Top Shelf: Motivation vs. Discipline



This week in Top Shelf, I want to talk about an important concept I’ve continuously applied to both my school work and my writing: the difference between motivation and discipline. With finals just around the corner, this is more important than ever.

If you aren’t prone to telling your friends things like “I have zero motivation to do anything but nap,” then you probably aren’t a college student. It takes a lot to get up and go to an 8 a.m. class or to write a ten-page paper for a general education requirement that has nothing to do with your major. But motivation isn’t going to get you very far.

Motivation is when you are inspired or encouraged to do something, typically because of some kind of emotional or physical reward. For example, if you’re a pre-vet student, you’re probably motivated to do well in your animal science classes because you’re interested in the subject matter and need to do well in it in order to get into vet school. But how does that get you motivated to do well in your linguistics class? Short answer: it doesn’t.

And this is the problem. Motivation is fleeting and it is specific. It’s either there or it isn’t, and you don’t have much control over it. When your alarm goes off in the morning, it isn’t motivation that gets you out of bed; I doubt you’re super motivated to go to your 8 a.m. lecture when it’s a million times easier to sleep the extra hour. Rather, it’s discipline that gets you out of bed. You get up because you have to, because you can’t skip that class, because you know you’re paying to be a student so you have to actually fulfill that role.

Discipline is being trained to do something routinely, usually including a punishment for disobedience. Think back to high school, when you’d wake up at 6 a.m. to go to school every morning because if you didn’t, there would be consequences from your parents and the school administration. That’s discipline.

In the case of college, this means you’re positively rewarded for going to class and doing your work by getting good grades for your effort. Skipping class, not doing homework or failing an exam because you didn’t study all act as punishments that are likely to make you improve your behavior. Failure doesn’t feel good. Success does.

There’s a quote that says “Discipline is what keeps you going after you’ve lost your motivation,” and it’s true. You can’t survive off motivation alone. You have to train yourself to be a good student or train yourself to accomplish your goals. Discipline will get your work done. Motivation will make you go the extra mile.

How many people do you know who skipped one class, and then another, and then woke up one day to realize they hadn’t gone in two months? Humans are creatures of habit. If you make good habits for yourself, you’ll succeed.

So no, I’m not always motivated to work on my novel. It’s long and sometimes my writing sucks and editing it is often the last thing I want to do. But I do it because I’m disciplined, and I know that if I didn’t do things I didn’t necessarily want to, I wouldn’t get anywhere in life. If I didn’t do a homework assignment just because I wasn’t motivated to, there’s no way in hell I’d graduate.

The next time you’re staring at a homework assignment for a class you hate or hitting snooze for the fourth time because you can’t find any motivation, reevaluate the situation. Try to find discipline instead. And, at the end of the day, embrace Nike’s motto and just do it. It’s going to be hard, but the eventual payoff will be worth it.

Be kind to yourself, work hard and best of luck on your exams.

Courtney Gavitt is a Staff Writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at

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