Why Motivation Doesn’t Work?

We’ve all been there – you get super motivated to start a new habit or achieve a goal, like finally getting in shape or learning a new language. You tell yourself, “This time, I will do it!” You start strong, waking up early to hit the gym or studying late. But after a few days or weeks, that motivation starts to slip, and suddenly, you’re back to sitting on the couch binge-watching Netflix. What happened? The truth is that motivation alone is not enough to create lasting change. Here’s why motivation doesn’t work:

Motivation Is Fleeting

Motivation Is Fleeting

Motivation is an emotional state. It comes and goes based on how you feel in the moment. Some days, you might wake up pumped and ready to take on the world. On other days, you’re dragging and want to curl up under the covers. Our emotions are constantly in flux, so we can’t rely on motivation to always be there when needed.

Think of motivation like a sugar rush. It gives you intense energy for a while, but it’s not sustainable. You’ll likely burn out quickly if you rely on motivation to fuel your goals.

Motivation Is Unpredictable

Because motivation is based on emotions, you can’t control when it shows up. You might be able to artificially boost your motivation temporarily by watching an inspiring YouTube video or listening to upbeat music. But you can’t depend on those emotional highs being there whenever you need to act.

Since motivation is unpredictable, you may be waiting a long time if you wait until you “feel like” doing something. How many essential goals have fallen by the wayside because you didn’t “feel” motivated enough to work on them consistently?

Motivation Comes After Action

Motivation Comes After Action

Here’s the thing about motivation – it often comes AFTER we take action, not before. How many times have you dreaded working out but felt energized and accomplished after you did it? Or did you start studying reluctantly but get into a groove once you sat down to read?

Motivation follows action. But if you wait for motivation to strike first, you may be waiting forever. Take the first step, and motivation will often kick in.

Goals Require Consistent Action

Reaching big goals like starting a business, losing weight, or writing a book requires consistent action over an extended period. Motivation alone won’t cut it because it’s not designed to last. These big goals usually involve setbacks, frustrations, and plateaus along the way. It would be best to have something more reliable than emotions to get you through the tough times.

This is where discipline and habits come in…

Why Discipline and Habits Are Key

If motivation provides the initial spark, discipline and habits offer the fuel to keep going. Developing discipline and solid habits means taking goal-supporting actions consistently, even when you don’t “feel like it.” This creates a structure and system that doesn’t depend on the fluctuating emotional state of motivation.

Here are some of the critical differences between motivation and discipline/habits:


  • Emotion-driven
  • Unpredictable
  • Temporary
  • Inspires action


  • Structure-driven
  • Reliable
  • Long-lasting
  • Drive action

To better understand this, let’s look at some examples…

Motivation vs Discipline/Habits in Action

Motivation vs Discipline/Habits in Action

Health Goals

Relying on motivation:

  • You feel excited about getting in shape and buying new workout clothes and shoes. You wake up early and hit the gym for a week or two. But slowly, you start sleeping more until you eventually stop working out altogether.

Utilizing discipline/habits:

  • You commit to the gym three times a week, no matter how you feel. This becomes an automatic habit. Even if you’re tired some days, you put on your shoes and go because it’s part of your routine. You track your workouts to stay accountable. This discipline keeps you exercising consistently.

Learning Goals

Relying on motivation:

  • You finally feel inspired to learn Spanish, so you download Duolingo and do a lesson. You don’t feel like it the next day, so you skip it. On the third day, you forget altogether. After a strong start, your progress stalls.

Utilizing discipline/habits:

  • You commit to practicing Spanish for 20 minutes daily. You add it to your calendar, so it becomes an automatic habit. Even on days you don’t feel motivated, you sit down and do your practice because it’s part of your routine. This consistency leads to progress.

Business Goals

Relying on motivation:

  • You feel excited about starting an online business. You buy a domain name, set up a website, and create social media accounts. But after the initial burst of progress, you start slacking on adding new content and marketing. Without consistency, your site goes nowhere.

Utilizing discipline/habits:

  • You schedule when you will work on your business each day or week. You chunk projects into smaller daily tasks so they become manageable habits. You stick to your routine even when you don’t feel like working. This relentless consistency grows your business over time.

The critical difference is that motivation gets you started, but discipline and habits keep you going.

How to Make Discipline and Habits Work for You

Building habits and self-discipline means “programming” your behaviors, so you automatically take goal-supporting actions without needing motivation.

Here are some tips for making this happen:

Start small

The easiest habits to maintain are small, daily actions you can incorporate into your routines. For example, you read ten pages daily or do ten pushups after your morning coffee. Build momentum with these small wins first.

