Motivation vs Discipline


I’m collecting donations of gently used running shoes, clothing, and gear for the track and field athletes at Rhodes Hall High School in Hanover, Jamaica. Donations can be mailed to: Danielle Cemprola, PO Box 26101, Greenville, SC 29616. If you would prefer to donate online, please visit my GoFundMe page! All funds raised will go directly to the team. You can read more about the kids and their incredible stories here.

Ahh, early January. If you’re like me, your pants are probably a little tighter than they were in early December. Your house is maybe a little more messy, your routine a little disheveled, and your dog somehow has less manners. I’m right there with you. The holidays are a busy time, but they’re also a time for relaxing and enjoying time – and food! – with family and friends. But now it’s January and everything sucks.

I actually hate donuts, but you know what I’m getting at.

Each year, tons of people make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, start exercising more, or actually train the dog. These resolutions are made with the best of intentions and many people truly believe that this will be the year the new behavior sticks. Maybe it will. But statistically, it won’t – something like 9% of resolutions are kept until the following December! Many of the people who quit their resolutions will end up saying something like “I know I should go to the gym more, I’m just not that motivated.” I’m not here to tell you not to make resolutions, though, or to tell you that I don’t think they’re valuable; after all, I love New Year’s resolutions. Instead, I’m here to speak to you through the wisdom and humor of the Real Housewives about the difference between motivation and discipline and how to use them to secure success in your resolutions this year. These are women who clearly have their shit together and are therefore qualified to extend advice, amiright?

Prayer can’t hurt either, but just in case that’s not enough.

This idea of “motivation” is, in my mind, one of the most poisonous concepts in the western world. No, seriously, stick with me. When we think about “motivation,” we think of it as this inner drive to succeed that comes from… somewhere. No one knows where, exactly. Motivation just suddenly appears in the form of a picture taken at a bad angle, the tenth time you’ve overdrafted your account this month, or the most recent time your dog stole your food off your plate before you could eat it. And there it is! The will to change and succeed! Hooray, motivation!

I drank a smoothie once. That was a bad day.

The problem with motivation is that it is fleeting. It is hard to change our behavior, especially when it involves something like eating less, working out more, spending less, or consistently telling the dog “no” – things we don’t really want to do and that are hard to maintain. There will be days when we just want to eat the cake or buy the yoga pants – it’s inevitable. And when that day comes and we fall off the wagon, we tell ourselves “I’m just not that motivated” and then maybe give up on the change entirely.

Poor effort, NeNe.

We look at the person in our lives who we hope to be more like – that person who eats a diet mostly free of processed foods, runs five times a week, or manages their finances responsibly. “I wish I had your motivation!” we say to them. If I had a nickel for every time someone has said “I wish I had your motivation!” to me, be it about running, eating, how much I work, or whatever, I could buy a ticket to Nepal right now. And that’s why I think this notion is so dangerous.

I don’t have anything you don’t have. I am not more motivated than you. In fact, based on my behavior in early childhood (I quit my soccer team at age 7 because they made us run one lap around the field), there is a strong possibility that I was born with far less motivation than you. With very few exceptions, no one is consistently any more motivated than anyone else. We all have our highs and lows, but motivation is fleeting. It is out of our control, and it comes and goes as it pleases. That’s why it is so unreliable.

When motivation goes away – normally about 6 days into any type of diet or new exercise regimen, for me – that’s where discipline comes in. Discipline is what we mistake for motivation in people who are doing the things we think we can’t do. Discipline is what must take over at 5 am when it’s snowing and we really, really don’t want to get out of our warm bed to run. Unlike motivation, some people are more consistently disciplined than others, and that is because discipline lies entirely within our control.

Kelly is apparently so dedicated to her workout that she runs in the middle of the street in NYC.

I think of discipline like a muscle – it has to be worked to grow stronger. Just like you wouldn’t start out trying to deadlift 300 pounds if you’ve never worked out before, it helps to start small with discipline, too. So much of our behavior and our habits are framed by our own perceptions of our ability to actually achieve our goal. If you’re like me and struggle majorly with self-doubt, there’s often a feeling of “Why bother? I’m just going to give up eventually anyway.” That’s why I’m a big believer in starting small – REALLY small – and building momentum from there.

The most recent time I’ve used this strategy was this past summer. I came off the Casper Marathon feeling frustrated and burnt out with running. I wanted to get my love for running back and take all the pressure off myself, so I decided to run only as far and as fast as I felt like on each day. My only goal was to get out there and run – even if it was just a run/walk down the block. For me, setting such a low bar helped me to build my confidence and believe that not only could I enjoy running again, I would eventually want to run faster and farther than just a couple of miles, and you know what? It worked. I eventually completed a whole marathon training cycle, enjoyed every second of it, and ran the Spinx Marathon and the Route 66 Marathon.

