Motivation vs. Discipline

Recently I’ve been having trouble getting stuff done. My greatest struggle isn’t really the difficulty of the work, but actually doing the work. The strategy I’ve been using is to motivate myself with some reward — maybe playing video games or eating ice cream. That approach did work at the beginning of the year, but afterwards, I started getting desensitized to the reward, so I had to keep increasing the reward until it reached unreasonable levels (e.g. do 1 hour of work to play 3 hours of video games). I also tried motivating myself by appealing to my higher instincts of duty, purpose, telling myself “its tough, but if you want to change the world you gotta do this math problem!” Sometimes this strategy works, but other times my brain doesn’t want to think about larger goals and a higher purpose. It just wants the sweet, sweet, dopamine release of eating ice cream, and I had no strategy to deal with that situation.

I realized that all my previous strategies fell under the umbrella of motivation. The motivating thought might be different; it could be basic, like eating ice cream, or intangible, like making the world a better place, but all motivating strategies use formula of “Do task X to get reward Y.” The problem with this formula is that if the reward isn’t large enough, the task won’t get done. Sometimes if the task is difficult enough (at least in my experience), no reasonable reward will be sufficient compensation. In these cases you get procrastination, stress from doing things at the deadline, and generally lower quality work. Not good.

Around the time when all my motivational strategies were failing, my friend invited me to work out in the morning with him. When I asked him how early, he thought for a second and decided on 7 am. Now, I hadn’t woken up at 7 am since high school, so I was having serious misgivings. But as good friends do, he somehow convinced me to try it for a day. The next Monday, I dragged myself out of bed at 7 in the morning and lifted weights for the first time in my life. It was hard. On some of the exercises, I couldn’t even lift the bar, which was quite embarrassing, but I pulled it together and did my best. After the workout I resolved to continue going to the gym because it was clear my body needed it. The key is this: when I made that promise to myself, there was no ‘reward’ like in my previous motivational strategies. I didn’t tell myself I would get to eat ice cream if I went to the gym — I simply said, unconditionally, that I would go to the gym. No excuses. And three months later, I am still going to the gym.

What’s the difference? Why was I able to consistently get up at 7 and go to the gym, whereas I couldn’t even make myself do half an hour of history reading? Objectively speaking, the gym was much harder, so it doesn’t make sense that I could do one but not the other. The difference was that my workouts were fueled by discipline, but my academics were fueled by motivation. Discipline and motivation have one key distinction: motivation implicitly assumes you will feel good at some point; discipline makes no such assumption. I’ve concluded, therefore, that discipline is a far better tool for getting things done. If you rely on motivation, you’ll only get things done when you feel good. If you rely on discipline, you’ll always get things done. That’s a huge difference.

Of course, if cultivating discipline was that easy, everyone would be super productive, which is not the case. That’s the last piece of the puzzle: how does one become disciplined? Motivation is super easy to find — Youtube alone has tons of motivational videos, many people have motivational quotes stickied to their laptop — in short, motivation is everywhere. But what about discipline? No Youtube video will make you disciplined, and nor will anything you read help. It has to come from within. I think that’s also worth highlighting. Whereas motivation is usually extrinsic, discipline is intrinsic without exception.

To be honest, I’m not that disciplined myself, so it would be hypocritical of me to tell you how to be disciplined. I will say, however, that creating good habits and sticking to them seems to cultivate discipline. Making working out a habit got me through those mornings where I really didn’t feel like going — I’d done it enough times to the point that no matter what I was feeling, I went.

Right now I’m trying to wean myself off motivation and onto discipline. One of the habits I’m trying to create is writing a thousand words every day. I haven’t given myself any reward for writing a thousand words (that would be motivation!); I simply told myself that it was good, so I resolved to do it. So far I haven’t missed a day yet.

There are some things in life that are unquestionably nasty, and no amount of motivation will make them nicer. Filling out spreadsheets sucks. Doing the dishes sucks. No matter how many times you hear JFK say we’re going to moon or Steve Jobs say that anyone can change the world, doing the dishes still sucks. Screw JFK and screw Steve Jobs. You don’t need them. Be disciplined, impose your will on those stupid dishes, and get it done.

As always, thanks for reading!