Schedule it

Enter your habits into your calendar so they become appointments with yourself that you cannot miss. This removes decision-making and helps build automaticity.

Use triggers and cues.

Tie your habits to contextual triggers like locations, times of day, or other daily rituals. After breakfast = meditate. Arrive at the office = make a to-do list. Visual cues also help signal your habits.

Track progress

Monitoring your habits makes you more likely to stick with them. Check them off on a list or use an app to stay accountable. Progress tracking tools provide motivation when you flag.

Reward yourself

Positive reinforcement helps habits stick. Celebrate streaks and give yourself little treats for accomplishments. Gamifying your habits taps into motivation.

Enlist support

Get an accountability partner, join a class, or use a coach/therapist to keep you on track. Social pressure and shared motivation can bolster discipline.

Be flexible

Perfection is not required! If you slip up or miss a day, get back on track immediately. Life happens – be adaptable but persistent.

The Motivation “Bank Account”

Here’s another way to think about the interplay between motivation and discipline/habits: your motivation is like a bank account. When you make deposits by taking positive action, your “balance” increases. But if you make too many withdrawals by relying on motivation alone, it will eventually run dry.

You make deposits into your motivation bank by:

  • Exercising discipline and sticking to habits
  • Tracking progress and celebrating small wins
  • Finding enjoyment in the process, not just the outcome
  • Connecting your habits to a deeper purpose

Regular deposits build your balance of enthusiasm, energy, and drive. But remember motivation still ebbs and flows. Discipline provides the baseline of consistency.

In summary:

Motivation provides the spark to get started

Discipline and habits offer the fuel to keep going

Sustainable change requires both!

5 Common Motivation “Traps” To Avoid

Now that you know the pitfalls of relying on alone, here are some common motivation “traps” to watch out for:

The “fresh start” trap – Motivation spikes at the beginning of a new goal or calendar cycle (New Year’s resolutions, anyone?). But change takes time, so balance excitement with realistic pacing.

The comparison trap – Feeling motivated by other people’s success can backfire. Stay focused on your rate of progress rather than what others are doing.

The perfectionism trap – Don’t let the all-or-nothing mindset derail you. Progress is still progress, even if it is slow or imperfect.

The binge motivation trap – Beware of overdosing on content without applying the lessons. Take action instead of just consuming more .

The expectation trap – Don’t expect to magically sustain you long-term or always be there when you “need it.” Plan by building habits!

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What are some examples of relying too much on motivation versus utilizing discipline/habits?

A: For health goals, relying on may mean only working out when you “feel motivated” by a new exercise class or gear. However, utilizing discipline means going to the gym consistently as part of your routine regardless of emotions. For career goals, relying on can mean getting temporarily inspired by a seminar but not following through. Discipline is spending 15 minutes each day applying to jobs as a habit.

Q: If I lack self-discipline, how can I develop it?

A: Start by focusing on just 1-2 small habits. Schedule them concretely and use triggers like alarms. Reward yourself for streaks. Get an accountability partner. Don’t chastise yourself for setbacks. Over time, it gets easier to stick to positive behaviors through ups and downs.

Q: What if I don’t feel like taking action some days?

A: That’s normal – no one always feels motivated. On those days, focus on your reasons for building the habit and how good you’ll feel afterward. Tell yourself you only need to do it for 5 or 10 minutes. Chances are, once you start, you’ll get some momentum. Permit yourself to keep it small, but avoid skipping entirely.

Q: How do I balance motivation and discipline in my goals?

A: helps provide the initial “oomph” to get started, while discipline/habits keep you going over time. It’s OK to feel excited about a new goal; combine it with building daily habits. Maybe leverage in the beginning by telling friends or joining a group. Then, rely more on discipline and accountability once wanes.

Q: Are there cases where motivation works better than discipline?

A: Yes – for more spontaneous activities like having fun vs. work. Motivation aligns better with play, creativity, adventure, and variety. Discipline aligns better with repetition, practice, structure, and drudgery. Know when to tap into each one. The key is balancing both for significant life goals.

In Conclusion

Understanding which part of your brain is involved in motivation is crucial, as motivation alone is often not enough to drive consistent action over time; reaching big goals and sticking to positive habits requires self-discipline and structure to keep going even when our motivation falters.

Rather than relying on motivation, focus on building habits and discipline. You can start small, schedule your behaviors, use triggers and reminders, track your progress, reward yourself, and get support when needed. Discipline provides the foundation, while motivation offers an extra boost.

Eliana Brown

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