Do you wish you could force yourself to stop saying "I wish I had study discipline ..." or “I’ll do it tomorrow” and start saying “All done?” You've come to the right place. With a bit of mental conditioning, YOU can train your brain and become warrior of willpower.

Willpower and self-discipline are traits that seem ever harder to come by in this day and age. In a world that seems to be built completely around distractions, our brain is constantly bombarded by a string of notifications and beeps and flashes on par with a stroll down the Las Vegas Strip.

It can even start to feel like the term “willpower” is a bit of legend, something people speak of in the same hushed tones as “the prophecy” or “the chosen one.” But the truth is, willpower isn’t some generational ability that comes with a birthmark and an ancient scroll. It’s a skill, one you can build if you truly want it.

So stop blaming twitter, your phone, that big burrito you had for lunch, and start working to counteract them. Willpower and self-discipline aren’t forbidden knowledge, doled only out to people destined to become successful. They’re the product of concentrated effort, an investment that pays back dividends in perpetuity.

That uber-productive friend of yours? The one with the personal planner that could challenge Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s? That’s not something they were born with. They didn’t wake up at 7 am their first morning on earth to get a head start on how to pronounce ma-ma and da-da.

They simply decided to become someone who makes the very most of their time each and every day, and, through extensive effort, they made that goal a reality. Your productivity heroes may make their habits seem effortless today, but it only seems so because they spent a huge amount of time to make those habits their "normal."

We watch it happen all the time here at Brainscape. With millions of users of our popular flashcard app, we see that willpower and motivation are the primary determinants of whether a user will succeed. Yes, it's critical that students develop good study habits, but those habits are built through strong self-discipline, which, at the end of the day, is the strongest recipe for success.

Lucky for you, Brainscape is here to start you on your journey with a formula for success, though you yourself are solely responsible for staying on the path.

  1. Don't try to hack success; build toward it
  2. Clearing your mind and schedule
  3. Build your willpower
  4. Work to make the most of yourself

Don’t try to hack success; build towards it

Orange and white skyscrapers

If you just want a kick-start on whatever of today’s tasks is eluding you, the internet has plenty to help. We recommend checking out our article on motivating yourself to study when you don’t want to, or just downloading the Brainscape app, with adaptive flashcards to turn to studying into a habit and increase your likelihood of success.

But if you want to move past band-aids and quick tips, and start to improve your base dedication and work ethic, you can train yourself to work quicker, faster, and more efficiently, no google search necessary.

For example, let’s imagine two golfers. We’ll call them Larry and Gary, just for entertainment.

Larry is quick to tell you he loves to golf and quick to chat about getting his score down. He loves to read articles about correcting your swing, browse through a magazine for the latest putter to give him an edge. However, when it comes to heading to the driving range or playing 9-holes, more often than not, Larry finds an excuse. He slept 7 hours instead of 8, so he’ll be “off.” He’s got dinner later, and he doesn’t want to be sweaty. He was gonna play with his friend Jose, but Jose got stuck at work, and he’s not gonna play ALONE.

Gary professes the same love of golf and wants to improve just like Larry does. But Gary is able to ask himself the real question, which is what do I have to do to improve, and am I pursuing that every day. Gary’s tired? Maybe it’s a good chance to use his exhaustion to expose some of his bad habits at the range. Gary shows up at dinner a little sweaty, and is happy to explain that it’s because he was out working on his swing, and he’s seeing improvements! His friend cancels? Their loss! In fact, without social distraction, he can really focus on his game.

Now fast-forward a year. Who do you think is going to be the better golfer? I’d lay my money on the table that Gary is going to trounce Larry 9 times out of ten. That’s because Larry theoretically wants to be good at golf, but Gary is the one actually doing something about it. As time goes on, their gap is only going to grow wider.

Daily habits can help build self-discipline
Daily habits create exponential changes and can help build self-discipline.

That’s because while Larry may be able to point to his YouTube history and magazine subscriptions and say he’s “serious about golfing,” at the base level, he is not willing to put in the work and the labor to make that a reality. Gary is serious about golf, and he demonstrates that by taking golf seriously.

There is no replacement for time and hard work, and stopgap solutions can only obscure a lack of growth.

Productivity is similar, in that becoming more productive requires you to make changes to your life and behavior. You can buy the newest specialized planner, and pay for fancy to-do list software. Maybe you bought yourself an Apple Watch telling yourself it would “help you keep track of your time” only for it to become a wrist-mounted detriment to actually getting anything done.

The responsibility of building and improving upon any skill, whether it be a sport, grinding the competitive mode in your favorite video game, or your time management skills, lies squarely upon your shoulders. As the saying goes, it is a bad craftsman who blames their tools.

Clearing your mind and schedule to build self-discipline

Buddhist monk meditating

If you’re reading this article, it’s likely because your current strategies to build self-discipline aren’t working. When something isn’t working, it’s time to do a full evaluation of why, and make the needed changes. The first thing you need to do is remove the things that are actively holding you back.

For productivity, this means the small things that, like some sort of gremlin, have an amazing ability to throw a wrench in the gears and bring your day to a grinding halt. Research shows that the more small decisions we have to make in our day, compounded by the small temptations that attempt to derail us, grind away at our willpower, until we end up lying in bed thinking about all the things we didn’t get done.

So, dedicate time to eliminating these decisions before they can ever sap your energy. Plan ahead and remove uncertainty.

For example, you can dedicate your Sunday to planning out the upcoming week, from meals to workouts, to even social activity. That way, during the weekdays themselves, you won't have to wonder, 'ooh, what’s in the fridge?' and 'what can I make?', thus saving that mental energy for other forms of motivation.

