What is Motivation? What is Discipline? And what do they have to do with each other?
A Training Article by Daniel Hunt
The demands on our day-to-day lives range from the trivial to the fundamental, based on the needs and expectations set by both ourselves and those around us. The average person is constantly beset with ‘what needs to be done’, and as responsibilities grow - so, too, does that list. ‘Need’ is a word that, like any other, has a definition - what is variable, however, is how an individual applies that word into their life. Needs have adapted and changed over time, from the basic needs of food and shelter, to the modern need for a stable internet connection - just to file your tax return or send an important work email. It’s hard to convince an individual that something they view as a necessity is actually, a frivolity that they could live without, and for the most part that’s fair enough - everyone has their own crutch or vice that assists them to navigate the demands of their day. What is crucial to consider is ‘perspective’, and how these needs are defined within the context of each individual’s life. Of course, the caveat of ‘within reason’ applies, as a necessity that may be detrimental to the person could be something they can go without (e.g. substance abuse). Finding the motivation to do the things that we believe are a necessity usually comes naturally, since by definition, a need is something that leaves you no choice but to do it. We need to eat, sleep and hydrate. Those three things are good examples, as we quite literally have no choice but to fulfill them, or else our bodies will shut down. But what about desires - the ‘wants’ in our lives? I need food, and I desire pizza? How convenient. I desire pizza, but I’m supposed to eat steak and vegetables. Less convenient as far as my desires are concerned. As much as we’d like to indulge every ‘want’ we have, it isn’t always healthy, and is generally unsustainable. So, when it comes to desires that conflict with our plans or best interests, is motivation or discipline better for resisting the urges? Is there a difference between the two? And if so, what is it?
When we’re required to do something that we aren’t particularly enthusiastic about, we tend to fall back to the reasoning of ‘lacking motivation’. Motivation comes in many forms - incentive, impulse, encouragement, provocation, stimulus, and many more - or so my Google search tells me. Motivation helps us achieve our goals - but it ebbs and flows throughout our life. When struggling to find it, we usually go looking for it. We can search for motivation in a number of ways - whether it’s reminding yourself about the future payoff, promising yourself a reward once it’s done, memories of the positive feelings associated with accomplishing a task, or in these modern days reading a motivational quote under your favourite swim-suit model’s latest Instagram post. Wherever you find your motivation is personal, and if it is efficient in assisting you to achieve your tasks or goals - then it’s probably an effective one. Most tasks and goals, however, need to be repeated often or are something that are gradually achieved with time. So, motivation needs to be not only recurring, but consistent. If what motivated me last night to eat steak and vegetables instead of pizza doesn’t work for me tonight, then I know that motivation was unsustainable. In saying that, even the most motivated people in the world have slip-ups or ways to treat themselves - so don’t take setbacks as undeniable proof that your methods aren’t effective. Take these setbacks in stride, and use them as opportunities to learn instead.
Motivators can be categorised into two different kinds: extrinsic and intrinsic.
Extrinsic motivation comes from things that can be considered external to ourselves. A student may be motivated by the goal of achieving a high mark in an exam, a business CEO by money, or a performer by fame or praise. These kinds of motivators can help people perform other tasks which may be unenjoyable, so that they can fulfill their goal. The student looking to score highly in their exam may not enjoy the subject, but they’re willing to suffer the time studying in order to achieve their goal. We all have examples of extrinsic motivators in our lives, with the most common being our job. The paycheck is the motivator, and while there are nice stories out there of people that found the ‘dream job’, I’m yet to meet or hear of someone that enjoys every aspect of their vocation. We’ve all done something required of us at work that we haven't enjoyed, but we’ve done it because receiving a paycheck continues to act as an effective motivator. It can be argued that a paycheck is something that can be classed as a ‘need’ (as opposed to a ‘desire’), but it serves as a good example of what an extrinsic motivator is nonetheless.
If you have a hobby that you do solely for enjoyment and someone were to ask you why you do it, a likely answer would be “because it’s fun”. When we do things because of the internal psychological reward that it provides, the motivation category changes. These motivations can be harder to display or explain to others, since the direct reward received upon achieving the goal generally isn’t tangible. These motivations also vary person to person, and task to task. Because of this, you can argue that these forms of motivation are more meaningful and sustainable, as something that is done purely for personal enjoyment will provide reward not only at the end, but also as it’s conducted. If someone enjoys woodworking as a hobby, they don’t just enjoy the final result of their hours of work. They enjoy the process of creation too, even if not all parts of the process are comfortable or stimulating. Only a masochist enjoys splinters under their nails, but a woodworker suffers the splinters for the sake of the internal reward.
