Self-Discipline: Be the Boss of Yourself

Good habits are worth being fanatical about
Graphic by Lauren Hardage

Like many (many!) of us, you may feel like there is not enough time in a day. Maybe you’ve become stressed or disappointed in yourself for not making the best use of that time? Do you find yourself continuing with bad habits or having a hard time implementing good habits? Welcome to the club!

If you’re self-employed, self-discipline is vital: you may have no set work hours and no one overseeing your work, so you need to be an effective boss of yourself. Let’s talk self-discipline and priorities and see what we can improve.

Disciplining Children, Disciplining Myself

We are experiencing a revolution in our household, all to do with DISCIPLINE. I have two boys, who are turning three and five shortly, and behavior has been getting out of hand. I knew that in some situations I wasn’t doing a good job with them and I was getting more frustrated than I needed to be.

I recently read a parenting book that is rapidly helping me to restore calm interaction and pleasant behavior in my home (parents, the book is called Beyond Time-Out: From Chaos to Calm, and is just what my clever, sensitive, boundary-pushing child and I needed). Now I know how to remain friendly while also using discipline (I am not talking about punishment!) to help my kids learn respect, self-control, and cooperation.

I explained to a friend that now that I know exactly what is expected of me as a parent, and what to do in any given bad-behavior situation, I feel calm and confident, and have no reason to get frustrated (and, I confess, angry) anymore. She pointed out jokingly that the book had disciplined me, and that got me thinking about the broad meaning of the word “discipline” and how it relates to life and business.

What is Discipline?

I take good care of my kids and don’t let them get out of doing what’s important for happiness and healthiness, so why do I let myself? I often think that what I need is a mom – I mean an actual continually-parenting mom, in my house with me all day, making sure I don’t screw up, and gently guiding me to take care of myself and make the best use of my time.

This mom won’t take “no” or “later” for an answer, and will instead insist that the important stuff comes first, and play time comes later. Dinner before dessert! Chores before games! Creative fun and exploration over passive tv-staring! Of course, this “mom” is really self-discipline.

“You will never have a greater or lesser dominion than that over yourself…the height of a man’s success is gauged by his self-mastery; the depth of his failure by his self-abandonment. …And this law is the expression of eternal justice. He who cannot establish dominion over himself will have no dominion over others.”
— Leonardo da Vinci

Working On My Self-Discipline

Here are the things I’ve been challenging myself to do as I parent myself into better behavior. I had two months in spring without a project manager for Aeolidia, and I let a lot of these things slide while I was feeling stressed. Now that everything is shipshape with my business again, I’m dusting off these bits of self-discipline and feeling much better.

Limit my smartphone use. I saw a joke on Kottke recently: ” They promised us life in space, flying cars, and jetpacks but all we got were pocket-sized rectangles containing all human knowledge. FAIL.” It sounds easy to say we’ll put the phone down, but seriously. Everything in the world is in there, practically.

I do better when I don’t have my phone on my nightstand (it gives me trouble getting to sleep and starting my day). I let myself use the phone quickly to assist me in useful tasks (reading a recipe, following a map, googling “size of chickadee nest”), but I start raising my “mom eyebrow” at myself if my kids are clamoring for my attention and I’m tapping away on my phone.

Do I really need to get an email or phone alert when someone comments on Facebook, mentions me on Twitter, sends an email? I have turned off all non-urgent notifications, and instead check what’s been going on once a day (sometimes less). Panicky feelings of needing to check and reply faded instantly.

Give myself a bedtime. Oh, it’s so hard to get to bed at a reasonable time, especially if you run a business and have little children. I know, I know! It is painfully obvious to me that I don’t function well without enough sleep. I can’t concentrate, I drift around on the internet and get sidetracked, I feel like things can wait until later.

It seems like staying up a couple hours later can only be good, because now I’ve gotten two extra hours of work done! But I wager that I actually lose those saved two hours the next day when I’m dragging through my tasks. With enough sleep backing me up, I am able to prioritize and speed through things and just kill my to-do list sometimes.

Eat three balanced meals a day. And keep snacking to a minimum! I find that being busy has the benefit of leaving no time for sneaking extra snacks, but of course can also cause me to forget lunch.

Don’t put it down, put it away. Or, “a place for everything, and everything in its place.” I can work and produce and create much better when I’m not in a house that looks like a tornado of toys hit it. I work on my “little bit better” strategy when I walk through rooms, and when I don’t have time to really clean, I chant, “at least don’t make a new mess” in my head, putting away as I go.

Prioritize content consumed. When I have spare time that is not kid time and not work time, I try to do things that make me feel good. Rather than tootling around on the internet, I have been reminding myself to look to the big stack of books by my bed. Blogs are great and all, but they’re no comparison to Steinbeck! It’s nice to read something that has been committed to print and run by an editor. I’m trying to go for quality instead of ease of use.

