Motivation, Drive, and Discipline

Just seeing my laptop made me ill. Like, stomach clenched, could dry-heave-at-any-moment ill. I fought through it. I forced myself to sit down, and I forced myself to log in.

That’s when the rationalization started.

I really should check my email before I get started.
Oh, actually, I also really need to follow up on that JIRA ticket.
Then there’s that playtest, I really should set that up. We got that new system in and the designers really need feedback.

All of it was true – Well, mostly. If I was being honest with myself, and at the moment I wasn’t, the email could wait.

Those rationalizations were simply my brain trying to keep me from doing the work I really needed to be doing. Leaving me with nothing but my force of will to get things started and make progress.

I’m sure we’ve all had moments like this, faced with a task (or an unending list of tasks) we know… know we need to do. Tasks that provide true value to the project, team, or organization – yet, in the moment, we seriously consider what length of our duodenum we’d be willing to sacrifice to avoid it.

So how do we persevere? Discipline is the answer I usually get, particularly from high performers. And it’s correct – but incomplete.

In reality, it’s the interplay of Motivation, Drive, and Discipline that gets us to sit down and do the hard work – do the heavy lifting that truly pushes things forward – in all areas of our lives.

Difference Between Motivation, Drive, and Discipline

So, what really is the difference between Motivation, Drive, and Discipline? And how does all that relate to productivity? Perhaps even more pertinent, how do you use them to get more done?

Let’s start at the top – with Drive. Drive is formed by your inner “why” – It’s the innate desire, particularly in high performers, to create & execute.

It also forms the foundation of your productivity and provides you with an anchor when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Next is Motivation – Motivation is powerful but fleeting. Its spark can ignite a flurry of productivity, but unfortunately, won’t sustain it.

I’ve found motivation is guided by drive, but fueled by both emotion and action.

Last is Discipline. The counterpart to Drive. When cultivated, it’s the means by which you keep going and keep achieving. It’s industrial machinery of productivity – and, like any machine – it needs to be maintained.

The Role of Motivation, Drive, and Discipline in Productivity

So what role do Motivation, Drive, and Discipline play in keeping you productive?

The Role of Drive

Drive is the foundation. For high performers, it’s tied to the desire (some might say need) to achieve, grow, and learn. It crosses over from just “work” – Drive is tied to ambition, it’s tied to growth & development, and at its core, it provides the focus that propels accomplishment.

The Role of Motivation

As expected, Motivation’s role is very different than Drive.

Motivation is the spark to create, grow, achieve, and accomplish. It’s a high-powered explosion that serves to start motion and momentum. It provides the means to go from inaction to action. While Motivation is often fleeting, we cannot discount its role in kickstarting any endeavor.

The Role of Discipline

Lastly, let’s take a look at the role – and importance – of discipline

Discipline starts where Motivation stops – it’s the primary mechanism by which all long-term, valuable, and important work (or growth, change, or development) happens. It’s the system that turns Drive into results.  It’s not as explosive as motivation, but it’s consistent and persistent.

While Discipline is challenging – even painful – to cultivate, it’s one of the primary determinants of success.

Cultivating and Encouraging Motivation, Drive, and Discipline In Yourself and Others

So, given all this – what can we do to cultivate Motivation, Drive, and Discipline in ourselves, our peers, and our direct reports?

Cultivating Drive

While it may seem Drive is an innate, set, piece of the psyche – like most anything, it can be grown and strengthened. Drive is intimately linked to your why. This, of course, is going to be different from person to person, tethered to their personality, temperament, and psychology. One why is not better than another in terms of Drive – what’s important is understanding it. The more you can distill and crystalize your why, the more you can use it lean into your Drive.

Drive provides the route to getting, achieving, or connecting with your why.

Cultivating Motivation

Motivation can be hard to simply ignite.

While you can’t always just call upon it (like you can with discipline) you can provide a mental environment that’s more conducive to it. Sometimes, of course, it just strikes – born from an internal inspiration (like how a great new idea can provide motivation to do research) or an external consideration (like how an incoming tornado provides motivation to take shelter… Or, if you live where I do – to open your front door and look for funnel cloud).

If you find yourself looking to jumpstart motivation, you can try:

  • Thinking about previous successes.
  • Thinking about what’s already accomplished
  • Thinking about what there is to gain

If you’re like me, you’ll find some of these work better than others – and it’s entirely dependent on my state, my environment, my task or project, and more.  The kicker is, even finding the right tool may not summon forth the motivation you’d like — which leads us to our next topic.

Cultivating Discipline

Unlike Motivation, Discipline is directly under your control – it’s the tool you can always bring to a task (it may not always feel like it, but you can). Cultivating Discipline is conceptually simple – but it’s far from easy.  It requires building habits, it requires focus, and perhaps most challenging – it requires doing the “hard thing”.

Cultivating Discipline is largely a function of practice, habit-building, and mindset.  I’ve seen some interesting information on more carefully regulating dopamine to help your brain tie a sense of reward to progress – but, I, myself, don’t have enough experience or knowledge to advocate for that – though, if it works for you – fantastic.

For me, as dour as it may sound, Discipline is cultivated by managing pain. You have to make the pain of not doing the work – the lost revenue, the lost opportunity, and the lost career growth – greater than the pain of discipline. Motivation is largely about what you have to gain. Discipline is largely a function of what you have to lose.

