The difference between motivation and discipline: how to avoid being tripped up by milestones

I had quit smoking for exactly 18 months when I started again.

Before quitting, I had never been a particularly heavy smoker – perhaps only smoking ten to fifteen cigarettes a day. But I was strongly habitual, always smoking in the same places, at the same times, with the same people. It made up part of the pleasant rhythm of my life, and when I smoked I couldn’t imagine ever living a life without cigarettes.

It took me more than a year of false starts to finally stop smoking. It was tough at first when I finally quit, but as time went on my attitude to cigarettes flipped: “How could I have ever needed cigarettes?” I would ask myself. It seemed impossible that I would smoke again.

I spent a lot of time congratulating myself during the week approaching my 18 month anniversary as a non-smoker. “You’ve finally done it,” I thought, “You’ve kicked the habit.”

And when the day came, my mind was filled with thoughts of cigarettes, and I’d gone without them for so long, and I knew that I wasn’t addicted to them any more, so it wouldn’t hurt if I smoked just one…

For the next year, I was back to the same old habits, ten to fifteen a day. I had hit a milestone that was important to me. I was pleased with the progress I had made. And the milestone tripped me up.

Milestones are important.

Setting effective goals for yourself is a valuable part of the self-improvement process, and measuring your progress regularly is a good way to stay motivated and disciplined. However, in our society, we are accustomed to our efforts receiving financial rewards which we then exchange for the things we want and need. The rewards of self-improvement are not like that. You cannot use your progress to rationalise a return to your previous destructive behaviours.

If you do, you lose ground. And every drop of sweat you spent gaining that ground has to be spent again.

Motivation vs. Discipline

Motivation is the force within you that drives you to overcome difficult, short-term challenges. When our body has an immediate need, motivation is what gets us on our feet in order to address that need. When we set ourselves goals, we are appealing to this power of motivation to help us achieve them.

The problem with motivation is that it is fleeting. Once motivation has done its job and helped you overcome your challenge – once you’ve reached that major milestone – even the strongest motivation can die away.

It is now that discipline must step in. Discipline is what drives you to habitually complete tasks that are rewarding in the long-term, but cause you discomfort as they are carried out. Discipline gets you out of bed at 7:00am each morning to go to work. Discipline is what keeps you in a regular exercise routine. And discipline, once gained, can stay with you for life.

How to avoid tripping over your milestones

Simply being aware of your vulnerability immediately after achieving major milestones can be enough to prevent yourself from using them to rationalise negative behaviours. If you find yourself making those rationalisations, try to make a concious distinction in your thoughts between the person you are now and the person you were before you achieved your goal. Try to re-ignite your motivation by reassessing your goals from where you are, not where you were, and remember that you always have more progress to make.

The best way to avoid tripping up, however, is simply to train and maintain your self-discipline, and consciously call upon it whenever you feel your motivation beginning to fade.

Goals can be a dangerous thing sometimes. Learn how to avoid 3 common mistakes that people make when trying to achieve their goals.


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