Why Motivation is Crap & Discipline is Your Only Chance at Success

Motivation & discipline.  These two words seem to be used interchangeably, especially in the health space.  And when a coach preaches motivation, it instantly makes me believe them less.



I won’t say they’re mutually exclusive, but we need to shift the way we think about how these two desirable qualities work.  On their own, together, and how to apply them in our lives when they’re around.

Photo by  Austin Chan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

Discipline and Motivation: defined

This merits a little vocabulary lesson.  According to a quick google definition search, the definitions for each are the following…

  • Discipline: (v) To train by instruction and exercise; drill.
  • Motivation: (n) The general desire or willingness of someone to do something. (1)

If you’re going to take one thing from this article, it was just given to you in the above definitions.

Motivation only exists as a noun. But discipline has a verb form. In other words, discipline is something you do, and choose to do; motivation is a thing that can come and go, which you cannot choose to do or control.

Furthermore: you are never “motivated” to be more disciplined.  Discipline is useless if it’s not tied to the actions you want to be disciplined with. 

Calling someone “disciplined” as a general personality trait is a weak description, in my opinion, because even the most habitual person has something they’re not including in their daily behaviors.

It doesn’t matter how generally disciplined I am in my eating habits if I want to start practicing cello daily.  It’s a new habit, and we need to treat it as such.

So when you’re looking to change something in your life:

·      Let motivation inspire you, but don’t expect it to stick around.

·      Focus on building disciplined actions around that new thing.

·      Get specific in what “discipline” will look like for your specific goal.

How this perspective change will shift your productivity

Oftentimes, when we talk about setting & achieving a new goal, we mention the motivation for what got us going on this new path.  And that’s great, by the way – we NEED that initial nudge to get the ball rolling.

The problem is that it won’t keep rolling once it hits an uphill slope.

The daily grind sucks, even if it’s working on something you love.

Motivation is a wonderful thing to take advantage of when it strikes.  It gives us unusual powers of focus and productivity.  Use that when it’s around.

But motivation is finite, and if we’re operating from the noun as defined above, we can almost think of it as a separate being from ourselves that chooses when to visit.  We can’t beg, force, or manipulate it into sticking around longer than it wants to.

It feels incredible to want to make a huge change, but change is hard.  And that excitement will wear off far faster than any true plan can be created for executing on that excitement.

This is where discipline comes in to save the day. 

Humans are creatures of habit.

Precision Nutrition is a huge resource on this theory, and as a Pn2 certified coach I really like how they explain it.  But here's my version.

As much as we may not want to admit it, humans are extremely automated in their daily lives.  When was the last time you had to stop and think slowly about the process of getting out of bed and ending up in the office?

The more you think about it, the more things you can probably list that you don’t even consciously think about in your daily patterns.

This scares some people, and there are absolutely many ways this can be used against us.  But that’s not the point of this particular article.

No, in fact, the automation processes of the human brain were made from an evolutionary process that is highly selective and if it’s still around, there must be advantage to be had from automating so much of our brain activity.

And tapping into those hardwires is exactly what discipline is.

The benefits & beauty of habit

By understanding how we establish and practice habits each day, we can figure out how to implement beneficial ones (and remove burdening ones).

When we begin something new, we must focus a lot of our brain power on it because it’s out of the ordinary and we are learning how to do that thing.  But as we repeatedly do it, we need to devote less and less conscious brain activity to it until it eventually becomes second nature.

Back in the day when we were fighting just to survive, this was advantageous because we needed to be as vigilant as possible in case of an attack.  We didn’t want to spare the brain power focusing on how to place one step in front of the other; we needed that energy going toward scanning the greater environment and determining if that sound was the wind or something else.

The occurrence of synaptic pruning (2) explains the physical side of habit formation quite nicely: we can see through brain analyses of humans throughout life that by the time old age is reached, there are far fewer neurons connected to one another than in younger brains.

This helps create wisdom & expertise, according to some scientists – the brain has literally cut away all the extra “fluff” and has the hard process for its areas of high performance clearly defined.  There’s nothing left to figure out and parse through.  The brain has automated those activities so it no longer needs to spare much conscious thought to the task.

But it takes diligence and smart practice to create a true expert (3).

Why not harness these powers to change those things we’re motivated to?

Motivation will fire the engine… at first.  Discipline will keep you going when you think it’s out of gas.

Habit change isn’t hard.  But it is time-dependent, which maybe means it actually is hard in today’s right-now society.

If there’s something in your life you want to change – large or small – utilize your newfound motivation to decide on a new action you’re going to take daily that will help you to change that thing.

And despite the size of the goal, it’s probably going to take little steps to get to it.  

Photo by  Marten Bjork  on  Unsplash

Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash

Don’t set yourself up for failure.

The first action might even be so small, it seems ridiculous.  If your goal is to start going to the gym, you can literally start with driving to the gym, parking, walking in and out, and leaving.

That’s the habit of “going to the gym.”

Do it for 2 weeks, consistently, every day. 

Before long, you’ll find yourself feeling silly for taking the time to go to the gym just to walk in and out.  So maybe you begin staying for a little bit.  Maybe you walk on a treadmill for a few minutes.  Maybe you start thinking you may as well get a workout in if you’re going to the trouble of being there.

By setting the bar extremely low, you’re not putting much risk of failing on yourself.  You didn’t set any weight lifting record goals.  You don’t need to run a certain number of miles to feel like you “succeeded.” 

But you did set a bar so low that, if you don’t reach it, you’ll automatically want to do better.  It becomes an internal checkpoint for you to meet because it’s so simple.  And achieving goals makes us feel better about ourselves.

Once we’ve achieved that small habit change, we want to add onto it… just like how this example grew.  Why not stay for a bit?  Why not try that weight machine?  Why not take the time to use the gym, since you’re there anyway?

How long it takes to form a habit

The research on this varies, but it seems to fall in the range of 21 days for a new habit to form (4).

66 days for that behavior to become automatic (5).

When setting new habit goals, keep this in mind.  Don’t overwhelm yourself.  Your brain is working its hardest to lay those new pathways and make that habit automatic.  But you should let it do what it’s doing without giving it too much to deal with at once – so stick to one new habit at a time. 

Form habits. Create discipline. Stop worrying about when motivation will leave you… because at some point, it will. 


(1)   N.a. (n.d.) Motivation. Dictionary.com. Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/motivation?s=t

(2)   N.a. (n.d.) Why Is synaptic pruning important for the developing brain? Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-is-synaptic-pruning-important-for-the-developing-brain/

(3)   Ericsson, K.A., et. al. (2007). The making of an expert. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2007/07/the-making-of-an-expert

(4)   Popova, M. (n.d.) How long it takes to form a new habit. Brain Pickings. Retrieved from https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/01/02/how-long-it-takes-to-form-a-new-habit/

(5)   Clear, James. (n.d.) How long does it actually take to form a new habit? (backed by science). James Clear. Retrieved from https://jamesclear.com/new-habit