It seems like discipline is the hottest new thing in the fitness industry. Everywhere I turn I see influencers talking about how motivation is overrated, and discipline is all you need. The claim is that motivation ebbs and flows, whereas discipline is a constant characteristic and is therefore better.
The truth is not so black and white, as it turns about both are useful and important for achieving fitness goals. I would argue that if one is better, it's motivation. To see why, let's explore each in depth to see how to get the most out of these important factors.
First, what even is motivation and discipline? We need to know what each is so we can make an accurate decision about which we should use to get ourselves to the gym.
Motivation is psychological energy put towards a goal. You’ll feel self-motivated when you want to do something. For instance, think of a movie you really want to see (Spider-Man, Fast X, Transformers, 007…). You are self-motivated, also known as intrinsically motivated, to go see it.
Discipline is the quality of being able to behave in a controlled way. If you have the self-control to resist a cookie, or the ability to will yourself to do something you don’t want to, you are said to be disciplined.
An example would be if you don’t want to wake up at 5:00 AM to go for a run, but you make yourself because you believe it is important for your health. Another example would be that you are tired and don’t want to study for a test or play with the kids, but you will yourself to do so anyway because you value getting a good grade or spending time with your children.
The big difference between the two, is that with motivation you want to do the thing, whereas with discipline you make yourself do the thing.
A lot of influencers or 'gurus' say discipline as the reason they go to the gym, and that is BS. At the very least, it is almost certainly not the primary reason. Fitness influencers are very motivated to go to the gym. They typically enjoy exercise and challenges, and not only that, it is also how they make their living so they have a nice monetary incentive as well. They are typically well known and liked, so they feel like they belong and are accepted at the gym.
I can speak to this because I am a personal trainer and make my living from fitness. When I go to the gym, I feel like I belong there, like I am getting a lot out of it, and that I know what I am doing and getting better. People expect me to go, and there are even monetary incentives to go. These are all very powerful motivators, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find any fitness influencer that doesn’t have very similar sources of motivation to hit the gym as well.
This is why I roll my eyes when I hear a fitness guru credit their reason for working out or sticking to their diet entirely to discipline.
That said, there is certainly a time and place for discipline, and using it to help accomplish your goals is going to be necessary sometimes. This is because everyone is going to have days where they don’t feel like working out, and you will just have to will yourself to get there and do it.
Unfortunately, if you use discipline for all your workouts because you have no motivation to go, you are going to burn out quickly.
To show you why, let's think about selecting a career...
When you ask people what you should do for a career, you always hear that you should do something you enjoy. Do work you love and it won’t feel like a job, or something along those lines, is the typical advice.
Rarely do you get advised to pick a job you don’t like, and to use your discipline to make yourself do it. The reasoning is obvious; doing something you hate every day for 8 hours is going to make you feel depressed, bored, and burnt out.
If working out is essentially just a job that you hate, but you make yourself do solely for the benefits, it will also make be feel bored, depressed, and burnt out.
So, what should you do instead? Use both motivation and discipline.
Working on motivation will make you want to go to the gym and workout. Remember the movie that you wanted to see? If you feel the same way about working out, it will be a lot easier to get yourself to go.
And yes, motivation is something you can develop and improve by working on it. I’ve written another article on how to do so. It comes from gaining a sense of autonomy, belonging, and competency. Autonomy is feeling that you are doing something because it is your choice and you aren’t being forced to do it. Belonging is feeling at home and comfortable, and competency is feeling like you know what you are doing or getting better.
By working on these things you can get yourself to the point where you enjoy going to the gym, and are as motivated to go as you are to see a good movie. Then, on the days that you feel tired, have other things going on, or just don’t feel like going, you dig deep and use your discipline to get yourself there.
If you rely solely on discipline, you are going to burn out. Just like you would if you tried to grind your whole life through a job that you hate. You are not a bad or weak person if you don’t have the discipline to just will yourself to go work out every single time you need to.
It is okay to want to be motivated, and I highly encourage people that have trouble getting the gym to work on developing motivation first and foremost and then use discipline for getting going and on the tough days.
Rely on only one or the other, and you won’t last. Motivation wanes, and if you don't have any discipline you'll skip all the workouts you don't feel like doing. Solely rely on discipline to force yourself to workout and you'll quickly burn out. But use a combination of motivation and discipline, and your consistency will skyrocket, and then all you need is a plan.
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