The Single Most Important Thing You Can Master for Financial, Personal, and Professional Success

Yesterday, I addressed a great Aks the Simple Dollar question from a parent who was worried about their 11th grade child being ready for college. I’m going to share the question (in bold) and the first part of my answer (in italics) below, because it forms a starting point for this discussion.

Our son is a high school junior. He gets straight A’s at school but I just don’t think he’s ready for college at this point. He does not take school seriously at all because he’s smart enough that he can get away with last minute work and no studying. When I try to make him study, he argues against it and uses his good grades as evidence that he studies enough. He has no academic interests at all and spends his free time either reading fantasy novels or playing games with his friends. I feel like he’s going to be in real trouble if he hits an actual hard class because he has no study skills at all and I am worried that he’s going to bomb out in college and it will be a waste of money and time for him at his current maturity level. All of his advisors just say the same things about college being absolutely necessary and don’t even consider if he’s really ready for it. I know you have an open mind about college so I wanted to get your take.
– Clint

Your son sounds a lot like me at the end of my high school years. I had very little work ethic, but I found it easy to maintain good grades by putting forth minimal effort.

When I got to college, I saw a lot of kids just like me drop like flies. Luckily, I was able to build some work ethic by having semesters where I had a few classes I could skate through and just one or two that were tough, which helped me build work ethic without totally collapsing my grades. I was luckier than many of my friends, as a lot of them dropped out in the first year or two of school.

I can’t predict whether your son will make it or not, but you’re correct in saying that he probably won’t make it without real work ethic. He should be taking the most difficult classes available to him right now in order to build that ethic. Is he doing that? If so, are you sure there aren’t even harder options, like college credit classes, that he could be taking?

That answer came from the heart.

I skated through high school. I was able to maintain a GPA well above 3.5 with absolutely minimal effort. I completed my assignments as quickly as possible. I rarely, if ever, studied for tests.

My senior year was particularly poor in terms of work ethic in terms of school. I was deeply involved in an extracurricular club, so I ended up with an “independent study” class with a teacher who mostly just let me take care of extracurricular business. I had study halls, PE, and another independent study, too, where I mostly worked at my own pace through a textbook.

It was a fun senior year, but it was probably the worst year of my life in terms of growing as a person.

When I started college, I had zero work ethic for academics. I enjoyed learning things, but only on my own terms. Going to a class three times a week? Taking notes? Preparing for exams? Doing assignments? That was difficult unless I was deeply engaged with the topic, which was true only a small fraction of the time.

During my second year in college, I almost lost my scholarships – and I didn’t exactly have to maintain a great GPA to keep them.

Thankfully, that was enough of a wake-up call for me, but it wasn’t enough for a lot of my friends. Several of them were gone at the end of my freshman year. A few that didn’t completely fail out chose to go to a different and theoretically easier school.

They were much like me. They had a bit of natural talent for picking up ideas quickly, and if you have that natural talent, it becomes easy to not have to work in school. When you don’t have to work in school, you’ll keep coasting until it becomes incredibly hard and either you’ll just completely flame out or you’ll have a miserable period where better study habits are shoved down your throat.

For almost everyone, good study habits are the key to success in college. You can have a lot of knowledge coming in the door and you can have a talent for picking up new ideas relatively quickly, but if you don’t have good study habits, you’re going to eventually be in real trouble.

When you get down to it, self-discipline is the key here. If I had not developed a level of self-discipline during those latter years in college, I would have flunked out and my life would be on a much worse trajectory than it’s on right now.

In a funny way, the same exact phenomenon played out with the evolution of my financial life.

In college, I had very little spending money. It was due to financial demand – I didn’t really have very much money. The part-time jobs I held in college went almost entirely toward paying rent and putting food on the table. It appeared from the outside as though I had financial discipline, but in reality, any sense of financial discipline was forced on me by my situation.

Once I walked away from school and into a good job, my income jumped radically, and quickly my lack of financial self-discipline began to show. I spent and spent and spent some more. I found it was easy to get credit, and so I spent that, too. Within a few years, my wife and I had credit card debt in the five figures, car loans, student loans, and several other items bought on credit, too.

What was the recipe for getting out of that mess? Self-discipline.

Sarah and I started buckling down in every aspect of our financial lives. I buried myself in personal finance books until I got a strong grasp on what I needed to do. We built budgets and net worth calculators. We had money-free weeks and money-free weekends. We learned to put aside a lot of our little treats, the ones that had been repeated so often that they were now ordinary.

In other words, we built self-discipline.

What happened? We paid off every single one of our debts. In 2007, we purchased a house with a mortgage and, by the end of 2011, that mortgage was paid off in full. In 2009 and 2010, we replaced both of our vehicles – the first one on a loan that was paid off entirely within a few months and the second paid for entirely in cash. We are completely debt free and currently put away somewhere around 50% of our income into investments for the future – we essentially bank my entire income and live on Sarah’s income.

