Motivation vs. Discipline: Which Helps You Go Further?

There is something wrong with our society.

A fact I have been aware of ever since I realized the difference between motivation and discipline.

While we are literally bathing in motivational slogans that promise to help us go outside our comfort zone. People fail to permanently change their condition because they are not disciplined enough to embrace the struggle associated with a life well lived.

For example, many people have great intentions about how their lives should unfold. Common desires we all have are…

  • I want to have a sexy body…
  • I want to travel the world…
  • I want to own pretty much everything that catches my interest…
  • I want to win the admiration of half the world and build great things…
  • I want to work a stable, yet adventurous job where my boss treats me like a friend, but not exactly like a friend because I also want him to respect me and pay me a shitload of cash…

Sadly, these wants rarely translate into actionable steps that one should pursue daily. They are mere statements. Not building blocks for a brighter future.

While it’s easy to feel motivated to “change your world”. I mean, you simply open your go-to social media and see how a 17-year-old made $50K in one day selling PDF downloadables. Then you feel excited about a couple of days – trying to replicate the conditions of the successful superstars online. Alas, your motivation diminishes the moment a challenge arises. The moment you realize that self-improvement is never ever truly complete.

Motivation can help you feel emotionally aroused to do something – to make changes to your life. However, only through self-discipline, you actually accomplish what you dream about.

Many people believe that motivation and discipline are the same thing. They use them interchangeably, thinking that motivation is discipline – and that discipline is motivation.

Though they have some touching points, they mean quite different things.

Motivation is what gets you started.

Discipline is what keeps you going.

motivation-vs-discipline
Motivation is what gets you started. Discipline is what keeps you going.

In this publication, we look at motivation vs. discipline. Unraveling their essences – and their differences. Plus, seeking which of these two pillars is the main key to transcend in a world dominated by short-term thinking.

Motivation vs. Discipline – Definitions

Let’s define motivation and discipline, starting with motivation:

Motivation – Defined:

Motivation is the reason for which humans and other animals initiate, continue, or terminate a behavior at a given time.1 It’s like a force that pulls a person to do – or not do something.

However, it’s important to note here that the effects of motivation are often temporary. You can be highly motivated to perform a particular task. Yet, because of a sudden change of circumstances, you may later show little interest in that same task.2

The reason the above occurs is based on the different mental states fighting in our brains for dominance. In practice, this means that we can feel motivated to do something without actually doing it.

For instance, I might feel motivated to lose weight and embark on a journey to conquer the gym. But at the same time – since hunger and thirst are primary human motives – my desire to consume large quantities of sugary foods can overwrite my other noble ambition.

The above statement is largely influenced by the two main types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.

  • Extrinsic motivation: Extrinsic motivation arises from external factors. It’s when you do something to get a reward or avoid punishment. When you are extrinsically motivated, you’re not particularly enjoying the activity. You are only doing it because of the potential gain – e.g., you push yourself at work but only because you want to get a promotion. While this type of motivation can lead to temporary bursts of effort, it’s less likely to make you committed to the task in the long term.
  • Intrinsic motivation: Intrinsic motivation comes from within. It happens when you are genuinely interested in the activity. When you are intrinsically motivated, you are not doing what you are doing for the money or the praise. You can spend literally hours working on certain tasks. You simply find the activity itself rewarding enough.

As you can tell, intrinsic motivation has more beneficial outcomes than extrinsic motivation.3 The reason is simple, when you get the promotion – receive the praise, get the reward, etc. – you no longer feel motivated to continue doing the task if you are extrinsically motivated. However, when you are intrinsically motivated, your passion and natural curiosity keep you going. You will still get praised – and hopefully promoted. But these milestones won’t lower your desire to keep doing what you’ve been doing. No, these wins will be just by-products of your internal drive for excellence.

And while intrinsic motivation seems like enough force to keep you going. You absolutely need to combine it with discipline – self-discipline.

