Motivation vs. Discipline

As many of you know, I am active in the #FitLeaders community. This is a group of leaders who realize that being successful in leadership takes balance. To grow as a leader, to be my best, I must first take care of myself. For me, that means getting up early almost every morning to do a basement workout, go for a run, or hit the road on my bike. Many of you know that I am disciplined in my 4:30 get-up time. Some of you know not to try to schedule a meeting with me at 11:00, because if you do, I probably have not had lunch yet, and most likely will not be focused on our meeting. Many of you also know that I’m not likely to return a school email after 6:00 pm. These are parts of the discipline that I have placed in my life so that I can stay in balance in the various roles that make me who I am.

For those of you who know me well now, it may be hard to believe it, but what you see today is not the version of me that existed at the end of my college career. When I graduated from high school, I walked around as a generally healthy person, and my weight hovered right around 175 pounds. In college, things changed. Gone were the days of healthy home-cooked meals (thanks mom, I know you’re reading!), and they were replaced with the dorm cafeteria food that included all-you-can-eat ice cream stations, or the food courts around campus (would you believe I ate Baked Ziti from Sbarro’s for dinner almost every night for at least a couple of months. Later there were dinners in the fraternity, and while there was salad, that was not what I was eating most of the time. Then came the apartment year – carry-out, fried food, late-night pizza runs. When I graduated from college, I was up to about 225 pounds and was not that healthy at all. Climbing the stairs in the School of Education on the IU campus was almost too much to bear!

After graduation, I somehow ended up with a book about healthy eating and healthy habits. I don’t recall the title, but based on some of the ideas it shared, I felt like I could make some changes. I had a job and was living in a house with a friend. During that phase of life, there were probably still some bad choices in terms of what to eat, but I was motivated to try to make a change. I decided I was ready to re-up my membership in the YMCA, a regular part of my childhood and high school years.

I was motivated.

But here’s the thing about motivation, at the start, it looks like this:

But eventually, that fire burns down, and your motivation looks a little more like this:

My motivation at the start was high, but the changes in behavior were challenging. My muscles got sore. I was tired. And pizza tastes so good! Over time, that motivation began to die down, just like a fire if you stop adding fuel. There were swings between periods of success – eating healthy, working out, and seeing progress – and then periods of regressing to some of the bad habits.

Eventually, I got a full-time teaching job, which brought me to Indianapolis. I moved into an apartment of my own. When I did, the place where I ended up was right across the street from the YMCA. I couldn’t look out any window, go out my front door, or sit on my patio without seeing it. With that proximity and being in a new town without a ton of connections, it was easy to find my motivation again. What I found over time was that motivation switched. Working out became a part of my daily routine. Instead of thinking of it as something I “had to” do, it became something that just happened. My routine became this: go to school, come home and walk the dog, go to the YMCA, come back home and have a good dinner, and go to bed at an appropriate time. The routine became naturally ingrained in what I was doing, and instead of feeling like I needed motivation, I developed a level of discipline to do what was needed.

Over time, I got back to what I’d consider a healthy place. My weight is not quite as low as it was in high school, but it’s much closer to that than when I graduated from college. And I’d say that my overall health is in a much better place – I’m able to run around with my kids, and even outrun them at times. The discipline that I’ve developed helps me maintain the appropriate balance between a strong and healthy body and a mind that can take on the task of leading an elementary school.

Now, as many of you know, this blog is focused on my reflection, learning, and growth in education. So, you might be wondering how this story about my health journey relates to what I do as an educator, or what you can do as an educator.

As educators, we have the chance to learn lots of new things. Currently, the staff in my school has been learning a lot about our new literacy resources. Most of the PD we have done so far this school year has been focused on the goal of designing intentional reading practices around our new resource. As we learn about the new resource, we might be motivated to utilize some of our new pieces of information.

But as with anything else, motivation can die down over time. In a recent episode of George Couros’s podcast, he talked a bit about this idea. He said:


Here’s a link to that podcast – it’s only 9 minutes long! https://overcast.fm/+wluP1vlVM

What’s important for us to remember is that motivation is dependent on some outside force – a speaker, a book, a professional learning opportunity. We will feel that motivation for a period, but like the fire, it will go out without continued fuel. Discipline on the other hand is something that only we can control. If we shift from a mindset of feeling motivated, to focusing instead on how we stay disciplined, then we are more likely to make a difference in the lives of our students.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Have you ever been motivated to try something and found that motivation then faded over time? Was there anything that helped you keep moving forward? Share your thoughts in the comments below!