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Motivation vs. Discipline


Most people want to change aspects of their life. We want to earn more, or just have more money left at the end of the month. We'd like to be skinnier, or just "feel" skinnier (yes, there is a difference). We want to feel stronger, more social, better liked, better-looking, mentally stabler, etc. etc. We always want something. We have the motivation to change. To be motivated (to want change) is great. According to models such as COM-B, where the M stands for Motivation, behavioural change is unlikely to occur if an individual is not motivated to change. This makes intuitive sense. But motivation in itself is not going to cut it.

I mentioned this in the previous article on recipes for success. To be like the Rock, you would have to be like the Rock. Live his lifestyle, do his work-outs and eat his diet. And given that he eats steamed vegetables and cod all the time, and his workouts take up about 4 hours a day, this is not something you can do on motivation alone. Because motivation is a fickle lover. Motivation comes and goes. It depends on how much sleep we have had, how tired we feel, and how we feel overall; whether we are in a good mood or a bad mood. And this again depends on whether we had a good week, a good day at work, a nice lunch. Something as small as a bad interaction with a colleague, customer, friend or relative can throw is into a spiralling bad mood, making us either a lot less, or a lot more likely to stick to our plan. Being able to influence your mood to make you more motivated is a great thing. It can be very useful for both yourself and others. However, it is not a rock solid plan. As I said before, motivation is fickle. In itself, it is too dependent on external factors that we have very little control over. As such, when it comes to achieving our goals, we need discipline.

Discipline has an abundance of definitions. It is often called self-control. Meaning we do not give into our impulses (to eat bad food, to stay in bed or on the couch), but instead make the active choice to eat healthy, get up early and be active. How do we do continue to make these choices actively? That would be the other definition of discpline: by sticking to orderly or prescribed conducts or patterns of behaviour. Yes, patterns.


When it comes to discpline, there is a requirement to stick to it. It is important to create the habit. Habits are hard to break, however they are also harder to form. Think of habits you might have yourself. Often, when we think of habits such as drinking coffee in the morning, doing an activity a couple of times per week. But I can give you a much better habit: going to work/study every day. Now you are probably thinking: that is not a habit. But it is. Habits are often seen as behavioural patterns we have a choice over, such as getting up early or sleeping in. However, habit has a much wider definition, it tends to be defined as an acquired mode of behaviour that has become nearly or completely involuntary. The involuntary part might seem a bit creepy, but it refers to the fact that the behaviour is no longer an active choice. You do not choose the healthy option over the unhealthy option, you just eat healthy as a default. That is the habit. Going back to the habit of working/studying on a daily basis then. It is a habit, because we do it often, without thinking about it much. The part most people fall over is that failing to do this behaviour comes with repercussions, that seems un-habit-like to some. Because not attending lectures, seminars or any other aspect of studying can get you kicked off the course for low attendance, or will just lead to the inability to pass examination. Failing to show up for work on a regular basis tends to get your fired. And how are you going to pay the bills then? So, because there are direct repercussions of not sticking to work or study, they seem to be unqualified to be habits, according to most. But does that have to be necessarily so? Can we not turn this into an advantage of our own?

Habit formation tends to follow this pattern: do behaviour for the first time, behaviour leads to a benefit (financial, neurological, mental, physical, you name it), behaviour gets repeated to continue generating benefit. If done for long enough, a habit is formed. Small issue here: the perceived benefit to us decreases as we come to expect it. This is a neuroscientific process deemed as prediction error, on which I have also written several articles, read them here. So, to make discpline work, we need to create a habit, for which there will be direct repercussions for not sticking to it. Given that most benefits derived from being disciplined and working hard towards a goal are most prominent towards the end, it seems fitting we do not employ benefits, but punishment (a different definition of discipline, after all). So set yourself realistic goals to achieve your larger goal. For example, saving a certain amount of money each week, or losing a certain amount of inches per month (preferable to weight, trust me). If this goal is met, great. You are allowed to bask in the glory of your achievement. If the goal was not met (and not due to any good reasons), punishment ensues. This is something that is best done by or through a friend. The type of friend that has your best interests at heart and will not go easy on you. So choose your discplinary carefully... Discplinary action can take many different forms. Not being allowed to use your phone for a day or a week, not being able to go out that week, etc. Whatever punishment you and your friend decide upon (beforehand), it is important that the punishment does not resemble the habit. So, if this is exercise related, not making your goal should not be punished by having to run 5 extra miles. If you are on a diet, not making your goal should not be punished by removing even more food options from your list. These methods tend to backfire as the brain will fail to distinguish between the behaviour that is supposed to be rewarding and the punishment which is definitely not.


I think that will be it for today. I hope you see my point and will also learn to appreciate discipline over motivation. Motivation gets us to want something different. It opens up our mind to new ideas and new behaviours. Discipline, with the aid of habit formation, can make us repeat this new behaviour, time and time again, until we have achieved our goal. Motivation means wanting to change. Discipline means actively working towards change. One will get you started, but only the other will make sure you last.