6 Steps for Self-Discipline When You Study

Exercising Willpower to Earn the Grade You Want

College student studying from a book

Fotografias Rodolfo Velasco/Getty Images

Have you ever heard the quote, "Self-discipline is the difference between choosing what you want now and choosing what you want most"? It's a quote that tons of people in the business world follow religiously in order to get exactly what they most desire from their companies. It's a theory that many people use to get themselves out of bed to get to the gym before going to work. It's a mantra that athletes use to do that last set of squats, even though their legs are burning and they want nothing more than to quit. But its message of endurance and self-denial is perfect for those students looking to gain an edge on their competition by acing the ACT in order to get into the college or university of their dreams or those students who simply want to score their highest on their midterm or final exams. 

Why Self-Discipline Is Important

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of self-discipline is the "correction or regulation of oneself for the sake of improvement." This definition implies that certain regulation or stopping of ourselves from certain behaviors is important if we are going to improve in some way. If we are relating this to studying, it means that we need to stop doing certain things or start doing certain things while studying in order to get the positive results we crave. Regulating ourselves in this way is incredibly important because it can build self-esteem. When we achieve the goals we set for ourselves, we get a boost of confidence which can improve many aspects of our lives.

How to Have Self-Discipline When You Study

Step 1: Remove Temptations

Self-discipline is the easiest when things that distract you from your studies are out of sight, out of earshot, and out the window, if necessary. If you find yourself tempted by external distractions like your cell phone, then by all means, turn the thing completely off. Nothing is going to happen in the 45 minutes that you are going to sit down to study (more on that in a minute) that cannot wait until you have a scheduled break. Also, take the time to remove the clutter from your study area if clutter makes you crazy. Unpaid bills, notes to yourself of things you need to accomplish, letters or even pictures can pull your focus off your studies and into places it does not belong when you are trying to learn how to write a stellar essay for the Enhanced ACT test.

Step 2: Eat Brain Food Before You Begin

Studies have shown that when we are exercising willpower (another word for self-discipline), our mental energy tanks slowly get emptied. Forcing ourselves to give up what we want in the now for what we want later physically zaps our reserves of glucose, which is the brain's favorite fuel. This is why when we are sitting diligently ignoring our cell phones and pushing back our need to check Instagram, we are more likely to head to the pantry for a chocolate chip cookie than we would be if we were not practicing self-discipline at all. So, before we ever sit down to study, we need to be sure to indulge in some brain foods like scrambled eggs, a little bit of dark chocolate, maybe even a jolt of caffeine to make sure that our glucose is steady enough to NOT drive us away from the learning we're trying to do.

Step 3: Do Away With Perfect Timing

There is never a perfect time to begin studying for your test. The more time you give yourself the better off you will be, but if you sit around and wait for the perfect moment to start studying, you will be waiting for the rest of your life. There will always be something more important than reviewing the SAT Mathematics test questions. Your friends will beg you to go out to the movies to see the final showing of the season's top film. Your family members will need to be driven on errands or your parents will need you to finish cleaning your room. If you wait until everything is just right—when everything else is accomplished and you feel great —you will never find the time to study.

Step 4: Ask Yourself "If I Had to, Could I?"

Imagine that you are sitting at your desk. Behind you is an intruder with a weapon pointed at your head. If the only thing between life and saying goodbye to the world as you know it was studying for the next several hours (with scheduled breaks), could you do it? Of course, you could! Nothing in the world would mean more than your life at that moment. So, if you could do it then—drop everything and give studying everything you have in you—then you can do it in the safety of your own bedroom or library when the stakes aren't quite that high. It's all about mental strength. Give yourself a pep-talk. Tell yourself, "I have to do this. Everything depends on it." Sometimes, imagining a real life-death scenario works when you're staring at 37 pages of differential equations.

Step 4: Give Yourself a Break

And by giving yourself a break, we definitely don't mean abandoning all self-discipline and settling down in front of the TV. Schedule mini-breaks into your study session strategically. Set a watch or timer (not the phone - that's turned off) for 45 minutes. Then, force yourself to study for those 45 minutes, making sure that nothing interferes with your work. Then, at 45 minutes, take a scheduled 5- to 7-minute break. Use the bathroom, stretch your legs, grab some brain food, reorganize, and get back at it when the break is over.

Step 5: Give Yourself Rewards

Sometimes the answer to being self-disciplined lies in the quality of the reward you give yourself for exercising willpower. For many people, the practice of self-discipline is a reward in and of itself. For others, especially those who are just trying to learn to have some willpower when studying, you will need something a little more tangible. So, set up a reward system. Set your timer. Practice studying for that final for 20 minutes with no interruptions. If you've made it that far, then give yourself a point. Then, after a short break, do it again. If you make it another 20 minutes, give yourself another point. Once you've accumulated three points—you have managed to study for a full hour without surrendering to distractions—you get your reward. Perhaps it's a Starbucks latte, one episode of Seinfeld, or even just the luxury of getting onto social media for a few minutes. Make the reward worth it and withhold the reward until you've met your goal!

Step 6: Start Small

Self-discipline is not a natural thing. Sure. Some people are more self-disciplined than others. They have the rare ability to say "no" to themselves when they want to say "yes". What you need to remember, however, is that self-discipline is a learned skill. Just like the ability to make a perfect free-throw with a high percentage of accuracy only comes after hours and hours on the court, self-discipline comes from the repeated exercise of willpower.

Dr. Anders Ericsson, a Florida State University psychologist says that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, but “You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal. You have to tweak the system by pushing,” he adds, “allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits.” So, if you truly want to become an expert at having self-discipline while studying, you not only have to practice the skill, you have to start small, especially if you repeatedly give in to what you want now instead of waiting for what you want most.

Start by forcing yourself to study ("I have to" style) for just 10 straight minutes with 5-minute breaks in between. Then, once that becomes relatively easy, shoot for fifteen minutes. Keep increasing the time you manage self-discipline until you are able to focus for the full 45 minutes. Then, reward yourself with something and get back at it.

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Your Citation
Roell, Kelly. "6 Steps for Self-Discipline When You Study." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/self-discipline-when-you-study-4103387. Roell, Kelly. (2020, August 26). 6 Steps for Self-Discipline When You Study. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/self-discipline-when-you-study-4103387 Roell, Kelly. "6 Steps for Self-Discipline When You Study." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/self-discipline-when-you-study-4103387 (accessed March 30, 2023).