Discipline – Defined

Abraham Lincoln famously said:

“Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.” Abraham Lincoln

Discipline is your ability to direct your actions toward the things that matter most amidst a pile of distractions.

It’s about staying committed, creating systems, making consistent choices, and resisting impulses that might hinder your progress.

To better envision what is self-discipline, imagine an athlete.

Athletes rise before dawn to train rigorously, make dietary choices to maintain a near-perfect physique, and prioritize quality sleep over crazy parties. All of this, despite the allure of delicious doughnuts and Netflix shows that seemingly everyone is obsessing about.

Discipline acts as the bridge between intentions and accomplishments. It’s the reason people realize long-term projects and master complex subjects.

People commonly falsely associate discipline with deprivation. While a disciplined person is surely limiting his access to certain options. Deprivation is not the correct word here – discipline is about direction.

When you are self-disciplined, you have the power to direct your life toward where you want it to be – and avoid ending up somewhere you never intended to be.

Ultimately, discipline is about clarity, commitment, and focus – you know exactly who you want to be, so your daily actions are aligned with these standards.

Motivation vs. Discipline – Differences

Before we tackle the differences between motivation and discipline. Let’s do a quick experiment – we can even call it an exercise.

Basically, finish the following story in your own words:

“After awakening, Bill began to think about his future. In general, he expected to…”

Don’t think about grammar or about making your writing stylish – we are not grading the answers. The simple goal is to imagine what might be going through Bill’s mind in relation to his future. What does he expect to happen in the future – and when is this future happening?

Take 10 or 15 minutes.

Finished?

Once done, turn back and consider the actions you imagined Bill would take. The question is, over what period do those actions take place? One week? One year? Five years?

This question was part of an experiment conducted by psychiatrists among heroin addicts at a treatment center. Additionally, the same question was asked to people who didn’t have problems with drugs. The goal was to discover what addicts think about the future – what this future covers in terms of time frame.

Well, what these researchers discovered is that in relation to: “in the future, he expected to…” For the control group, this time typically spanned the range of a couple of weeks to a couple of years. But for drug addicts, the mean considered future was only 9 days from the present.4

For drug addicts, thinking about the future meant thinking about upcoming events that were literally just a few hours from now!

What does this tell us?

Well, if your story covers a time horizon of just a few days, this doesn’t mean that you are a drug addict.

My goal is to help you better see the differences between motivation and discipline.

When motivated, we often have a shorter temporal horizon. We focus on immediate rewards and outcomes.

Example:

  • We feel motivated to work out now.
  • We feel motivated to begin working on that project now.
  • We feel motivated to start reading a book now.

In contrast, when we are disciplined, we have a longer temporal horizon. The focus is on delayed rewards and long-term outcomes.

Example:

  • We are disciplined enough to have a consistent workout routine.
  • We continue to work on the project even after the initial excitement wears off.
  • We consistently set aside a portion of our time to read books.

Motivation is a great resource to count on when you are starting a new project. But it can quickly turn into a nightmare when the initial excitement is long gone.

We’ve all felt the disappearance of motivation – especially around the new year. In January, you are super excited to transform your body into a lean, mean, kale-eating machine. However, around February, your motivation leans more towards stretchy pants and Netflix shows.

Since lasting changes always require time and patience. To keep going, you also need to add personal discipline to the mix.

In essence, motivation is like a burst of energy that encourages you to start, often focusing on short-term gains. Discipline, on the other hand, is the enduring engine that keeps you moving towards your goals, even when the immediate motivation fades.

The Difference Between Motivation and Discipline

The key difference between motivation and discipline is in relation to duration.

Motivation is the spark that starts the engine, while discipline keeps the engine running.

We can imagine motivation as the cool kid with brand-new sneakers whom everybody in the school loves to hang out with. Motivation can ignite the crowd with explosive energy erupting from his trendy social media publications that could rival a major Instagram influencer. Motivation is hyped and excited. And always has something new to share – rapidly moving from one topic to the next.