I tried to explain the difference between motivation and discipline to A.J. a few weeks ago when we were on vacation in Arizona. As you know, he’s training for a half marathon, but getting him out the door is a struggle sometimes. We had been gorging ourselves on food, drinking plenty of alcohol, staying up late, and generally just not taking great care of ourselves for a few days while we hung out with my best friend and her fiance. We had each brought one running outfit with us, so when we had a spare hour of time, I announced it was time to run and threw on my clothes. He just glared at me. “I don’t feel like running,” he said. “So?” I said. “Me either, but we haven’t run in a few days and this is probably our only chance.” “No,” he said. “I’m not that motivated.”

This accurately sums up AJ’s feelings about running about 60% of the time. The other 40% of the time, he tolerates it.

I think the reason that sentence bothers me so much is because it implies that I have some magical powers that AJ does not have. I don’t. I didn’t want to run either, but running and training are a habit for me. I know I need to get my runs in, so I just do – whether I want to or not, unless I’m injured. Half the time, I don’t want to go, but experience has taught me that more likely than not, I’m going to be glad I went, so I go. I’m not perfect and maybe I don’t get in quite as many miles as I thought I would or run quite as fast as I expected, but if I made a promise to myself to get out the door, then I do. That’s discipline coming in to play, not motivation. There is nothing I am less motivated to do after a few days of gluttony than run, quite frankly. If I relied on motivation to get myself out the door, I’d run about once a month.

I don’t say this to say that I’m better than you, or AJ, or anyone else. I say this only to let you know that your power to keep your New Year’s resolutions or any other goals this year is totally up to you. Next time you find yourself saying “I’m not that motivated,” say instead, “I’m not that disciplined.” Ouch, right?! If that doesn’t light a fire under your ass, I don’t know what will. It works because it takes the blame off some nebulous external factor – “motivation” – and places it on something we can control – ourselves. All of a sudden, you’re in charge. You don’t have to be motivated at all. If you are motivated – great! But know that when that motivation fades, you still have the power to make the decisions that will propel you forward. I think there is something so empowering about that – WE are in control, not “motivation.” You don’t have to wait until you’re motivated. You don’t have to rely on motivation to keep you going. If you work on your discipline, you won’t need motivation, because you’ll be able to count on yourself. How awesome is that?! What better resolution could there possibly be?

I’m not 100% sure what this means but it sounds good so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

So I guess that’s the difference between motivation and discipline: motivation comes from without, and discipline from within; motivation is fleeting, discipline is habitual; motivation is situational, discipline is consistent. Motivation is a New Year’s resolution, discipline is a lifelong change. Which will define your 2016?

29 thoughts on “Motivation vs Discipline

  1. First of all I love the new look of the site!!
    Second, all these animated gifs have me laughing my ass off and I have no idea who these women are but they are terrifying!
    Third – can I get an AMEN? AMEN to this!!! I also possess no magical powers but I am extremely disciplined. Did I want to workout the day after NYE? No. Did I? Yes. And the day after that and they day after that…you get the idea. I set goals and make an effort to attain them. It sucks a lot of the time to get in the pool, on the bike or outside but I’ve never come back from a workout wishing I had not gone.
    I love this post and want to kiss it. 🙂

    1. STOP IT RIGHT NOW. You don’t know who the Real Housewives are? I can’t get past anything else.

      And yes! You are one of the most disciplined people I know. I love seeing your posts and knowing you are getting your workouts in no matter what the weather and what you have going on. It’s awesome!

  2. Great article! Maybe more of us will not only stick to our new year’s resolutions,but also set more realistic ones that are actually attainable through discipline!

    1. Thanks, Kris! I think setting realistic resolutions is such a key component of making meaningful and lasting change. It also is so important to not only come up with a realistic resolution, but also a plan for how to achieve it, and then start small! Rome wasn’t built in a day.

  3. Great and interesting post-Danielle. I do think the best goals are achieved through discipline and creating life long habits. For some people it’s much easier said than done…

    I like the look of your new site. It looks awesome.

    1. I think for most people it is much easier said than done – that’s why so many New Year’s resolutions fail. It’s never easy to create a pattern or discipline, but for some people, it is definitely easier to be disciplined in certain areas. For example, I am pretty good at being disciplined with my workouts or eating, but not so great at being disciplined with money. Other people never spend an extra dime but can’t get off the couch! I think it depends what our personal interests are, but we can all get stronger in the different areas of our lives.

  4. All I have to say: PREACH. Goals are attained through a combination of motivation to start and the discipline to continue. I also think that there is a difference between motivation and inspiration, but that is another story for another day.
    Now, where are my stretchy pants?

    1. That’s an interesting idea, Suz! I hadn’t really thought about the difference between motivation and inspiration. A different post for a different day, perhaps!

  5. Last year I was just like AJ, my Hubby on the other hand has always been like you – i don’t feel like a run but i am gonna run anyway. This year I came up with a word that he has to say to me, just one word, between him and me. and that word will remind why i need to get out and go for a run, even when i don’t feel like it. Once I am out the door, 99% of the time I am happy I did it, its getting out the door that is the hard part.

