How do you develop discipline?

This may seem like a strange question for a blog about financial independence. What I’m attempting to get at here is the idea that my first impulse when facing many of the “good for me” things that I need to do in life (financial and otherwise) is to NOT want to do them. I know I should, but I don’t want to, at least not initially.

Take exercise, for example. I exercise almost every day before lunch, typically either running, doing TRX, or using a spin bike. I like exercising, but if I’m honest, many days I don’t feel like it. When it’s time, I think “I could just make lunch and watch something on TV” or something like that. And yet, I almost never skip a workout. How is that?

1. Just do it.

I don’t try to think my way into wanting to do something, I just start doing it. In other words, when I have that thought of not wanting to exercise, I don’t try to think my way to wanting to exercise. Instead, I just put on my sneakers and my exercise clothes and walk downstairs. The whole time, I might be thinking that I don’t want to exercise. I don’t get into an argument with myself about it. I just take the next action towards making it happen.

On a very small scale, I do the same thing with the telephone. I don’t really like to talk on the telephone. So when I have a phone call to make, I don’t try to think my way to wanting to make it. I just start dialing, knowing that when the person picks up, I’ll talk to them.

2. Count it, no matter what.

Another trick I use is to count the thing as long as I start it. I encountered this idea in an article about running — a run counts as long as I lace up my shoes and step outside. I continue to count workouts that same way. Some days, it is much easier to say “well, I’m just going to start and see what happens” than to commit to a full workout. And, if I’m honest, I finish the vast majority of the workouts I start.

I take the same approach with meditation. I often have a voice in my head saying that I don’t have time, or that there’s something else I should be doing, but I just start the timer and sit down, regardless of what my thinking is saying. And I count the session as long as my butt hits the bench.

3. Set yourself up for success, don’t rely on will power.

I don’t think my will power is particularly strong, so I try to make it as easy as possible for me to do the right thing. If I’m trying to exercise, I set up a routine where I do it at the same time every day, and I lower the barriers as much as I can. For me, that means doing it at home (or from home, when I run outside). For others, that might mean joining a group, or committing to a membership.

Similarly, if there’s a behavior that I’m trying to avoid, I make it harder to do. If I’m finding a website to be distracting, I block it. This isn’t irreversible, but it works because it interrupts that first impulse. If I want to eat less ice cream, I don’t keep it in the freezer. If it isn’t in the house, I eat it a lot less.

So what does this have to do with personal finance? I take the same approach there. When I need to cut my spending, or invest more, or rebalance more often, or tune out some bad investment advice, I use the above methods. I don’t try to think my way to wanting to do these things, I just do them, and I set myself up for success (and make failure harder) in whatever ways I can. This can mean automating my contributions to an investment account, automating rebalancing, blocking sites that hype questionable investment or offer tempting purchase, and so on. Perhaps most importantly, it means realizing that I don’t need to listen to the voice in my head. I can hear that voice, whatever it is saying at the time, and still take the appropriate action regardless.

In a way, I regard discipline and willpower in the same way I understand courage. Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but taking the action in spite of the fear. Similarly, discipline isn’t always wanting to do the right action, it’s taking the action even when you feel like not doing it.

As I said, I don’t consider myself to be any great shakes when it comes to discipline or will power. I think folks around me would consider me to be pretty disciplined, though, because of what it looks like from the outside. I use these techniques to get me there.

What works for you? Please let us know in the comments!

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