5 Ways to Build Self-Discipline: The Executive Functioning Skill of Self-Control

Why is Self-Discipline Important? 

We all have goals that we want to reach. Maybe we want to complete a project at work or lose a few pounds. How can we say no to a plate of cookies or binge watching our favorite show instead of working? Self-discipline is a vital part of reaching goals whether it be changing eating habits, being more productive at work, or completing projects around the house. Self-discipline is a facet of the Big-5 trait of conscientiousness and is associated with healthy behaviors such as eating healthy and driving safely (Hagger-Johnson & Whiteman 2007). 


Self-discipline has proven helpful in the workplace. A 2020 study used a sample of 147 salespeople to examine the relationship between self-discipline, tenure, and work performance. Researchers found that the higher a person’s self-discipline, the more strongly their tenure predicted sales performance (Kückelhaus, Blickle, Titze, & Wihler 2020). Employees who had tenure and high self-discipline had high sales compared to those with low self-discipline. 


How is Self-Discipline Measured?

Self-discipline in adults is measured as part of executive functioning, cognitive skills like memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-control. As an example, try the following survey. Rate the following statements from  (0-rarely or not at all, 1=sometimes, 2=often, and 3=very often) (Barkely & Murphy 2011): 


People who have a lower score on these items are said to have higher self-discipline. If you rated these statements at a 3, you may need to work on your self-discipline practices. Keep reading to learn about ways to build stronger self-discipline.  

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How to Improve Your Self-Discipline

It is no secret that self-discipline is hard. Although it may seem impossible to change your level of self-control, it is possible. Here are 5 science backed ways to improve your self-discipline. 


1. Physical Activity 

A study at Macquarie University involved twenty four undergraduate students completing a 2-month regular exercise program. Researchers found that “participants who exercised showed significant improvement in self-regulatory capacity”(Oaten & Cheng 2006). These participants also “reported significant decreases in perceived stress, emotional distress, smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption, and an increase in healthy eating, emotional control, maintenance of household chores, attendance to commitments, monitoring of spending and an improvement in study habits” (Oaten & Cheng 2006). Exercising led to an increase in other healthy habits that stem from having self-discipline. 


This link between self-discipline and physical exercise has been shown in multiple studies. In a 2012 study the sample was 482 men going into the military. Self-control was positively associated with physical activity (Kinnunen, Suihko, Hankonen, Absetz, & Jallinoja 2012). Try to be active by walking more or doing a simple workout if you are lacking experience in the gym.


2. Increase Your Blood Glucose Level

Having self-control or practicing self-discipline is a big ask when you are tired. Glucose fuels the body and a lack of fuel leads to lower performance. A review of the relevant literature shows that “self-control failures are more likely when glucose is low or cannot be mobilized effectively to the brain (i.e., when insulin is low or insensitive)” and “restoring glucose to a sufficient level typically improves self-control” (Gailliot & Baumeister 2007). 


Due to the difficulty of self-discipline, you need to have the cognitive resources to be able to practice this skill. You can increase your blood glucose level by eating or drinking. Practicing self-discipline can be hard when your body is running on empty. Remember to keep healthy snacks or drinks on hand in order to fuel your body and mind. 

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3. Increase Self-Compassion and Self-Awareness

Many view self-discipline as constantly being strict or harsh with yourself. However, self-discipline improves when you are kind to yourself. A 2017 study used a sample of 158 undergraduate students (85% identified as female). The participants completed a 2 week intervention that focused on self-compassion. The intervention consisted of three 90 minute sessions which had short lectures, mindfulness and self-compassion exercises, and group discussions. Participants were also given audio guides to mindfulness and self-compassion between sessions (Dundas, Binder, Hansen, & Stige 2017). 


One handy way to practice self-compassion on the go is with personal growth app LIFE Intelligence. For example, instead of beating yourself over a regret, you can find therapy exercises that walk you through self-compassion journaling.


The intervention-group showed improvements in personal growth self-efficacy and healthy impulse-control. They also had reduced self-judgment and negative self-directed thinking. Finally, the intervention group improved their anxiety and depression (Dundas et. al 2017). 


4. Use Implementations Intentions 

Implementation intentions are “if-then” statements when attempting to eat less. In a study on implementation intentions and dieting, participants were told: “Please tell yourself: ‘And if I think about my chosen food, then I will ignore that thought!’” (Achtziger, Gollwitzer, & Sheeran 2008). In the study “participants who formed if-then plans achieved their goal, unlike participants with equivalent goal intentions who did not plan” (Achtziger et. al 2008). Creating “if-then” statements can help you achieve goals related to practicing self-control. 


To create an “if-then” statement, think about a possible obstacle to your goal. In this study, an obstacle was having a craving about a certain food. If your goal is to go on a walk everyday, a possible obstacle may be not having enough time. An “if-then” statement in this situation may be “If I do not have enough time for a walk, then I will do 10 squats”. 