Need some help on what distractions to knock out and how? Let’s start with these:

  1. High-calorie procrastination. The number one most effective way to avoid snacking on junk food is not to own any. That doesn’t mean you have to mainline raw almonds all week long. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are near and dear to my heart, for example. But make junk food an occasional reward, something you grab at the gas station, or at 7-11 while you’re out, instead of having a cupboard like a miniature Willy Wonka factory.  Simply knowing that you will be able to have junk food at a certain time is enough to quell that distractor for quite awhile. (Interested in nutrition? We've listed the best brain foods for studying.)
  2. Small screen: mental sinkhole. Put away your phone. There’s no way you didn’t see this coming. Unless you’re a member of the Behavioral Analysis Unit at the FBI and need to be ready to fly cross-country to solve a murder on moment’s notice, you can probably get away with checking it only once an hour, for example.
  3. Trash the time-sucking tabs. If you’re working on your computer, maybe hide away time-wasting apps, favorite websites, and games so that they can’t make puppy-dog eyes at you mid-assignment.
  4. Dodge closet indecision. Some successful people even wear the same thing every day. Think of Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Darth Vader. This isn’t because they have an unhealthy fascination with black turtlenecks or capes, but because they’re minimizing the time spent on small decisions. Maybe you can at least plan your wardrobe for the week each Sunday, so you won't have to think about it every day.
  5. Strike down inbox spam. Unsubscribe from email lists rather than deleting fourteen “one-time” sale emails a day.
  6. Make your mission clear. Keep a to-do list of small tasks to free up that space in your mind.
  7. Make a recurring calendar reminder for weekly planning. Set yourself a recurring appointment each Sunday to plan your meals, social activities, phone calls, and even wardrobe choices for the week. While planning every minute is likely going too far, the time spent (re)building your weekly schedule and to-do list pay dividends in mental clarity.

Blaise Pascal once said:

“Clarity of mind means clarity of passion, too; this is why a great and clear mind loves ardently and sees distinctly what it loves.”

A clear mind may not only help you focus on your goals but in its focus, remind you why it is you pursue those goals.

Build your willpower for study discipline

Toy lifting weights and trying to build self-discipline

Now, with a clear mind, bad habits identified and disassembled, you have the space to build better tendencies. You can now fill the vacated real estate with positive and productive things before the distractions of the world can return to roost.

The idea of “building your willpower” may call up an image of a monk beneath a waterfall. Remove the drama and performance, however, and you’ll find that a desire and pursuit to improve yourself is not un-monastic. Make your mind your monastery. Perfect your mental Wing Chun to defeat daily enemies.

So what are some concrete practices you can follow in order to increase your willpower? Here’s some great starting points:

  1. Postpone rewards. Also known as “dopamine fasting,” if you want to call it something a little more metal. Push yourself to make rewards just that—rewarding. The longer you can extend the gap between positive behavior and reward, the stronger your willpower muscle will become.
  2. Exercise every day. It doesn’t have to be long or complicated, but it has to challenge you every day. Research has found that even a 7 minute workout every day can be effective and build self-discipline. Think of it as a micro-example of your dedication to daily improvement.
  3. Improve your posture. I’m not going to say military discipline comes from their dedication to good posture, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Again, it’s a small reaffirmation to that daily pledge to be the best you (and save your back while you’re at it.)
  4. Slow your roll. Focus on what you say, and speak slowly (well, not THAT slowly) and deliberately. Take pauses. The discipline to not rush the words out of your mouth will not only cultivate a calmer demeanor, but it will also make people respect you more.
  5. Meditate. Now you’re fully intersecting with that figurative monk, but no robes are necessary. Meditation reduces stress, which in turn allows you to more ably deal with the cards life deals you. Making meditation a habit will also build self-discipline.
  6. Follow a mantra. If pure meditation is a little too spiritual for you, give yourself an actionable mantra to focus on. Your posture, from points above, might serve as a good starter.
  7. Kick-off your days with a cold shower. Let the shock of the water force you into such a state of calm (in order to endure it) that it rockets those intrusive thoughts right out of your brain and locks you into laser focus.

    Protip: Try repeating your daily mantra while under the freezing water, as you're in a particularly suggestible mental state. (See other benefits of cold showers.)
  8. Help your brain with a habit app. Download and actually use a habit app. That means, don’t just download one and dust your hands for your good deed. Done is a great one but there’s many more out there. Just make sure you actually make them part of your day-to-day.
  9. Redefine your identity. NEVER again say "I'm a lazy person who has trouble accomplishing tasks.” Instead, look at yourself as “a disciplined person who occasionally slips up.” If you believe you are lazy, you will become lazy. Don’t weigh yourself down before the whistle even blows.

Work to make the most of yourself

Swimmer celebrating a win

If you follow these steps, but most importantly, truly apply yourself to self-improvement, you WILL change. You'll create more study discipline. It won’t be easy, but the most impressive things aren’t. In fact, I would implore you to take the effectiveness of this advice to heart BECAUSE of its simplicity.

Since the dawn of time, the equation of determination plus work equals improvement has remained true. I promise you that your "innate" laziness is NOT more powerful than centuries of human experience.

Look at willpower not as part of your DNA, but as an underdeveloped skill, and one that can be rectified. Then you can take the first step to make the brief consciousness afforded us a productive and rewarding one.

Sources

Danziger, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(17), 6889-6892. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1018033108

Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M., Gould, N. F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., ... & Ranasinghe, P. D. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine, 174(3), 357-368. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018

Mattar, L., Farran, N., & Bakhour, D. (2017). Effect of 7-minute workout on weight and body composition. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 57(10), 1299-1304. https://doi.org/10.23736/s0022-4707.16.06788-8