Discipline eats motivation for breakfast

Motivation assumes that we need to be in the right mood to do a thing. Discipline separates our moods from the doing of the thing.

There’s a savage post about this that struck me. Here’s a money quote:

Chasing motivation is insistence on the infantile fantasy that we should only be doing things we feel like doing. The problem is then framed thus: “How do I get myself to feel like doing what I have rationally decided to do?”. Bad.

The proper question is “How do I make my feelings inconsequential and do the things I consciously want to do without being a little bitch about it?”.

The point is to cut the link between feelings and actions, and do it anyway. You get to feel good and buzzed and energetic and eager afterwards.

I like the concept that we should feel good afterwards instead of before. Instead of relying on good feelings to come along and motivate us to do the thing, we can do the thing and get the good feelings afterwards.

There is another, practical problem with motivation. It has a tiny shelf life, and needs constant refreshing.

By contrast, discipline is like an engine that, once kickstarted, actually supplies energy to the system.

That’s the problem with motivation, right? It’s bursty and unpredictable. It comes and goes in waves, putting our productivity at its mercy. But discipline is self-perpetuating and constant.

In summary, motivation is trying to feel like doing stuff. Discipline is doing it even if you don’t feel like it. You get to feel good afterwards.

Yeah, ok. So the answer is “do it even if you don’t want to.” Choose the long term over the short term, blah blah blah. That’s great and all, but how is it helpful advice? If it was that easy, we wouldn’t be talking about it.

Here’s the tricky bit: we need to foster discipline in baby steps. We need to add tiny habits, one at a time, gradually building momentum.

The trick here is to make a small change and let your brain accept it as the new baseline. This will make the next step easier, because the baseline moved.

(Part 2 of the original post talks a lot about the tactics behind this, if you’re interested.)

The bigger the change, the greater we resist it. If we stick to tiny, incremental changes, then over time they add up without ever triggering an urge to resist. It’s the old boiling of the frog.

And then one day we find ourselves automatically doing the things we used to rely on motivation to do. That’s discipline, built on a scaffolding of small habits and incremental changes.

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