I want to stress that this does not mean embracing your work – or your life – with pessimism and defeat. Discipline provides a route to success. Doing what you need to do in order to accomplish a large and important goal is inherently optimistic. But, when you get down to biology – neurons & synapses – most times, your brain would much rather watch a youtube video than work on that spreadsheet again. There is, for lack of a better word, a sense of pain attached to the work.  In order to get your brain on your side, it’s helpful to show it that in reality, the pain you’ll experience by doing the work is – over the long term – significantly less than the pain of not accomplishing your goals.

As I said, simple – but not easy. At the risk of going meta – you need Discipline to develop Discipline. And you’re never going to be perfect. No one is. But the more disciplined you can be, the more you can accomplish.

Though, as noted, it can certainly be challenging to develop discipline, there are a few strategies, tools, and approaches you can use to help make it easier.  Several options are outlined below. And, at least for myself, when I’m actively trying to further develop my discipline, I find that breadth is better than depth – I found more success integrating elements from many of the strategies & tools below, rather than over-indexing on one. You may find the same is true for you.

Habits, Tracking, and Systems

Habits, Tracking, and Systems can help mitigate both Cognitive Load and Decision Fatigue (sworn arch enemies of Discipline), taking them out of the equation, and making it much easier to get done what you need to get done. A solid habit means you won’t have to think as hard to get started (the task itself may still require heavy thought – but you won’t waste as many brain cycles actually getting that task started).

Tracking supports you as you build and develop those habits. It provides real, tangible, proof of your work and growing discipline, becoming a self-reinforcing loop.

Lastly, systems can wrap your habits and tracking into a repeatable, executable sequence. Meaning – once you’ve developed and honed it – you can just follow the process and get what you need, further reducing the cognitive load and decision fatigue.

Maintaining Balance

While the first “go-to” when I mention maintaining balance is the idea of breaks or other forms of self-care. There’s actually much more to it (though, breaks and self-care are critical to keeping up long-term high performance).

So, while balance may mean taking a break. It could also mean taking a break from that task. You may need to switch to another task to allow your brain to continue thinking about the first.

Balance may also mean balancing time & effort. Most high performers I work with strive to over-deliver. There’s merit to that. However, there’s also wisdom in figuring out when and where to over-deliver. Not everything has the same value to a client or stakeholder. Balance effort by focusing on the pieces that they care about most, that deliver the most value, and provide the best return.

This more focused approach makes it easier to stay disciplined, as your attention is narrowed and your goals are more clear.

Rest & Recharge

I touched on this a little above when discussing Maintaining Balance – But rest & recharge time is vital to long-term success in any field and to avoid burnout.  As high performers, we can all think of times we needed to put in extra time and extra effort to get results we felt good about delivering. Rest and recharge are necessary so that you have that energy and focus when you need it – precisely for situations like that. If you’re constantly running on empty, you won’t have the energy & focus to capitalize on the best opportunities.

Discipline takes a significant amount of mental energy, it’s critical you keep enough “in the tank” to be able to push if and when you need it.


This, admittedly, is not always in our own hands. Our work environment, role, experience, team, project, deliverables, timeline, and myriad other factors all play into how much agency (ie. freedom) we’re given to complete our work.

From my experience, mid and senior folks are able to work best, and best foster discipline, when they’re given ample agency to figure out how best to accomplish that work. It’s what allows them to build out the habits & systems discussed above.

I’ve also found that more junior folks work best when given a smaller range of agency (think guidance, not micro-management), and having them work with a senior or manager to develop habits and systems together.  One reason for this is that we want our more junior folks to develop good habits and good systems which help them learn, grow, and sets them up for success – and ultimately more agency.

Another reason is, juniors, are at max cognitive load a lot. They’re learning, which is critical but comes with a cost. Working with them to develop their habits, tracking techniques, and systems together removes some of that load — allowing them to learn, and improve, faster.

Applying All This To Your Own Productivity

Everyone is different. What works for one person won’t work for another. To that end, I suggest seeing what, from the information above, resonates with your own work style, environment, and projects.

Minimize Decision Fatigue and Cognitive Load

I will say, regardless of approach – looking for ways to minimize decision fatigue and cognitive load will give you more “headspace” to focus on your tasks – This is key to letting you embrace your drive, capitalize on motivation, and keep going through discipline.

Find or Develop Systems That Work For You

Finding systems that work for you is also a solid approach. The great thing about systems is that not only do they help you focus and run some tasks on “auto-pilot”, they can be tailored to your own needs. The more you can “mentally automate,” the more you can focus on more important work.

Batch Tasks To Maintain Momentum

Lastly, when and where you can, batch your work. This will make it significantly easier to keep your momentum when motivation fades and discipline needs to kick in.  As a leader and a producer, context-switching is part of my job. So, for me, batching tasks for the windows where I can go “heads down” is very helpful.

This approach helps me maintain discipline by minimizing friction. I start the session with a clear idea of what I need to do and all the work is related. It helps me sustain my motivation by allowing me to make measurable progress. Lastly, this batching supports my internal drive by giving me a structure and system that allows me to do my work at the quality level I want.

A Final Word

Drive, Motivation, and Discipline are all interconnected and important to your overall success and productivity. Understanding how to foster and cultivate each (as well as when and how to rely on them) gives you a huge advantage in understanding how you work – and with that knowledge, the means to improve.

Regardless of what strategies you want to try, they should help you maintain your discipline, sustain your motivation, and feed into, support, and nurture your inherent drive.  If it checks all those boxes, you’ve likely found a great approach that will help you achieve the success and productivity you want.

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