The End of Motivation and Primacy of Self-Discipline

The End of Motivation and Primacy of Self-Discipline (+ 40 reasons to hit the gym)

If it’s important enough, you’ll find a way. If it isn’t, you’ll find an excuse. – Jim Rohn

How do you make going to the gym important? How do you make it an absolute must?

Because if it isn’t a must, you’re going to find an excuse not to go. You’ll find it somewhere, it’s going to come out. Your brain will keep generating excuses until one of them clicks.

There’s always an excuse that will click. There’s never a moment of time where you won’t have the perfect excuse not to hit the gym. It always comes.

With lazy brains that perpetually try to minimize time and energy, how do we find the motivation to start? What is the operating system in our brain that must function to make fitness an integral part of daily life?

We have to start at ground zero.

Our brain is motivated by two things: pain and pleasure. This is an absolute truth for every living person on earth. We’re either moving towards pleasure, or away from pain (and often both).

Understanding the pain-pleasure dynamic in our brain is essential to get ourselves to take action towards our goals. Without it, we’re reliant on our emotions — fleeting inspiration and bursts of motivation — to change behavior. With it, have control over our emotions, and thus our decisions and actions.

It starts with these basic, primal stimuli: pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance.

Where I started

About 4 years ago while living in Boston, I decided to get serious about working out. I figured that if I was motivated enough, I could hit the gym hard and stay consistent. I psyched myself up, watched lots of motivational videos and bought an annual membership at a nearby gym. This approach succeeded for a little while, but ultimately failed, and after a few months I was burnt out physically and mentally.

Fast forward to today. I live on the road and life is far more chaotic and random than it was back in the US. Yet, I’ve been able to stay very fit while traveling. What changed?

Discipline > Motivation

The first step was realizing that motivation was not enough. After complete and total burnout, it occurred to me that, perhaps there was a better approach. I sought out coaches, trainers, and read as much as I could on the topic of staying consistent at the gym. What I learned was that the best athletes and bodybuilders don’t rely on motivation at all – rather, they are extremely disciplined in their approach to fitness.

After learning this, I stopped using emotional spikes to get to the gym and started using self-discipline, which is far more powerful. By disciplining myself to execute on small tasks, I was able to control the pain-pleasure system in my brain, rather than let it control me.

What is “Self-Discipline”?

Discipline can have a negative connotation. When I hear the word, I think of some kind of punishment.


That is not the discipline I’m talking about. Here, discipline simply means taking the necessary steps to do what works, regardless of how you feel about it (disregarding your emotions). Discipline is controlling your emotions so that you naturally move toward your goals. In this case, it means using pleasure and pain to your advantage.

Taking control of Pleasure

So, the first step is to know all the reasons why going to the gym is a good thing. The real reasons. These will fill us with a sense of pleasurable feelings, and give our brains something to move toward.

The body is very important; but the mind is MORE important than the body. – Schwarzenegger

Losing weight is not the reason we go to the gym. Neither is gaining muscle and getting ripped. Those are proxies for deeper desires. To find out what lies underneath, it helps to write it all down.

Here are 20 reasons why I go to the gym:

  1. I want to live longer. By working out every day, eating health, and feeling good, I will add 5, 10, 20 or more years to my life.
  2. I’ll have more friends.
  3. I’ll have more approval from others.
  4. I’ll feel good about myself. I like feeling good about myself and how I look.
  5. I’ll be sick less often, and thus get to enjoy more of my days.
  6. I’ll have more control of my life. (“You feel happy to the degree which you feel in control of your own life (and thus, your confidence in your ability to solve problems.”)
  7. I’ll develop better character.
  8. By staying consistent, I’ll appreciate the value of hard work and achieving long term goals.
  9. I’ll trust myself more and like myself more. Others will like more more as a result, and I’ll like myself even more because of it.
  10. My relationships will be better, because I’ll be on my path and purpose.
  11. I’ll get to spend more time with my children and grandchildren.
  12. My life will be more passionate and energetic.
  13. I will able to be more present in the moment.
  14. Less stress and anxiety throughout the day when my brain produces more dopamine, serotonin and endorphins from working out.
  15. The incredible feeling of progress and growth (the need to feel like we’re growing is one of the basic human needs).
  16. More confidence with girls and better sex.
  17. To be a good example of living healthy to my family, friends and children.
  18. More creative energy to spend on my business.
  19. A more positive and optimistic view on life.
  20. Thinking and caring about my body helps me care more about others.

