Motivation vs. Discipline

TAGS: types of motivation, swede burns, intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, motivation, discipline, conditioning, strength, powerlifting

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Motivation

If there is a single topic fitness personalities are asked about more than any other on social media — it’s motivation. And everyone who stands to make money from that concept is capitalizing on it. There are daily motivation accounts on Instagram dedicated solely to curating and posting poached sound bites on the topic from various well-known talking heads. Many people’s newsfeeds read like an endlessly unfolding tedium of pictures of motivational words as quotation. Whenever I ask for topics people want to learn about in my column, “how to stay motivated” is always at the top of the list.

Motivation is clearly in high demand. Business 101 tells you that someone or many someones are going to show up and cater to that demand, providing the things listed above.


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The problem is these feel-good motivational memes and picture captions about “fighting the good fight” do little to actually modify behavior, that is, beyond the brief dopamine response when we read them and say to ourselves, “This is what I’ve been doing wrong! No more!” Returning later that day for another dose of this “motivation” seems to be the evident change in behavior, sadly.

We should think of our motivation as the deal we make with ourselves; our incentive, a kind of reward for the hard work we need to do. That’s what motivation really is: a motive. It’s our own unique “why.” Now, these are usually extrinsic things: the new car we want, maybe a new camera lens, some sort of praise or validation for our appearance or grades, or some other perceived accomplishment.

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Intrinsic motivations are the motives we have for doing things that are internally rewarding. We may or may not get any praise for these things. Think about the difference between these two scenarios.

In Scenario 1, we consistently lift weights because it makes us feel much better while we are doing it.

In Scenario 2, we consistently lift weights because we want to beat a particular person at an upcoming powerlifting meet.

Now, clearly, in Scenario 1, the motivation is intrinsic; and in Scenario 2, the motivation is extrinsic. That’s not to say that we can’t have both, but as I described them above, those are the motivations. While it does feel good to train, it can be difficult to keep showing up when that is the only motive and often something we are not entirely conscious of. It may take us missing a bunch of training sessions to even notice we are suffering intrinsic consequences. That's if we are able to put cause and effect together at all, which, as I mentioned, sometimes we are not.

Extrinsic motivations can be helpful here. It is, after all, crucial for humans to have an aim or a goal to work toward, and simply “feeling better when we train” doesn’t seem effective for long. This is where things can get confusing. Extrinsic motives can be useful and good, but we can also receive too much of a good thing.

You see, intrinsic motivations can be shit on, believe it or not, when we receive too much of an extrinsic reward for them. That’s right, doing something we are internally motivated to do and internally rewarded by can cause a marked reduction in both of these if we receive too much of an extrinsic reward for that behavior. Less intrinsic motivation, less intrinsic reward. This is called the overjustification effect. It becomes purely work! The external reward, being so great, undermines the pre-existing internal motivation. The task itself becomes much less enjoyable.

So, we know we can’t go too far in one direction, but to be successful at any serious endeavor in the long term, we probably need a bit of both. The thing is, we are peeling a layer deeper into the onion than we probably need to. It’s sufficient to say that motivation is a fickle thing. Motivations may change, and they do, intrinsic and extrinsic, but the goals we are motivated toward rarely change.


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All of this word vomit above; is this what you’re looking for when you ask about motivation? Probably not. Probably what you really want is the ability to complete the tasks you need to, whether they be training-, business-, or personal life-related. And what this boils down to is called discipline. Discipline rests a layer above our underlying motives.

Motivation is what makes us want to get something done. But most of us, truthfully, already have that, and still, we fail. Discipline is what gets it done.

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Discipline

People tend to hate this word. Probably because it hangs on them, somehow, the blame for their own failures. They failed to reach their goal because they weren’t disciplined enough. I’ve certainly been no exception in that respect, but I do hold myself accountable.

Discipline, for many of us, brings to mind the idea of forcing ourselves to do things we hate. This is an extremely flawed way to view what is possibly the only path to true satisfaction and fulfillment for a human. At its core, this problem is about our desire for instant gratification.

