In this article I'll share a simple tip that's very effective at building lifelong self-discipline, and I'll explain why it works so well.
Here's the tip: Adopt the habit of reading personal growth material for one hour per day.
You can do this 5, 6, or 7 days a week, depending on your level of commitment, but consider 5 days per week to be the minimum.
Personal growth material can be anything that helps you grow. As a rule of thumb, before reading any book, ask yourself: If I read this book now, what difference will it likely make in my life 5 years from now? What do I expect will be the long term impact of reading this book today? If you're not sure or if you can't identify any likely long-term benefits, then that book is probably a waste of your time. Put it down, and select something that's more likely to help you create and experience better results down the road.
This core reading hour may include books that will help you develop valuable knowledge and skills, advance you in your career, help you cultivate positive lifelong habits, improve your health and fitness practices, achieve financial prosperity, improve your social and relationship skills, explore your life purpose, increase your scientific understanding, raise bright and happy children, and so on.
You can still read books purely for pleasure, such as popular novels, but don't include those types of books as part of your personal growth hour unless you're nearly certain that those stories will be transformational for you. Devote that personal growth hour to serious reading with the most practical books you can find.
The best times of day for your reading hour are the first hour after you get up in the morning and the last hour of the day before you go to bed. The first hour, also called the rudder of the day, sets the tone for the rest of the day to follow. And the last hour helps program your mind with positive input before you sleep; you'll often wake up with fresh ideas in the morning based on what you read the night before. If you'd like, you can even split your reading hour between these two time slots. Just aim to read positive, growth-oriented material for about an hour per day. If you want to do more, that's fine too, but the most important thing is to make this a long-term habit. Don't burn yourself out by reading 2-3 hours a day for the first week and then quitting when you get busy.
If you find it too difficult to immediately dive into the practice of reading for an hour per day, then start with 30 or even 15 minutes. Cultivate this habit for 3-4 weeks first, to establish the basic pattern of daily reading. Then if you can manage it, gradually extend the time until you're up to 60 minutes per day. Once you get into the habit of daily reading, it's easy to extend the time.
Adding Disciplined Influences to Your Life
How does this positive reading habit help you build your self-discipline?
First, people who've written complete books tend to be much more disciplined than average — completing a book and getting it published is hard work — so you'll be learning ideas and picking up subtle mental influences from fairly disciplined people. This will help counteract the more lazy-minded influences in society, such as you'll be exposed to from television, advertising, web surfing, casual socializing, etc.
Second, if you specifically select books from authors you perceive to be highly disciplined relative to yourself, you'll be adding even more disciplined input to your life. By observing how those authors think and contrasting their thoughts and ideas with those of your least disciplined friends, you'll deepen your understanding of self-discipline. This will help you make wiser, more disciplined choices in your own life.
In the last century, it was believed that the brain went through physical changes in early childhood, but by the time a person reached adulthood, the brain was largely a static organ, no longer experiencing much structural change. Today neuroscientists are finding this to be untrue. Even as an adult, your brain can continue to structurally adapt to changes in your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and environment. In other words, the way you use your mind causes physical changes in the structure of your brain over time. This is similar to how lifting weights encourages physical changes in your muscles. Your brain's ability to structurally adapt to changing usage patterns is called neuroplasticity.
There's a common expression in personal growth circles: We become what we think about. In the past this phrase was often shared with an air of mysticism, but modern neuroscience reveals that this notion is much more real and physical than was previously thought.
When you expose your mind to daily disciplined influences, your mind spends more time holding disciplined thoughts. This in turn promotes physical changes in your brain's structures, i.e. in how your neurons are arranged and how efficiently they process certain types of information. With more disciplined input, it's likely that the neural circuitry in your brain will become more organized around the theme of self-discipline, so as you age, you'll find it increasingly natural and effortless to take disciplined action. Disciplined input trains your brain for more disciplined thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors. In other words, disciplined input gives you a more disciplined brain, which makes you a more disciplined person.
You can already see that your body adapts to its inputs. When you eat too much for an extended period of time, you may gain weight. When you endure too much stress for too long, you get sick. When you train your muscles, they get stronger. When you engage in regular cardio exercise, your heart and lungs increase their capacity. These changes are physical and measurable.
Your brain adapts in similar ways. Your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, when repeated over time, encourage a physical training response in your brain. More neurons may be dedicated to a particular thought pattern, behavior, or emotional state, making it faster and easier to access that state in the future. Neurogenesis may also occur, meaning that new neurons grow, causing the most active regions of your brain to become neurally denser. The more you repeat certain patterns, the more likely it is that your brain will adapt by devoting more neural resources to such processing. Indeed, there is increasing evidence from neuroscience that you become what you think about—in the sense that your brain is physically molded and shaped in response to the input you give it.
If you repeatedly make excuses, your brain will become increasingly efficient at devising and delivering excuses. If you fall into the habit of being late often, your brain will become ever more efficient at memorizing and triggering behaviors that make you late. If you spend much time worrying, your brain will become more efficient at generating the worry state.
On the upside, the more time you spend learning, the more efficiently your brain can learn. The more you socialize, the more your brain adapts to make you socially competent. The more time you devote to a particular skill path, the more your brain adapts to make you an expert.
All Input Is Training
Because of the way your brain adapts to input over time, it's wise to take more responsibility for the inputs you allow into your life. As you expose your mind to repeated influences, your brain adapts to become more efficient at processing similar patterns. Many people, however, do not choose their inputs carefully. They allow others—or society at large—to determine what those influences will be. But since those sources are rarely thoughtful and congruent, their influences tend to be chaotic and haphazard, which leads not only to a chaotic mind, but also to a chaotic and disorganized brain.
All input trains your brain. Watching sitcoms is mental training. Web surfing is mental training. Socializing is mental training. Eating is mental training. Sex is mental training. Lying in bed after your alarm goes off is mental training. Yoga is mental training. Writing is mental training. Complaining is mental training. Visualization is mental training.
The key question is: How do you want to train your brain? What do you want your brain to become more efficient at doing?
Reading Is Brain Training
A simple way to retrain your brain is by changing what you read as well as how often you read. The mental activity of reading creates new patterns of neural firing, which in turn has a training effect on the neural circuitry that gets activated.
In addition to reading, you can also listen to audiobooks. Play quality audiobooks while you do easy physical tasks such as cooking, eating, driving, getting dressed, cleaning, exercising, etc. Or you can simply relax and listen attentively.
I adopted the habit of reading personal growth material more than 20 years ago, and it has served me extremely well. Instead of overtraining my brain with chaotic or narrow-minded inputs that weren't of my choosing, I selected what I believed would be quality influences. I can trace many significant improvements in my life to this simple habit.
I've also noticed that whenever I slack off from this habit, my mental efficiency gradually declines. I grow lazier. My thoughts and feelings become more chaotic and disharmonious. I find it more difficult to focus. I feel more stressed. But as soon as I return to that powerful habit of training my brain with its daily regimen of thoughtful, disciplined input, the benefits I know and love quickly return. "Use it or lose it" is very true.
The lesson is clear: Choose quality inputs for your mind, and train your brain for lifelong success and fulfillment. Your brain will adapt to the training you provide.
If you need some good suggestions to get started, you'll find a list of my favorite personal development books, sorted by category, on my recommended reading page.