A great analogy that helps to understand self-discipline is that it is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. You must push your limits in order to make it stronger. Just like with working out, if you lift weights that are too light, you won’t make any progress. At the same time, if you try to lift a weight that is far beyond your current capability, you will fail miserably. Imagine starting a marathon running as fast as you can. Obviously you won’t be able to keep that pace for very long, and even when you do slow down, it’s unlikely you would be able to finish the race.

This seems so obvious, yet a lot of people set many difficult goals at once, doing as much as they can to reach them, only to fall well short. When we get a sudden burst of motivation, it is hard to resist the temptation to set several goals. We feel like we have an endless supply of energy and can achieve everything we set our minds to. Unfortunately, this is not the case. No matter how much willpower one has, there is always a finite supply.

The area of the brain that is mainly in control of willpower is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is also responsible for focus, short-term memory, and problem-solving. In an experiment by Baba Shiv of Stanford University, a group of students was divided, with one-half given a two-digit number to remember, and the other half given a seven-digit number. Then the students were given the option between a slice of chocolate cake, or a fruit salad. Interestingly, the students that were given the seven-digit number were almost twice as likely to choose the chocolate cake as the group given the two-digit number. This resulted from an increased “cognitive load,” which weakened the ability to resist temptation. If having to memorize five extra digits led to being almost twice as likely to give in to temptation, imagine how difficult it would be trying to achieve multiple goals at once.

The good news is that continuously exercising your willpower does seem to increase its total capacity. In an experiment by Maraven, Baumeister, and Tice, students were asked to consciously attempt to maintain good posture for two weeks. These students had significant improvements in self-control tests compared with students that were not given a self-control task. This shows that consistent use of willpower does increase it over time.

Take Action Now: Focus your efforts on one goal that you have been struggling to stay committed to. Do something to work toward your goal every day for seven days. If you limit yourself to focusing on just this one goal, you should see quite an improvement from previous attempts. After seven days you can add a different goal if you like, or you can simply stay committed to the first one. If you start to feel like it’s too much, reflect on your progress and adjust if necessary.

Self-Discipline, or willpower, can be thought of as a muscle. It has a limited supply, but when you exercise it regularly, it gets stronger over time. The most effective way to exercise it without exhausting yourself is to focus on one goal at a time.

Author's Bio: 

Jeff Gaines is the author of the self-improvement website www.upspiration.com