Self-discipline was the central key to all of it.

In fact, self-discipline is at the core of every single success story and turnaround in my life. It was at the core of my academic turnaround in college. It was at the core of my financial turnaround as an adult. It’s been at the core of other personal struggles, too.

In the same way, a lack of self-discipline has been at the core of every major failure in my life. When I haven’t succeeded at something I wanted in my life, it’s been due to a lack of self-discipline.

So let’s dig into it.

What Is Self-Discipline?

When I refer to self-discipline, I’m using what I consider the broadest meaning. In other words, it means the training and control of personal behavior.

In most situations, I have a natural response to how I will act. It’s the response that comes most naturally to me – and, like most people, it’s often one of the easiest responses.

When someone offers you a plate of your favorite unhealthy food when you’re quite hungry, you’ll probably eat it – or be seriously tempted to do so. The harder path is to not eat it, or to eat a small portion of it.

When you’re in a store and you see an item you really want on the shelves, you’ll strongly consider buying it, especially if it’s well within the constraints of your checking account. The harder path is to not buy it and walk out of the store empty-handed.

The harder path is the path of self-discipline.

Self-discipline usually seems like the worse outcome in the short term. It means getting up at 5 AM to exercise. It means bearing down and reading difficult material and trying to understand it when you could be binge-watching House of Cards. It means passing up on that item that you really want. It means passing by that delicious sandwich and eating a salad. It means studying when your friends are going out.

All of those things sound unpleasant in the short term, but they lead to better results in the long term. You get better grades. You acquire stronger skills. You feel physically better. You have more money in your checking and savings and investing accounts.

That’s self-discipline. It’s sacrificing the easiest path in the short term to have better results – and a better life – in the long term.

Five Strategies for Building Self-Discipline for Your Goals

Self-discipline isn’t something you just flip on like a switch. You have to build it over time. The most self-disciplined people I know didn’t start out that way. They put in the hard work to achieve it for themselves.

In my life, I’ve found that only a few strategies really work for this. Here are five of them.

1. Start now, not later.

The idea that it’s somehow going to be easier to start in a few days or a week or next month is virtually always a mental trick you’re playing on yourself. It’s the “easier path” raising it’s ugly head, convincing you that you can start on the hard path tomorrow and just take the easy path today.

Guess what? Every day you don’t do it, the farther off your goals and dreams are. Every day you choose to decide to start changing next week instead of now is a wasted day.

Here are three tactics to get started on the right foot with your financial self-discipline.

Spend less today. Not tomorrow. Today. Don’t tell yourself that you can start cutting back tomorrow to excuse some unnecessary indulgence today. You’ll just repeat that same exact excuse in your mind tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that – much like you always have. Today is the only day that matters for change.

Make the necessary “startup” steps your highest priority for the next few days. Some changes do require some structural changes in your life beyond the day-to-day choice. For example, you might want to start lifting weights but don’t have a gym membership, or you might want to start investing but don’t have an investment account or a 401(k). Make those necessary structural steps a high priority for the next few days. They are the most important things you can do. Take care of them. That way, the foundation is in place for good day-to-day choices and you don’t have nearly as many excuses.

Don’t shy away from giant steps, but remember that little steps are successes, too. Sometimes, giant transformations are the ones that click. In other situations, a few steps forward all day are what it takes. It depends on the person and it depends on the situation. Don’t be afraid to try big challenging life changes, but don’t be upset if they don’t work out – you’re not a failure. Remember, five minutes of exercise a day is five minutes you weren’t getting before. $20 saved a month is $20 you weren’t saving before.

2. Remove temptations from your regular environment

Our lives are loaded with lots of little choices. The more opportunities we have to make choices related to the things that tempt us, the more poor choices we’re going to make (or, at the very least, the harder it will be to be perfect). That’s just human nature.

Thus, one of the best routes we can take towards having fewer bad decisions is to simply reduce the number of decisions. How do we do that? We remove things from our life that encourage us to make those decisions – those things that tempt us and make it easy to act on those temptations.

Here are three tactics for removing financial temptations.

Delete your passwords and credit cards from websites. If you often buy things online that you don’t particularly need, one great strategy for stemming that tide is to delete your credit card information from online retailers as well as removing password information from those sites from your browser. Doing this makes it less convenient to shop online and thus raises the bar of resistance against spending that money.

Avoid places where you might be tempted to spend money. If you’re tempted to spend money in bookstores, stop going to bookstores. If you’re tempted to spend money in coffee shops, stop going to coffee shops. You get the idea. That doesn’t mean that you should stop going to those places entirely, but that you should step back and make them rare “treats” instead of common occurrences.

