Discipline, Motivation, and Purpose

How are we to be everyday athletes, to move and exercise regularly, and eat well?

If you think it is all a matter of discipline, you are not alone. If you think it is about motivation, you are in good company. And, like most people, you are wrong in either case.

There is a lot of confusion about discipline and motivation. And little is usually said about purpose. For a long time, I was not clear on those concepts either. People would tell me I must have a lot of self-discipline, and in fact I possess a good amount, but it was not what would get me up in the morning to train. I was simply very motivated. And like all things that come from motivation, eventually it died down, and I was left empty.

Until I found my purpose.

It all makes sense now, because a good friend recently explained it to me. So I’ll try to explain it as I understand it; maybe it will make sense to you as well.

Imagine you are working out and feeling the urge of going harder or longer than the plan called for, just because it feels so good. Discipline is stopping yourself from going off the plan. Discipline is necessary to make sure we do what we are supposed to do, no more, no less, and thus avoid undermining our health and future training sessions. Discipline is what keeps you from turning an easy session with a friend into a race against your friend. Poor discipline combined with high motivation is a recipe for burnouts and injury.

If you use discipline as the way to get yourself to exercise, to keep yourself going, then you are in an authoritarian regime where the stick is all you know. It is a harsh way of doing things, and not healthy in the long run because it lacks the balance that comes from other aspects of life, like listening to your body, and just letting go at times.

Motivation is related to our very natural tendency to want, the reward center of our brains. It is what gets you to sign up for a fun cardio-zumba-yoga-boxing class, to join a gym with cool instructors and funky new ways of working out, or to launch yourself passionately into a new sport. It is at times what keeps you going when going through a rough patch, like a divorce; it is the desire to make a change in your life. It is pleasure; a shiny carrot, in comparison to discipline’s stick.

But motivation is fleeting; wanting is the true constant. The fun new class eventually becomes just one more thing on your busy schedule, before being dropped altogether. It is why once you’ve overcome the rough patch, or been around the block of the new sport a little, it loses its appeal, and motivation is gone. Motivation leads to lack of motivation, and it is only natural, because we tend to want the next shiny new carrot…

Purpose, then, is what drives you. It is effortless, because it comes from within; neither a stick nor a carrot; it is simply who you are. The problem is that we seldom know what our purpose truly is, in life in general, but particularly when it comes to fitness.

How do you find your purpose in a sense that will guide you to fitness? You must first ask yourself, frankly, honestly, how you want your life to be in the long term. We could spend a lot of time figuring it out, and some day we might, but for now I can offer some tricks to make it take shape.

Exercise, Everyday, Movement

Living a long, active, and healthy life.

To some, it may be the realization of wanting to live a long, healthy life with a partner. Perhaps the vision of growing old and active with kids and grand-kids around. To others, it may truly be to become cardio-zumba-yoga-boxing champion, when it is finally included in the Olympics.

It may be tempting to define it in terms of what you don’t want your life to become (overweight, sick, dependent on others, etc.) but it is far more powerful to envision your purpose in positive terms, whatever you choose it to be. Fear can kick-start better habits, but it is purpose that will keep you going.

Beware of framing something too short-term, even if it is a major life event like doing an Ironman, or crossing the US on your bike. Such goals might do you for a spell, but once realized, the motivation (because that’s really what they are) will fade. Aim for how you want your life to be, not just for the things you want to do.

Imagine your life’s end-goal, voiced and pictured in enough details that it becomes part of you. And once you’ve done that, once you’ve found your purpose, and you can remind yourself of it easily, the daily decisions are easy. Being active and making the right choices becomes a no-brainer.

Through your purpose in fitness, whatever it turns out to be, you can keep yourself doing the right thing forever. Well, for a really long time.

Just keep a dash of discipline handy, to avoid doing too much at times…


Your purpose is what will get you to fitness.

Photos from Pixabay.

7 thoughts on “Discipline, Motivation, and Purpose

  1. This is a great post. I trashed my knee this winter because I forgot about one of these elements (discipline)… I’m now taking notes!

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