Discipline vs Motivation

I got up on Sunday morning and started my writing practice for the day. I opened Excalidraw in Obsidian (very handy!) and drew this diagram. I placed discipline and motivation at opposite ends of the y-axis, with the x-axis denoting positive and negative momentum.

Take a look for yourself:

I found it very helpful to sketch things out like this and get it out of my brain. The process was cathartic and helped me think about my goals and systems I want to build this coming year.

4 Quadrants

I have been asking myself these questions: what motivates me? Is motivation at all useful? Should one try to foster motivation or aim for discipline? How about both? Or neither? Pragmatically, I started by looking back at previous bursts of motivation and their outcomes. There could be a selection bias here as humans almost certainly remember their bad outcomes more than their good outcomes as a general safety mechanism, but without any data collected (more on this later), I will have to rely on my memory.

Discipline vs Motivation

I have previously used short bursts of intense motivation to try and set up systems that, from the outside, look like strict discipline. This had a tendency to fail for two reasons:

  1. Using short-term bursts of motivation almost always implies a tunnel vision on short-term results, as oppose to a longer-term focus.
  2. It leads to burnout/giving up. Too strict a system too soon, with too many changes, leads to a fragile system. If you suddenly break the system for one day, you feel you might as well give up on all the changes you are trying to make. Ultimately, this is due to a lack of patience.

It is clear that a short-term focus has its benefits, but quite clearly not for building longer-term systems, other than getting started. One should zoom out and focus on the bigger picture always, and this is something that I want to get better at (rather meta). This way, adding small changes (cue Atomic Habits - SEO maximised) over a longer period of time, focussing on the process, and cultivating patience, will greatly win out.

A concrete example: allowing yourself to reduce the scope can keep the daily streak (something akin to Seinfeld's 'Don't break the chain') going whilst not leading to burnout. Even 1 minute of meditation counts for my daily habit, as it keeps the practice going. It seems to me that it's more important what happens on your bad days, rather than what happens on your good days. On good days, it's great that I meditated a lot, wrote a lot, worked with focus, and worked out. On a graph of good days over time, I am aiming for up and to the right, similar to getting to upper positive quadrant in the diagram above.


I read this post recently and I agree with its problem statement: memory is fickle, and it can be hard to even know if you are on the right track without some sort of tracking/review system.

In the spirit of starting out small, I will start with a 1 minute daily review at the end of each work day asking two questions:

  1. What are your tasks for tomorrow (review task inbox)?
  2. How much did you work today? (in hours)

Question 1 will help focus on what I didn't finish and what still needs to be done, but without judgement (this leans towards motivation as opposed to discipline + judgement will be more useful in a longer term review such as weekly or monthly). Tomorrow is another day and I can continue on the road I am building now. As an additional bonus, it will help me see what I added to my inbox (I run a very minimal version of GTD) during the day and what is worth doing and what is not worth doing.

Question 2 is for data collection. I have noticed and written in my 'Personal Truisms' text file, that one of my personal correlations to good mental health and a feeling of self-worth is how much time I actually spent working (This seems to correlate even with work I don't like doing as much).


When focussing on activities that are meaningful to you, focus on the long-term. Every time you do something, it is a vote towards the person you want to become (source). In this space, motivation loses a lot of its intensity]. Nevertheless, it can be useful for a kick start when you've let good habits slip, but it should be used to build systems and not just relying on raw willpower through gruelling workouts and asceticism. Furthermore, if you slip, it's simply time to start again.