Discipline vs. Motivation


image“Only the disciplined are truly free.  The undisciplined are slaves to moods, appetites, and passions.”  — Stephen Covey

What’s the difference between motivation and discipline?

I like to think of discipline as “what to do” and motivation as “why to do.”

Discipline has a Latin root, but the gist is it’s about teaching.  So I think of self-discipline as teaching yourself self-control and shaping your behavior, so that you’re not a slave to your motivations.

Use Discipline to Bring Out Your Best

Primal motivations served us at one point, but society’s changed what survival means.  For more precision, you can think of discipline as shaping your thinking, feeling, and doing to adopt a new behavior.

Discipline serves you most when motivation says do otherwise.  At the end of the day though, I think a key is to find ways to link things to feeling good.

You do more of what makes you feel good and less of what makes you feel bad.

Motivation is “Why to Do”

Motivation is the why behind the goal.  It’s your little engine that says you can, when the rest of you says you can’t.

It’s also the same force that can help you move mountains, on a good day.

Motivation is a life-long skill that you can improve through self-awareness and proven strategies.  The better you know your own drivers and levers, the more effective you’ll be at getting the results you want in your life.

Discipline is “What to Do”

Then there’s self-discipline.  Self-discipline is the ability to correct your behavior (Self-discipline is simply correcting or regulating your behavior for the sake of improvement.

Will is based on thinking and reason to create action – motivation is more from emotion.)

It helps you get back on your course when you fall off your path.

It helps you do the right thing in the moment for your long-term benefit, when you may want to do something else.

According to Stephen Covey, “Only the disciplined are truly free.  The undisciplined are slaves to moods, appetites, and passions.”

Self-discipline is a muscle that gets stronger the more you flex it.

Motivation and Discipline Work Hand in Hand

Motivation and self-discipline work hand in hand.  Motivation can be your initial inspiration.  When you lose your initial inspiration, self-discipline can help keep you going.   To commit to self-discipline, it’s your initial motivation that says it’s worth it.

I think you find your motivations when you ask questions such as “What do you want to do?” and “What do you want to avoid?” and  “Why do you want to do that?”

I think you encourage discipline when you yourself “What’s the best thing for you to do?”

How to Make Discipline Actionable

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. It’s easy to do what you’re motivated for.  It’s not easy to do what you’re not motivated for.  How do you transition to the right behaviors?

There are a few things you can do:

  1. What’s the right thing for you.  Get clarity on what the right things for you to do are.  You can’t discipline or correct course if you don’t know what to change to.
  2. Treat motivations as input.  What does your mind want, what do your emotions want? What does your body want?
  3. Decide up front.  This is the key.  Decide on your behaviors before hand.  Once you’re in the thick of things, it’s easier to react than respond.  You can respond more effectively if you committed to a decision.
  4. Ask yourself questions.  Get in the habit of asking yourself “what do you want to do?” and “what’s the right thing do to?”  What you want to do is your motivation, what’s right for you will take discipline.
  5. Make motivation work for you.  Discipline lights up your way, but motivation is your fuel.  Progressively shape your thinking, feeling, and doing until it’s a habit.  You can start a question or thought at a time.  Remember that your thoughts change your feelings.
  6. Link it to good feelings.  Remember to link things to good feelings for the long run.  This can be as simple as changing how you think about something or internalizing how you value something.  Acknowledge and reward your good decisions and actions.

Don’t be a slave to your motivations.

Free  yourself up through discipline.

Use discipline and motivation together to realize your potential and bring out your best.

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Motivation or Action First


  1. i like this differentiation – why and what.
    I never thought of this that way and you quite surprised me with this. Now that you distilled it this way – it seems too obvious, but before that it wasn’t 😉
    Thanks – I good stuff!

  2. Totally my kind of post 😉

    Loved it. They do work hand in hand – discipline and motivation. Discipline flows in when I am motivated, but I need to really aplly your pointers to make the discipline actionable.

  3. Hi J.D.
    This is a very good post on the differences in discipline and motivation. You seem to have spent a lot of time on it. I especially like how you pointed out how we can make discipline “actionable”
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than no Action

  4. And stiking with something long enough to go for our long-term goals and delayed gratification requires reminding of that motivation fuel all along the way.

    And some cups of coffee are good too. Think I’ll go get me one now.

