How To Stay Disciplined (Even When You Don’t Feel Like It)


A common question I see being asked of people that appear to be very disciplined is, “How do you stay disciplined when you aren’t motivated?” Another way to phrase the question would be, “How do you stay motivated?” It’s a simple question, but most people don’t like the answer they are given.

The people that seem to be able to constantly show up, time and time again without fail, do so because they aren’t actually relying on motivation. Motivation is fragile and fleeting. It’s based on feelings. When your emotions are in charge of your life, there’s no guarantee you’ll feel motivated one week from now, much less one year from now.

In an effort to answer the question about staying disciplined through waning motivation, there are two answers: discipline the mind and set different goals.

Discipline The Mind

Disciplining the mind is the key to long term success in any field. It’s quite simple to learn: consistently do the things you want to avoid that you know will make you better. We all have areas of our life where we know of ways we can improve, but following through takes more effort than we want to put in. Here are some examples:

  • Choosing to push past perceived limits while exercising vs. quitting
  • Choosing healthy foods vs. unhealthy foods
  • Choosing to read a good book vs. binge watching Netflix
  • Choosing to focus on practicing your instrument vs. wasting time on social media

Notice how it says “Choosing to” at the beginning of all of those examples. I’ve gotten into arguments and been judged for saying this, but it’s true: everything is a choice. Sometimes we choose the “fun” thing. And honestly, once in awhile, we should. It’s not going to hurt today. Choosing the “fun” thing repeatedly over the long term? That will hurt.

The more often we choose the “right” or “disciplined” thing, the closer we move to achieving our goals. It often requires sacrifice, and it should; if the choice was easy, everyone would do it. Every time you choose to be disciplined, you solidify the fact that you CAN be a disciplined person. Before long, you realize you ARE a disciplined person.

The big mistake people make is to bite off more than they can chew when making changes for the better. My recommendation: start small! Don’t stop watching Netflix all together, just watch one fewer show. You don’t have to make every workout a grueling experience every time, but try pushing past what you think is possible a little bit more each time you exercise. Like compounding interest, these small wins make a big impact over time.

Set Different Goals

There is a scenario in which motivation won’t wane as easily as those I described earlier. This scenario requires you to set a goal big enough or important enough that you give your life over to the goal. The goal becomes a mission. If you can find your greater purpose in life, you will be fueled forever. The scope of the cause that you serve requires fervent and dedicated service.

There are countless examples of people that exemplify boundless motivation and joy when living their mission based life. A common thread that runs through all of them is a dissatisfaction with serving themselves. Their motivation doesn’t run dry because it doesn’t come from within; it comes from connection with others.

Make A Plan

Everyone experiences doubts and fears, and must battle with the infinite excuses one can make for why they can’t do something. Everyone deals with bad days where they just want to close the curtains and eat a pint of ice cream. The secret is not avoiding those feelings. The secret is feeling them, letting them pass, and then getting back on track. This is why it’s important to make a plan.

Making a plan that helps you achieve your goals is beneficial in many ways. One of the most important ways plans help us is by showing that the path to success is not made or broken in one moment, or in one day.

For example: Following a workout program has been extremely beneficial for me. The structure provided by the program allows me to worry less about what exercises to do and how many reps and sets to perform. I am able to focus all of my attention my form and giving as much effort as I can to each training session. If I get busy and miss a workout, the program also allows me to see exactly how to get back on track. Having a plan means I have less anxiety about missing a workout, and more confidence in my ability to show up the next day.

In conclusion, dream big, make a plan, and choose the “right” thing over the “fun” thing as often as you can. In the short term, it won’t seem like a big deal; in the long term, it’s a recipe for big success!

“The truth is what you do matters. What you do today matters. What you do every day matters.” – Jeff Olsen, from The Slight Edge

Recommended books for further study:

  • The Slight Edge by Jeff Olsen – How small disciplines add up to large success over time
  • The Promise Of A Pencil by Adam Braun – How a big dream brought schools to third world countries
  • Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins – David Goggins’ story of pushing his own limits to learn what he is truly capable of
  • The Second Mountain: The Quest For A Moral Life by David Brooks – Comparing climbing the “first” mountain of success and happiness to the “second” mountain of “joy and connection”.
  • The War Of Art by Stephen Pressfield – How resistance can stop us from creating, and what to do about it.


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