Why Discipline Beats Motivation

Why Discipline Beats Motivation


A Quick Story

Right around this time one year ago, I finished writing the draft of my book Joker to King. But here’s the funny thing about the book…I actually started writing the book in 2014.

You heard me right…2014. So you’re probably wondering why it took me so long to finish. Here’s the reason.

I was waiting for motivation to kick in. I kept telling myself that I needed to be in the mood to write before tackling a new chapter of the book. The problem is that writing is often a torturous activity, and no writer is EVER in the mood to torture himself. (The late journalist Gene Fowler once said that “writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”)

The thing about motivation is that most people have the absolute wrong idea about what motivation really is and how motivation really works.

In order for me to finish the book, I had to let go of that motivation myth.

I put some systems and accountability measures in place that made me write each day, whether I felt like it or not. I found an online writing group, then made a commitment to friends and strangers to write a minimum 500 words per day for each day of the month of March 2016. For me, 500 words a day is a very small amount of writing that I can do in 30 minutes or so.

But after a few days into the month, something awesome happened. I wrote in the mornings before the rest of the family woke up. One morning, I quickly knocked out my 500 words and thought to myself, “I’m here now. I might as well just finish this next paragraph.”  The next paragraph turned into another paragraph and another. By the time my family woke up, the chapter was done. Then the next day, the same thing happened. I finished another chapter in one morning. Then the next morning, I finished another chapter

Imagine how great the day became for me. I showered, got dressed, and went to work, feeling extremely satisfied with the world because I knocked out a chapter of this book before other people even began their day.  

What I was starting to realize was that the motivation I was seeking yearss ago finally showed up AFTER I started moving.

The Explanation

Motivation is popularly believed to be some sort of mental or emotional mindset necessary to complete a task. The problem with this thinking is that it stifles the actual completion of the task. The person waits until he is in the right “mood” to do the task, and 99% of the time, that mood never comes because the task is unbearably dull, boring, difficult, or lengthy.  (If the task was fun, then no motivation would be needed, right?)  By this ridiculous belief, people feel that motivation is needed to get up and start moving toward a goal.

That’s not how motivation works. Motivation is not some magical force or energy that is bestowed upon you suddenly inspring you to get moving on a task. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. It does not happen that you first feel motivation and then begin an action. It’s the other way around. You begin an action, and then LATER you feel motivation.

Experts know this about motivation. Counselors and therapists teach it. Scientists have confirmed it. Empirical and anecdotal interactions constantly demonstrate it.  But for some reason, the masses don’t believe it. The majority of people wait to feel motivated before taking action.  

The motivation myth is the number one thing killing your progress. When you finally understand that, you’ll finally be in the right mindset to achieve your goals.

So if motivation is not the key to taking action and making real progress, then what is the key? The answer is discipline.

When it comes to getting things done, you need to substitute motivation with discipline because discipline is physical and based in action, while motivation is emotional and based in thought. If you want to produce positive mental results, search for things that provide positive mental motivation. If you want to produce actual physical results, search for ways to build disciplined habits in your life.

Picture this scenario. A couple years ago, professional basketball player Steph Curry was preparing for game one of the NBA championships. Emotionally, he was nervous and filled with anxiety because it was his very first time in the NBA championships. He could have listened to music to hype himself up in the locker room like other players do. He could have even used sticky notes to attach motivational quotes on the inside of his locker door. Those are great motivators–emotionally. Those things are great at providing quick bursts of positive mental energy. But none of those motivations actually make him better at shooting three-pointers. You know what made him a better shooter? The relentless practicing he does each and every day, including the drills he does over the summer when other players are enjoying the off-season. Discipline is about physically making small efforts on a consistent basis so that those small efforts add up to physical progress much later down the road.

The truth is that we do need to get into the right mindset–a mindset of progress being directly linked to long stretches of work and effort, a mindset of achievement that results from accumulated actions. Discipline helps get things done. Discipline generates those positive feelings of energy and gratification that people think motivation provides.

Motivation is the short burst of mental energy to psyche yourself up. Discipline is the long-term sustained energy that actually fuels the progress.

Discipline means doing what you have to do when you DON’T want to do it.

Three Steps to Build More Discipline

The best way to build discipline is to create a system and put it on autopilot so that it forces you to work on those days when you don’t feel like it. (My kids hate brushing their teeth, but they do it everyday because they’ve been disciplined with a system that forces them to brush even when they don’t want to.)

This is how you have the system work even when you don’t feel like it. Putting your system on autopilot includes removing obstacles, creating physical reminders, and choosing accountability measures.  

Let’s suppose your goal is to run a 5K race a few months from now. Your goal requires you to go to the gym, but you hate waking up at 5:00am. Removing physical obstacles could mean placing your gym clothes and your alarm clock in the bathroom. When the loud alarm clock starts echoing off the tiled bathroom walls, you’ll be forced to leave the bed to turn it off. While you’re there, you realize you’re standing right next to your gym clothes, and so you put them on before you have time to really think about it.

The physical reminder you create could be your fitness goal written on a Post-it Note sticking on your bathroom mirror, or a “BEFORE” picture of your flabby self taken weeks ago.

Now imagine this. Exactly two minutes after you read your goal on the Post-it Note and put on your gym clothes, your phone rings. It’s your buddy calling to make sure you’re up and ready to go to the gym. The reason he’s calling is because you agreed to use his morning phone calls as an accountability measure, something to hold you to your commitment.   (I recently listened to an interview with Steve Kamb, founder of Nerd Fitness and author of Level Up Your Life. He explained his accountability measure to help him reach his writing goal. If Steve failed to write his required amount each day, then a friend who had access to his account was allowed to donate money to a charity or a organization he absolutely did NOT believe in.)

So to recap:  use this week to build your system of discipline. Identify a goal, begin with small steps, and then put your system on autopilot (removing obstacles, creating reminders, and choosing accountability measures). If you haven’t really been disciplined in anything before, this week will surely whip you into shape real quick.

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One response to “Why Discipline Beats Motivation”

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