Motivation vs. Discipline: How to Leverage Both

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Tamara Franklin



While many entrepreneurs start out with great ideas, companies often fail because founders don’t have the motivation and discipline to get through the hard times.

Motivation vs discipline

“The most fundamental and critical traits are the ability to wake up and keep pushing your vision as a founder — every single day, no matter what happens and no matter how difficult it gets,” says Dan Goman, founder of digital media platform Ateliere Creative Technologies.

For entrepreneurs, motivation and discipline are two essential pillars of success. Though these two terms are often used interchangeably, they mean different things. So, when it comes to gearing yourself or your team up to work toward a specific goal, which one should you turn to?

Motivation and discipline: defined

What is motivation?

In his book Motivation Triggers: Psychological Tactics for Energy, Willpower, Self-Discipline, and Fast Action, author Patrick King defines motivation this way:

“Motivation is the collection of psychological forces that allow us to initiate, organize and persist with behaviors that will ultimately lead us to the achievement of a goal.”

“Setting up a company involves challenge after challenge, and you need deep motivation in order to overcome these constant, and often significant, hurdles,” says Jessica Alderson, co-founder of dating app So Syncd.

Motivation helps you approach your day-to-day activities with passion. When you feel motivated, you start your day with a positive attitude, and you’re eager to work on your business.

There are two main types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation is when we participate in an activity to achieve an external reward or avoid punishment. 

An example of extrinsic motivation is taking up a sport because becoming a professional athlete can lead to loads of money, fame, and influence. 

Examples of extrinsic motivation in the workplace

  • Receiving a raise

  • Getting extra PTO

  • Making more money

  • Gaining industry influence

Intrinsic motivation

When intrinsically motivated, we engage in an activity simply because we find it fun or rewarding. 

Maybe you play golf every weekend because you love the game, find it challenging (in a good way), and enjoy the company of the people you play with. That’s intrinsic motivation. 

Examples of intrinsic motivation in the workplace

  • Doing a good job because you take pride in your work 

  • Seeking personal development opportunities to increase competency 

  • Working hard because you believe you’re making a difference in the world 

  • Pursuing a project because you find it personally challenging 

What is discipline? 

In the book Principle-Centered Leadership, author Stephen Covey defines discipline as “the ability to make and keep promises and to honor commitments.”

Discipline helps us do the right thing in the moment for long-term gain, even when we would rather be doing something else. 

For example, if transparency is one of your core values, it’s important to keep your promise to post a revenue update to your organization every month, even if you get bogged down in the daily grind of running a business. 

The difference between motivation and discipline

Motivation is about the why behind your actions. In contrast, discipline is about what you do. 

Think of motivation as your initial burst of inspiration and discipline as the thing that keeps you moving toward your goal long after the novelty has faded.

Imagine you have an idea and a vision you believe in, so you start a company — that requires motivation. From there, maybe you have to work two jobs to pay the bills while building your business on the side, which takes 10 years to take off — that takes discipline.

Motivation is when you want to make a difference in someone’s life, find personal meaning from building a business, or help others achieve their goals.

Working on your business every single day, developing an airtight go-to-market strategy, and learning everything there is to know about your ideal customer is where discipline comes in. 

What’s more important, motivation or discipline?

Motivation is fundamental in the decision to embark on an entrepreneurial journey. Use it to drive you toward your dreams, to gain hope when you feel discouraged, and to inspire others to buy into your ideas.

Whether you’re convincing investors to fund your startup or rallying up employees in the early days of your business, motivation is key to keeping all of your stakeholders on the same page about working toward your mission. 

“Motivation is the fuel for the fire, and discipline enables you to keep it burning,” says Alderson.

Use discipline to put in the extra hours or go the extra mile. Commit to eating healthy, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep because you’re more likely to experience burnout without a wellness routine. 

Discipline can also help you stay on task despite distractions, focus on what’s important, and fight against procrastination to keep you moving toward your goals.

Discipline vs. motivation in the workplace

It’s important to tap into both discipline and motivation as an employer or an employee. Here are a few ways to get it done.

Start with why

Remind your team of the company’s mission and why they’re doing the work to connect them to a greater shared purpose.

Offer opportunities for ownership

Encourage employees to take ownership at work by holding themselves accountable for their projects and demonstrating a genuine interest in contributing to larger company goals.

April White, founder of public relations agency Trust Relations, recommends giving employees a problem to solve, along with a rough end goal, and allowing them to steer the ship. 

For example, you know that the business needs more qualified leads. Instead of telling your head of marketing how you want them to tackle lead generation, allow them to put their thinking cap on and come up with their own strategy. 

Celebrate wins

Research from Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile reveals the power of progress. When employees make significant progress in work that matters to them, they feel more intrinsically motivated. 

Track the results of your efforts and celebrate with your team whenever a milestone is achieved to keep the positive momentum going. 

Also, instead of daily meetings where everyone shares what they’re working on, consider a reverse to-do list, where each person shares the tasks they completed at the end of each day, week, or month. 

Knowing they have to report on their achievements could help your employees stay disciplined.

Cultivate connections in the workplace

“Your employees will be more motivated and better contributors within the organization when they feel connected to their peers,” says Logan Mallory, VP of marketing at employee engagement and recognition software provider Motivosity.

Get to know your team outside of work. Be open and vulnerable. Share your personal story and struggles, and it will make others feel comfortable doing the same.

Also, offer many opportunities for collaboration and teamwork. This could look like sharing the prototype of a new product and soliciting feedback from your entire team, then iterating before going to market.

Create an environment that fosters discipline

Eliminate distractions - For founders, this might look like deleting social media apps from your phone, so you’re not tempted to doom-scroll during business hours. For your team, you could offer a free subscription to a desktop app that blocks distracting websites for those who need extra help focusing.

Create a fun company culture - All work and no play can decrease productivity. When work is an enjoyable place to be, employees are more likely to show up and put their best foot forward. While foosball tables and climbing walls may be out of reach, take time to celebrate employee birthdays and anniversaries, start a book club, or host a game of trivia. 

Communicate clearly - While employees want the freedom to do what you hired them to do, they also need some guardrails. Make it clear what’s expected of them, offer a few clear rules on how they should go about meeting your expectations, and let them take it from there.

Creating an environment that allows you and your team to be more disciplined takes work but will pay off in spades for years to come.

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