I have struggled with procrastination for most of my adolescent and adult life. One time during my senior year of college, I waited until the midnight before a paper was due to sit down on the couch to finally begin writing. Before I knew it, it was morning and my laptop had fallen to the floor because I had passed out.

I wrote furiously for the next two hours before submitting the assignment and prayed for a miracle. This kind of procrastination behavior followed me to grad school, where it really wrecked havoc on my life and mental health. I learned quickly in grad school that I cannot wait until the midnight before an assignment is due to start working on it because I had five other deadlines to meet and the standard of performance was much, much higher. I learned in grad school to nip procrastination in the bud after seeking help and support from therapists, mentors, coaches, and consultants. However, I developed another equally destructive habit: workaholism. The two habits are not as dissimilar as they may seem. In this blog post I will offer some tips on how to overcome both types of habits and cultivate self-discipline.

Procrastination as Self-Neglect

Procrastination (and it's related forms of self-indulgence, lack of motivation, giving up too easily, and difficulties with following through) and workaholism  (also with it's related forms of perfectionism, emotional avoidance, rigidity, self-sacrifice, fear of failure, and seeking approval from others) are both rooted in experiences of childhood emotional neglect (CEN). I wrote about CEN in my last blog post. These two seemingly polar opposite patterns of pushing ourselves too much or letting ourselves off the hook are both versions of self-neglect. Self-neglect happens when we did not learn the social-emotional skills to take care of ourselves, to make plans and take steps to work toward goals, to value ourselves as much as we value others, to tune into our physical and emotional signals, and to express/advocate for our needs and wants. 

Self-Discipline as Self Care

In order to successfully cultivate more self-discipline, the solution is not to use guilt and shame to motivate ourselves. "Shoulding" ourselves will only create a vicious cycle of doing something for a short period of time and not be able to sustain the new behavior, which then lead to more guilt and shame. Instead, the way to get out of the negative cycle of self-neglect is through self-compassion and self-encouragement. Imagine what a loving but firm parent might say to you to encourage you to develop a more healthy way to take care of yourself, either by doing the things you need to do or by slowing down. This parent might say, "It makes sense that you have develop this pattern. Many people struggle with it. It is going to be challenging to undo this habit but I believe in you. If you have a setback or make a mistake on this journey, that's ok. You are still making progress toward a different and better life." I have found this way of talking to myself or re-parenting myself helpful in moments when I wanted to indulge in 5 hours of the Great British Bake Off or use retail therapy as a band-aid for a tough day. I have also found it helpful when I have worked for 7 hours straight without a break and forgot to eat lunch. I try to gently remind myself that caring for myself is a daily practice that takes discipline and love. 

Strategies for Cultivating Self-Discipline

  • Do three small things each day that are hard to do (e.g., schedule in a break and take it, chose a snack that is healthy for you, stop after one episode of your favorite TV show, make that over-due doctor's appointment, etc.).
  • Focus on only one small area of your life and one doable goal at a time.
  • Get a friend or family involved in your plan to cultivate self-discipline for emotional support and accountability.
  • Track your successes to remind you of your accomplishments.
  • Remember that any depletion of your resources will make self-discipline in other areas harder (e.g., hunger, lack of sleep, stress, anxiety, lack of exercise, etc.). Make taking care of your mind and body a priority.
  • Replenish your will power by intentionally treating yourself to something pleasurable as a reward (e.g., make a cup of tea, take a bath, read a chapter in a favorite book, eat a favorite snack, go on a date with your partner, call a friend).
  • Self-discipline is as much about saying "no" as it is about saying "yes." Practice saying "no" to working more, doing more, another responsibility or commitment, putting someone's needs before your own.

Do you struggle with self-discipline? Have you found ways to overcome it? Tell me more in the comment section below. 

Online Counseling in Seattle

If you are ready to start cultivating self-discipline and address your procrastination, consider online therapy with one of our licensed therapists. They will introduce helpful tools and replace ineffective coping skills with strategies rooted in self-compassion. Schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation to get started today.