Motivation vs. Discipline

An interesting question, if you have to get a task done, which is more helpful motivation or discipline?  An interesting article titled “Screw motivation, what you need is discipline” contrasts the two:

“Motivation, broadly speaking, operates on the erroneous assumption that a particular mental or emotional state is necessary to complete a task.

Discipline, by contrast, separates outwards functioning from moods and feelings and thereby ironically circumvents the problem by consistently improving them.”

Clearly a not so subtle answer to the question but it hits on a really important point: people are generally lazy.  A little explanation is required.

A common misconception is that somehow what we feel and think drives what actions we take, a clear cut cause and effect.  The reality (as often is the case) is quite a bit more complicated.  Actually, our feelings and thoughts are much more intertwined with actions than our intuition lets on.  Let’s do a thought experiment.

You come home from work and are feeling a general malaise; if you were a colour, it would be grey; if you were the sky, it would be cloudy; if you were a word, it would be “blah”.  Now, what would you do in this situation?  Probably plop yourself on the couch, turn on the TV and zone out for the next few hours1.  So clearly, feelings/thoughts caused you to do this drab activity, or did it?  Let’s look at an alternate reality.

You come home from work and are feeling a general malaise; if you were a colour, it would be grey; if you were the sky, it would be cloudy; if you were a word, it would be “blah”.  As you are about to plop yourself on the couch, the alarm on your phone goes off reminding you that you’re supposed to go do your 6 pm workout (4 times a week no less!).  So you moan a bit and drag yourself to change and go for a run outside.  After the run, how would you feel?  Some words that I might use (depending on how the run went): tired, exhausted, energized, proud, happy, relieved, satisfied… the list goes on.  In no case though would I imagine that we would use the word “blah”.  Interesting isn’t it?  The action of running really caused our feelings (and most likely thoughts) to change.  So the cause and effect of feelings and actions aren’t so clear cut after all.

Now circling back to the original question: motivation or discipline?  Of course, we’d prefer motivation.  Motivation makes things easy.  When we’re really raring to hike up the mountain, it becomes (almost) fun.  When we’re determined to finish that assignment, it becomes effortless.  When we’re hungry to learn that new lick, practice seems like a breeze.  We like motivation because we like things easy.  The opposite is also true, we don’t like things hard, which is just another way to say we are lazy2.  But clearly the article is onto something that is obvious to everyone: we don’t always have motivation.  Some tasks are hard, sometimes we can’t see the finish line and we lose motivation.  And this is the reason discipline is so important.

Discipline gives us a reason (along with habits) to do some kind of action that we would normally not do left to our own devices.  And here’s the part that’s unintuitive: discipline can affect *gasp* your motivation.  So then, discipline is a tool to help us get stuff done but also to help us gain motivation.  It’s easy to see examples all over the place such as when a kid does well on his math test because he did all his homework, it will encourage him to study more next time.  Or perhaps practicing a guitar solo every day for a month, and then killing it at an impromptu performance for your friends.  And we can’t forget everyone’s favorite activity of seeing the pounds on the scale go down through a consistent exercise regimen (and probably reduced calorie intake).  Discipline can help us do more particularly through difficult tasks, and ironically make them easier (by giving us motivation).

So now then, motivation or discipline?  Both of course!  Not sure why there always needs to be a dichotomy between things.  We should use the right tools for the right job, and both motivation and discipline are two powerful and complementary tools.  Because you never want to be left with just one tool, as the old saying goes:

“To a man with a hammer, every problem looks pretty much like a nail.”

I don’t know about you but most of my problems are much too varied and delicate to use a hammer.  Now a screwdriver on the other hand…

  1. Obviously dating myself a bit.  How about something more modern?  Plop yourself on the couch, open up YouTube on your iPad, and spend the next few hours watching videos of cats spinning in circles. []
  2. Laziness isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Sometimes great innovation comes out from being lazy (as a way to avoid doing things that are hard).  Moreover, it’s just a fact of human nature (and nature) that we try to minimize hard things.  We don’t lament our limited capacity to see the visible light spectrum, why attach negative connotations to our natural tendency to be lazy? []