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'Career doctor' Liz Bentley: How to master the art of self-discipline

The executive career coach lays out a seven-step plan that will help you get things done effectively and efficiently.
Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs.
Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs.Anthony Scutro

During these past few months of sheltering amid COVID-19, many people are realizing just how much they struggle with self-discipline.

In theory, we finally have the time to tackle projects we previously put on the backburner. Yet, we are still failing to get them done. In many cases, we’re realizing that the supposed lack of time was just an excuse. The real problem is we just can’t seem to discipline and motivate ourselves to get the work done, even though we know it will benefit our lives.

So how do you get over this hurdle?

To start, we need to remind ourselves that not all projects are weighted equally. Some are as simple as cleaning out a closet, while others require more attention, such as building a business website. These tasks also range in time commitment. Responding to an email you’ve been putting off could take just 10 minutes, while building a business plan could take hours or days.

Next, we must dig deeper, and find out what’s driving our avoidance behavior. The question we struggle to answer is, “Why do we sometimes not do things that are good for us?”

In many cases the answer is fear! As an executive coach, I frequently see people avoiding the things they are afraid of. Our fears can surface for a variety of reasons; for example, we think a project or interaction may:

Be hard to tackle

Expose our weaknesses

Put us in a position to fail

Get us rejected

Show us a truth we are afraid to see

Many times, these fears are inflated and over-thought in our heads. We procrastinate on tasks, and then when we finally do them, we realize they weren’t that big of a deal after all. But other times, our fears come true. We try at something and fail. But we need to realize this failure is a gift, because it helps us see where we need to grow.

Knowing that fear is driving our behavior is the first step to becoming more productive. If you’re struggling with self-discipline, practice these skills:

Work on your confidence

Confidence is belief in yourself. Most people when asked, will say they believe in themselves. However, when faced with a hard task, they lose their confidence and shy away. Confidence doesn’t always come naturally and is something you must practice. Look back at your life and remind yourself of what I call “historical wins”—the things you have done well and are proud of.

Lean into your fear

Your fear is waking you up to what you need to do. This means it’s time to get moving. So, show up to it.

Normalize your struggle

Everyone struggles with discipline, so be nice to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up over this, just get to work.

Create simple rules

For example, don’t do something you really want to do until you are done with this task. It can be as simple as not eating breakfast until you are done, or a bigger incentive like holding off on buying something you need.

Stop excuses and blame

Tell yourself, “Enough!” No one cares why you haven’t done it or who is to blame. All that matters is that your task is not done yet.

Do the hard things first

We all tend to tackle our easy ‘to do’s’ first. The problem with this is we use our best energy on work that is not hard and often run out of time or brain power to do the hard stuff later. I always suggest using the morning hours for the hard work. That often means delaying a workout or other tasks until this project is done. Then you can reward yourself with exercise or whatever you think you need.

Stop being afraid of failure

Remember that failure is a gateway to success. If we push ourselves out of our comfort zone, we are going to fail sometimes and that is OK. It’s part of the journey and what we need to learn to succeed.

Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs. She is a nationally recognized keynote speaker and executive coach to top leaders and teams across a broad range of industries