Having these clear goals – where I want to be, where I see myself, what it’s going to feel like — to have abs, to be ripped, to lose 10 pounds of fat — what’s going to change in my life, how people are going to look at my differently – is essential. If I don’t have that, then the gym is a waste of my time. If I don’t know where I’m going, how the hell am I going to get there?

Taking control of Pain

As we know, visualizing the positive consequences (pleasure) of going to the gym is only half the battle. We are also hard-wired to avoid bad consequences (pain). The flip side of positive motivation is negative motivation.

So I ask: What will my life be like if I don’t go to the gym?

Now, stop. It’s time to face reality.

What are the consequences of  not getting this done? You must have a sense of urgency with taking care of your own health.

The mark of the superior thinker is his or her ability to accurately predict the consequences of doing or not doing something. – Brian Tracy

I find that visualizing the negative consequences are much tougher than the positives. Coming up with a long list of benefits of the gym is not so tough (quite enjoyable actually), but thinking of all the pain that would come from missing the gym? No thanks. My brain would prefer to dwell on happy thoughts.

This is all the more reason why disciplining oneself to think of the negatives is so important. It’s worth it to take the extra time though and actually feel those negative feelings — really let them sink into my subconscious brain — so I have something to run from.

Here are 20 things that will happen if I don’t go to the gym:

  1. My life will be much shorter.
  2. My last years will be spent in the healthcare system.
  3. I am much more likely to have chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or heart disease.
  4. Lack of physical fitness will eat at my character and integrity. If I can’t have the self-discipline to take care of my own body, what the fuck can I even contribute to this world? If I can’t say no to a slice of pizza or piece of chocolate, what can I possibly accomplish for others?
  5. I become the kind of person who gives up. No matter what I try, I GIVE UP. I won’t accomplish any long term goals if I can’t get to the gym every day.
  6. I will feel more and more regret every day. This regret will get heavier as I get older, realizing that I missed the window of opportunity to start and stay in shape. Looking in the mirror when I’m older and realizing: I’ll never be young again, and I’m too far behind to actually get in shape now.
  7. I won’t have energy to actually enjoy life. Without the vitality and emotional strength that I get from the gym, I’ll be too depressed and low energy to have fun when it’s time to have fun.
  8. I’ll become someone who settles. Fuck. I will become someone who constantly takes what’s given, rather than goes for what I want.
  9. If I settle for less of a body than I want, I will also settle for less in relationships. I will settle for less in my business. I will settle for less with my family. I will constantly settle. This terrifies me.
  10. If I end my life in a hospital, it is very likely I will die alone. If there is anyone who genuinely tries to care for me in sickness, I will be sucking value from their life.
  11. If I can’t stick to the gym habit, I will be someone who constantly goes with the flow and doesn’t stand for what I believe in. Right now, the gym is my one constant in life. If I can’t maintain this one habit, nothing else will stick.
  12. I will never truly gain the respect of my peers. To have a great family, lots of money, and look outwardly happy means little if I can’t take care of my own body.
  13. If I don’t push myself at the gym, I will always be someone who feels stuck in a mode. Stuck in the same mode physically will, in turn, keep me stuck in the same mental modes and routines.
  14. I will never become the best version of myself. Without the tough, ruthless lessons from lifting heavy weights (and failing), I won’t build the character required to excel in every part of my life.
  15. I will never truly love and appreciate my body, and thus will not be able to fully love and appreciate others. “Love yourself. Otherwise no one else will.”
  16. I will harbor a feeling of “incompleteness” that will carry to my thinking and way of being.
  17. I will never learn how to set and achieve goals. Without a clear vision for my fitness, how can I have a clear vision anywhere else in life?
  18. I will never truly understand how to “love the process”. Because this is a forever habit, it’s something that I must love doing if I’m going to make a change. Without a commitment to going to the gym, I won’t internalize this feeling of joy and love of the process.
  19. I won’t be a good model for my kids. I want to be full of energy, passion and strength so that my kids see this and naturally want to embody those qualities in themselves.
  20. I will always be a sloucher, both physically in my posture and mentally in my attitude. Not leaning into my edge in the gym means I will not lean into my edge mentally. Body image affects who we are (our posture literally affects our physiology). With a weak posture and frame, I will always be mentally weak.

