Motivation, Willpower & Self-Discipline

Written by
Michael Wells

Motivation, Willpower & Self-Discipline

What's the Difference?

Written by
Michael Wells

Motivation, Willpower & Self-Discipline

What's the Difference?

Written by
Michael Wells

This article is part of the series 


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This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.

"What's the difference between motivation, willpower, and self-discipline?"

Spend a few moments in any self-development forum, and you'll quickly encounter questions relating to the problems of motivation.

Here's the central question...

Even when you know what you want clearly, how do you create the internal mental conditions necessary to carry you through to your goal?

I've spent the past two years exploring these questions for my own personal growth, specifically around my body transformation goals.

Following are my own personal conclusions on how the three concepts of motivation, willpower, and self-discipline relate.

Let's break them down.

What is Motivation?

Motivation is the desire to invest time, money, and energy in the pursuit of your goal.

Motivation describes an emotional state, and requires three things;

  1. Vision. A clear idea of what you want.
  2. Desire. Dopamine, which triggers when your brain sees or imagines something that it believes is good for you.
  3. Ease. Low friction or pain in the immediate path towards your goal.

Motivation tends to exist when we feel we have a surplus of time, money, and/or energy, depending on what that goal demands. The reason is that when these core resources are abundant, there is no scarcity-pain in pursuing our goal. Rather like, buying a million dollar car offers no pain to a billionaire.

Maximizing Motivation

To maximize your motivation,

  • Develop a clear a vision of your goal as possible. Describe it and visualize it in detail. Use vision boards, photos or other visual aids to provide a clear image of your goal. When you brain can see this "great future" ahead of you, your dopamine is triggered and you have motivation.
  • Minimize points of friction. Don't ignore stress, instead seek ways to eliminate unnecessary stress, and to reduce necessary stress.
  • Track and measure progress towards your goal. As you progress, you will feel closer to your goal, and feel additional excitement and motivation as you can see your goal is nearer. A marathoner might have run 45 kilometers- but when they see that finish line, the motivation to finish hits hard.

What is Willpower?

Willpower is the ability to pursue your goal even when you do not feel Motivated.

Personally, I relate to Willpower as my level of pain-tolerance. The more Willpower I have, the more pain & discomfort you can accommodate until I've temporarily overwhelmed.

Practically, Willpower is;

  • The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals
  • The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse
  • The ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system
  • Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self

Is Willpower a Limited Resource?

Since 1998, psychologists have described willpower as a resource that is depleted with use, and which can be subsequently recharged.

The original experiment performed by social psychologist Roy Baumeister described the use of willpower as ego depletion. His team concluded;

Ego depletion is the exhaustion of human self-control or willpower. A person can be said to be ego depleted when their ability to make careful, reasoned decisions breaks down, or when they become less capable of controlling undesired behaviors ( such as gambling, drinking, or expressing rage ).

For many decades, psychologists conducted research demonstrating the ego depletion occurs after a person has engaged in a very taxing task, such as ignoring distraction, turning down desirable offers, or persisting in a boring and tedious task (Baumeister & Vohs, 2007.

This view has been long popularized by celebs like Terry Crews, who bases his eating approach and cheat day on the concept of ego depletion.

However recent studies show very different findings, in particular;

  • That Baumeister's original experiment was flawed, and blood glucose levels correspond more directly with willpower and cognition than any exercise of willpower does.
  • Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck demonstrated that people who "believe in" the concept of ego depletion are far more likely to be affected by it, whereas people who do not, are not. Her team determined that willpower was limited by self-defeating thoughts.
  • Psychologist Michael Inzlicht describes willpower not as a finite resource, but as an emotion. By comparison, we don't run out of happiness- it ebbs and flows based on what's happening to us and how we feel.

Inzlicht's views most closely match my own, of Willpower as a measure of my immediate capacity pain-tolerance. Since temptation causes pain, it exerts Willpower- the best way to minimize this is to simply structure your life

Maximizing Willpower

To maximize your willpower...

  • Keep your energy high, overall
  • Minimize temptations, so that less self-control is required.
  • Minimize points of friction. Don't ignore stress, instead seek ways to eliminate unnecessary stress, and to reduce necessary stress.
  • Minimize decision-making. Steve Jobs famously demonstrated this in his choice of black turtle necks as a daily outfit.
  • Pursue the reward that comes after the effort. I relate to this as a boost in Serotonin ( self-worth, self-approval ) following a challenge ( courage ).
  • Ascetic practices such as cold showers and certain forms of meditation can help you to relate to pain less directly. As the ability of pain to trigger your emotional reactions decreases, you consume less Willpower under stressful situations.
  • Maybe, recharge it occasionally, when needed, unless doing so will sabotage your goals. Terry Crews' cheat day example fits well here.

What is Self-Discipline?

Self-Discipline is the ability to pursue a goal even when Willpower has been exhausted.

You don't want to do it, you feel like you're completely tapped out your energy reserves, and you're well past any recognizable form of motivation- and yet, you can choose continue anyway, because you recognize that you do not need to feel motivated in order to move forward towards your goal.

Self-Discipline is a rational choice, not an emotional one.

I describe this as David Goggins mode, where you're able to simply push yourself continuously until you reach your actual physical limits, which are far beyond your emotional comfort zone.