  5. @ Alik

    I value discipline a lot more now that I see the distinction. I actually think it plays a role with emotional intelligence. It’s an interesting area for development.

    @ Maya

    Thank you. I have a new appreciation for discipline.

    @ Giovanna

    Thank you. I think the secret to making discipline actionable is thinking in terms of thinking, feeling, and doing.

    @ Jannie

    That’s the key – delayed gratification. It may not be what you want right now, but it’s what you want in the future.

    @ Positively Present

    Thank you. I think the distinctions really help make it more actionable.

  6. […] Sources of Insight: figure out your teachable behaviors early; in the thick of things its easier to react than respond. […]

  7. Excellent post. I like to keep things that motivate me near by when I am doing things that require self discipline. When I first started working from home, I thought I would have trouble making myself do the work with so many distractions around. However, those distractions (a.k.a. my wife and kids)are my biggest motivation and I find myself being more productive than ever.

  8. Fascinating post! Something most lone workers and freelancers should read or those who want to quit the corp world for their on business. It requires both.

  9. I like the way you have put this. I had come to the feeling that discipline was what kept you going when your initial motivation seemed to abandon you – but I think your explanation here is clearer – with the initial push coming from inspiration.

  10. @ trainingupchildren

    Thank you. Surrounding yourself with motivation is a great way to get results.

    @ Meryl

    Thank you. I agree — motivation and discipline are key to success.

    @ Fred

    Thank you. Inspiration really is the bootstrap.

  11. Oh I needed this post last week, but somehow I got the point of it by doing the work – and reading now draws it into a neat package.
    Delayed gratification is such a hard skill for some to master…and apparently impossible for some financial experts?

    Just excellence in this post JD Thank you

  12. JD, your clarity in understanding and in your ability to explain concepts is wonderful. What and why are easy ways to differentiate.

    Personally I find that discipline is unnecessary when I’m truly motivated. In a recent post I talked about leaving half a portion on the plate. Most readers admired my ‘discipline’ yet the funny thing was it didn’t take any discipline at all, because in my mind I was motivated by the half that I COULD eat. I’m still thinking about this, so your post is helpful.

  13. @ Patricia

    Thank you. I agree, delayed gratifcation is tough. In fact, I think it’s the attitude of gratitude as well as rewarding your good behaviors over results that make delayed gratification rewarding. Simply reminding yourself you did the right things goes a long way.

    @ Daphne

    Thank you. It sounds like you found the right motivation to support you and that’s great. Once I’ve realized that I can change my thinking, feeling, or doing, I find discipline much easier to leverage. Interestingly, sometimes discipline is simply a decision vs. a thought process. You simply decide and go. Sometimes thinking can work against you and you can think your way out of a good decision in the heat of the moment. It’s a great reminder that you’re the sum of your decisions, one moment at a time.

  14. […] Discipline vs. Motivation – Sources of Insight […]

  15. I think your Decide up front point is critical.

    What is truly important for me to achieve does come from my Why. I agree with that.

    But what I want to do at any given moment isn’t always the motivation behind what I need to do. I don’t want to can be a cop out for me. I’d rather read, maybe. Or go for coffee. 🙂

    I find I can fill my moments with the ‘urgent’ or with small tasks that are easy to get out of the way, yet not important to (or in any way advancing) my Why.

    So I decide up front: I really want to have the energy I had ten years ago. Then my do’s must include more physical activity, not less, not even the same as, ten years ago.

    But I don’t always want to work out. Deciding up front, and staying committed to my decision, is what works. And as I get going (in my work out), my Why kicks in and I really do want to want to have energy all day.

    I just have to — as you say — discipline my mind to think what I really want in order to do what I must to achieve it.

    Does all that rambling make any sense? 🙂

  16. @ Barb

    Indeed it does. I like your walkthrough and I think you’ve found a way to make discipline and motivation work for you.

  17. […] Here are the bloggers I am passing this meme off to, they do not have to do this but I thought it would be a nice one to send out and about: Tess at the BOLD LIFE Dot at Deeper Issues Caroline at The Zen in You Lisa at Travelin’ Local Chania Girl at Living Happiness Betsy and Pete at Passing Thru Roadster at the RoadsTer Chronicles J.D. at Sources of Insight […]

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