Motivation vs. Discipline
League of Wildness,
I recorded a podcast with this same title, “Motivation vs. Discipline” on August 14, 2019. I just re-listened to the episode and wanted to share my up-to-date reflections on the topic. My thesis: Motivation only matters if you're disciplined. Discipline is action; motivation is your mindset. When a highly motivated person is equally disciplined they are an unstoppable force of wildness. However, the most highly motivated individual in the world may lack the discipline to take any meaningful action. Let’s explore.
In the startup world, I regularly hear aspiring entrepreneurs mistake their motivation with actual progress (aka discipline). They get caught up reading inspirational books, perusing blogs, listening to podcasts, “picking the brains” of experts, brainstorming, or doing other frivolous activities that give the illusion of progress. A great example of this is the fledgling entrepreneur who registers their business with the state, purchases 1,000 business cards (at a discount, of course), purchases their domain name, and develops their products without testing them in the real world (by the way, these are all errors I have made myself even pre-monkii so I share them with the tried and true wisdom of experience). When starting a business, all that really matters is this: will people buy your product or service? You do not have a business until the answer to this question is yes.
When we look at applying motivation and discipline to fitness, health, and wellness we can see similar parallels. The search for the perfect program causes paralysis by analysis. Time spent watching motivational YouTube videos distracts you from real training. Even though you read a high quality nutrition blog, you do not actually change your diet. I’ve been guilty of all of this so I’m once again speaking from experience. I think the number one reason for this is that we set unrealistic goals, get really motivated, but fail to take consistent action. Why? We did not set SMART goals - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and anchored within a Time Frame. I’ll give an example of a previous goal of my own:
- Specific: Climb the Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
- This is a specific route. If I said climb a “big wall” that would be too vague.
- Measurable: I have a series of “practice climbs” coordinated with my partner.
- These practice climbs increase in difficulty and technical complexity that mimic The Nose. If we struggle with a certain technique, we can go back or add extra training focus for future practice climbs. It’s critical that you are able to measure small, incremental progress to make sure you are actually working towards your goal.
- Achievable: I’m physically capable of climbing The Nose.
- This is based on previous climbs I’ve completed and my array of technical skills. The Nose would be the biggest hardest climb I’ve done, however, it is a relatively incremental step up in difficulty. Achievable DOES NOT mean easy. Even if you are theoretically capable of achieving whatever it may be, you will still have to work extremely hard.
- Realistic: I have the gear, the time, and the partner to climb The Nose.
- These are just as important as my physical ability and the climb would be impossible without all three. You have to be fair to yourself. Just because you want to do something doesn’t always mean it is realistic. Set yourself up for success by taking the time to objectively determine if your goal is realistic.
- Time Frame: May 22, 2017.
- My partner and I set a date for our attempt on The Nose more than 6-months in advance. This was adequate time to train as well as sharpen some of the specific skills required for the climb. Without setting a specific time frame or date, it becomes too easy for “life to get in the way” of your goal. A classic adventure quote goes something like this, “The first step to any adventure is this: buy the f&#@ing ticket”. Committing to a time frame also creates urgency and forces action - if you really want to do what you say it is you want to do, you better ACT NOW.
A quality goal needs to have these 5 elements to be worthy - lacking even one component significantly reduces the likelihood of achieving the goal. An ambiguous goal takes away from the positive-reinforcement that occurs when smaller steps towards that goal are achieved and because of this, the process is abandoned.
As I freely associate on the topic - I think back to my childhood. From a young age we are encouraged to “dream big” and are told we “can be whatever we want to be”. It is a privilege to live in a society that allows for such unbounded freedom, however, I propose we can do better. I want to tell my two young daughters the same things I was told, but I would add the following: “Dream big. You can be whatever you want to be. But first make a plan by starting with the goal you wish to achieve and then work backwards with small, incremental steps that can be executed consistently for years”. This is a mildly facetious statement - I’m not suggesting we hammer Kindergarteners with a SMART goal training program. What I am saying is that we introduce another question. After someone identifies their goal, we simply ask them how they plan to achieve their goal - with specifics. This takes the motivational aspect of dreaming and thinking big, and funneling that energy into a form of disciplined action.
It’s science. The dopamine reward system plays an important role in our motivation and can potentially help us be more disciplined. We can use the rewarding feeling from realizing micro-goals along the way to a larger macro-goal. When you achieve a micro-goal you release dopamine and strengthen the neurological pathway specifically related to the larger, macro-goal. It’s similar to physical training in that when you regularly ‘exercise’ a neural pathway within the proper threshold of adaptation it gets stronger. In a way, you can train yourself to be disciplined. And remember, it does not have to be a binary approach. Instead, view this concept in the context of the law of large numbers - we want our average to be that of action. You do not have to ‘win’ every day - you just need to win most days. No one is perfect - we’re human. Instead, focus on being perfect most of the time. That, in a sense - is discipline.
When I say I get up at 5:30am to workout, what I’m really saying is that most days I get up at 5:30am to workout.
When I say I eat really well, what I’m really saying is that I eat really well at most meals.
When I say I stop looking at my phone 1-hour before bed, what I’m really saying is that most nights I stop looking at my phone 1-hour before bed.
I think you get the point.
More free association, but here is a simple template I’d suggest experimenting with if you seek more discipline in your life. First - determine your ‘why’ - why do you want to be more disciplined in the first place? It is likely you will have to ask yourself why several times to get to the real answer. Next, set the most badass, wild, SMART goal you think that you might be capable of achieving. Then, think of the easiest, frictionless action you can take in the next 24-hours to take a small step towards achieving that goal. Repeat forever.
The exploration of your ‘why’ is a fluid process that may, or may not change over time. I remember kids that knew they wanted to be doctors in the 3rd grade, finished college in 2.5 years, and are now living out their childhood dreams as practicing MDs. If I’m honest, I’m still working on my why. I have some solid rough drafts and I believe that I’m close to distilling it out, but I still cannot articulate my why in a concise statement. I’ve even hired a coach to help with the process. I share this because it can be extremely difficult to try and define your why. However, you need to start somewhere and plan on it taking some time if you really want to uncover your own roots.
A disciplined life is the warrior's path. It will be hard and you will fail along the way. Pursuing discipline as it relates to your why will ultimately give meaning to the process and provide additional motivation to continue on the journey. So, why not?