Make time to create. Similarly, I feel better about my time spent when I have created something. I am currently working on a quilt, and I have a homemade blackberry cheesecake in my fridge. We all have the same amount of hours in a day, and it’s just a matter of prioritizing. You can’t do everything, but you can certainly pick one thing you’d like to accomplish in each day, rather than letting other things draw you in and take up all of your time.

Set aside time to work, and be done when I’m done. I find that I work better with a deadline, and knowing my kids will be beating down my door every day at 5:00 helps me come up with a plan for each day and get what needs to be done finished, so I can turn the computer off and forget about it until the next day.

My new change is to identify 1-3 “must-do” work tasks for each work day. One huge problem I find myself having running a small business is that I have a to-do list that contains literally hundreds of things, and when I don’t clarify what I intend to do each day, I find myself never feeling done, because my massive to-do list remains. Clear expectations for myself leave me feeling calm and capable, and it is easier to feel accomplished and be done for the day.

Get outside and get my exercise. This is the one on the list that I am the worst at, and I keep intending to make some progress on my lack of discipline here. I realize that I need to build it into my schedule, before I get involved with work. Once I sit down at the computer, it’s rare that I’ll take a break to exercise. Help me out with this one! What are ways that you motivate yourself to move your body? My husband and I love going on walks, and the weather has been very nice. I just need to get serious.

Don’t forget to play! One perk of running my own small business is that I can call the shots, set my own schedule, and make time for my family – so why is it sometimes hard to do? We can be our own worst bosses! My big goal, and what I’m constantly working on, is to get my work time efficient and scheduled so that I can enjoy all of my other time – while not thinking about work at all during that time. A dream, for sure, and worth pursuing.

Graphic by Lauren Hardage
Graphic by Lauren Hardage

Working on Your Own Self-Discipline

The above are the areas I’m working on improving. It’s a lot of things! The only reason I’m this far along is that I’ve been working with myself on all of these things, many of them for a long time. Trying to start on day one with this pile of things would be way too much.

Choose one area to improve
If you’d like to improve your own self-discipline, I think it’s best to choose one area where you’d like to improve, and work on that until it starts to become a habit. When you feel comfortable with one area, you can add another.

Start small and be realistic
Rather than trying to get to the end goal right away with any of your improvements, ask yourself:

“If I was being 5% more responsible, what would I do today to reach my goal?”
(read The 5 Percent Trick: Finding Passion and Purpose in Life)

5% is attainable – give it a try, keep it up, and your efforts will accumulate.

Set high standards for yourself
Know what you’re capable of and challenge yourself a bit. People are happiest when they have a reasonable challenge. Too much challenge is overwhelming, and too little challenge is under-stimulating. Knowing the sweet spot where your skills are and pushing a bit beyond helps you stay interested and results in pride of accomplishment.

Knowing quite a few perfectionist-types, I say to you: please be realistic about your expectations! If your expectations for yourself are too high, you’ll set yourself up for disappointment.

Have a plan and understand what you’re doing
Much like taking care of your kids, remember that knowing how and what to do prevents frustration and leads to calm confidence, and this lesson can be applied to how you run your business as well.

How do you keep yourself on track and stay disciplined? Share with us in the comments so we can all learn to be better bosses of ourselves! Also join us from 1-2pm EST June 20th for an #OMHG chat on self-discipline and lessons from camp.


  1. Sara Cormier says:

    I needed this post today! I’m struggling with mommy guilt since enrolling my daughter in daycare just 3 days per week. She was crying last night saying that she just wanted to be with me. I explained to her that I have to work. So now, I have to make good on my promise and not get distracted all day! I find that if I schedule important tasks, I am much more productive.

  2. Jenn Vetter says:

    Thank you for this oh so thorough road map to sanity. Too often I’m just pacing the house because I can’t remember the ONE thing I was about to do, and the reason I can’t remember is because I’m trying to do everything at once. Ugh.
    I appreciated your comment about the lost time the next day as you recover from staying up the night before. Word. Just recently I gave up any kind of sugar or carb in the morning because I know I’ll crash in the afternoon. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve gained since I’m not fighting the nap cravings any more.
    Also, thanks for the book tip.

  3. littlegreenguy says:

    I loved this article! Being your own boss is a blessing and sometimes a curse, I set to do lists that are so long they become unrealistic, I like the idea of a master to do list, and then picking a few things each day that should be done from there so its more manageable.
    I also think unplugging from facebook and the like is a great idea but one I am horrible with, I like chatting with friends as I work

    • Yes, prioritizing is really important. Some of my 100 things to do don’t really need to happen at all, but if I get them on my list, I can forget about them until it’s time to review. Having an achievable (small) list each day actually makes the to-dos start to happen!

  4. Kelly Kiser says:

    I love LOVE this article! I so took notes! I really need to work on my own self discipline as I am disciplining my two kiddos. I work at home to care for them but it has gotten all jumbled up and I feel like I don’t get anything done – I do but it is in an unorganized fashion. Thank you so much for this. It really opened my eyes to how I can change and make life a bit easier.

