What is motivation, anyway?
Simply put, motivation is your desire to do something. “It’s the sense of willingness that exists on a spectrum – from zero interest to a burning desire to take action.”1
We have often heard ourselves say, “I don’t feel like doing it today; I’m not motivated.” And in one sense, admitting to this lack of motivation frees us from the obligation of the task at hand.
Wow, that was (too) easy.
I don’t care if you’re the “most motivated person in the world” (whatever that means); there are days when you “don’t feel like it.” It’s called life. You might think this is a you problem, that you’re uniquely troubled with this “affliction.” But this is wrong. In fact, it’s a sort of crippling victimization (future post) and will get you nowhere.
The critical distinction to understand (and the sooner you come to grips with it, the better) is that this feeling or lack of feeling is not a justification for inaction, it’s an excuse – a lie you tell yourself to indulge your indolence. You are better than that.
If you’re still reading, that means I haven’t offended you to the point of bailing on me (yet), so let’s dive in and discuss why you shouldn’t rely on motivation.
Why Relying on Motivation Doesn’t Work
Our behaviors are not based on logic or ideas; rather, our feelings determine what we do. (Back to that, “I don’t feel like it” we were just talking about.)2
As humans, we’re designed to do what feels good and avoid what feels bad.
The reason most people fail instead of succeed is they trade what they want most for what they want at the moment.
– Napoleon Bonaparte
Motivation is fickle. Its presence is fleeting and sporadic.
Motivation is just like that super fun friend who is great to be around… when they actually decide to show up. But for the most part, they usually let you down. They say they’ll be somewhere at a certain time but ditch you for a better offer. They’re unreliable and untrustworthy.3
Who would want to rely on something as unreliable as that?
We’ve all experienced that amazing “high” from starting a new job, project, diet, or goal. It’s captivating, and the thrill can take hold of us as we move full steam ahead.
This passion and desire drives us out of the gate, fuels the long nights and grunt work, takes us effortlessly over hurdles, and keeps us moving with such intensity that we’re often blinded to the bumps in the road. We’re not afraid of breaking down, almost fearless, even. We let no obstacles stand in our way, plowing ahead as though the finish line is just around the corner.
Geez, I’m exhausted just writing about it.
Do you remember that feeling? The euphoria, the ecstasy, the uncontrollable fire that fuels the frenzy. You couldn’t cage it, couldn’t bottle it up. And why would you? Your mind rushes a million miles a minute; the pictures dance faster in your head than you can comprehend. Nothing is more important to you than this. The destination is clear in your head; it’s perfect, and no one can talk you out of it.
Yeah! I’ve felt that way, too; trust me, I know how it feels. But wait!
What happens when that feeling, that fuel, inevitably dissipates? How will you push yourself across the finish line?
At some point, the pain of not doing it becomes greater than the pain of doing it. – Steven Pressfield
This quote embodies the “take action” mindset, regardless of whether or not motivation is a contributing factor. In other words, at some point, it’s easier to change than to stay the same. If you can convince yourself to internalize this belief, there’s limitless power at your fingertips.
Now, it would be easy to digress and jump down one rabbit hole after another (don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy this). We could discuss, for example, the interconnected ideals and philosophies that contribute to “motivation” (do we still think that’s a thing?). But have no fear; I promise to touch on them in a concise (yet thorough) manner while leaving the door open for future posts on some of the more overarching topics.
It’s such a dirty, cringe-worthy word, isn’t it? Procrastination. Yuck. And rightfully so, as it is the root cause of so much stress, anxiety and debilitating inefficiency in our lives. But how do we rid ourselves of the ailment?
I’ll be the first to raise my hand: I have the disease. For as long as I can remember, I’ve relished the opportunity to put things off to the last minute, leaving myself just enough time that nothing short of a heroic effort would save the day. Now, to be fair to myself, I have made some improvements over the years; these days, procrastination is usually reserved for those tasks further down my priority list. Still, call me a glutton for punishment, but there’s something almost thrilling about giving myself such a narrow window for success and then slipping through the crack just in the nick of time.
I’m literally laughing out loud.
I should have begun this section by saying that if you’re not tainted with ‘the condition,’ feel free to scroll to the next section. Or just read along as we continue to diagnose our (not your) troubling disorder. No judgement, please.
You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.
– Abraham Lincoln
So how do we escape the suffocating effects of procrastination? I won’t allow this to turn into a “how-to” post, nor can I spend much more time on this subtopic without completely derailing this post. But if I could leave with you with one bite of advice, one thing that’s had the most significant impact on my life, it would be this:
Often we spend so much energy stressing, overthinking, and manufacturing reasons (let’s be honest, excuses) to delay the task at hand when all we need to do is take that first step and start.
We’ve allowed ourselves to believe that motivation is the prerequisite to action. That somehow, one must follow the other. I promise that if you allow this fallacy to dictate your life, you will cease to live up to your own expectations.
Why you need discipline, not motivation
We’ve already discussed how motivation can let you down and why you shouldn’t rely on it. I’m sure some of you reading the title for this last section are thinking, But wait, isn’t discipline the same thing as motivation? It’s a fair question, as these two words are often used synonymously in today’s conversations, but allow me to explain the stark differences.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, the definitions for each are the following…
- Discipline: (n) training to act in accordance with established rules.
- Motivation: (n) a motivating force, stimulus, or influence: incentive, drive.
Motivation is something you either have or don’t have. In a sense, it comes from outside ourselves. When’s the last time you successfully willed yourself to be more motivated? Discipline, on the other hand, is something you train for. It comes not from luck or from the air around us, but from deciding, day after day, that we want it.
