in: Advice, Character, Featured

• Last updated: September 26, 2021

Motivation Over Discipline

Vintage man flying plan.

There’s a popular maxim in personal development circles that goes: “F**k motivation. It’s fickle and unreliable and isn’t worth your time. Better to cultivate discipline.”

Everywhere you look these days, people are exalting the sentiment behind this mantra; they’re down on motivation and high on discipline. Your Instagram feed is probably full of “influencers” shouting at you to get disciplined. Discipline, discipline, discipline!

We used to beat the discipline drum ourselves. In fact, we were banging on about discipline before it was cool, man!

But in the past few years, I’ve found myself changing my tune. Chalk it up to the greater self-awareness that (hopefully) comes with age, but I realized that while it felt satisfying in a fist-pumping, chest-thumping kind of way to attribute my good habits to discipline, it wasn’t really the operative force behind their execution.

At the same time that I’ve been questioning the role of discipline in my life, so has the scientific community. It was once thought that people who seem to have the most self-control — who rank themselves highly on this quality and have the positive life outcomes to back that assessment up — were simply better at exercising their willpower. But recent studies have shown this isn’t the case; in fact, as Vox writer Brian Resnick reports, “The people who said they excelled at self-control were hardly using it at all.”

As it turns out, people who seem to exhibit the most self-control aren’t gritting their teeth and using discipline to resist temptations, but instead have minimized the number of temptations they experience in the first place. How? Because of the way they structure their environment and routines, and, because they actually enjoy the habits they pursue.

In other words, though observers on the outside, and even the individual himself, may think he does something because he’s disciplined, he often actually does it because he’s intrinsically motivated to do so.

How do we so readily miss this fact? It happens like this:

Let’s say there’s a guy who makes a habit of waking up at 4:00 in the morning. We find waking up this early extremely difficult. So, we assume this early riser experiences the same resistance we do, and yet manages to overcome it through greater discipline.

Discipline, the ability to resist temptation and exercise willpower, carries all sorts of cultural and even ethical weight, owing to religion, the Puritans, the Protestant work ethic, etc. The possession of discipline is seen as a virtue; its lack, a moral failing.

Thus, when we see that someone is able to wake up early, when we cannot, we not only chalk it up to greater discipline on their part, we equate this greater discipline with superiority of character, which turns their early rising habit into a moral imperative – something we should do too.

But it’s possible to look at this example from a very different angle.

Let’s say there’s a guy who makes a habit of waking up at 4:00 in the morning. He does so because he’s biologically got a “chronotype” – a disposition towards a certain waking/sleeping schedule – that makes him naturally feel great, and function best, when waking up early in the morning.

We, on the other hand, struggle with rising early, not because we’re undisciplined, but because we have a chronotype that naturally predisposes us to go to bed and wake up later. We actually don’t function best super early in the morning, and it’s not even healthy for us to try to do so.

In other words, while we assume that the early riser wakes up early because he’s more disciplined — and the early riser himself is likely to chalk it up to discipline too, because that’s the most flattering way to look at it — what’s really happening is that the early riser’s unique biology and personality dispose him to like a habit that others do not. He’s not driven by discipline to wake up early, he’s motivated to do so. But because we equate early rising with discipline, and discipline with moral character, we try to force ourselves into a mold that’s not right for us.

So the main reason we mistake motivation for discipline is that we miss the fact that some people’s biology and personality predispose them to enjoy things that others find miserable.

When the researcher Daniel F. Chambliss conducted a study on the “nature of excellence” by examining what factors resulted in the stratification of competitive swimmers – why some became Olympians and others did not – he found that:

“At the higher levels of competitive swimming, something like an inversion of attitude takes place. The very features of the sport which the “C” swimmer finds unpleasant, the top-level swimmer enjoys. What others see as boring—swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say—they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. They enjoy hard practices, look forward to difficult competitions, try to set difficult goals. Coming into the 5.30 AM practices at Mission Viejo, many of the swimmers were lively, laughing, talking, enjoying themselves, perhaps appreciating the fact that most people would positively hate doing it. It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.”

Let me give you some examples of this phenomenon from my own life.

For the last few years, I’ve been dedicated to a coach-directed weightlifting program. Every week I do taxing 60-90 minute workouts 4X a week. Over this time, I’ve only missed a handful of workouts, mainly due to being really sick or traveling (though I’ve hit most of my workouts even while on vacation). As a result, I can now bench 315 lbs, squat 456 lbs, and deadlift 605 lbs.

Now, I could take to social media to crow about how disciplined I am. But it would be a lie. Discipline does not drive me to work out. Rather, I work out because I like it. I enjoy it. A lot. It’s one of my most favorite things in life.

It’s not even force of habit, either; it doesn’t feel any easier, or more automated, to do my workouts now than when I first started. I did them at the beginning because I enjoyed them, and I do them now because I enjoy them.

