Motivation vs. Discipline: The Ultimate Showdown

Motivation is a powerful and intoxicating but mercurial force. It feels great and can help a person accomplish amazing things. But motivation relies on emotions and can be fleeting. As a result, some say you shouldn’t seek motivation but pursue discipline instead.

Contrarians claim that the slow consistency of discipline makes it a superior way to achieve long-term goals. But where does that leave motivation? To better understand the balance between these two forces, let’s start by taking a step back and looking more closely at how each one works.

Motivation is Energy

Motivation is energy that gets you moving. It comes from the Latin word movere, meaning “to move.” Generally, it’s a feeling of excitement, determination, or enthusiasm to take action on something you want to achieve.

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, 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 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 difficult it can be 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.

When compared with motivation, people often use ‘discipline’ to describe something like willpower. Of course, willpower is also vital for accomplishing goals, 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, Foes, 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 an excellent source of it.

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.’

Motivation vs. Discipline: The Verdict

Motivation is a powerful force that can help you reach your goals. It can drive focused bursts of effort, and often feels fantastic to experience. But it relies heavily on your emotional state, meaning it isn’t always easy to stay motivated when you want to.

In contrast to motivation, discipline is slow, resilient, and reliable. It can help you achieve things that take months or years of persistent effort. However, it takes time to establish and isn’t nearly as rewarding along the way.

Understanding that these two traits serve similar interests in different ways, it would be easy to stack them up against one another and proudly declare which you think is “better.” But when setting goals you really care about, you need all the tools you can get your hands on. Leaning into the synergy between motivation and discipline, rather than pitting one against the other, makes big dreams more achievable than ever before.

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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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