A man practicing discipline by going on a jog through the city.

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Nope, Motivation and Discipline Aren't the Same Thing. Experts Break Down the Differences (and Why They Matter)

Experts explain how these two principles can help you reach your wellness and fitness goals.

By Brigitt EarleyMarch 27, 2024


When you work toward a wellness or fitness goal, you’ll probably hear a lot about the importance of discipline and motivation. While the terms may sound similar, they’re two distinct qualities that can help you stay committed. But what, exactly, is the difference between motivation vs. discipline? 

We spoke with fitness and mental health experts to learn everything you need to know about motivation and discipline—including how each principle uniquely helps you reach your exercise and wellness goals. Read on for everything you need to know.

What Is Motivation?

Motivation is the general desire or willingness to do something, explains Peloton instructor Alex Touissant—essentially, the reason you act or behave in a certain way. It’s the drive that inspires you to commit to exercise, meditation, or other fitness or mental health routines.

There are two main types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic, according to Rachel Goldberg, a licensed therapist and founder of Rachel Goldberg Therapy in Los Angeles. 

Intrinsic motivation is all about the joy, excitement, and satisfaction you get from a certain activity. For example, maybe you’re motivated to take morning yoga classes because it makes you feel good and puts you in a positive mindset at the start of the day. It’s this feeling you get—not some future goal—that motivates you to wake up early each morning.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is all about outside forces. When people are extrinsically motivated, they’re seeking out some sort of reward, approval, or reinforcement. It may even come from a fear of disapproval. For example, maybe you’re motivated to go to the gym because you signed up for a personal trainer and don’t want to forfeit your money. Or perhaps you take a workout class to socialize with your friends or fellow participants. It could also mean treating yourself to something special when you reach a milestone, such as completing a month-long program.

What Is Discipline?

Discipline is the quality of being able to behave and work in a controlled way, Alex says. “Discipline involves setting personal expectations and adhering to them consistently,” Goldberg explains. “It means establishing rules for yourself that remain unaffected by your emotional state.” 

For instance, committing to five workouts per week is a form of discipline—you’ve committed to the practice, despite how motivated (or not) you feel when it’s time to follow through. “While there may be flexibility in the choice of days and types of exercise, the commitment to exercise five times a week remains constant, regardless of external circumstances or emotional upheavals,” Goldberg says.

Motivation vs. Discipline: How Are They Alike and Different?

So how do discipline vs. motivation play together in helping us achieve our fitness goals? “Both discipline and motivation are essential for beginning and sustaining a fitness routine,” Goldberg says, noting they support one another in important ways. 

You can think of it this way: Motivation gets us started, and discipline makes it happen. For example, “I can be motivated to compete in a powerlifting meet, but discipline is going to be what keeps me showing up to the workouts day in and day out to get there,” explains Audrey Schoen, a licensed therapist and the founder of Balanced Private Practice in Granite Bay, California. 

Is Discipline or Motivation More Important?

Because discipline and motivation support one another, the experts we spoke to say it’s difficult to determine which quality is more vital for sticking to your fitness routine—but ultimately, they say the scales tip towards discipline. “Discipline will carry you when motivation won’t,” Alex says. 

Goldberg agrees: “Discipline tends to be a long-term, stable behavior, while motivation is more variable and can fluctuate in intensity,” she says. We can feel motivated to improve our health,  Schoen says, but it requires discipline to get on that bike every day when we would rather be in bed an extra 30 minutes. “Even those who enjoy fitness know that there is discomfort, and our body and brain are motivated to avoid discomfort,” she explains. “Discipline is what helps us break free from our brain’s default mode of reserving energy and seeking pleasure.” 

Another way to think about motivation vs. discipline: While you might normally feel motivated to exercise every day, if something interrupts that motivation—say, work gets hectic—you might not have the discipline to follow through with your workout. But if you have the discipline, you’ll find a way to put in the work, even when motivation is (understandably) lacking. 

Tips for Boosting Discipline and Motivation

Sometimes we need a little help digging deep to find motivation and discipline. Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to make it easier: 

1. Make a Plan

“Clearly define your workout routine and incorporate it into your schedule,” Goldberg says. Rather than setting an ambiguous goal, lay out your plan in clear terms. For instance, instead of thinking, “I want to work out a few times each week,” think, “I’m going to take three Pilates classes each week for a month.”

2. Find Your Passion

If you hate your workout, you’ll probably be less likely to stick with it—so find an activity you actually find fun and challenging. (Psst: There are 16 different fitness modalities and thousands of classes you can explore on the Peloton App to find your new favorites!)

3. Be Realistic

No matter how much you may love cycling, rowing, or another form of exercise, don’t try to do too much too soon—especially if you’re just beginning any sort of exercise regimen. Start with something smaller and more attainable, such as working out two or three times a week for 15–20 minutes. 

4. Try New Things

Similarly, while you may be comfortable knocking out four or five running workouts each week, know that doing the same thing over and over again can be monotonous, Goldberg says. Keep things interesting by trying your hand at something new—or mixing things up with a once or twice per week with a cross-training session.

5. Don’t Solely Depend on Motivation

There will be days you just don’t want to show up, and that’s normal, Schoen says. Instead, try to dig deeper and find the discipline to commit to your routine. (Of course, remember that discipline does not mean pushing yourself too far. Always listen to your body and make time for rest and recovery, too). 

6. Make Showing up Easier

It’s easier to find the time for exercise when it’s planned out in advance. “Schedule it on your calendar, set a reminder, find an accountability partner, or sign up for a class,” Schoen says. 

The Peloton App makes it easy with the ability to stack and schedule workouts, take live classes with friends, and join different programs and collections.

7. Celebrate Small Wins

Acknowledging your progress can be a huge motivator, Goldberg says. Celebrating your successes, no matter how small they may be, can help you maintain momentum and help you find joy (motivation!) in your fitness routine. 

8. Focus on What You’re Gaining

“Pay attention to the benefits your regimen brings, from improved health markers to enhanced mental clarity,” Goldberg says. When you focus on the positive impact your workouts have on your overall well-being, you may find even more motivation to keep going.

The Takeaway

When thinking about the difference between motivation vs. discipline, know that motivation is what helps you get started and discipline is what keeps you going (even when motivation runs low). 

Making time for movement isn’t easy, but remember that it’s worth it for the mental and physical benefits. When you’re motivated and feel that desire to act, jump at it. And on those days when you don’t have the energy or the desire, lean on your discipline to see you through.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.


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