If you looked at my life from the outside, you might think, “Man, Brett is so disciplined! I wish I could be like that.” And yet you’d have a completely false picture! I do my workouts consistently because I’m motivated to do them.

I have to laugh when I see people posting on social media about how they’re working out on Christmas or Thanksgiving, as if that makes them hard AF. You know why they’re working out? Because they like it.

Same thing with work-work. I typically do some amount of work every day of the week. I work on weekends. I work on vacation. Sometimes I work on holidays. Sometimes I work long hours. Sometimes I pull all-nighters. To hear many entrepreneurial types tell it, I’m working like this because I’ve got grit, I’ve got willpower; “Rise and grind, baby!”

Is that true? Do I work because I’m disciplined?

Nah. I do it because I like working. I enjoy it. I feel like doing it. I’m motivated.

If someone who doesn’t like their job and doesn’t like to work long hours, looked at my schedule they might think, “Wow, I can’t imagine being that disciplined.” But again, this would be an entirely distorted view. Said guy probably doesn’t like to work long hours because he doesn’t own his business and/or he’s not invested in the purpose behind his work. That doesn’t necessarily mean he isn’t as disciplined, he’s just working under a different set of circumstances.

In one of my favorite Jack London quotes, he said:

“The ultimate word is I Like. It lies beneath philosophy, and is twined about the heart of life. When philosophy has maundered ponderously for a month, telling the individual what he must do, the individual says, in an instant, “I Like,” and does something else, and philosophy goes glimmering. It is I Like that makes the drunkard drink and the martyr wear a hair shirt; that makes one man a reveller and another man an anchorite; that makes one man pursue fame, another gold, another love, and another God. Philosophy is very often a man’s way of explaining his own I LIKE.”

What London means is that people often come up with an explanation (whether it’s the simple idea that they’re disciplined or a whole philosophy) for why they do what they do after the fact, when really, they do what they do because they like it.

And given that “I like” is “twined about the heart of life,” you’re ultimately not going to stick with anything that you don’t truly enjoy – that you’re not intrinsically motivated to pursue.

Discipline = Self-Reliance

This is all to say that in many instances, what looks like discipline in someone else is just a matter of personal preference. If somebody wants to major in business, and we’d hate doing that major, we don’t think of ourselves as being less disciplined than them. If someone likes cilantro, and we don’t, we don’t think to ourselves, “If only I was more disciplined, I could eat more cilantro.” We just think, “Different strokes for different folks; I don’t personally enjoy that.”

Yet we try to force ourselves into certain habits we think we should do, even if they’re not right for us.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Aren’t there things we truly should be doing? Shouldn’t we all exercise and eat right and try to be productive and stuff?”

I would certainly agree. But I would frame the typical discussion differently.

You may like to lounge around, and play video games, and eat junk food, but this isn’t what you should limit your life to. It is a moral failing not to use your full potential to its utmost.

But, it’s not a moral failing to choose to adopt one set of habits over another in order to achieve a life of virtue, excellence, and flourishing.  

Winston Churchill had a unique daily routine: he’d stay up until 2 (and sometimes 3 or 4) in the morning, wake up at 8, and take a 2-hour nap at 3 PM each day. If he lived in the modern age, and posted a pic of his watch showing 2:00 AM, with a tagline about working late, he probably wouldn’t get very many kudos; instead, people might tsk-tsk him about needing to get to bed. And he certainly wouldn’t get many likes for showing his watch at 3:00 PM along with a “Nap time!” caption. But why should this be, when Churchill’s routine worked so well for him, allowing him to put in two “creative shifts” a day (one earlier and one later), be incredibly productive, pen 44 highly praised books, and lead England through WWII?

There are a few habits that are objectively right and wrong. But most are morally neutral. Instead of lending certain habits value only according to how difficult they feel, here’s a better metric to use: what habits allow you to access your greatest potential?

There all kinds of ways you can approach the same habit; you can achieve the same end, through different means – a set of means you like.

James Clear says this in Atomic Habits:

“you should build habits that work for your personality. People can get ripped working out like a bodybuilder, but if you prefer rock climbing or cycling or rowing, then shape your exercise habit around your interests. If your friend follows a low-carb diet but you find that low-fat works for you, then more power to you. If you want to read more don’t be embarrassed if you prefer steamy romance novels over nonfiction. Read whatever fascinates you. You don’t have to build habits everyone tells you to build. Choose the habit that bests suits you, not the one that is most popular.”

Knowing that I need to exercise, I could flog myself to make running my fitness modality of choice; I could discipline myself to do it every day. But why would I do that when I can get in my regular exercise by doing something – lifting weights – that I actually like to do?

You too, can find ways of eating, exercising, reading, working, and structuring your daily routine, that require less willpower, and that feel more enjoyable and intrinsically motivating.

