A common issue I see in clients trying to achieve a goal, is trying to use mainly discipline as motivation, only to have that run out and either only make intermittent progress or give up entirely.
The issue with using discipline to move forward is that it is mainly designed as a short term engine, not a long term one. It is like being in first gear (for you manual/ stick drivers!) – great to get moving, but not very easy to keep moving or accelerate.
The fact that we need to use discipline to start with, means we are doing something we’re resistant to. Over time, the resistance often outlasts our discipline.
This may not be true for areas where the habit or action can become pleasurable over time – but in this case, we’re not continually using discipline. We only used it to get started.
So, if discipline is mainly good for getting us off the sofa, what do we use to motivate ourselves and others for the long term?
I kind of gave it away in the title, didn’t I!
I have been thinking recently about how when we strive for happiness, we often end up unhappy. But when we strive for meaning, we generally feel more satisfied and content.
When you use discipline, underneath is the message that you are working hard to push against something within yourself – laziness, an addiction, or inaction. And working against ourselves (even small parts) is usually tiring.
When we work towards meaning, we usually aren’t working against anything (OK, it could be against injustice, but we usually aren’t working against major parts of ourselves), we are working for things.
Let use the analogy of a worker being told to do something “just because” and being told to do something, plus the reason behind it. In which scenario are they more enthusiastic and engaged?
In which scenario do they have to use will power to begin, and in which can they use a sense of purpose instead?
We all want to feel useful, effective and that we are making an impact on the world.
So the next time you need to motivate yourself, or someone else, consider:
How will this add meaning or value to my life, or the lives of others?
Let me give you some examples, to really anchor this point:
Working out at the gym 3 times a week because you feel you should (discipline), or because you know being strong is something that makes you feel more at ease in yourself (meaning, authenticity).
Getting a report done because it is due (discipline), or because you know it will help your team (meaning, showing up for others, positive self-regard)
Tolerating your difficult relative because you feel duty-bound to (discipline) or because this is an aspect of being the person you want to be (meaning, integrity, forebearance).
Can you see how easily meaning combines with other intrinsic values? Discipline can co-exist with them, but it is largely it’s own thing. It says “I’m pushing through, don’t disturb me”, while meaning says “I’m working towards something” and sometimes “can we do more together?”.
And I satisfy some of my own need for meaning by writing this blog, because sharing information is a key value of mine. I feel that if we all share our expertise, we’ll shape a better world together. What is the meaning you work towards?
I hope this look at meaning vs discipline helped!
PS In the future I will most likely look at practical ways of finding the core meaning to help you achieve your goals, or to help team members find theirs, so stay tuned. You can also access my guide on setting powerful goals here.