Discipline, conversely, is like the boring nerd who is dormant at the university library. He doesn’t have anything to boast about simply because his days look rather dull – get up, read, learn, exercise, go back to bed. Discipline is not wasting time trying to satisfy the Internet by sharing his progress because he’s too busy mastering the craft.

And while you might conclude that only discipline deserves a spot in our handy mental toolbox. We need both motivation and discipline.

It’s not about choosing one over the other. It’s about having both, but recognizing that motivation is about getting started while discipline is that invisible force that whispers, “keep going” even when you don’t feel like getting out of bed.

To further cement the differences between motivation and discipline, I present to you the following table:

AspectMotivationDiscipline
Source:Enthusiasm triggered by internal or external factorsCommitment and self-control based on internal factors
Initial Push:Provides energy and excitement to startOffers structure and consistent action
Sustainability:Can fluctuate, may wane over timeRemains steadfast over the long term
Purpose:Ignites action based on desireMaintains action despite fluctuations
External Influence:Often influenced by external factorsLess reliant on external factors
Goal focus:Immediate rewards or satisfactionLong-term goals and self-regulation
Time horizon:Initiates action, may not ensure follow-throughEnsures ongoing progress
Motivation vs. Discipline

In essence, motivation provides the initial spark to start something, while discipline ensures consistent effort and commitment over time, even when motivation wanes.

Can You Be Disciplined Without Motivation?

If you are still here and if you’ve actually read the above text about motivation vs. discipline. You will quickly realize that motivation is unreliable.

Everybody feels motivated from time to time, which can result in a 300-word brain dump on LinkedIn where you say how you’ll change your career, the career of the neighborhood dog, and after that, cure cancer. But when you wake up the next day, you barely have the strength to climb out of bed.

This vivid representation of how a lot of people live their lives – simply bombarding the online world with what they want to do, without ever doing it. This leads to an interesting question:

Can you be disciplined without motivation?

Plainly, this means…

  • Can you wake up every morning at 5 a.m. even if you are not particularly excited about opening your eyes when the whole world is asleep?
  • Can you endure the pain of consistently flexing your body in the local gym, even when there is a brand-new show released and everybody around you is going bananas?
  • Can you keep your credit card at bay even when all of your friends just purchased a ticket that costs two monthly salaries to “who knows where”?

The short answer is yes. Yes, you can be disciplined without motivation. Yes, you can get up even when you don’t feel like getting up.

Will it be hard?

Absolutely.

Will it be worthy?

You bet!

Showing up every day is not much about how you feel about the task that needs to be done – remember, motivation keeps you excited for only a short period of time. Showing up every day and doing the work is about the right habits, the right mindset, and also about acceptance.

Let’s look at these three:

  • Habits: We are creatures of habit. Habits either improve our lives or crush them.
  • Mindset: One key aspect of discipline is your ability to consistently delay gratification. Postponing pleasure in a world full of pleasure requires not only willpower but a huge mental shift.
  • Acceptance: The main thing you need to accept is the sameness. There is a huge difference between what a successful life looks like and what a successful life actually is like. People portray the highlights of their days online – their milestones – and we start to think that a day without some sort of reward is an unsuccessful life. The truth is that big projects take time. Time spent doing the work that will often feel boring and unrewarding – but doing it nonetheless.

You don’t necessarily need motivation to be disciplined. Self-discipline will help you do the things you want to do, even if you don’t feel like doing them. But it’s good to keep the spark of motivation alive.

The interesting thing here is that discipline leads to motivation.

discipline-leads-motivation
Motivation hardly leads to discipline. But discipline can lead to motivation.

Let me explain…

When you consistently show up and do your work, even when the initial motivation is low, you start to see tangible results over time. These results act as a positive propeller that motivates you further.

Here’s a short example from my personal life…

I surely don’t feel motivated every day when my alarm disturbs my sleep at 04:50 a.m. Commonly – and here we are talking about 6 days out of 7 – I just want to roll over and forget about my morning routine. However, an interesting thing happens when I do get up. Though I start the day by blaming the universe for orchestrating a cruel symphony of merciless alarm clocks at this ungodly hour while brushing my teeth. As soon as I start to stretch, I feel a dose of excitement. A dose of enthusiasm for the new day.