You are never “motivated” to be more disciplined. Discipline is only useful if it’s tied to the actions you want to be disciplined with.
Why Most People Fail
We Don’t Know What Discipline Means
My hope is that by the end of this post, this won’t be you, but many people think of motivation in terms of willpower or discipline. If we see the person who wakes up at 5 AM every day, rolls out of bed without hitting the snooze button, “eats an avocado-chia-fennel-apricot-papaya smoothie each meal, snorts brussel sprout flakes, and works out for three hours before we’ve even started our day, we assume they’re achieving this through straight-up self-abuse – that there is some insatiable inner demon driving them like a slave to do everything right, no matter what.” 4
We’re L*zy and Looking for the “Easy” Way
Here’s yet another dirty word we’re more than willing to use when talking about others (not nice, by the way), but reluctant to use when describing ourselves: lazy.
The truth is we all have a little laziness inside us. It’s human nature, built into our DNA. Now don’t try to give me the “I’m working smarter, not harder” approach – nice try. Once you accept that looking for the shortcut is the default, it becomes easier to identify when it raises its ugly head. The key is to find methods to “tame the beast” and keep it at bay. With rare exceptions, if it’s truly worth it, it will not come easy. Luck and circumstance are wonderful, but rarely to thank for success.
To reach goals and overcome obstacles and become the best version of you possible will not happen by itself. It will not happen cutting corners, taking shortcuts, or looking for the easy way. THERE IS NO EASY WAY. – Jocko Willink
We Take on Too Much, Too Soon
“Don’t boil the ocean.” This wise little tidbit, attributed to Will Rodgers, Mark Twain, or Lewis Carroll depending on whom you ask, is a good reminder to not try to accomplish too much too soon. Developing a disciplined life, one that’s impenetrable to the occasional pitfall, won’t happen overnight. We’d do well to remember that any worthwhile, sustainable change is one of slight, continuous improvement.
We Have an “All or Nothing” Approach
Another common breakdown to creating a disciplined life is our all-too-familiar desire to go “all or nothing” in the pursuit of our goals. There might be good intentions behind it, yet, when taken literally, it’s actually rather destructive.
Engaging in all-or-nothing thinking limits you to two options: success or failure. I’ll be blunt: stop letting yourself think this way. It doesn’t account for the shades of gray that make up most of real life, and it can lead you to unfairly make negative assessments of yourself and your progress.
We’re Afraid to Fail
I’ve touched on this concept in another post, but let me briefly explain. Fear is both a positive and negative emotion. Like many things, its proclivity toward good or bad is directly dependent on our ability to control it.
Having the appropriate amount of fear can encourage you to maintain discipline, day in and day out, towards that new goal. After all, you’ll be afraid of failing, of disappointing yourself and those around you. But, as I’m sure you guessed, it’s a slippery slope. Too much fear and we can quickly back ourselves into a corner, walled in by impossible expectations on the verge of collapsing. Control the fear, or it will undoubtedly control you.
We Have Bad Habits Holding Us Back
Habits are involuntary actions we perform every day, and most of the time we hardly notice them. But they’re significant building blocks of our character and identity. There are two types of habits: good and bad. Good ones help us build positive character, while bad ones can slowly destroy us. Bad habits are ever-present obstacles on our path to fulfillment, and if left unattended, they’ll permanently sabotage our efforts to improve ourselves. 5
We Don’t Believe
Most of us are well aware of the impact our outlook has in determining our outcome. And while a pessimistic attitude can drastically impact our life (and health), it’s especially detrimental when trying to embark on new habits, new goals, and, overall, just better ourselves.
Set moderate, reasonable goals, and believe you can and will accomplish them. You must have the belief that you can achieve what you’ve set out to do to succeed.
There’s no secret formula for belief; you’re either a believer or not. But if you have difficulty believing in yourself and your abilities to succeed, I encourage you to start by looking around. What types of people do you surround yourself with? Do these people share in this struggle, this lack of belief? Are they uplifting, encouraging, or inspiring? Be honest. The people around you will ultimately make or break your chance for success.
Building genuine belief in yourself takes time. Pause for a moment, and take inventory of your circle of friends and those closest to you. Reach out to those you think you will be willing to help you pull that belief out. It’s in there. It’s in all of us.
Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.
– Henry Ford
* * * * * * * *
Creating a disciplined life won’t happen overnight – but would you want it to? Does anything of real, life-changing value ever fall into our lap?
I think of overnight success like I think about winning the lottery. Sure, it could happen, but it’s extremely unlikely. And even though the lottery is massively stacked against them, people still play and hope for that big instant payoff.
I encourage you not to be one of those people when it comes to seeking success. Even if you do manage to find it overnight, there’s an even smaller chance it will last.
Commit to showing up, putting in the work, and getting better every day.
Play the long game.
Resist the urge to be satisfied with anything less than progress and improvement.
The success you have – and you will have it – will not only change your life but also last a lifetime.
Discipline will never fail you.
“Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become.”
1 | There’s No Such Thing as Motivation (Aytekin Tank, Medium)
2 | If Self-Discipline Feels Difficult, Then You’re Doing it Wrong (Mark Manson)
3 | Why You Should Never Rely on Motivation (Maddie Rossier)
4 | If Self-Discipline Feels Difficult, Then You’re Doing it Wrong (Mark Manson)
5 | 10 Bad Habits That Will Hold You Back From Being Successful (Great Performers)