Motivation vs Self-Discipline – Which Is the Key to Habit Formation?

Note: This post is written by Kevin Hilton

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit,” said Aristotle.

And in the realm of habit formation, motivation and self-discipline are the most recognizable players.

Some tout self-discipline as the elixir for improvement, while others rally behind motivation as the way to make progress and enjoy the process. And you’ll also find people that pit the two against each other. But do we have to pick between them?

To get to an answer, let’s take a closer look at motivation, discipline, and the roles they play in habit formation.

A Closer Look at Motivation and Why People Crave It

Let us first look at the definition of motivation:

“A person’s desire or willingness to do something.”

Feeling motivated about a project or personal goal can only do you good. Motivation is the fuel that propels one to go to the gym and exercise for the first time. It’s what drives a late waker to get up at 5 AM. It’s what rouses the procrastinating writer to pen over 2,000 words in one sitting.

Brian Tracy once said:

“The hardest part of any important task is getting started on it in the first place.”

But when you’re oozing with excitement and enthusiasm, getting the ball rolling becomes a breeze. Even better, you may even exceed expectations during the first week or two into a project.

Many people crave motivation. And why not!? Few things in life are as satisfying as feeling pumped to make progress and actually making progress.

However, relying on motivation alone to carry you through can backfire. Why? Because it is based on emotion. And we know how fickle and unpredictable emotions can get.

Your reasons for exercising, reading, or writing may stay constant. But your desire or willingness to carry out the tasks you’ve set will waver one way or another. Let’s check out a few scenarios where a motivation-based approach to self-improvement can boomerang.

The First Scenario

Jerry got up early in the morning, just feeling pumped to hit the gym. This isn’t his first attempt to develop an exercise routine. But he’s feeling super motivated today, and perhaps this rush of enthusiasm can make the difference, yes?

Day 1 went well. His goal was to workout for 30 minutes. But he went the extra mile – doing squats, crunches, and push-ups for a little over an hour.

Days 2 to 11 were identical to the first day. Jerry was overflowing with motivation, and he surpassed his goals every time. He’s already feeling stronger and fitter!

But the 12th day came with an unpleasant surprise.

He received an email from his boss rejecting his leave request, and this means a beach getaway with his clique is out of the question. Just when he was getting ready to show his fit bod, Jerry realizes he would be spending hours in his workstation while his buddies are partying by the shore.

Upset and disappointed, Jerry skipped the gym.

Day 13 came, and Jerry was feeling guilty about missing the previous day’s workout. He knows he needs to go to the gym. He knows the perks of staying fit. But his emotional state is in shambles, and he can’t talk himself into getting motivated.

The cycle of missing the gym and feeling so bad about it that he misses yet another session continues. And Jerry isn’t getting closer to achieving his fitness goals.

The Second Scenario

Danielle is a freelance writer, one who loves to procrastinate about writing if I may add.

Whenever the time to write comes, she gets busy with emails, social media, cleaning tasks, and the list goes on. Yes, she gets her writing projects done in the nick of time. But only after spending sleepless nights a week before the deadline.

This time, however, she attempts to turn her career around. Danielle commits to spending the first 2 hours after breakfast on writing for her clients.

Day 1 was full of inspiration. Danielle’s hands can hardly keep up with the ideas pouring from her brain. And before she knew it, she’s created a complete outline, researched related references and studies, and wrote 2,875 words for her client’s ebook. A massive success!

Day 2, however, was a stark contrast to the previous one. She can’t seem to find the muse to inspire her to start writing. She wrestled with ideas. She thought long and hard. But Danielle just can’t get started.

Danielle’s level of motivation seesawed for weeks and so does her productivity levels. After a month, she stuck to her after-breakfast writing routine in only 11 out of 20 days.

She’s not developing the consistency she wants. She’s not writing often enough to finish projects faster so she can take on more clients. And worse, Danielle’s routine may fall by the wayside if something emotionally unsettling comes up.

The Third Scenario

Kevin is a budding blogger in the business space. But between his professional and personal responsibilities, making the time to build a brand and grow a blog is proving difficult.

But his desire to take his blog off the ground is strong, and he committed to an early morning blogging routine.

For the next 21 days, Kevin’s motivation was sky high. Kevin got up at 5 AM, took a bath and breakfast, and worked on the blog from 5:45 AM to 7 AM. He networked on LinkedIn, wrote blog posts, and engaged with people on Twitter.