When Motivation Fails
Extrinsic or intrinsic, sometimes our motivators fail to maintain our momentum whilst we work towards our goals. Our feet drag and our brains feel slow to compute what we’re seeing, making us think that maybe the work we are doing to achieve this goal isn’t as important as we thought, that it can be done later or not at all. No ‘need’ or ‘desire’ is safe from these feelings: breakfast can be skipped and sleep can be shortened. A student reducing study time can still pass their exam and the gym will still be there tomorrow morning. All this may be true, but when you’ve set your sights on a goal and planned out the path to achieving it, the shortcuts we take and exceptions we make can be detrimental not only to the timeline, but also the end result itself. Each successful action towards a goal, whether menial or life changing, increases the chances of success and builds a healthy habit. This causes each successful action to require less motivation as time goes on. So when motivation fails and that thing you planned on doing is now the last thing you want to do, but you still find yourself doing it - you can call that discipline.
Typing ‘discipline’ into a Google search gave me the following definition: “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience.”
The definition of the word sounds pretty extreme, especially when words like ‘punishment’ are thrown in there. If someone were to ask me to give my own definition of discipline and how I apply it to my life, it would be something more like: “doing the work, even when I’m only accountable to myself”. You can draw parallels between that true definition and my own, as I’m placing rules and behaviours that I believe are conducive to achieving a certain task or goal. I’m certainly not ‘punishing’ myself though, at least not in a traditional sense. If I fail to abide by these self-imposed rules or behaviours, I’m not giving myself a time out in the corner or whipping myself with a belt; but I feel like I’ve failed to meet my own potential. This is the primary difference (in my mind) between the ‘dictionary definition’, and my own: these disciplines are self-imposed. No one is going to scold me for sleeping in or missing a gym session, but I know that my own actions negatively contributed to a goal that was bigger and more important to me than 30 minutes of extra sleep. In the context of my definition, I am entirely accountable for the outcomes of my actions - whether they align with goal achievement, or work against it.
In the daily life of the average person, examples of discipline are common, but generally mundane. Choosing to eat your prepared meal instead of getting takeout, not buying a new piece of clothing that you want, or even a barista smiling at a customer despite their bad mood. Most of the time, it’s the boring and small that contribute most to our plans. Unlike motivation, discipline is a skill that is built with time and practice. So, implementing some common methods to build your discipline can help you in making those small and boring decisions. Identifying your weaknesses and what it is that you most struggle to be consistent with is a crucial first step, because once you know that - you’re able to put measures in place that assist in giving you the best chance of overcoming that challenge. Having the self-awareness to acknowledge what challenges you leads into creating a plan. Having a goal and creating a plan to achieve it greatly increases your odds, and sets you up for success. Assess the current habits that you have in place, and if they aren’t conducive to your goal - then identify improved habits and make a plan to gradually introduce them. These are just a few basic methods that, even on your most unmotivated days, can assist you in seeing through the daily little grinds.
Failure. Setbacks. Backslides. Loss. Defeat.
I honestly can’t think of a day that has ever gone perfectly, whether it wasn’t to plan or just in general terms. For all our planning, effort and conviction, there are always things that slip through. This can be due to things that are either in or out of our control (which is important to identify), but either way there’s a very real feeling of failure when we have these setbacks or oversights. When we come up against failure, it is perfectly normal to feel disappointed, and frustrated that things haven’t gone to plan. But, this doesn’t mean we have to get stuck ruminating on ‘what could’ve been’. If the cause of a setback is identified as out of our control, it’s important to remember exactly that - “the cause of this was beyond my ability to control”. There are only so many variables that we can influence - so, use the reasons that are out of your control to look at the things you can, and assess whether you did everything reasonable within your power to ensure that they were conducive, not disruptive. If you look at the variables within your control and find that they aren’t helping you in achieving your plans - then that’s good, because you can actively make adjustments to better influence results in the future. When you face a setback, you want to be able to look at all the effort you’re putting in and confidently be able to say that you’ve done everything within your means to succeed. So identify, learn, adjust and try again.
Throughout our lives, we’ve all heard of people that are considered a ‘motivated person’. They might be someone who is always working, always improving or just always doing something. They appear to us mere mortals as mechanical or magical beings whose only purpose in this world is to make us feel like we aren’t trying hard enough. It can be hard for us to relate to them, as surely these people don’t feel and experience the same temptations that we do - otherwise, how could they possibly be like that? I agree that there are people in this world who are just more naturally goal orientated and driven. But, at the end of the day we’re all human, and what we feel or experience may not be exactly the same - but this doesn’t mean they aren’t similar. Every person, whether motivated or considered lazy, is beset by the comforts and familiarity of not trying as hard as they could.
If you’re looking to make a change, improve, or are just looking to maintain something comparable to a functional lifestyle - motivation and discipline are the strength in your legs as you move towards your desired outcome. Take the time to learn what best motivates you, whether extrinsic or intrinsic - and appreciate that this is a skill-building process. Build the habits and resolve to apply self-discipline when your motivation fails. Set realistic goals and take small, achievable steps to fulfill them. Remember to be realistic and give yourself down time or reward yourself when you need it - in order to prevent yourself from potentially mentally burning out - as the actions you implement need to be sustainable.
Anvil Training and Development is a group of Australian veterans who care about the physical and mental health of veterans and emergency service workers. We’re passionate about ongoing education and working with others to implement positive change.
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(Article Edited, Proof Read, and Fact-Checked by Charlotte Officer)
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