Discipline and willpower are often equated with deprivation. But a recent study shows that self-control actually contributes to happiness, and the broader body of research on shows a positive correlation between willpower and greater financial security, as well as goal attainment. In fact, another study found that self-discipline was a better predictor of academic performance than IQ.
"Self-discipline is the make-or-break variable in nutrition, diet, relationships," says Kim Gorgens, a clinical associate professor in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at University of Denver. "It keeps people out of jail and keeps them employed, so it's the 'all upside, all the time' variable."
If we're not naturally disciplined about hitting the gym, meeting deadlines, or saving money, are we destined for mediocrity?
Fortunately, not. Experts say willpower and discipline can be learned. Here's a look at the habits that highly disciplined people use to excel personally and professionally.
It sounds obvious, but if you're trying to stick to a diet or a budget, it's not in your best interest to stock the pantry with junk food or go window-shopping for clothes you can't afford. "Not having to use self-control is actually the best way to be good at self-control, because people have limited willpower and you don’t want to have to be using it all day," says Kathleen Vohs, a marketing professor at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, whose research specialties include self-regulation. "You want to save it for the unexpected or the uncontrollable."
According to Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor and author of Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success, there are those who see discipline as abundant and those who see it as scarce. Often, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Dweck and her colleagues compared university students with these two different mindsets and a heavy course load, they found that those who considered discipline to be abundant got better grades. "They're not burning themselves out," she says. "They know how to regulate to get the most out of themselves."
That may mean easing up before finals or a big presentation to allow more energy during crunch time. In high-pressure environments like an elite university or the C-suite, "you need to know how to deploy that energy in a sustained fashion," Dweck says. "[Those who take the abundant view] seem to do that."
Sleep deprivation can impair self-control, so disciplined people generally get enough sleep. Self-disciplined people also "tend to be healthier in the long term and part of that is making healthful choices around smoking, drug use, diet, exercise, and compliance with treatment regimens for any health conditions," Gorgens says. "They're managing chronic and acute stress."
Whether training for a marathon or trying to meet a major work deadline, disciplined people understand the importance of mini milestones. "Setting immediate, short-term goals makes them feel happier and stay more motivated," says Jim Hjort, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Right Life Project.
He compares it to driving towards a mountain in the distance. As the miles pass, the mountain doesn't appear to be getting any closer, but if you look at the scenery right outside the car, you can see it whizzing by. "When it comes to satisfaction and motivation in the day-to-day process, their perception of velocity toward their goals is more important than their distance from the goals," Hjort explains. Those lacking discipline might get discouraged because they don't seem to be progressing towards that loftier goal.
When self-disciplined people are ready for career change, for instance, they're proactive about tapping their networks or hiring a career coach, says Karina Money, president of educational career consulting company Right Path New England, LLC and a psychology professor at Bay State College in Boston. Once they get advice, they're more likely to run with it. "The self-disciplined person will take those steps and follow through on them," Money says. "The person [without self-discipline] tends to need more hand-holding."
Susan Johnston has covered personal finance and business for publications including the Boston Globe, Entrepreneur.com, and USNews.com.