  5. Lauren Hardage says:

    Great post Arianne! Identifying 1-3 must-do’s for each day is my favorite tip from this article… I end up w/a big list full of things that range from super high-priority to things that would be “nice” to have done. I try to keep it sorted but sometimes it’s hard to parse. In addition to naming 1-3 must do’s, do you have daily/weekly/monthly lists? Do you make a fresh list every day or have a running list that carries over? Do you keep it all online? Paper? Just curious. 🙂 (I like the 5% link too! Thanks for sharing!)

    • Ah, my list! I am still refining how I do it. I’m using the “reminders” app on my iPhone. I have a list each for Work, Create, Maintain (that’s really Chores with ongoing repeating tasks), and general Reminders.

      I’ve been dating them, and they pop up on the Today list, for me to focus on on any given day. I am trying to have one thing from each of the three lists to do per day (or more than one if they’re shorter tasks).

      So far, I’m only planning about 1-2 weeks out, and I update it much like you would with weekly meal planning. Plan a bit ahead, then plan again when I reach the end of my plans. I look over my BIG to-do list and pull out one big important work goal for this week and next week, then fill in with other things.

      At the moment I have a birthday quilt with a deadline in my Create tasks. Not sure what I’ll do when I have no dated creativity to accomplish! 🙂

      • Lauren Hardage says:

        Ahh! My three columns are Work, Routine, and Errand. Routine is actually more fun than it sounds! It’s where I experiment w/adding new habits/long term patterns, including fun ones. Much of my work column is creative, so I don’t have a separate Create list!! I kind of want one though. Unfortch my non-web creative projects are way on the backburner… :]

  6. Jessica Nichols says:

    This is so good to read, I definitely lack in self-discipline and judge myself for it which doesn’t help. Instead, I will choose one thing to improve on for the rest of this week and it will be less phone time for sure.

  7. Mariah DeMarco says:

    Great article Arianne! I especially liked you’re idea to pick 1-3 things you’d like to accomplish in each day, rather than letting other things draw you in and take up all of your time. Great advice!

    I had a hard time with getting myself to exercise daily in the past. What helped me most was finding something that I genuinely enjoy with really good people who I can count on, who support me and whom I can support. For me, that’s crossfit.

    I also believe that if you have the financial means to have multiple memberships at different types of activities that you enjoy, it keeps you from being bored. For example, if you wake up and really don’t feel like a walk or weight training, you can pop into your local yoga studio for a class. If you have extra time another day, you can golf (minus the cart) ^_^ It’s all about keeping it fun. I got a year round pass to a local park that has great trails and hills to climb, frisbee golf course etc. I love it!

    I think people get pumped up with the aim to get healthy and go buy a gym membership, then, inevitably, & very quickly, they tire of the same ol’ routine and quit going all together, feeling like a failure. Having variety is really important when it comes to getting out to move your body! If you genuinely enjoy what you’re doing, whether it’s catch & jumping on the trampoline with your kids or crossfit & you have some variety (just say no to hamster exercise!) you will exercise regularly because it’s FUN! It *will become the breath of fresh air you need to work towards optimal health! I’m working really hard at crossfit because I want to be able to take one of those arial silk classes! That looks SO fun to me, but I need to get a bit stronger before I can do it.

    Once I start back at work, because I know my job can end up with me sitting for loooong periods of time, I’ve come up with a plan that will be simple to execute. I have a strap (to stretch with), some 12 pound dumbells and a big exercise ball that I will get up and play with every hour or so. You can get a really intense workout by alternating weights and cardio (air squats, planks etc.), in just 10 minutes. Every hour I’ll take a break for 10 minutes of stretching or 10 minutes of a mini cardio/strength workout. I have everything I need, right here in my office, so it’s accessible & easy! That’s what works for me. Good luck!

  8. colleen attara says:

    I am reading this over coffee before I head to my studio to get organized and ready for a presentation tomorrow. Applause! Social media takes so much time. Love and limits. That is what parenting is all about…and running a business. ps. I have great book for you to read when they are teens. A bible of sorts…

  9. Eleanor says:

    Stellar advice. Regarding exercise; I believe Seattle is a pretty walkable city, no? I live in Munich and we have no car, so I do everything either by foot or bike. Sometimes I go on a run, but like you, once I sit down at my computer, it’s over. Hoofing it or biking it for all of my non-home tasks (grocery shopping, errands, meeting a friend for coffee, etc.) guarantees that I get some movement, and it works for me to have it ‘built-in’ to my day, rather than a discrete event for it’s own sake.

  10. tractorgirl julie says:

    On so many points I could hear myself saying “Yes, Yes!”

    Exercise is something I struggle with too – I try & do it first thing before my head wakes up and says “HEY, What are you doing to me?” It mostly works 😉

    Thank you SO much for these fab tips; such a help. Self-discipline is THE biggest thing I struggle with.

    Cheers, Julie

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