Discipline is more important than motivation

In whatever pursuit; in whatever lengthy endeavour that we undertake for the long-term benefit of ourselves – whether it be learning a language, learning to draw, or learning to play an instrument – motivation is the spark. It’s the fire that burns deep inside us that leads us to an important decision – the decision to take action.

That sort of empowering speech is all well and good, but despite what your intuition says, motivation isn’t what keeps us learning more Japanese every day. The above speech seems to imply that there are only three stages involved in learning to do something new, like learning a language. It suggests that there are a mere three steps:

  1. Step 1: Realising you want to [learn Japanese].
  2. Step 2: Actually taking action in [learning Japanese].
  3. Step 3: Congratulations, you've [learned Japanese]!

Unfortunately, the truth is a little less intuitive than that and it involves some more hard work than most of us care to realise. The truth is that there are not only three steps. A more realistic step-by-step process would look something like this:

  1. Step 1: Realising you want to [learn Japanese].
  2. Step 2: Actually taking action in [learning Japanese].
  3. Step 3: Actually taking action in [learning Japanese].
  4. Step 4: Actually taking action in [learning Japanese].
  5. Step 5: Actually taking action in [learning Japanese].
    Steps 6-578: Actually taking action in [learning Japanese].
  6. Step 579: Realising that you know enough Japanese to read a news-paper and understand a good deal of TV, but that you can't keep up with all the new colloquialisms the young un's are inventing every day, and that while it's good to know a lot of Modern Jap-anese, if you want to read a particular novel, you're going to have to know some classical Japanese too.

The truth is, in order to learn Japanese, or to achieve whatever grand undertaking it is that you’re committing to, you have to take action each and every single day. It’s more than you bargained for; your fantasies betray you. This is the area which everyone has likely stumbled in at some point in their lives. They commit to do something big, like learning how to create applications in C#, and they learn more every day for a week and a half, and they even start to cut down on all the other activities that they liked doing, such as watching TV and reading books, just so they can have more time to study C#.

All is going well, but that practice is hardly sustainable unless you’re either a kid with lots of free time on their hands, or a rich guy with nothing to do. Eventually, life kicks back in. Maybe it’s exams, or maybe it’s work. There are more important things to do. The worst thing that can happen is that you lose motivation, and even though you’ve fantasised so many times about being able to code C# applications like a legend, and you wanna be like that real bad, there are just more important things. Like watching that new Game of Thrones episode. Oh, and there are some other TV shows you’ve been neglecting lately.

The last thing us humans want to feel is guilty, so our brain helpfully distracts us and rationalises our lack of action by subconsciously lowering the value and priority that learning C# has in your life. Consequently, when the next day rolls around, your motivation to learn C# will be even lower. Maybe you decide that you want to get back into it, but when you sit back down and glance at your computer screen, or you flip back through your C# textbook, you lose motivation again.

What’s happening?

I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not a neurologist, but I can tell you that what has obviously happened here is that you’re subconsciously associating learning C# with a negative feeling, so your brain is trying to keep you away from doing that activity. And every day you don’t learn C#, that negative feeling grows stronger and stronger. When you think about it, you become mentally exhausted.

From there on, it’s a slippery slope until you finally give up learning C# altogether. You feel some sense of pride in knowing a little bit about it; enough to impress people, but give it a few months, and eventually the guilt of not going further will catch up to you – if learning C# was really what you wanted to do, deep inside.

What’s missing in this scenario is discipline. It’s all well and good to want to do something, and to say that you have resolve to do it, but without discipline, you’re probably going to give up. There are going to be some days when you don’t want to open up your textbook and learn some more, and there are going to be days when you’ll fall into a pit of self-doubt. However, as long as you integrate discipline into your learning process, you will be able to push past that; see the light at the end of the tunnel and achieve what you thought you couldn’t.

Because the truth is, as long as you have the capacity to learn new things, you have the capacity to learn a language, or learn to draw, or learn to play an instrument, or learn to create awesome applications in C#.

There’s only one thing you have to do: You have to set a limit. Every day, you have to agree to take action for some amount of time. Even if it’s only 30 minutes, or even if it’s only 15 minutes, you are still making progress. 

15 minutes a day is 91 hours a year.

Motivation is fickle and human.  It’s also inherently short-term, rather than long-term. It will betray your feelings. Don’t rely on motivation to get you through the learning process. However, you should ask yourself, at least, “Do I really want to [learn Japanese]?” every once in a while. If the answer is “yes,” that’s all you need.


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