Don’t believe me? Scroll on Instagram and observe for an extended period. You can even pick an individual and go to their profile and look back. Check out the posts they’ve made which got the most likes or interaction. Then compare those to the types of posts the same person made which garnered the least attention. Before long, these people are conditioned via dopamine response to an external stimulus, and their posting behaviors change to get the thrill of the instant gratification of that response. The brain doesn’t differentiate likes on the Internet from real-world compliments, even though it is highly unlikely we’d receive the same attention sitting in a Starbucks. Most people have no long-term plan for what they’d like to convey, and so, no plan or rules to stick to. Eventually, they will condition themselves to continue whatever type of posting or behavior will give them that instant reward.

Why do we drool when the bell rings? That means food is coming. Ask Ivan Pavlov.

As I write this, I know of many friends in the industry who publicly espouse discipline as a necessary virtue for success and yet consistently fail to demonstrate it in their own lives. After all, it’s no easy task to remain disciplined in the moment when things aren’t going our way. And who among us operates so far above their own ever-changing circumstances and reactive emotions that their discipline is never broken? Again, certainly not me, though, I am better now than I've ever been.

It needs to be said that I do know of a few who have conditioned themselves in this manner, and they are some highly effective individuals.

So, the question then becomes: How do we condition ourselves like those people have? This is a very complicated proposition because the biggest factor in someone’s potential for personal discipline may be genetic predisposition. That’s definitely something to consider, but it also sounds like an opportunity for excuses to be made.


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Much like genetic predisposition for potential to be successful in powerlifting, where we have little sway on our individual levels of recoverability and adaptability, we can still learn to maximize our ability to reach that potential. More or less, we always have the capacity to improve. This could put us in a much better position than we'd be in otherwise.

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We can tailor our own behaviors to maximize personal discipline in the same way we can tailor our training, nutrition, and other factors to maximize our capacities for recovery and adaptation. It’s not magic, and in some cases, it can take a long time to manifest. But I believe doing so is the surest course we have to reaching our goals, whatever they may be.

The first thing to understand is we can’t be disciplined without a solid plan and a set of rules to follow. Without rules, we run the risk of becoming slaves to our own passions. Passions can feel really good in the moment. But a slave to passion is still a fucking slave. I don’t know about you, but I’ve done enough of that for 10 lifetimes, already.

So what do we do?

Set Clear Rules and Objectives

Like I said before, without a clear set of rules and goals, we run the risk of being led down the path of instant gratification. I’ve seen the end of that road, and I can tell you — it’s no place you’d like to visit. That’s not to say we can’t have reward systems in place that promote positive behavior, but this is not something that should be decided in the moment. We need a plan, and we need to stick to it by any means. We need to commit to these rules and this plan as our own code and take it very seriously.

Choreograph Behaviors

Discipline is about doing what we have to in order to reach a desired goal. We should decide which habits or behaviors are going to be conducive to that in the long term. We can set up the day like a routine or a choreographed dance and go through the motions consistently. Perfect practice, enough of it, makes perfect.

Analyze and Hold Yourself Accountable

This is maybe the biggest piece of the puzzle because if we don’t have the self-awareness to recognize when we have failed, we have little chance of avoiding the same type of failure in the future. Accountability, while sometimes difficult to maintain, can be a very liberating characteristic to develop. Right now, I am more accountable than I’ve ever been, but not as much as I’d prefer to be. Like all of these, this is a process.

When something doesn’t turn out the way we hoped, we should first look at what our own role was in that outcome. Did we fall short in any way? Was there some way we could’ve shifted our trajectory to a more desirable outcome? If the answer to both of these questions is “no,” we should probably reassess because we are heading toward the most dangerous type of crazy with that thinking: the type that sees itself as blameless for its own position.


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That’s it; just three things. Progress may be slow and could take a good bit to manifest at all. That’s OK because we are each committing to our own code. This is how we are choosing to live our lives, to move in a direction that is positive and helpful for ourselves and those around us. No one is forcing us to do it. There are no cheat codes. No shortcuts. We have to chip away at this work every single day.

As always, feel free to reach out for topics you’d like to learn about in future articles and feel free to share this on your socials if you feel you’ve benefited from it.

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