    1. That’s a great idea, Meg! I think I will try that with AJ. And I think the word will probably be “pizza.”

  6. The same can be said about infatuation and real love. 🙂 I totally agree wit you. I have always been brutally honest with myself and know that I am disciplined in some areas and others – not so much. I have no problem 99.9% of the time getting in my workout. I know if I don’t,I will not be able to finish my goal race or
    Finish well. I also know that I always feel better when I do the workout and so much worse if I don’t. Working out has never been my issue but poor eating habits are.

    I want to be more disciplined when it comes to making “cleaner” meals and not indulging. I am not. I hope to become so this year. Last year I managed to kick the fast food habit. Now it makes me ill if I eat that stuff. YAY! Now on to finding good “go to” recipes. I have to stop being lazy.

    Thanks for the reminder. I won’t look for motivation. I will implement a plan.

    1. I can relate to a lot of what you are saying, Hollee! I am pretty disciplined about exercise and food the vast majority of the time, but I sometimes have a hard time with not needlessly spending money on random stuff. It brings me farther from my big goals and I don’t know why I do it! Sometimes I feel super “motivated” and really rein it in for a long time, but then I blow money on something stupid, get mad at myself, and think “why bother?” It’s something I’ve been working on a lot recently and that’s part of my 2016 resolution – make a plan and be intentional so I can gain discipline in that area. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  7. Fabulous post…I have honestly never thought about differences in motivation vs discipline. You hit the nail on the head with how you defined/explained the differences. Here’s to an amazing 2016..full of discipline! 🙂

  8. I love these gifs lol. I have been lacking in motivation over the holidays and have been stressed out about missed runs. Thanks for the reminder that most people need to force themselves out the door somedays and that I always feel better after a run!

    1. I’m so glad you liked it, Lauren! You’re definitely not alone. I force myself out of the door most days! I’m almost always glad I went, though. I used to stress about missed runs too and finally realized that I either needed to stop training for things that were stressing me out, or just do the runs anyway and avoid the stress to begin with. Running should be fun!

  9. You have just motivated me to add more steps to my 11k I have already done today. It’s cool outside and the perfect time to do it. 🙂

  10. I think this is a great explanation! I’m always surprised when people are impressed I get out and run in all sorts of weather – for me, skipping a day (at least for something like weather) just isn’t an option!

    And I don’t really get the grass gif either, but it reminds of my neighbor who critiques how I mowed my lawn while going weeks without mowing his, so it gave me a huge laugh!

    1. That’s kind of how I feel too, Rebecca! Or when people say “you run in the summer?!” Uh, yeah…I’m not going to start over again every fall! I think for us it is just a habit and part of our daily lives, and it can be hard for people to understand how we got to that point in the first place.

  11. Seeing as how my resolution is to pet more doggies, motivation and discipline are a piece of cake 🙂

    On the other hand, the struggle was real to get out today in the 29 degree cold weather with the 15 degree wind chills. Ouch.

    Glad to know I’m not the only one struggling. Me and NeNe. Oh yes

    1. Hey, that’s a total valid struggle! Running in the cold is tough. Petting dogs, not so much 🙂

  12. This morning at 4AM it was -7F with the wind chill. There isn’t enough pixie dust and unicorn farts and rainbows of motivation to have someone say “OH YAY I GET TO RUN!” It is pure grit – willpower, determination, motivation. I KNOW my hands will be cold by the end, but not dangerously so; I KNOW that it will be a slog due to the cold, the wind and the sloppy snow from last night; and I KNOW that I will feel better as a result.

    On my blog I wrote about how I felt embarrassed for many years about how easily it was for me to drop from ~400 to ~185lbs when I was 23 simply by running and eating better/less. Once I saw how ‘easy’ it was, I was embarrassed that I had let myself get so overweight, and also when I’d have people ask “how did you DO IT?!?” and not having a great answer other than ‘um, eat less and exercise’. I just had ‘willpower’, apparently …

    But then in 2012 when I had to lose >100 lbs again (ugh!) it finally occurred to me that ‘willpower’ isn’t trivial, and that weight loss and maintenance is NOT trivial. It is that I had the discipline, the determination or whatever you want to call it to get up every day and do it. Which was sort of a revelation to me – but also interesting since I had gained >25lbs at least three times between 1989 – 2012, so I knew that left to its own devices my body would accumulate weight – so I REALLY needed to maintain motivation!

    1. I actually thought about you a lot when I wrote this post, precisely for the reasons you mentioned. I see your instagram posts in all kinds of weather, through all manner of life events, and I know about your up and downs with weight. It really is all about discipline, and like you said, when conditions are bad, there is no way “motivation” can pull you through. That’s why I think it’s so important to work on discipline when we DO have the motivation and really work to strengthen that “willpower.” It’s not easy!

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