Kevin started seeing success. His blog’s traffic had a small but noticeable increase. His network is now a little wider. And his Twitter following has grown by the dozens in the past 21 days.

But after 3 weeks of inspired and meaningful work, he stopped as if snatching failure from the jaws of success. The enthusiasm and strong desire to work, which Kevin came to relish, ran out all of a sudden. Without the feel-good emotions, blogging early in the morning doesn’t sound appetizing.


You’ve probably experienced the same dip in levels of motivation just when you’re generating momentum. Why does this bizarre turn happen? Shouldn’t accomplishing a day’s task make us feel better and compelled to do more?

The answer takes us back full circle to emotions and their nature.

In his book The Laws Of Emotion, Dutch psychologist and professor Nico Frijda laid down the law of habituation and said:

“Continued pleasures wear off; continued hardships lose their poignancy.”

Excitement, desire, willingness – these positive emotions one feels in anticipation of a task are fleeting, lasting for only 3 to 6 weeks. As the task becomes a habit, people lose the emotional attachment, and they see work for what it is – work.

So Is Motivation Bad?

Far from it!

How can feeling good and making impressive progress on a goal be bad!? However, motivation is a sprinter. It can help us finish short-term projects fast and strong.

But when undertaking long-term endeavors or developing good habits, strong and positive emotions can only get you started. To get through the long haul, you need discipline.

The Unappealing Image and Unbeatable Advantage of Self-Discipline

Self-discipline refers to:

“One’s capacity to control his or her feelings and inclinations in pursuit of what aligns with their values.”

Do you see the night-and-day contrast between motivation and discipline? While the former relies on one’s desire and willingness, the latter uses grit to do what needs to be done regardless of one’s emotional state.

Self-discipline is the number one ingredient for success.

Michael Jordan practiced and trained every single day to be the Michael Jordan.

Chess grandmaster Wesley So became the world no. 2 without a coach, but only after focusing on his training and turning away from the internet.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart trained intensively from a young age. And by age 10, his skill as a composer rivaled most of his old and established peers.

You can bet that these highly successful people have had their fair share of bad days. On some days, getting out of bed to train must’ve felt like scaling Mt. Everest. And you can be sure they’ve thought of ditching practice for more fun and less demanding pursuits.

But they didn’t, most of the time. Yes, these fine folks sure have fallen prey to temptations and distractions more than once. However, they didn’t let guilt and negative emotions paralyze them and their progress.

But here’s the catch:

Strengthening your resolve and self-discipline is anything but easy.

Developing Self-Discipline Feels Uncomfortable

Head over to Amazon’s book section, and you will find the Motivation Self-Help section stocked with over 89,000 books. As for self-discipline, the topic doesn’t even have its own section, and a search yielded only 8,700+ books.

You can see the same trend in Reddit. The GetDisciplined subreddit only has 206,806 members, while the GetMotivated subreddit boasts more than 10 million subscribers!

And when you go to YouTube, finding videos of rousing speeches is easier than finding videos on how to develop self-control.

What’s up with the lopsided preference for feeding motivation rather than getting disciplined?

The answer:

Because developing self-discipline is uncomfortable.

When you’re motivated, getting started on a project or task is easy. You’re excited. You’re pumped up. And decisive action is the logical follow-up.

When strengthening self-discipline, however, you’re not enthusiastic about a task.

Maybe you feel neutral. But most of the time, you’d rather do something else like watch TV, chat on Facebook, or play video games – anything that’s more fun than the task at hand. And you have to do what you’ve set out to do anyway.

In simpler words, it feels uncomfortable.

You Will Have to Endure Crappy Emotions for a Long Time

What does a writing practice, a thrice-a-week gym routine, and a nightly reading habit have in common? These productive behaviors take an awfully long time to become a habit.

In a 12-week study involving 96 people, researchers found that it takes exactly 66 days before a new behavior becomes a routine.

Ultimately, you want your daily tasks to become daily routines.

Going back to Nico Fridja’s law of emotion, a behavior becomes devoid of any emotional attachment after enough repetition. The euphoric feelings of motivation disappear, and so does pain and exertion necessary in habit formation.

Unfortunately, the positive emotions run out faster than the uncomfortable ones. And the latter can persist for twice as long.

You Will Fail on Some Days…Guaranteed

Look at the following self-talk:

“Aw, crap! I missed yesterday’s workout. I can’t ace my goal 100%. The red dot will look terrible in my progress tracker. I failed big time. Maybe I should just start all over again next week so I get another shot at 100% win?”