Try it for yourself:

  1. What is a goal that you would like to achieve?
  2. What is a possible obstacle?
  3. What is a possible alternative activity or solution to that problem? 

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5. Increase Self-Awareness

Famous studies like the Marshmallow task tended to test self-control in children, examining their ability to wait before eating candy. One study tested the effect of self-awareness on self-control by placing a mirror behind a bowl of candy. Each child was told to only take one piece. Children that were asked their name and address only took one piece compared to those who were left anonymous (Beaman, Klentz, Diener, & Svanum 1979).


Self-awareness can also improve self-discipline for adults. A 2011 study at Maastricht

University, with a sample of 80 undergraduates, aimed to find the impact of self-awareness on participants who had been depleted of cognitive resources (who were tired or worn out mentally). Participants who were exposed to a self-awareness prime did not have a decrease on a self-control task compared to participants who were exposed to a neutral prime who then had a decrease score on the self-control task (Alberts, Martijn, & de Vries 2011). (Priming is a phenomenon in psychology whereby exposure to one stimulus subconsciously influences a response to a subsequent stimulus. For example, the word NURSE is recognized more quickly following the word DOCTOR than following the word BREAD.)


Typically after cognitive resource depletion, decreased self-control is expected. However, in this study participants who increased self-awareness retained self-control abilities. 

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Self-Discipline with LIFE

The LIFE Intelligence app is an all-in-one self-therapy app for your self, career, and relationships. It’s a comprehensive guide to help you achieve goals, manage emotions, and build lasting relationships. The LIFE app can increase your self-awareness and self-control, especially emotional control, when issues or conflicts affect your focus. The program encompasses a 9-Mission (topic) self-development course, as well as an emotional management toolkit. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, self-compassion, and meditation encompass less than 1% of all the information you’ll find in LIFE: that’s how holistic it is. 


Mission 1 of 9 is focused on mastering your mind. This means first recognizing thoughts, feelings, and emotions, then reframing cognitive distortions


Mission 2 focuses on developing self-awareness. In this mission you will be provided with prompts to encourage self-reflection on your strengths, weakness, and tendencies so you can know yourself deeply. 


LIFE also has a focus on “if-then” statements, which were mentioned above. Mission 3 and 4 discuss goal-setting and time-management. You can plan future scenarios, get really clear on your “why,” and understand the different types of distractions and how to handle each. 

 

In Mission 3.6 you will learn to make contingency plans when setting goals. For example, “if I’m shot on time, I’ll just do 20 sit-ups before bed”. You will then be given the opportunity to set your own goals and write “if-then” statements regarding possible obstacles. Try LIFE Intelligence: for your self-discipline, and overall self-development.

LIFE Intelligence: Learn & Grow


Alba Corney
March 22, 2021

References

Achtziger, A., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2008). Implementation Intentions and Shielding Goal Striving From Unwanted Thoughts and Feelings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(3), 381–393. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167207311201

Alberts, H., Martijn, C., & de Vries, N. (2011). Fighting self-control failure: Overcoming ego depletion by increasing self-awareness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(1), 58–62. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2010.08.004

Barkley, R., & Murphy, K. (2011). The Nature of Executive Function (EF) Deficits in Daily Life Activities in Adults with ADHD and Their Relationship to Performance on EF Tests. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 33(2), 137–158. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10862-011-9217-x

Beaman, A. L., Klentz, B., Diener, E., & Svanum, S. (1979). Self-awareness and transgression in children: Two field studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(10), 1835–1846. https://doi-org.ezproxy.depaul.edu/10.1037/0022-3514.37.10.1835

Dundas, I., Binder, P., Hansen, T. G. B., & Stige, S. H. (2017). Does a short self-compassion intervention for students increase healthy self-regulation? A randomized control trial. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 58(5), 443–450. https://doi-org.ezproxy.depaul.edu/10.1111/sjop.12385

Gailliot, M. T., & Baumeister, R. F. (2007). The Physiology of Willpower: Linking Blood Glucose to Self-Control. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11(4), 303–327. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868307303030

Hagger-Johnson, G., & Whiteman, M. (2007). Conscientiousness facets and health behaviors: A latent variable modeling approach. Personality and Individual Differences, 43(5), 1235–1245. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2007.03.014

Kinnunen, M. I., Suihko, J., Hankonen, N., Absetz, P., & Jallinoja, P. (2012). Self-Control is Associated with Physical Activity and Fitness among Young Males. Behavioral Medicine, 38(3), 83–89. https://doi-org.ezproxy.depaul.edu/10.1080/08964289.2012.693975

Kückelhaus, B., Blickle, G., Titze, J., & Wihler, A. (2020). Self-discipline and protective self-monitoring in sales: A latent growth curve analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 167, 110225–. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110225

Oaten, M., & Cheng, K. (2006). Longitudinal gains in self‐regulation from regular physical exercise. British Journal of Health Psychology, 11(4), 717–733. https://doi.org/10.1348/135910706X96481


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