All of this leads to another interesting question:

Is It Better To Be Motivated or Disciplined?

While discipline will take you further than any other quality. You first need motivation in order to become disciplined.

Motivation is the fiery spark that ignites action – interests you in a particular topic. From there, discipline is the force that allows you to stick to the process.

Or, to better answer the question, you kind of need both – motivation and discipline.

You need motivation to get started, but from there, you will rely on discipline to keep going.

For instance, I started this blog with a handbag full of motivation. I wanted to improve my writing skills while trying to figure out how one can make money blogging. Plus, all the things just mentioned, were supplemented by my love for books.

However, though my motivation was a huge progress booster that helped jumpstart my online journey. I was able to consistently progress only because I’ve mastered discipline.

  • I surely didn’t feel motivated when no one was visiting my site.
  • I surely didn’t feel motivated when my writing sucked at the beginning.
  • I surely didn’t feel motivated when I didn’t earn a dime for more than 2 years of blogging.

Yet, I’ve persisted because I was disciplined. And this kept me motivated in a strange way.

Which Comes First Motivation or Discipline?

I still remember the dose of enthusiasm that energized my body when I first read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey.

Till that day, I didn’t know that a person could achieve so much by simply habitually doing the same things – over and over again.

But reading the book was only part of the process. I had to work hard to implement the healthy brain habits guru Covey mentioned into my life – and work even harder to maintain them.

Plainly, motivation always comes first. It’s that initial spark that says, “Hey, let’s try this!” But from there, the desire to keep doing this thing quickly evaporates if you are not disciplined.

The problem we experience today is not lack of motivation. But rather, too much motivation.

A quick walk into the online world will excite you about doing things like…

  • Conquering Everest.
  • Swapping your busy city life with a small, cozy cabin in Japan.
  • Applying for astronaut training.
  • Building a treehouse mansion with a homemade elevator.
  • Signing up for an ultra-marathon in the Himalayas.

For anyone who is more present in the online world than in the real tangible world. Life tends to go through four stages in relation to motivation.

First, you feel extremely motivated to embrace minimalistic living – or anything, really. For example, a forum thread has convinced you that you can pack your entire life into a shoebox and thrive as a modern hermit.

Second, you enter a sporadic consumption phase where you try to accelerate your progress by purchasing everything available on the topic – in the case of minimalism, books, courses, YouTube videos, multi-purpose furniture, and more.

Third, the initial excitement of becoming a modern monk is now gone. The realization that minimalistic living isn’t about constantly boasting online about how cool you look in all-black clothes. Rather, it’s about valuing experiences and focusing on the few things that truly matter – all things that won’t get you any likes on social media.

Forth, you find yourself scouring the online realm once again, in search of the next exhilarating endeavor that will put you in the spotlight of attention. The next thing to be excited about. You are eager to feel motivated about something new, but unmotivated to be disciplined about it.

Motivation vs. Discipline In Our Daily Lives

We now know that being motivated and being a disciplined person are both must-have qualities if we want to consistently have a good life – a stable life.

But the main problem with motivation and discipline is that we have a preference for short-term payoffs.

Everybody is motivated to work an amazing job and reach financial independence – but not everybody wants to suffer through 12-hour work days, getting up early, and that nagging feeling that you are not spending enough time with your family and friends.

We want to have a bank balance that could fund a rocket to Mars without the extra hours, without practicing delayed gratification, and without leaving our comfort zone.

The materialistic society we all happen to live in is pushing us more and more towards wanting quick rewards.