See how that escalated quickly?

I’ve had the exact conversation with myself a few weeks ago, and I almost let the guilt destroy my progress. I had to wrestle with the negative self-talk so I can bounce back the next day.

One is bound to fail on some days on his or her quest for self-discipline, and a few mental wrestling matches are inevitable.

You must always look at the bigger picture. The goal isn’t to achieve 100% score on your smartphone tracker, but to get better in whatever aspect of life you’re focusing on.

Otherwise, the feelings of failure and guilt may lead you to stop your own improvement.

But Keep in Mind

“It gets easier. Every day it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part. But it does get easier.”

The pains of positive habit formation through self-discipline persist for quite a while. But they will disappear. Sure, they still crop up from time to time. However, since the new behavior has become a habit, controlling the urge to hit the snooze button or skip a daily task becomes way easier.

How to Combine Motivation and Self-Discipline for Better Results

We’ve already seen motivation and discipline – from their definitions to the advantages and disadvantages they bring. Yes, they’re like night and day. But did you know that these two are actually best friends?

Instead of pitting the two against each other, the following steps will show you how you can use both to power through your habit formation goals.

Start With Small, Manageable Daily Goals

Sabotaging your efforts by setting standards and goals that are out of your reach is the last thing you want to do. Instead, go for small and manageable daily goals.

Instead of saying “I will write for 2 hours every day,” set a 30-minute writing practice in the morning.

Want to get fit and muscular? Don’t go for the toughest workout program you can find on the internet. Start with 10 pushups/day instead.

Yes, 10 pushups/day won’t turn you to a modern-day Hercules. But starting small brings a couple of advantages. First, it reduces the perceived difficulty of the task, which is handy when motivation runs out.

Next, small tasks still help you build the self-discipline you will need to take on bigger goals. And last but not the least, you can always “up” the duration or difficulty of your exercise, writing, or reading routine when you’re ready.

Ride Out the Motivation Wave

The first 2 to 3 weeks of habit formation are often filled with motivation and excitement. And you’d do best to ride out that wave. If you feel like exceeding 30 minutes of focused writing, go ahead and write for as long as you’d like. Take this as an opportunity to make massive strides towards your goal.

But always remember:

Sitting down to work and getting things done won’t always feel exhilarating.

So savor today’s victory. Enjoy being motivated to achieve targets you’ve set for yourself. Just remember not to get addicted to it.

Don’t Kill the Motivation

Did you know that telling others of your goals, the new habits you want to form, or the positive changes you’re planning makes them less likely to happen?

You see, these announcements are often met with congratulations or a handshake followed with praises. And these social acknowledgments trick the brain into thinking that you’ve already hit your target.

The result:

The motivation to move forward plummets.

This phenomenon has been studied numerous times – from 1926 to 2009. And the results have always been the same. People who tell others their goals lose their drive and are less likely to achieve their vision.

We already know that motivation is fleeting. So why not keep it around for longer by staying silent and letting the results speak for themselves? 😉

Expect the Tough Days Ahead

At one point in your quest for self-improvement, motivation will run out.

Like in the scenarios in the motivation section, a bad event might leave your emotions in shambles. Your enthusiasm for the task may fluctuate. Or your mind may grow numb to the pleasures of getting things done.

You have to mentally prepare for the inevitable low-motivation days. Always keep in mind that those days are normal and that your emotional state shouldn’t get in the way of progress.

This will take willpower. But since you’ve set small and manageable daily goals, your self-discipline and control are less likely to be overwhelmed.

Reward Yourself and Renew Your Willpower

Self-discipline and willpower are like muscles. They also need a break after long bouts of exertion. Here are some tried and tested to recharge your mental batteries:

Mindfulness Meditation

A few minutes of meditation every day can boost one’s willpower by building up gray matter. Note, too, that the increase in gray matter happens in regions of the brain associated with decision-making and emotion regulation.

Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Sleeping soundly for 7 hours, at least, can help keep your prefrontal cortex in good shape. This region of the brain is essential for self-discipline as it deals with handling emotions, processing complex thoughts, and solving problems.

Reward Yourself

So you kept up your exercise routine for a week without skipping a beat? Good job! Now, go out and reward yourself. See a movie, take your spouse on a date, or dine at a new restaurant. Just make sure you’re munching on something healthy.

Rinse and Repeat for 66 Days

The journey towards positive habit formation and self-improvement requires cycling through these steps.

