Motivation Is Unreliable, So Rely on Discipline Instead

Motivation gets us started, while habits keep us going.

Use your bursts of motivation to build discipline, but don’t rely on motivation to keep you going. Photo by Braden Collum.

Moments of motivation find you whenever it feels like it, lingering for a little while before leaving you yearning for more. Much like energy can be obtained from a morning cup of coffee, motivation can be obtained through meditation, a phone call with a friend, or even an inspiring Reddit post. But much like your energy level is often influenced by events outside of your control, so too is motivation an unreliable force.

In my early 20’s, I used to think that successful people were constantly motivated. How else would they be able to get so many things done? I figured motivation was the key to success, and I would try different techniques to motivate myself every day. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time, it didn’t. I couldn’t control when to feel motivated. I couldn’t schedule motivation in a calendar. Instead, bursts of motivation would come and go like the next-door cat. No, what I didn’t realize is that what really keeps people going is discipline. While motivation is out of our control, discipline is ours to command.

Discipline acts like a muscle: it can be trained. But if you don’t exercise it, it will depreciate, much like biceps left unmaintained will start to fade.

To build discipline, start by doing an easy activity every single day. An example of such an activity could be to take a morning walk, keep a daily journal, or just to drink a big glass of water every morning. Of course, this venture has to be something that you’re not already doing. The trick is that you have to do it every single day, without exception. Even if your bed or couch feels really comfortable, you still have to get up and do your activity. This activity is usually referred to as a habit. As your discipline gets stronger, you can start creating more challenging habits.

The habit of giving up

For emphasis, I want to stress again that what’s important is that you commit to doing the activity regularly with no exceptions. You might make a case for yourself that skipping one day doesn’t matter. After all, if you’re doing something for every day of the week, what difference does it make to skip it just once? This leads you down the path of a 2,400-year-old paradox known as The Bald Man (or phalakros in Greek), an inverse of the more famous Sorites paradox.

“While motivation is out of our control, discipline is ours to command.”

A person with a full head of hair is, of course, not bald. Removing a single hair will also not turn the person bald. Yet, if you keep removing hairs one at a time, the person will at some point have become bald. Similarly, skipping one day out of the 365 you committed will not erase your discipline, but at some point, it will.

Be aware of the dangerous habit of giving up. Your bed, your couch, your TV, your computer, and your smartphone may all feel comfortable or provide you with your much-desired dopamine-kicks, but you can never allow them to take priority over your commitments. If you decide to stay in bed instead of going for a run after work, for instance, you are instead reinforcing the habit of giving up. Yes: giving up is also a habit. I like to think of it as an anti-discipline habit.

Speaking of bad habits, I have struggled with a poor habit of procrastination in search of motivation. When faced with a task that I struggled to motivate myself to do, I would sometimes procrastinate, hoping that motivation would find me. This was, of course, an utter waste of time. Rather than just being disciplined and doing whatever I was supposed to do, I relied on forces outside of my control.

We aren’t born disciplined. Much like you can exercise to build muscles, you can train your discipline. Photo by Damir Spanic.

Building my habits

One of my habits, which was challenging to keep up, was to start doing One Meal A Day (OMAD). OMAD is a form of intermittent fasting wherein one only eats a single meal a day. This means that one eats nothing before or after that one meal. As a person who used to eat three meals a day and snacks in-between them, I was relentlessly hungry for the first couple of weeks. Yet, I managed to stick with my fasting. My body adjusted to the fast, and now I very rarely feel hungry, except for the last few hours before I break my daily fast.

“Yes: giving up is also a habit.”

It wasn’t motivation that kept me going. It started with a burst of motivation, sure, but that motivation left within days. What kept me going was discipline. It’s now been two and a half years since I started fasting, and as I’ve long since achieved my target weight, I’ve reduced the number of days I fast from seven days a week to four to five, letting me enjoy both weight management and the other benefits that come with fasting. While I no longer feel hungry for most of the day, I do still very much enjoy the taste of food.

Another example of a habit that I built with discipline, this one a bit easier, was to meditate every morning. I set a reminder on Google Calendar that would go off early every morning for 45 days to remind me to meditate. After a while, I no longer needed the reminder, as I was mechanically getting into position to meditate, much as I have always brushed my teeth without ever having to remind myself.

Rely on discipline, not motivation

Motivation gets us started, while habits keep us going, so use your short bursts of motivation to build discipline. Start with something small and manageable, commit to doing it daily without exception, and scale up to more challenging habits. Exercise your discipline, like you would build a muscle.

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