Don’t carry cash or credit cards with you unless you intend to spend. There’s no need to have cash or credit cards with you every time you leave the house. I often go out and about for local things with no money in hand or else the minimum amount needed for my task. That way, even if I’m unexpectedly tempted, I don’t have the money conveniently on hand, making it much easier to just walk away.

3. Establish fresher routines for your day-to-day life.

Many of our biggest expenses come from the ways we live our day-to-day lives, accruing expenses without hardly a second thought. Our normal routines often accrue expenses – coffee from the coffee shop, electricity and water used at home, gas used in the car, and so on – and with just a few tweaks we can cut back on these routines, saving money without losing anything of value.

Here are three of my favorite ways to find better routines in my life.

Purchase more energy-efficient devices when they need to be replaced. When it’s time for a new light bulb, use a LED bulb instead of an incandescent. When you have to replace your washing machine, buy a more energy efficient one. When you have to get a new car, keep a careful eye on fuel efficiency. The more efficient your devices, the less electricity, water, and gas you’ll use. The less electricity, water, and gas you’ll use, the lower your bills will be.

Find the most efficient commute. Commuters often figure out one route to get to work and then stick with that same route through thick and thin, even if that route isn’t the most efficient one. I was able to shave two miles each way off of my work commute in my earlier professional days, and Sarah trimmed about five miles each way off of her commute. That’s a total of 2,500 miles saved per year, cutting our gas bills and our car maintenance bills, and extending our car replacement cycles.

Renegotiate your bills. Almost all of your monthly bills is negotiable. Many of them allow you to bounce competitors off of each other to get a better deal. Take advantage of that. Call up the company behind each of your monthly bills and ask for a rate reduction. If you can’t get one, look for competitors and don’t be afraid to switch or use the alternate offer as leverage. Do this with every single one of your bills and you’re bound to spend money.

4. Don’t get hung up on individual mistakes; instead, focus on a new day.

You’re going to mess up. You’re going to spend money in a way that you regret. You’re going to discover some dumb mistake you’ve been making over and over with and feel like a fool when you actually see it.

Don’t get hung up on your mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. The key is always to look at where you were several months ago and how you’ve improved over that timeframe.

Here are three tactics for keeping your eye on the ball and moving on from imperfection.

Recognize always that one misstep does not mean the end of your progress. Just because you ate one unhealthy meal this week does not mean that great dietary habits for the other twenty meals suddenly vanish. Just because you spent $25 on a splurge once this month doesn’t mean that all of your many good choices vanished. Remember, a 99% success rate is still an “A” grade. It is not a failure.

Spend time figuring out why you made that misstep and don’t just merely excuse it. Quite often, the most powerful parts of our progress come from our mistakes. They show us the areas where we still need work and show us details that we’ve missed along the way. Look at your mistakes and figure out why they happened. Keep asking “why” until you bump up against something that’s fixable – and then work on fixing whatever that is.

Focus on today and tomorrow – only use the past and far future as inspiration until you’ve mastered your new habits. As you’re going through life, the only thing that really matters is today. At the end of each day, step back, reflect on what work and didn’t work today, and use that to think about how to do better tomorrow. Today and tomorrow are all that really matter. Keep executing well on those two days over and over again and you’ll succeed at anything.

5. Schedule treats.

A life that’s all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

If you continually strive for absolute perfection in your goals, you’re going to eventually resent it and rebel against it. That’s human nature. All great goals provide at least a little breathing room for people to enjoy things and explore things.

Here are three great tactics for giving yourself a little bit of smart breathing room.

Give yourself a certain amount of room and freedom for spontaneity. My approach to this with my finances is to have a monthly “no questions asked” splurging budget for my hobbies. It’s a relatively small amount I can spend each month however I want on my hobbies, no questions asked, no guilt necessary as long as I stay within the lines. This allows me to dabble in interests and sometimes splurge without feeling any guilt because I know that money is accounted for. It also has the dual effect of splurges outside of that budget feeling incredibly guilty, which is a useful thing. I’m emotionally drawn to stay within that monthly hobby budget.

Choose “time” splurges rather than “money” splurges. One great way to “splurge” is to wall off a few hours to do something that you enjoy personally. For me, this usually takes the form of setting aside a few hours for reading or for a deep board game. Both experiences leave me feeling deeply fulfilled, but don’t cost me any money.

Enjoy the anticipation and the afterglow. I’ve found that when I space out my splurges, I get quite a bit of secondary joy in anticipating that splurge, as well as in the aftereffect of that splurge. I’ll greatly enjoy the buildup and the waiting and the thinking about the splurge, and I’ll also savor the treat and reflect more on the experience if I spread out the splurges. That adds a lot to the value I get for my dollar.

Final Thoughts

Self-discipline is useful for improving one’s finances, but it’s helpful in almost every aspect of life that we want to improve, whether it’s our own education or our health or our skills. These five strategies will help you no matter what you choose to improve in your life. Finances are just the start.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.