This leads to the following…

  • We are motivated to get a better job, but instead of spending time learning new skills. We bombard LinkedIn with poorly-written, self-help-like prose littered with clichés and vague blanket statements. Why? To get an instant dose of appreciation.
  • We are motivated to invest money, so we can eventually – over a long period of time – stop worrying about cash. But instead of actually stashing away money, we only talk about investing at dinner parties while keeping tabs on the latest fashion trends. Why? Because wearing suits and talking about accumulating wealth makes others think that you are rich AF – even if you are not.
  • We are motivated to adopt a handful of good habits and get closer to the lives of the influencers we see on social media. But instead of doing the work, we simply share quotes and pictures of us reading books, hoping that we’ll become famous, and then never need to have good habits. Why? Because clicking share is far less resource-intensive than getting up in the morning and running 5 miles.

My argument here is not that motivation is bad. My argument is that it’s hard to distinguish between good and bad motivation in a world stuck in short-term thinking.

It’s not that we are not motivated. The problem is that we are motivated about the wrong things.

How can we fix this in our daily lives?

On paper, it looks rather simple.

We know what discipline is, it is…

Consistently doing the things that you don’t necessarily feel like doing.

But to keep being disciplined. You also need motivation.

However, you don’t want to be sporadically motivated by everything that flies near your orbit. Motivation needs to work in the following direction:

Consistently being motivated about the same important things while actively blocking the outside noise.

As noted above, the initial excitement related to projects will surely wear off. New more interesting things will emerge and will try to steer you away from your previous commitment.

Keep persisting!

Once you decide what type of tasks should be part of your daily life – performing a core values exercise might help here. Focus your attention – and energy – on regularly doing these things.

For instance, if you want to upgrade your career. Your attention shouldn’t be directed only towards doing daily learning sessions – which we can consider the being disciplined part. We’ll also want to keep our motivation high. This can happen by reminding ourselves about why we want to switch careers – write how a more stable job will make us more relaxed, more confident, and more in control.

Some Closing Thoughts

When we talk about motivation vs. discipline. We shouldn’t think that there is a battle and that one side wins over the other.

Both are needed.

Discipline requires motivation.

And…

Motivation requires discipline.

The main problem here is to keep being motivated about the same things when new – more interesting – things emerge and seemingly everybody starts to talk about them.

Eliminating distractions can be of huge assistance here.

When you opt out of what the world is doing by not using social media, for example. You suddenly feel less interested in adding even more clothes you’ll never wear to your already-full wardrobe.

But that’s not the only thing we need…

As I cover extensively in my Beyond Discipline Course, we also need to consistently choose discomfort over comfort.

Instead of finding excuses to not get in shape. When we are both motivated and disciplined, we start looking forward to our next workout session.

But you and I both know that this won’t happen. You will walk away from this post inspired to change your life for the better. Thrilled to reclaim your focus by quitting social media while also overcoming the procrastination habit. And yet, all of this eagerness to kick the nasty habits out of your life will last for how long? A month? A week? Three days?

Usually, after a couple of hours only, we are back to our old ways of doing things – motivated when we see what others are achieving but not disciplined enough to achieve much ourselves.

All of this is true because…

Everybody desires a remarkable physique and the admiration of others – but not everyone is willing to endure the grueling workouts, the disciplined routines, the occasional setbacks, and the dedicated effort required to earn such recognition.

We want the results without the effort. We want the prize without the practice. We want the triumph without the toil. It’s strange how we wish to stand atop the podium without enduring countless hours of sweat, struggle, and self-discovery that could potentially lead us there.

Why is this so?

Well, as I said in the beginning…

There is something wrong with our society.

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Footnotes:

  1. Motivation. Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motivation
  2. Cofer, Charles N. and Petri, Herbert L.. “motivation”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/motivation
  3. Radel R, Pjevac D, Davranche K, d’Arripe-Longueville F, Colson SS, Lapole T, Gruet M. “Does intrinsic motivation enhance motor cortex excitability?”. Psychophysiology. 53 (11): 1732–1738. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/psyp.12732
  4. McClure, S. M., & Bickel, W. K. (2014). A dual-systems perspective on addiction: contributions from neuroimaging and cognitive training. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1327, 62–78. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.12561
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