The path to finding those habits simply involves experimentation; Clear poses these questions as a way to direct your efforts: “What feels like fun to [you], but work to others? . . . When are you enjoying yourself while other people are complaining? The work that hurts you less than it hurts others is the work you were made to do.”

It’s not about avoiding difficult things, which would be a moral failing. It’s about finding the hard things you nonetheless love. Just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s right; when something is hard, and yet brings you joy, and unlocks your potential, then it’s right for you.

That might sound like an easier standard to reach, as indeed you’ll be choosing habits that feel more natural and intrinsically motivating. But it can still be a difficult task, for it involves ignoring what other people say you should be doing and the feeling of guilt that can come from cultural expectations. It’s still hard in that you must choose habits for yourself, based on your own firsthand experiments, and stay your own unique course.

Doing this takes work, so that here is what I think is a better way to define discipline: the ability to practice radical self-reliance.

The Obligatory Caveats

My message here is that what often looks like discipline in someone else is actually motivation; while it may be something you find difficult, he may enjoy it. If you’re willpowering your way through life, you’re probably pursuing the wrong goals, or going about their pursuit the wrong way.

But when I say “motivation over discipline,” I am definitely not saying “motivation without discipline.” Discipline still most certainly plays a crucial role in forming habits and reaching goals.

While I rarely need discipline to start my workouts, sometimes I need it when I’m at the bottom of a squat and have to grind my way back up. While I don’t generally need discipline to get to work, sometimes I need it to power through a particularly tedious task.

Discipline particularly comes in handy when you’re trying to abstain from something, rather than wanting to do something proactive.

Few people like to suppress their temper, choose a salad over a burger, or quit smoking. Sometimes you do need to exercise pure willpower in contradiction to your feelings. Though even in these cases, there are strategies in which you can exercise discipline upfront – such as in the way you structure your environment – that reduce the need for the exercise of much discipline later on (tune into my podcast with Mr. Clear tomorrow for some very useful tips in this area). You can also often learn to like things you didn’t like before; e.g., you may think you hate vegetables, but if, through discipline, you eat them regularly (and learn to prepare them well!) you may actually come to enjoy their taste. It’s possible to change what you want to want.

Generally speaking, you shouldn’t need too much discipline to pursue the basic building blocks of your life, but you will need it to go deeper and more intensely into them, and to refine their practice. So while you can significantly minimize your reliance on willpower, discipline will always need to be an active force in your life.

My second caveat is this: when I talk about motivation, I’m not speaking of a feeling that always burns like an overwhelming passion. It won’t necessarily push you out the door. It won’t always be a giddiness that bubbles over. Rather, it can manifest itself as a simple, quiet desire, a feeling of satisfaction you may need to intentionally tune into.

It’s not the case that “when you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Work will still feel like work, but work can be both hard and pleasurable. 

Motivation Over Discipline

“I am inclined to think that joy is the motor, the thing that keeps everything else going. Without joyous celebration to infuse the…Disciplines, we will sooner or later abandon them. Joy produces energy. Joy makes us strong.” –Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline

“Duty is a hard, mechanical process for making men do things that love would make easy. It is a poor understudy to love. It is not a high enough motive with which to inspire humanity. Duty is the body to which love is the soul. Love, in the divine alchemy of life, transmutes all duties into privileges, all responsibilities into joys.” –William George Jordan, The Kingship of Self-Control

Discipline is necessary; duty is necessary, absolutely. But it’s possible to feel like doing what you want to do far more often than is realized.

Perception is not always reality. Despite what the Discipline Industrial Complex™ might lead you to believe, you don’t have to be superhumanly disciplined to reach your goals. You’re not ultimately going to find success by white-knuckling your way through life. You’ll never stick with things you don’t, at some level, truly enjoy.

There is almost nothing – from my work, to my routine, to my barbell training, to my marriage – that requires the active exercise of discipline. Instead, I do what I do, because I like it. It brings me pleasure and joy and satisfaction. I’m motivated to do it.

You can enjoy the magic of motivation too if you experiment to find approaches to your habits, routines, and goals that are uniquely satisfying for you. So you don’t like exercising yet; how many of the hundreds of workout types and sports have you actually, really tried? A half dozen? Keep testing. Hate dieting? It’s truly possible to find a way of eating that will make it easier for you to stay on track; there are people who genuinely like intermittent fasting, low carbing, or the “If It Fits Your Macros plan.” This approach to life should even inform your faith; there are certain spiritual disciplines that some people find very effective in accessing the transcendent, but which do little for others; find the practices that work for you.

Stop feeling guilty if you hate waking up early, or loathe running, or don’t think meditation does anything for you. You should only feel guilty if you’re not making the most of your talents and potential.

Full human flourishing should be your goal. How you get there is up to you.

Find your own “I LIKE.” And let the opinions of others go glimmering.

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