You’ll feel motivated sometimes and you would want to use the positive emotions to overachieve. On other days, emotion runs low and getting started on a task requires self-discipline. And when you’ve powered through a week of tasks using willpower, you will want to take a break and recharge.

But after the roller coaster ride lasting for 66 days, the new behavior becomes a habit. It becomes a part of you. And performing tasks which used a lot of mental fortitude will feel as easy and natural as breathing.

Congratulations! You just transformed yourself for the better.

– About the Writer –

Kevin Hilton is the lead marketer for CafePoint, a UK-based vending machine business. When not speaking to clients and networking with industry folks, he reads blogs like Life Optimizer to help bring out his A-game.


  1. You know what i love about this article? Its the part where you said expect the though days ahead.
    Many wanting to improve themselves and achieve a particular goal would want the road to be smooth. Once they encounter a stumbling block, they tend to give.
    but when we accept reality and know touch days are definitely ahead, we prepare our minds towards it and encountering it becomes nothing new to us.
    Well done dear.
    i love your article

    • Very true, Vicky! I was one of those fellas expecting a smooth road to self-improvement. But I know better now. Hahaha. Glad you loved the article. 🙂

  2. Thanks very much for having me here, Donald! I appreciate the opportunity. I hope your readers get a kick out of this. 🙂


  3. wow!! This article is the number one best article i have read since the beginning of this …at first i didn’t know the difference between motivation and self discipline but thanks to you ..God bless you and give you more insight!

  4. Thanks from you nice post sir. I am a girl from afghanistn. i want to have a managable life, and i want that every things of my life should be on plan. and i had choose my plan and prepared my daily schedual i want to go ahead on scheduale, and i am also a student and have work when i come back to home i am so tired to do my plan. please hepl me what should i do to achieve my goasl to become a successgul girls? thank again so much.

    • Hi Freshta! Glad you read the post. The steps outlined in the article can go a long way in helping you achieve your goals. The tips may not sound much, but they’ve changed me and my habits immensely. 🙂

  5. A very interesting read. I was under the impression that announcing your goals actually made it more likely that you would achieve them. Almost as though you will have to fess up to the world if you fail to achieve them. This, in effect, would give you the desire and will to succeed.

    Curiosity took over and I clicked on your link over to the Ted Talk explaining the exact opposite.

    Needless to say…mind blown.

    Thank you, Kevin for this. The article was informative and perspective changing.

    I am interested in knowing your thoughts on habit formation. I know that the link you provided backed up the 66 day thought, but I have read so many things around this topic and they all conflict with each other.

    I personally think that the length of time it takes varies from person to person and it also depends on what the habit is. For these reasons, I don’t think that there is a blanket amount of time and that it could take 0-1000 days.

    What are your thoughts?

    • Hey Joel! Glad the post helped give you a new perspective on announcing one’s goals. Let me know how staying mum about a goal works out for you. So far, it’s working out splendid for me. Hehehe.

      As for the number of days it takes to form a habit, 66 days was only an average.

      The same study linked to in the article had participants that took only 18 days to get into the groove, while others took 254 days.

      I think the message of the study is “habit formation takes time.” But if we are going to set targets dates, I feel it’s better to be pessimistic (66 days or more) than optimistic (18 to 21 days).

      I hope I’ve answered your question. 🙂

      • You bet and I wholeheartedly agree. If we convince ourselves that a habit only takes 18 days and it goes past that, then we may convince ourselves that it can’t/won’t ever happen.

        In this instance, being realistic wins!

        Thanks again Kevin.

  6. Maisiri Tafataona
    Maisiri Tafataona

    Thanks for the article it reveals me a lot and inspires to look for more inciting writings

  7. My favorite part of this article the part where you said expect the though days ahead. This is truly a very interesting read – really thought provoking.

    Like Joel, I was under the impression that announcing your goals actually made it more likely that you would achieve them. Because you have someone who will hold you accountable for them. However, this post has made me see things differently.

    Thanks Kevin

    • “My favorite part of this article the part where you said expect the tough days ahead. This is truly a very interesting read – really thought-provoking.”

      That was one of my favorite realizations, too, Jane. I used to think that if I’m having a hard time moving towards something, I’m doing something wrong and get frustrated in the process.

      Only to realize that tough days are all part of it. 🙂

      Thanks for dropping by, Jane!

      • You’re welcome, Kevin. Thank YOU for sharing this with me.

        P.S. Sorry for the late response. It would help if there was an option for notification of follow-up comments here. 😀

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