The first day of January arrives every year without fail. In Scotland, celebrations take place on a grand, public scale: Cities buzz with excitement, towns party into the small hours. Scots are proud of ‘Hogmanay’, thought to be an ancient Gaelic ritual. At the same time, gym owners around the world celebrate their own impending ritual.
Every January, hoards of ‘new year, new me’ types make the pilgrimage to local gyms, eager to hand over bank details and lose the Christmas excess. They descend en masse, galvanized by a zeal to forge a new body and adopt a fitter, cleaner lifestyle. Not only do they swell the ranks, but they also swell the coffers.
Inevitably though, after only a few weeks or a few months, the numbers return to normal. The folk queuing for elliptical machines in January are now ghosts in March – much to the relief of evergreen patrons. Things regress to the mean, gym owners laugh all the way to the bank, and the weird ritual finishes until the following year.
But why does this happen? The simple answer is that motivation wanes. Positivity subsides, the constitution weakens at the prospect of regular attendance, life gets in the way. It’s a famous phenomenon, almost as reliable as January itself. In short, the neophytes lack discipline.
Discipline is the true hero of any achievement. Discipline doesn’t care about mood, feelings, or any other transient conditions. Motivation is the friend who turns up now and again, filled with excitement and resolve. Discipline, however, is calm. Discipline shows up every day, stoic and faithful.
Discipline is there for the long haul. Discipline is a stalwart. Discipline trumps motivation.
This might seem self-evident: Discipline is what-to-do; motivation is why-to-do. But this fact escapes chronic procrastinators who need inspiration before they start work – if at all.
Unsurprisingly, this conflict plays out in the brain and concerns the release of dopamine in particular. You see, we get a big dose of dopamine just for thinking about a task before even starting the task. This about-face paradox is seductive: Why bother doing the thing when you can reap the rewards for just thinking about doing the thing?
Of course, motivation rarely ends at a thought. More often than not, the initial rush of motivation compels us to at least start a project, to say nothing of finishing it. Inspiration and enthusiasm are essential to get an idea off the ground, but motivation working in tandem with discipline ensures we last the course.
For example, I write more now than at any other time in the past. Why? Because I don’t wait for a fit of inspiration, although I’m often motivated to write. Feelings fluctuate. What excites us now may not tomorrow. But if we have a goal, then a dogged pursuit is what’s required to make it a reality. That’s discipline. That’s opening the laptop and writing even though we don’t want to.
Discipline is integral to everything, not just writing. Around seven months ago, my girlfriend broke up with me – a tragedy for humanity, no doubt. Anyway, instead of wallowing, I started calisthenics. Seven months later, I still do calisthenics. I used to be seduced by Men’s Health articles promising washboard abs in quick time, that if I could summon the motivation to train for 30 days, then I’d have something to show for it.
These epiphanies launch us forward in our minds. We see ourselves in the mirror, buff and ripped, before doing a single crunch. We imagine a legion of adoring fans turning up at a book signing, all of them gushing about how great our international bestseller is. This is your brain on dopamine. We don’t romanticize the unglamorous legwork that gets us to the future, the stomach pains, or rewriting 30,000 words because they sucked the first time.
The reality is, fit bodies and writing projects only come about with consistency – ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint’ to borrow a trite phrase. We humans like quick fixes: Deferring gratification in favor of short term gains is the default setting for a lot of us.
But if we show up day after day, leaving our feelings at the door, great things happen. With this attitude, we restore order and reap the rewards after the work is done – not before. It takes practice. Actually, it doesn’t take practice – it takes discipline.