One Surprising Habit to Improve Your Self-Discipline

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By: Ryan Kelly

People tend to view their strengths and weaknesses as unchangeable - certain superpowers or fatal flaws that are hardwired into their genes and personality.

Think about it - how many times have you heard someone say, “I’m not a math person” or “Me and technology just don’t get along!” These statements aren’t facts; they’re just stubborn refusals to change or do what’s uncomfortable.

Most pre-meds assume that self-discipline is something they’re born with. You either have it or you don’t. This is a convenient outlook for those who are less than thrilled to work on their personal statements and medical school essays.

But the truth is that you can develop and hone your self-discipline as a writer, even when you feel unsure about what to write next. If you’re a procrastinator, or you’re just stuck in writer’s block, try writing about something unexpected: gratitude.

Spend a few minutes each day writing a paragraph about one of the following questions:

  • For what are you grateful?

  • Who has made you smile recently and why?

  • What do you consistently take for granted?

Feeling grateful helps you keep your pre-med problems in perspective. It helps you realize that - even if you fail at becoming a doctor - you'll still have people in your life to help catch your fall.

But there's another reason that’s more relevant here: feeling grateful improves self-discipline. A simple experiment helps test this hypothesis: The Only Way to Keep Your Resolutions.

The question goes like this: you can either have:

  • $20 today (before you walk out the door of the research lab) or

  • $100 a year from today

Which would you choose? This question splits roughly down the middle between people who'd rather have the $20 now (discounting their future year by 80%), and people who will take the $100 in a year. This propensity to discount the future relates to how well people are able to choose actions today that will benefit them later. That's the essence of self-discipline. And of course, some people are more self-disciplined than others, as shown by the folks who want their money now.

But your self-discipline can be changed by your thoughts. Many pre-meds assume that working harder - gritting it out, waking earlier, or muscling through - will improve self-discipline. Not so.  Self-discipline tends to wane over time, and trying to grit it out will lead to burnout and stress.

What can change your self-discipline? Gratitude. The researchers asked subjects to recall an event that made them feel grateful. Those who had done so were more willing to forego the $20; they had to be paid at least $30 to forego the future reward.

So spend a little time each morning practicing gratitude. Meditate on it. Think of your loved ones. And yes, write about it. If only to help improve your self-discipline while getting through your personal statement.