Motivation v. Discipline: Why you want the former, and need the latter

We love to talk about motivation. As individuals. As employees. As bosses. As parents. As teachers. Everyone wants to motivate someone or motivate themselves. We love reading articles on how to motivate yourself to eat healthier. Go to bed earlier. Spend less time on social media. How to motivate your employees to work harder. Motivation is the golden child. When you have it, it makes things easier. If you are super motivated to workout, because you feel energetic, or love the results you are getting, or enjoy the friends you workout with, then the working out is easier.

But for those times when you don’t have the energy? Aren’t seeing the results? Your friends baled? Because everyone who’s ever worked out knows that you don’t always feel like it. Just like you won’t always be motivated to call your next client. Or start that next big work project. Or jump out of bed as soon as your alarm clock rings in the morning. Motivation – while nice to have – is a fickle beast that does not come when called, or stay when it’s told.

When motivation fails you, what do you have left? You have discipline. You have the ability to not ask yourself if you will enjoy something, or if you feel like it. You have the ability to just tell yourself that you are going to do it, no matter. Motivation is like a half-grown kitten – sometimes sleeping, sometimes hiding in some comfy hole, sometimes grumpy and petulant, sometimes bats*** crazy, and spending far less time than you’d maybe like snuggly and friendly and playful. Discipline is what you really need to get you through both your daily routines, and the unexpected other things that come up. Discipline will come when called, and stay when told. But it is something that has to be developed through practice.

Maybe your goal is to start knocking things out as soon as you sit down to work in the morning, instead of spending those 15-20 minutes messing with your phone. Or maybe it’s to spend the last hour of your day reading a well-reviewed or informative book. Or make whole wheat toast instead of a pop tart for breakfast. But you’ve developed a habit of wasting time and eating pop tarts, so it will require the development of another habit to over come that. Until that healthier habit forms, discipline is what steps up to the plate to help you just do the things that you don’t really want to do. Here are a few things to try as you work on developing that discipline.

  1. Give yourself reminders. There is nothing wrong with remind yourself of the things you need to “just do.” Maybe this is literally a reminder you set on your phone for 6:30 in the morning before you leave for work, reminding you to “Eat the yogurt! Don’t forget fruit!” Maybe it’s an alarm set to go off an hour before you’d normally go to bed, reminding you to get off social media and find that good book you’d been wanting to read. You won’t always feel like following them. But discipline is not feeling based. And eventually, if you keep following the reminders, you won’t need them anymore.
  2. Set Priorities. Discipline has to be developed – like many things worth having – with care, over a period of time. And it helps to realize at the start that there is only so much you can even discipline yourself to do. You might not physically have the time to meditate and go for a run and pack a healthy lunch before you leave for work in the morning. You might have to set different priorities for different mornings. Or make packing a lunch a priority for the night before. Overwhelming yourself with the number of things you are trying to do will not help develop discipline – it will be a good way to convince yourself that discipline doesn’t work.
  3. Break down what you have to accomplish. Maybe the task you are doing isn’t actually that large – you are just looking at the entire thing at one time.

As an endurance rider, I train and condition horses to go 50-100 miles in one day. Now, you start off any endurance ride knowing that there are 50 miles ahead of you. And that factors into how you ride, even at the very beginning. But you don’t ride each mile thinking of the entire 50 you have to cover. On certain hot, humid Arkansas days doing so would easily convince you of your certain insanity. The only way to complete the rides is focus on smaller milestones you set for yourself. The next road crossing. The next water tank. Maybe just the top of the next hill. Only by breaking it into small pieces can you tackle the full challenge of the day.

The same goes for any endeavor. No author sets off to write a book in one sitting. Sometimes all you can do it plan to the end of the next sentence. And the students who sit down to write important papers in one harried sitting often later wish they hadn’t. And certainly their instructors wish they hadn’t.

Maybe the best way to start that project you are dreading is to approach it less like a college freshman – i.e. wait till 2 a.m. the day a paper is due, and then launch in fueled by appropriate amounts of despair, desperation, and energy drinks. Maybe the best way to start is to imagine your project on Henry Ford’s revolutionary assembly line. Think of the different ways it can be broken down. What individual components can be completed on their own before the entire thing is pieced together.

So the next time you are sitting at your desk or on your couch, waiting for motivation to come strike you like a bolt of pure energy and propel you out of your seat into whatever you need to be doing – don’t wait. Call discipline. Tell it to heel. And get up and do the thing.


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