Why "Discipline Not Motivation" is Wrong

nutrition Mar 24, 2019

Remember when you resolved to make exercise a regular part of your life?

But along the way you realized a treadmill is not that exciting? Or midnight was always the perfect time to begin a new season on Netflix?

If you are human, the answer is yes.

For one reason or another your motivation waned or withered under life’s temptations. So here’s the reality: You cannot reach your fitness goals unless you first conquer motivation. Motivation is the electricity that powers everything you want to achieve.

Yet motivation’s rep has taken a hit lately. Many say motivation is fleeting and therefore unreliable. They say focusing on discipline is more effective and helpful to your goals. This new approach even has its own hashtag: #DisciplineNotMotivation.


What Is Motivation?

The idea that discipline is separate from and more important than motivation has a couple of flaws.

But before we even debate the subject, we must clarify what is meant by “motivation.”

Those who devalue motivation believe it is an amped-up, emotional state where you could play a world championship game or perform a four hour rock concert to a stadium of fans.  Or you are least super excited to do what comes next.

Thankfully, the standard is not that high for motivation.  The definition is “having a strong reason to act or accomplish something.”  Pretty simple.  And not nearly as difficult to achieve, right?

So let’s kill this notion that motivation requires to you to feel any of the following:

  • excited
  • thrilled
  • enthusiastic

You certainly could feel those emotions, and that would be an asset.   But motivation is easier than that: it is simply having a strong reason to act.


Two Types of Motivation

With our definition in hand, let’s break down motivation just a bit further.

In my years of trying to crack the code of motivation for my own business endeavors, and motivating many of my clients, I realized there are two broad types of motivation, which I call Task Motivation and Purpose Motivation.



Task Motivation is the desire you have for the immediate task or project right in front of you. The workout at 7am. The five sets of deadlifts. The two miles you will run on Saturday.

Motivation for tasks is the most difficult to achieve. Why? Because it’s not sexy. It’s the grunt work, the clock you punch to get the paycheck. Sure, crazy people like myself often love the experience of lifting heavy weights, but most folks find it undesirable – at least at first :) 

And, unfortunately, the “here today, gone tomorrow” quality of task motivation is used to argue that discipline is the better way to go. Thankfully, it’s not the only motivation available.

The more important type is Purpose Motivation – the motivation you have toward an end-goal or accomplishment. This is the twenty pounds of bodyfat you want to lose in 2017. Your desire to run a half marathon. Or getting your blood pressure and cholesterol down to healthy levels. Any motivation you have to achieve larger goals is Purpose Motivation.    

And purpose motivation is not so fleeting. It can be called upon frequently and easily to override lethargy toward day’s workout.


Discipline Does Not Trump Motivation


So where does discipline fit into all of this?

Discipline is a state where you have little or no desire to do the task at hand, or are tempted to do something easier, but you do it anyway because you are connected to and motivated by a bigger purpose.

Notice that you cannot employ discipline until you are first motivated toward a purpose. For example, I cannot be disciplined about studying for a history test unless I am motivated toward a larger purpose or end goal that requires me to do well on that history test (e.g. earning a bachelor’s degree.)

Said another way,  you cannot constantly crack the whip of discipline upon yourself unless you can see a desirable end result in doing the task. I cannot discipline myself daily to play the tuba because, well, I don’t see how playing the tuba will improve any aspect of my life (though I can imagine some harm.)

Discipline is a great quality, but it cannot precede or exist without motivation toward your PURPOSE or WHY. In fact, the path toward more discipline is to consistently fuel the fire of your purpose motivation.

The flip side of that is also true: the more disconnected you feel toward your purpose, the less effective discipline will become.


Overcoming the Motivation Problem

While I have argued that motivation reigns over discipline, I readily admit that motivation can be fleeting. It does not always last and you will need to recharge it often. To some extent, that’s the nature of it. My favorite analogy is that we do not stop taking showers because they keep us clean for one day. Same for motivation: you must do it regularly.

But never feel guilty for feeling unmotivated. It is not a failing, it is human.  This world relentlessly throws temptation your way, making it dangerously easy to stray from your workout routine or healthy eating habits. The best response is to remain deeply connected to your purpose, which will boost your motivation to consistently high levels.   

All you need are some simple strategies and daily practices. The remainder of this series is committed to teaching you those tools.

Stay tuned for Part II….




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