Going Too Fast to Say No? How to Strengthen Your Self-Discipline Muscle

Q: You went flat out all week but never completed your critical task.  What happened?

A: You forgot to slow down.

Here is an analogy.  I love mountain biking.  The gnarlier the path the better. But sometimes I get so caught up in negotiating the next rocks and drops that I fly right past the turnoff. I end up lost. Sometimes I have to climb all the way back up.

Have you ever been in the flow like this, where you completely loose track of time?  It feels so good!  You just don’t want it to stop. But what was the cost of having to repair the mistake? Sometimes in hindsight it was totally worth the cost.  But at other times, we are only able to listen to the strongest medicine such as a missed business deal, an accident or a fling that cost the marriage for our self awareness to develop. Often it is the worst costs that force our long-term focus to mature. These are the lessons that change our behaviour.

Impulse Control:  Indulgence is a textbook ADHD symptom.

Some mountain bikers say they are going too fast to prevent a mistake about ten percent of the time.  So far, it has been blind luck that they haven’t been injured.  And they are fine with it.  Being too “in the moment” in the workplace might include forgetting to follow-up on an initiative, getting a parking ticket, or enjoying researching for an article for way too long.

How does one become aware when they have derailed from their task?  When lost in the moment people can become blind to choices we are making.

The solution is to develop the habit of checking if you are present.  But that can only happen when you have decided, and I mean really decided, that the direction you are taking is what you truly want.

I recommend using a reminder device.  An elastic.  An egg timer.  A ring.  A bracelet.  Or post it notes.  Set calendar appointment alarms with questions in the title.  Anything that will cause you to ask yourself: “Am I actually doing what it is that I want to be doing with this time?”

I have found that strengthening our self-discipline muscle means being fine with saying no to indulgences and wanting to say yes to what it is we really need.  Saying no means that you can stay focused on what you really want to say yes to.

Believing in yourself and your vision is a necessity.  But it’s not enough.  You need to make the decision you want it enough to do the work.  This means living like a person who earns it especially when nobody is looking.  Have you ever had a moment when you suddenly become aware of what you are doing e.g. you pulled out of the driveway to the left as if you were going to work, but you needed to go right?  You snapped out of autopilot.  Congratulations!  We can do the same thing just as we slip into an indulgence that might protect us from social threat, or from feeling uncomfortable from effort.  Snap out of your autopilot and into your presence so that you are aware of what choices you are really making.  Once you have decided for yourself the rest is much much easier. A coach can help with this.

If I asked you when you have done this before, you would give me a long list of when you did a great job of snapping back into being present.  You can do this: it is a question of degree and how much you want it.

Self-discipline bootcamps can help you address sudden urges. Or coaching support can help you train your new thinking habits and action reflexes to step up to what you are capable of.

My guess is you already have lots of grit, just look at what you have accomplished so far.  But could you accomplish more if you had better impulse control?  If you managed your focus more effectively, what could you achieve? Evaluate if the cost of indulgences is getting too expensive at this point in your life. If you could do it alone with the tools and support you presently have, you would have done so already.

How to Believe in Your Ability to Succeed

This is Called Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy is the belief that one is able to successfully think, behave and feel in a particular situation.  Psychologist Albert Bandura emphasized the silent conclusions we draw about ourselves through the ups and downs of growing up.  These conclusions develop our belief set and adult personality. For example, one may conclude that a success was well earned or may think that it was just a fluke. We also see this when one says that a certain failure is “normal for me and just part of my brand”.  A person’s attitudes, abilities, and cognitive skills are in a way both the product and determinants of our success.

The Role of Self-Efficacy

Virtually all people can identify goals they want to accomplish, things they would like to change, and things they would like to achieve. However, most people also realize that putting these plans into action is not quite so simple. Bandura and others have found that an individual’s self-efficacy plays a major role in the meaning assigned to experiences (“what this event says about me”) and how goals, tasks, and challenges are approached.

People with a strong sense of self-efficacy:

  • View challenging problems as tasks to be mastered
  • Develop deeper interest in the activities in which they participate
  • Form a stronger sense of commitment to their interests and activities
  • Recover quickly from setbacks and disappointments

People with a weak sense of self-efficacy:

  • Avoid challenging tasks
  • Believe that difficult tasks and situations are beyond their capabilities
  • Focus on personal failings and negative outcomes
  • Quickly lose confidence in personal abilities

Sources of Self-Efficacy

These beliefs form in early childhood with the wide variety of social experiences, attempted tasks, and outcomes. Luckily, the growth of self-efficacy continues throughout life as people acquire new skills, awareness and understanding.

According to Bandura, there are four major sources of self-efficacy.

1. Mastery Experiences

“The most effective way of developing a strong sense of efficacy is through mastery experiences,” Bandura explained. Performing a task successfully strengthens our sense of self-efficacy. Failing to adequately deal with a challenge can weaken it if we view it as a character flaw, rather than simply a lack of training or effort for example.

2. Social Modeling

Witnessing other people successfully completing a task is another important source of self-efficacy. According to Bandura, “Seeing people similar to oneself succeed by sustained effort raises one’s belief in one’s capabilities to master comparable activities and to succeed.”

3. Social Persuasion

Bandura also asserted that people could be persuaded to believe that they have the skills and capabilities to succeed if they have sufficient evidence.  Consider a time when someone said something positive and encouraging that helped you own, focus on and achieve a goal. Getting verbal encouragement from others helps people overcome self-doubt and give their best effort to the task at hand.

4. Psychological Responses

Our emotional reactions to situations play an important role in self-efficacy. Moods, emotional states, physical reactions, and stress levels all impact what a person decides about their abilities in a particular situation. A person who became extremely nervous before speaking in public may come to a conclusion about their incompetence, weakening their self-efficacy in similar future situations.  Importantly, Bandura notes “it is not the specific intensity of emotional and physical reactions that is important but rather how they are interpreted.”


By learning how to manage your mindset when facing difficult experiences, you can improve your self-efficacy.

Stanford Professor Carol Dweck categorizes two types of mindsets. In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities. http://mindsetonline.com/whatisit/about/

Blog post adapted from: http://psychology.about.com/od/theoriesofpersonality/a/self_efficacy.htm
Bandura, Albert “Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change”, 1977.