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The Truth About Motivation | Why New Year’s resolutions don’t work

Motivation is rarely enough to carry through commitments. This article covers its limitations and the attitude adjustments required to actually make a change in the long-term.

Although they’re often made with genuine intent, New Year’s resolutions rarely stick. This goes for any attempt at lifestyle changes – many people have great intentions, but very few manage to carry them through.

Doing a quick bit of research for this article I couldn’t believe how many articles there were on how to make New Year’s resolutions stick. There’s 1001 articles out there (to be fair most were crap), and I don’t want to rehash them. Most look at tips for maintaining motivation.

Now, that’s all good, but it’s not enough in the long term. A couple of morning’s ago I went out for my morning run. The wind was howling and the snow was coming down hard – it was pretty damn unpleasant. But I had a sudden realisation.

Our attitude to how we approach making lifestyle changes (whether New Year’s resolutions or not) is wrong.

You can have all the drive and motivation in the world, but unless you shift your attitude, this won’t be enough – it won’t last. The reality isn’t nearly so glamourous. Cold, hard discipline is the key: the commitment to consistency whatever external factors are thrown at you.

This post doesn’t specifically refer to New Year’s resolutions. I think that’s a very limiting way to look at life. That said, I like the idea in principle. Why not make a positive change this year? And if it’s running you want to commit to check out this article:



A reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way; desire to do; interest or drive

From ‘motive’: what induces a person to act, e.g. desire, fear, circumstance

Motivation is essentially a reason for doing something. In our context it’s a positive driver to do something, and when you’re truly motivated all you want to do is go do it.

Motivation is a very powerful thing – by all means use it. And I fully encourage an effort to motivating yourself when making any sort of lifestyle change commitment or training a discipline. Check out the bottom of this article for a few ideas on how. Also see this article which looks into why we lose motivation.

It’s easy to do things when your motivated – you have a direct, tangible reason and all-consuming drive to do them. The issue is that this fluctuates, and never lasts forever. Even when it’s there, it won’t get you through the really rough times when negative reasons and discomfort outweigh the positive drivers that make up our motivation.

To combat those times and keep it succeed long-term we need something more constant and unbending. You must fall back on discipline. Discipline gets you through when there is no motivation.



The quality of being able to behave and work in a controlled way which involves obeying particular rules or standards; behaviour according to established rules

You can immediately see the difference. Motivation requires a reason, discipline requires only a predetermined rule. There’s therefore no weighing up the positives or negatives, no fluctuation of drive or consideration of how worthwhile what you’re doing might be. There is only a rule and the pre-made commitment to follow it.

Discipline is essentially commitment to continue irrespective of all other factors. Regardless of new commitments, whatever the weather and your mood. To make real change you can’t take action only when you feeling it. Change comes from consistency – and that involves taking action even when you really don’t feel it.

The thing is that anything worthwhile takes patience – it won’t happen overnight. And in that time there’ll be days or weeks where motivation isn’t there and you question your reasons for doing it at all. Discipline is the commitment to keep going regardless - even when it doesn’t seem to be worth it or make sense.

I’m not saying don’t be sensible and make judgements. Of course you need to re-evaluate should you run into injury or equivalent issues, but it’s the mindset that matters. We must approach a commitment with the ‘discipline’ attitude.


So motivation is good - maximise it and make the most of it. But we need to approach change or commitment with a different attitude. That of discipline. That way we already have a baseline mindset that will keep us going when motivation fades, and any motivation you can rally can be viewed as a positive extra. Looking at it the other way, with motivation as your primary driver, is destined to fail as soon as the motivation does.

It sounds simple, but this shift in attitude is far from easy. It takes a genuine change in perspective, not just an understanding of the idea. Below are a few tips that might help.


These aren’t generic tips on how to keep up with resolutions or whatever, but rather specific actions and concepts you can use to train and adopt the ‘discipline’ attitude.

1) Make the decision

This is the big one. Make the conscious decision now and don’t give yourself the choice later. Situational factors then become irrelevant. You don’t have to decide whether or not to do it today, you made your decision already, and it’s non-negotiable. It’s actually a very freeing feeling.

2) Schedule the time

Discipline thrives on habit and routine. If you’ve already assigned time, then it’s much harder to put it off or have reasons not to. The time is always there if you want it bad enough. First thing in the morning works best for me, but might not be for you.

3) Define exactly what you’re going to do and when

Same principle as the last point. By writing a plan you won’t faff about working out details and logistics when you should be doing it. You want to make it as clinical as possible to reduce conscious thought around the matter. You just do what you you’ve set for yourself and don’t think about it – that’s discipline.

4) Remember the real goal

Whether written down, as a mantra or whatever, you need to remember your reason for your discipline. I’m not talking a reason in the sense of powerful drive or motivation, but just a reassurance of your original decision to wholly commit.

5) Never miss it twice

This helps hugely with establishing discipline or habit. Missing it once tends not to matter, but twice and it usually falls apart. Be sure that if you miss one then you get right back on it. For some reason human nature seems to think that missing one is an excuse to miss another – and discipline soon goes to pot. That makes no sense. Don’t let it affect you.

6) Accountability

a) To yourself. Track your progress. It makes you much less likely to leave a gap.

b) To someone else. Just telling someone what you’re doing or, even better, do it with them.

7) Cut it down to the bare-bones

Forget SMART goals, advanced planning and everything else. Discipline means you just do it. Of course these principles are all helpful, but don’t let them get in the way. The ‘do-it-no-matter-what’ attitude and the consistency that creates is worth far more.

8) Embrace the lack of motivation

Understand that when motivation fades you’re not necessarily going to enjoy it or even think it’s worth it. Life isn’t a Rocky film of motivational music and constant improvement. Even in the low points of those films there’s a clear motivation in the ascent of the underdog - you may not even have that. In some ways it’s actually easier to keep going when it’s toughest since the battle’s motivation in itself. But what really matters is the discipline to keep going whatever, even when it’s the last thing you want to do, or when it seems to have become meaningless. You have to accept this and relish the opportunity to prove to yourself you can keep going.


So basically the message is to use motivation, but don’t rely on it. Adopt an attitude of discipline and unbreakable resolve. View motivation as a welcome visitor.

I have a challenge that, in my opinion, is a pretty good test of whether or not you’re prepared to shift to the ‘discipline’ attitude.

Forget New Near’s – start now. Whatever change you want to make, start it tomorrow and miss out on your last day or so of ‘freedom’. The whole idea of having a big starting day is flawed. If this is something you’re going to commit to then there’s no excuse not to start now.

Do it before the motivation of a ‘New Year’s Resolution’ hits, and prove to yourself you have the discipline and commitment. That’s the attitude that’ll make it happen over time. After all, the whole ‘fresh start’ thing won’t be enough to keep it going in the long term. It has to be ‘you’, not a ‘new you’.

If you have the discipline to start tomorrow (the 30th) then I think you’ve got a pretty good chance. If you can’t, and have to wait till the 1st then it’s pretty certain you won’t stick to it. You certainly don’t want it enough – is it time to re-evaluate your priorities?

Be careful though, the decision to start in a couple of days anyway because ‘you could start today if you wanted to but it doesn’t make any difference so why not just wait for a nice pleasingly-placed day’ is often ‘I don’t have the discipline’ in disguise – that’s kind of the whole point. Be honest with yourself.

This whole idea applies in general and not just for New Year’s. It’s a useful exercise and one I’ve failed at many times. I’m only just starting to learn.



Thinking of committing to running? Look back to this article for more tips and ideas:

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