Discipline vs. Motivation

Over the past few years, I’ve enjoyed learning more about habit formation. What causes certain people to stick with something while others struggle? One of my favorite texts on this topic is Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s one of those books you can read multiple times and glean something different from it with every read.

In chapter seven, Clear explains, “When scientists analyze people who appear to have tremendous self-control, it turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead ‘disciplined’ people are way better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require herotic willpower and self-control.” In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations.

Most of the time, we aren’t going to “feel” like or be motivated by doing what needs to be done. Many of the small moves that make up habits in the hum drum of daily life are not exciting and enjoyable. However, many times, it’s those small consistent moves that get help us achieve great things.

I had never thought of discipline in terms of structures, but when I look at the areas where I seem to be staying consistent with my habits, structures are in place. For example, I’ve been working on drinking more water on daily basis. I’ve tried buying bottled water and colorful water bottles. However, it wasn’t until I purchased a water bottle that actually shows me how much water I should consume hourly, that I experienced success with drinking more water consistently. I needed more structure, mile markers if you will, about where I was throughout the day to “motivate” myself to stay disciplined.

I recently enjoyed this podcast by George Couros where he talks about his weight loss journey and how no matter what you’re trying to achieve, you have to find what works for you. He also talks about being patient with yourself because big goals and aspirations take time to achieve.

We often associate our performance with our identity. Imagine if instead of judging, we gave ourselves grace and were curious about what conditions are necessary to help us thrive? Then, we could put the structures in place to create those conditions.

Too often, something has gone wrong for me and instead of asking myself, “What could do I to make success more likely in the future?” My thoughts run to, “Well, great. I’m a bad educator. Or I’m not a fitnes person. Or I am not the kind of person who double checks their emails before they send them. Or I made a mistake on that budget report, so I’m not a math person.”

Yikes. We can’t go very far with that. The only place we can go is into dark, limiting thoughts about ourselves, others, and the world.

Not to mention, why are we trying so hard to achieve certain things? Is it truly because we need or want to? Or is it because we think we are “supposed to”?

“You won’t be able to recognize the things you really care about until you have released your grip on all the things that you’ve been taught to care about.” – William Deresiewicz

Maybe the first step in setting the conditions for success is to determine where our desire (or lack there of) is really coming from. Not all goals and endeavors are created equal. Often, I must quiet the noise and sit with it. Sometimes, it’s not about me or my wants and needs at all. It’s about other people and pleasing those people or feeling as if I have some kind of status (I’m ashamed to say.) And while some of that might just be part of adult life, a lot of it is just noise that can be ignored, so we can make space for being disciplined about what truly matters to us.

What if we spent less time focused on achieving things and more time focused on living a full life? That makes me want to drink more water. That makes me thirsty. Thirsty for all of the goodness that this life has to offer.

And after asking ourselves what truly matters, maybe we can ponder:

How can we bring a sense of curiousity and play into the way we looked at ourselves, our growth, and development?

What if we were to tinker with little structures we could put in place to make success more probable? What might we let go of in order to make more space for the areas we want to grow?

And what if were to see ourselves as brimming with potential? Because the way we feel about ourselves matters. Kids are watching us, and if they see us trying and growing and loving ourselves through that process, they are more likely to do the same.

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