Motivation vs. Discipline: The Ultimate Showdown

Motivation has always been like a kind of drug for me. I seek it out wherever I can find it. And when I do, I thrive on the rush it gives me. I feel like I can do anything.

But like most drugs, it always wears off and usually leaves you wanting. It doesn’t sustain you all on its own. Unfortunately, this fading effect leads many people to set a low value on motivation. Some even disparage it, saying that discipline is what we need instead.

But is that all there is to it?

Maybe I don’t want to give up my favorite drug too easily (hey, don’t look at me like that, I don’t have a problem, you have a problem). But I think there’s a little more to this. So let’s take a deeper look.

Let’s put both traits side by side — motivation vs. discipline, the ultimate showdown. How does each one work? What do they do? Which is better? How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop*? I’ll answer most of these questions below.

Motivation is Energy

As we’ve talked about around here before, motivation is energy that gets you moving. That can mean taking the very first step on some new adventure. Or it can mean persisting long after you’ve started getting tired.

Motivation can come from anywhere, maybe even unexpectedly. But some of the most common places to look for it include:

  • Uplifting media (books, movies, music) that build excitement
  • Exercise (it doesn’t just take motivation; it also gives it!)
  • Conversations with people who challenge and inspire you

Many people will say that motivation isn’t everything, and they’re right. Of course, motivation isn’t everything because it’s not supposed to be. But it’s certainly something.

Motivation is an excellent source of productive energy, often when we need it most. And we’ve all felt how much it sucks to have no motivation. But it’s also fleeting and unpredictable. Fortunately, it’s only one tool in our toolbox.

Discipline is Systems

Where emotionally fueled bursts of energy leave off, our systems come up to bat.

Often when compared with motivation, people use ‘discipline’ to describe something kind of like willpower. Of course, willpower is also an excellent tool, but not really what we’re talking about here.

Instead, let’s look at discipline in the broader sense. That is, the behaviors you build up around specific rules or systems. For instance:

Discipline doesn’t always come with the same allure as motivation does. It’s not as flashy and doesn’t usually get your heart racing. But it’s deadly persistent. Effective systems keep you going even when you’re tired, even when motivation is low. 

Motivation vs. Discipline: Friends, Enemies, or Something Else?

We have two tools, often pitted against one another, when in reality, they make a pretty good team.

Motivation is sexy. It’s big and exciting, and it gets our adrenaline going. To feel fully motivated to get a big thing done is a rush that borders on euphoria. So when faced with something we don’t want to do or are just struggling with, we look to motivation for a boost.

But we’ve all felt the brisk chill left behind when motivation wears off. 

At this stage, we look to discipline, the hardier systems of behavior that get us through the tricky parts. But on its own, it can also come up short. Building discipline takes time and commitment. It takes energy. 

We can try to weigh the merits of motivation vs. discipline, but it’s not an either/or situation. It’s more of a “yes, and…” 

Discipline is a powerful machine for doing big things that improve your life. But every machine needs fuel of some kind. And motivation makes for excellent fuel.

Take motivation wherever you can find it, but don’t squander it. Instead, put that fuel into building discipline — healthy, productive systems that will last when you’re low on ‘spark.’

Where Do You Stand on the Motivation vs. Discipline Showdown?

Do you consider yourself a highly motivated person? What about a highly disciplined one? Do you find that one usually impacts you more, or do you like to use motivation and discipline together? Tell us about it below!


*Okay, 3. It was always 3.

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Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

6 thoughts on “Motivation vs. Discipline: The Ultimate Showdown”

  1. Definately need to work on Discipline. I work from home and it is so easy to walk out of my office and “SQUIREL”. There are the clothes that need to washed, oh the floor needs vaccumed, the dogs need to be played with, I could clean the bathroom, etc. Next thing I know 3 hours have passed and I haven’t finished my daily tasks for work. So irritating. I have never been diagnosed with ADD, but I sure can act like it.

    • Hey Karen, great to see ya! Discipline’s definitely the tougher of the two to build up, but well worth the effort. Working from home makes it especially valuable. I do actually have ADHD. The interesting thing is that while it makes some things (like focusing) a little extra challenging, the tools I need to help me adjust for it (like discipline, and many of the things I write about) often get me to an even better place than most people’s default!

    • I’d guess that that’s where most of us find ourselves. Motivation comes easily, but goes just as easily. That doesn’t make it a bad thing, but it does make it a lot stronger when we have that discipline working alongside it.

    • You’re certainly not alone, Ayesha. Working from home is awesome, but it definitely brings plenty of challenges with it. It’s a topic I’m constantly working on around here, trying to find tools and strategies to make it a little easier.


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