Maximizing Self-Discipline

To maximize your self-discipline...

  • Develop deep habits, which allow you to perform and engage in difficult tasks without emotionally engaging in the difficulties around them.
  • Simply decide to do your training, whatever it is. I made these things non-negotiable, and eliminating that decision-making process from my thinking eliminated 95% of the stress I felt.
  • Employ distractions that keep your rational and emotional minds focused on something other than the "pain." For example, playing music at the gym or while running- or exercising with a buddy.
  • Pursue the reward that comes after the effort. I relate to this as a boost in Serotonin ( self-worth, self-approval ) following a challenge ( courage ).

A Natural Progression

When you consider the overall "effort" required to do these things, you'll notice that there is a three-stage progression, which looks like this...

Each of these three concepts forms a zone, and you progress through them as your emotional and energetic resources become depleted.

Real-World Application

Let's look at how to apply these principles using my personal examples of a body transformation.

To complete a body transformation, here are the required sub-goals;

  • Learn fitness, and a wide range of weightlifting techniques.
  • Learn nutrition, calorie counting, and macro splits.
  • Learn recovery both general recovery and injury recovery.
  • Go to the gym, 6 times a week, for at least 1 hour per day. Lift hard, using the exercises and routines I've learned.
  • Eat well, applying all the principles of nutrition. Track everything. Learn new foods, and new meals. For me, seeking to trim, this included caloric restriction and dealing with hunger and food cravings.
  • Recover diligently. Sleep, stretching, cryotherapy and massages as needed.

And all of this needs to be sustained for 3 to 6 months, at least.

STAGE 1 - Motivation Zone

Typically we start here, fully energized and enthusiastic about our new goal.

Our mind can clearly see the goal, and why life will be so much better once we achieve it. Enthusiasm and optimism is so high, we'll buy gym memberships, workout programs, nutritional supplements, new gym gear- all without hesitation.

STAGE 2 - Willpower Zone

Soon, very soon, we begin to experience stress. This demands Willpower, at a gradually increasing rate, to supplement the Motivation.

For me, the workouts were grueling, and my body took some time to adapt to the new challenges.

Nutrition was an even greater emotional challenge, because I needed to restrict calories to 2,000 kcal/day, which is well below my maintenance level. I felt hungry. I craved fatty foods, like pizza and burgers, and occasional sweets.

But I had the Willpower to overcome these discomforts. I wanted results.

I also used techniques like...

  • "cheat days,"
  • intermittent fasting,
  • drinking lots of water,
  • eating foods with low calorie density, and therefore high volume to help me feel full.

These things helped me to manage the hunger.

However some times, I found that Willpower alone could not sustain the intensity of my challenge...

STAGE 3 - Self-Discipline Zone

Sometimes, I found that Willpower alone could not sustain the intensity of my challenge... and I needed to go into self-discipline mode.

Here, I felt far outside of my emotional comfort zone. Feelings of pain and exhaustion were fairly constant, and yet I could still choose to go train.

The easiest way to do this was to simply make it a non-negotiable part of my day, a habit that was woven into the structure of my day.

My habit stack was...

  1. Wake up
  2. Go to the gym
  3. Treat myself to a coffee at my local cafe, and begin work

Since this was challenging physical exercise, I got the immediate post-workout benefits of Serotonin ( from Courageously confronting a challenge ), and Endorphins ( natural painkillers ).

Both felt great, and amped up the rest of my day, which I quickly learned to depend on. Skipping gym, therefore, was just not acceptable.

Natural Patterns

I find it fascinating when I see pattern correlations between human psychology and other natural systems- in particular the human body.

In the 3-part pattern of our motivational systems, I see a strong correlation to the body's energy systems.

This part is pure conjecture, so make of it what you will.

In our physical body, we have three energy systems that power us in everyday life- and they also follow a progression- each kicking in after the previous system has been exhausted.

The three systems are;

  1. ATP-PC System or Alactic System
  2. Aerobic System
  3. Anaerobic Glycolysis or Lactic Acid System

ATP-PC System or Alactic System

ATP and creatine phosphate (CP) are present in very small amounts in the muscle cells. The system can supply energy very quickly because oxygen is not needed for the process. No lactic acid is produced in the process (Alactic)

Aerobic System

The aerobic energy system, or oxygen energy system, system uses carbohydrates (glucose/glycogen) and fats to replenish ATP. Because oxygen is required for the process, energy production takes a little longer but can continue for a much longer duration. Because of the presence of oxygen, no lactic acid is produced.

This system engages when the ATP system is exhausted, but oxygen is present.

Anaerobic Glycolysis or Lactic Acid System

The anaerobic energy system uses carbohydrates (glucose) stored in the muscles as Glycogen. Because no oxygen is required to re-synthesize ATP, energy is produced quickly. Also because no oxygen is used in the process lactic acid is produced as an end product.

This system engages when the ATP system is exhausted, but oxygen is not present.

As it produces lactic acid, you will eventually hit a wall, where your muscles can no longer contract.


Learn how your motivation, willpower and self-discipline function and work together. Invest time in studying and in personally exploring this area of your psychology.

It will serve you well.

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First published on 
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January 4, 2021

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