As I write these out, I’m sitting in a beautiful hotel in Sarajevo. Sweet Debussy is playing in my headphones. And yet, as I take a hard look at these negative consequences, I physically hurt.

This is what has to happen, though, to discipline that pain avoidance mechanism in my brain and use it to my advantage. Next time I’m tired, sick or stressed and think about skipping a workout, I will remember this feeling and get to the gym.

Making changes

When I truly started to use discipline instead of motivation, my way of looking at the world changed. Every single little decision and behavior came under a microscope: how will this food affect my body? Is this activity detracting from my fitness routine? Are these people the type of people that will move me forward?

Not surprisingly, as I asked myself these questions, it made others around me feel uncomfortable about their decisions. When I stopped rationalizing my behavior and started making smarter, healthier choices, it made their rationalizations all the more obvious.

This created conflict, which made disciplining myself even tougher. One thing I know now and wish I knew then: this conflict is normal. Whenever you want to change who you are on a deep level, it’s going to make other people feel uncomfortable. So be it. It’s not your job to assuage their feelings of discomfort. It’s your job to stay focused on your goals and your purpose for changing.

What to expect

On this journey, you’re going to encounter criticism. Where you expect to find support, none will be there. Starting out, my friends and family wondered why I cared about going to the gym so much. And why on EARTH do I eat so darn healthy?! I mean, c’mon, it’s a holiday – enjoy yourself! The people I thought would want this for me more than anyone were actually the biggest dissenters. Today, fitness is such a part of my identity that friends and family do not question it anymore. But starting out, man were there a lot of haters.

Having an opinion is easy; everybody has an opinion. Everybody wants to have an opinion about everything. What is the value of an opinion? What the fuck does my opinion matter how about people should live their lives?

“Ya know, I just think that people should….”

The credit belongs to the man who’s actually in the area.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

If you step in the arena yourself, the opinions of people who have not walked the same path are worthless. People will not be able to understand unless they’ve been through it themselves.

The point is: develop resilience to others’ opinions.

Resilience is developed by moving your locus of control to within. Peoples’ opinions of your journey will constantly change; if you’re basing your emotional state off of others, your emotions will constantly be in flux.

Find balance by being internally validated.

I do this in my own life by having small, achievable goals every day. If I completed the goal, then I’m happy. That’s what it means to be internally validated. Someone else’s opinion of my goals doesn’t mean shit; I’m on my path.

This is easier said than done. Haters can be very loud and sound very confident in their criticisms. Ignore them, and refocus on your goals.

Why this works

When you have the ability to discipline yourself, motivation comes from your own actions, and you are further motivated to keep taking small steps.

It may seem paradoxical; tracking small, minuscule habits every day leads to more happiness and more motivation. What do these “small steps” actually do? What does relentless tracking your habits do? What does going to the gym every day actually do?

It changes who you are.

These small habits — a cup of green tea, a slow pull up, getting to bed early, eating a salad that tastes like dirt while everyone around you feasts on BBQ — it makes you who you are. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

What do you spend your time on each day? The things that are required to succeed with health and fitness are not grandiose or magical. In fact, they are quite small and (seemingly) insignificant day-to-day; they are the 0.1% (one tenth of one percent). They have almost no value on any single day. But the cumulative value of 365 point one-percent’s is quite a lot.

After 10 days of improving one tenth of one percent, you will have improved a little more than 1%.

At the end of one month of daily 0.1% improvements, you would be almost 3.5% better.

At the end of two months, more than 8% better.

At the end of a year, if you compounded 0.1% daily improvements, you’d be more than 300% better than when you started.

This is the value of constant self-discipline to achieve small, seemingly minuscule tasks. Accumulated over time — even a short period like one year — they have a massive impact.

Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. – Albert Einstein

Take your time

The path to transformation is slow and methodical – it’s a series of daily choices. Nobody will give you any props for making those small daily choices.

No one gives a fuck. It’s something you have to give yourself props on. Even if someone does give you approval, it is – like motivation – temporary and fleeting.

It’s your responsibility to repeatedly discipline yourself and give yourself props for making those small choices. In doing so, you will transcend the need for motivation to get to the gym, and develop an unbreakable commitment to living healthy.