and starts and never really make much progress. I know this because I’ve tried this approach in the past.
But when I set specific goals like run at least one mile every single day, no excuses. And I set a goal to run at least one half marathon every 3 months, then things are a little more specific and a little easier to follow. If I then also sit down and map out a running schedule that will make sure that I am well-trained to run these quarterly half marathons then all I have to do is show up and do the work.
Yes, we’ve said that showing up and doing the work is the hardest part. However, have you ever tried to “show up and do the work” when you had no idea what it was you were actually supposed to be doing? Instead, set specific goals and then create an action plan to follow so that when it’s time to get to work all you have to do is show up and get working.
Self-Discipline is a Muscle
The strength of your self-discipline depends on how much you use it. It works very much like a muscle. The more your “train” yourself to be disciplined the stronger your discipline will be. Alternatively, the more you try to force and strain yourself into submission when you haven’t gradually worked up to it, the more you will exhaust and deplete yourself, making worse decisions.
Use small, consistent habits to build the strength of your self-discipline. Don’t expect overnight success in huge areas. Slow and steady growth is more likely.
The exciting thing is that there is a compounding effect on your self-discipline practice. When you start improving your life in one area, other areas of your life are likely to follow suit. If you start making small changes to improve your physical health you might notice that you start improving your work at the office as well.
Eat right and regularly.
Whether your goals are health-related or not, what and when you eat can have a huge impact on your ability to make good decisions.
If you haven’t eaten in a while you are more likely to get hangry (hungry + angry). I have yet to meet a hangry person capable of making rational, good choices.
Your mind is also affected by the type of food you eat. When we stuff ourselves with junk food instead of food that fuels our bodies well we can suffer from mental fog, irritability, inability to focus, lethargy, and more. Make sure that the fuel you are putting in your body supports and empowers you to make the best decisions.
Watch your mouth.
In addition to what you put in your mouth, you also want to pay attention to what is coming out of your mouth. The words you say (or think) about yourself can make a huge difference in your ability to be disciplined.
In the past, I would constantly say “I am not a disciplined person.” I could point out all the ways that I failed to be disciplined in my life. I had proof! It wasn’t an excuse, I was just pointing out the facts.
But then I had a coach call me out. I was trying to get her to understand that I’m not a very disciplined person. I gave her my list of reasons and evidence. I thought I was making a really strong case for myself. And then she pointed out that I run every single day. Not exactly something that an undisciplined person could claim.
So I made the decision to stop saying that I’m not a disciplined person. Every time the thought crossed my mind I’d stop myself and say “no, I actually am a very disciplined person.” And ever so slowly I started to believe that message. I could still point out the reasons why I could think that I’m not disciplined, but I’ve recognized that this doesn’t serve me.
You may not run every day, so perhaps you think you don’t have any evidence that you’re disciplined. Not so fast. You see, you will live out the truths that you believe. Does it serve you to believe that you are not disciplined? Probably not. Instead, choose to believe that you are, and then look for all the evidence you can find to prove it to yourself. It’s there.
There is no perfect.
Until you get to heaven there will be no perfection. You will continue to sometimes be disciplined and sometimes make poor choices. It is all about the transformational journey.
Don’t expect to always make the best choices. Do your best to do what you know you want to do. And when you mess up, as you surely will, just pick yourself up and keep moving forward. You have only failed if you give up completely. Everything else is just an opportunity to learn and grow. Pay attention, notice, and look for ways to do differently in the future.
Today’s Action Step
Developing self-discipline will be a process that lasts your entire life, but you can make great strides to become a more disciplined person with intentionality and effort. Start with something small that you can commit to. Decide in advance what you will do, when you will do it, and how. Then honor that commitment as often as you can. Avoid known temptations and weaknesses, and know that you won’t be perfect.