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

habit formation

It’s a known fact that motivation and self-discipline are the most important factors when dealing with of habit formation. Sometimes people wonder whether they should focus on one of these to succeed. The difference between these two factors is obvious and profound, so it might seem that choosing one is a good idea.

So, what is more important to help you form a habit, self-discipline or motivation? Should you focus on motivation because many people crave it so much?

The First Factor: Motivation

In simple terms, motivation is defined as a willingness to do something. It’s a great asset to have when you work on something because it makes you want to achieve the goal. For example, losing weight could be a major motivation to wake up early in the morning and run. An approaching deadline or an angry boss can have the same effect on your performance.

In most cases, people have have trouble getting started. For example, they keep procrastinating until they really have to start. Motivation changes everything. When you feel the enthusiasm and excitement to complete the task, getting started becomes much easier. Even better: when you’re excited about the project, you’re working twice as fast and deliver early.

This is why people think motivation is the most important factor in habit formation. Indeed, it can help us to reach unprecedented goals, but will it last long?

The problem with motivation is it wavers sooner than you expect You need to watch at all times for seven motivation murderers. Motivation just may not last long enough to keep you focused and determined.

Let’s suppose you decided to exercise for a month. The first week into your new habit, you’re filled with motivation and it feels like nothing could distract you from reaching your goal. However, one day your boss calls you and yells at you for doing a poor job on the last project. He says you need to work harder if you want to stay with the company.

Naturally, you begin to feel frustrated and worried. This unpleasant surprise is not just a blow to your career, though. When you’re upset, you very likely will miss a workout and disrupt your schedule. This and other common mistakes can cause a new habit to fail easily.

“What is the big deal? It’s just one workout. I have more important things to think and care about now.”

At that point, your motivation is officially retired. You won’t be able to talk yourself into getting motivated, even if you’re sure you can.


Given that you might be losing your emotional attachment to the task, you need consistency that will get you past all frustrations. That’s where that unappealing self-discipline comes in.

The Second Factor: Self-Discipline

English Cambridge Dictionary defines self-discipline as “the ability to make yourself do things you know you should do when you don’t want to.”

In other words, if motivation is more concerned with “why to do,” self-discipline is all about “what to do.” It is a remarkable ability to manage behavior in a way that ensures improvement and attaining goals. Thus, this concept involves more than emotion and focuses on being consistent.

Which is the Key?

The truth is, both self-discipline and motivation are equally important for you to form a habit. In fact, they work perfectly, hand in hand,if you know how to use them properly. For example, motivation can be the booster in the beginning, while self-discipline is great for keeping you focused.

“The biggest problem many people face is making self-discipline actionable and keeping that focus,” said Dana Greenberg, a life coach from She recommends the following tips to help you if you’re experiencing the same issue:

  • Considermotivation only as a trigger of a habit. As noted above, motivation won’t keep you focused for long. So, don’t think motivation will have the same effect on you in a month.
  • Decide the right thingfor you. Get your priorities straight and clarify what you need. If you don’t know what the right thing for you is, you won’t adopt the necessary mindset.
  • Make the decision up front. All behaviors needed to achieve a goal have to be decided before you even start.
  • Link motivation to positive things. Motivation is the fuel, and self-discipline is the light that shows the way to the goal. It’s better to remember that the final outcome is a good thing that improves your life in a certain way.

How to Develop Self-Discipline

Of course, the only person responsible for making decisions is you. We can recommend some helpful resources, though. Here are some awesome free apps to check out:

  • me– free habit tracking and motivation tool
  • Habit Streak– an app that helps to build up streaks of habits and ingrain the activities into your life
  • Way of Life– habit building app with goal tracking.

The Bottom Line

Master motivation and free yourself using self-discipline. Then, use them together to unlock your potential in habit forming!


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