This post has been sitting as a draft for some time, which is a little ironic, considering the topic. I keep coming back to it, though, to incorporate new ideas as I talk to people and read. Informal research result: there is very little consensus about the difference (if any) between discipline and motivation and about how much control we have over them.

What better place to start, then, than with two diametrically opposed perspectives? From there maybe we can come up with a useful synthesis that can help us answer some questions like:

–Are some people just naturally more disciplined? And, as a follow up: What’s the correct phrasing–“to be disciplined”, “to exercise discipline”, “to exhibit discipline”, “to practice discipline”?

–Can we increase our discipline?

–What about motivation–is it just fickle inspiration that comes and goes on its own unintelligible schedule?

First, a quick overview of the dichotomous arguments.

One perspective is that motivation is useless (nsfw) and that discipline is what actually allows us to get things done. Employing discipline (“being disciplined”?) means we do what needs to be done, regardless of how driven we are (motivated) to do it. We want to cultivate discipline so that we free ourselves from waiting to feel motivated.  This argument also holds that discipline increases motivation: as we make progress on things that help us achieve our goals, we feed our motivation with positive feelings of accomplishment. Discipline is reliable, functional, and bypasses the need to wait for the mental or emotional state of feeling motivated.

The other view is that self-discipline is a myth. The only way we can act is if we are somehow motivated. Even though we might think we use discipline, it’s always motivation–visualizing the end result of an effort, setting up rewards, psyching ourselves up, telling people we are going to do something–all motivation actions. Anything we do to force ourselves into action is motivation. And we cannot cultivate discipline, because that would require discipline–which we don’t have to start off. Logically impossible.

A Synthesis

I don’t think that discipline is a myth. I think it is an application of motivation. It’s pushing yourself to do something even when you don’t feel like it. It’s actively seeking out motivation when the motivation isn’t coming to you.

You lift heavy because you want to stay fit and able. You send a thank you card because you want to express gratitude and nurture a relationship. You eat a doughnut because you are wired to consume fat and sugar when it’s available. (That’s not an excuse–it’s a recognition and therefore responsibility to own and correct a habit.) You buy a used car at the local auction because you want to save and invest for the future.

You are acting under the influence of some goal or outside force. Whether it’s a long-term payoff, fear of failure or embarrassment, or losing a bet…there’s something driving your actions.

Discipline might be defined as the skill of tuning in to long-term goals and rewards even when the connection is faint and being drowned out by loud, up close rewards. It’s a conscious decision and effort to focus on an end result and to let the pursuit of a goal drive your actions.

It’s going to the gym to squat on Friday night after work, or studying a little more for the test instead of going out with friends, or making dinner with your family and sitting down to eat together without the TV blaring in the background.

Think of discipline as chopping motivation up into little pieces and putting them in baggie in your pocket. Each time you do something to reach a goal, you take one of the pieces out of the baggie as fuel. Motivation trail mix.

This synthesis is important because it gets to the idea of cultivating discipline. To use the example above, we can practice chopping motivation up ahead of time and thinking strategically about how we are going to portion it out. It’s the conscious, deliberate side of the equation. The more we practice this planning, focusing on, and portioning out motivation (i.e. cultivating discipline), the more efficient and skilled we become at it.

To go one step further, portioning out motivation is really the process of building habits. We identify the things we need to do in order to achieve our goals, and then we try to make our behaviors match that to do list. Sometimes we are excited about what we have to do, and sometimes we’re not. But when we can make something a habit, we do it with a lot less agonizing over whether or not to do it. It’s almost second nature. Building habits is another way of efficiently rationing out motivation trail mix.

Are some people naturally better at it than others? Probably. But we can all improve. And not being good at it right now doesn’t make you a bad person. While we’re here, let’s explicitly throw away a useless cultural attachment: the tendency to convict ourselves or others of moral failing or weakness of character for supposedly lacking discipline. We can practice it and become better.

So we can think of motivation as a passive inspiration. It’s a natural inclination. Discipline is an active, strategic, purposeful, and skillful application of that inclination. And discipline can help feed the fire of motivation, by providing us with small victories on the way to achieving bigger things.

The Takeaway

The most useful takeaway is that we have control, and that we can build habits to harness and leverage motivation over time. We can increase our discipline–our ability to tune into and focus on motivation–with practice. You might not be super-skilled at this right now, but it’s not a moral failing or character flaw. It’s just a piece of life that we all need to practice consistently.


What do you think? Middle ground reached?


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