Why Relying on Motivation Lets You Down

Motivation is unreliable and if we don’t use it right, discipline can fail us, too.

We live in a world where people expect us to use fear as motivational fuel. “If you don’t exercise and eat exactly the right foods, you’ll become unhealthy!” they say. “If you don’t get out and crush those goals, you’re going to waste your life”, they warn. 

This kind of talk works for very few people, because we aren’t primarily motivated by fear. There are plenty of theories that try to explain what motivates humans, but I won’t get into that. Suffice to say that everyone is different, and that motivation is short-term, fickle, and it depends on your energy levels.

In other words, it cannot be relied upon. So how do we motivate ourselves when we don’t have the energy to do so? And how do we motivate ourselves over the long term, when motivation itself is only a short term sensation?  

Some would say discipline is key, to which I agree — to a point. Discipline is where we “do the thing” (i.e. the step that takes us closer towards our goals) regardless of whether we feel motivated to do it. 

But just like not everyone has the energy to motivate themselves day after day, not everyone has the energy to be disciplined. The trick here, (or the challenge, for those who suffer from perfectionism), is to be willing to start small in order to build new habits. 

What does this NOT look like? 

Let’s say your goal is to gain muscle. You normally chill out at home after work, but you’ve decided you will achieve this goal by going to the gym 5 times a week, and you have the workouts planned out (chest day, leg day, etc) and each session will last for about 50 minutes.

It takes a lot of energy to live your life completely differently, and it’s energy you just don’t have. Using discipline, chances are you’ll hate this new schedule so much that you’ll call it quits after a week. You will consider yourself a failure for not “toughing it out” and pushing through. 

Using Discipline More Effectively

Instead of setting yourself a mammoth feat, you can look at your goal, break it down into smaller chunks, then work on turning those small chunks into habits. This will require less energy, so it’s more sustainable in the long-run. 

Most importantly, you’ll be changing your brain so that the behaviour becomes automatic. 

If we go back to the gym example, instead of using discipline to control yourself, using discipline to build new habits might look like this: “I go to the gym every day after work. I’m only obliged to stay for 10 minutes.” 

Even if you leave the gym after the 10 minutes is up, it doesn’t matter – you’re successfully building a habit every time you walk through those doors. Once the behaviour becomes habitual, then you can focus on building up the time.

Never miss twice

When you’re in the midst of building the new habit, if something inevitably comes up and you need to take a day off, it may be useful to remind yourself of the James Clear quote: “Never miss twice”. This simply means that you won’t let one day off turn into two (or three, or a week). 

Being too strict and taking an “all or nothing” approach rarely works. By telling yourself you won’t miss twice, you’re allowing yourself a small margin of error.

Kindness wins

Discipline is a great way to achieve goals, and we can rely on it far more than the fleetingness of motivation. But overdoing it by expecting to get from A to Z in a single swoop is often counterproductive. 

Be kind to yourself by considering the goal you want to achieve, then breaking that goal down into smaller mini-goals. By focusing on turning those smaller goals into habits by using discipline, you are far more likely to get the outcome you want.

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