If you're scrolling through your Instagram looking for "fitspiration," you're wasting your time.
That is, at least, what the Internet would tell you right now. Countless articles, blog posts, and memes will tell you to forget motivation and instead embrace discipline. While motivation fires you up to go do a workout or re-energizes your quest to quit smoking, discipline, according to this trendy line of thought, is as it was defined by Arnold Schwarzenegger: "What you use when you don't want to do something. You have to force yourself."
And that sounds great. There's no question it would be best to be able to consistently will yourself to do things you don't want to do in the moment. It would be fantastic, as the memes suggest, to have discipline. But how do you develop it? What does science say about moving from a need for motivation to actually having it? We decided to find out.
Figure Out Why Your Goal is So Important
Just like the memes suggest, the amount of willpower you have—psychologists call it self-control—is limited. Some scientists, including Mark Muraven, a professor of psychology at the University of Albany, believe that this limitation may be physical. Muraven believes that the brain's stores of glucose may be depleted over time by the use of self-control, leading to a tank of it eventually running empty.
"Cigarette smokers, for example, when they wake up first thing in the morning, their nicotine levels are lowest because they've gone 12 hours without smoking," Muraven says. "But most relapses happen at night because they've now spent the entire day dealing with stress, using self-control not to scream at their boss or whatever. So now when they get home, they're depleted. They can't fight that urge to smoke anymore."
Other scientists, including Daniel Molden, an associate professor of social psychology at Northwestern, don't subscribe to the glucose theory. Molden points out that endurance athletes sometimes will themselves beyond their physical capabilities to run until they actually collapse, a period at which their self-control stores would have already been depleted. But whether they believe a limit on the amount of self-control is from a physical store or just a psychological limit, both scientists—and their research—agree on one thing: When the activity you want to do has intrinsic value to you—that is, when it's important to you rather than forced upon you, you have a stronger ability to do it and exercise self-control.
"If you're quitting smoking and you were nagged into because of your doctor, your spouse, or your kids, and you don't really want to do it, it's a lot more depleting than if you're doing it because it's personally valuable to you," Muraven says.
Part of what makes something valuable to you is thinking that it's worth doing: "If you can pursue a goal, you can engage in effort and not feel the sense of sort of fatigue and inclination to quit—if if it's something you're really engaged in," Molden says. "If something is effortful and they don't feel like they're making any progress, and it doesn't seem worthwhile, then they'll quit."
In her book Grit, UPenn psychologist Angela Duckworth's research shows that the titular quality—a combination of passion and perseverance—is more predictive of success than talent. To develop grit, she says, requires a compelling, top-level goal that's an "end in itself." So if your goal is not to work out today, but to lose 30 pounds to have a longer life, concentrating on that top-level goal can give the specific activity—today's workout—more value and meaning to you, since it pushes towards that goal.
Set Smaller, Realistic Goals
When fitness coaches suggest breaking a bigger goal—like losing 50 pounds—into smaller, more attainable, short-term goals, there's actual science behind that.
Molden says research shows that if a task is effortful, but you feel like you're making progress or have a sense of accomplishment, you won't feel the effects of the effort as much. That means it'll be easier to stay motivated to do it, even if it's unpleasant in the short run.
"It's hard to sense progress if the goal is too big or too far away," he says. But if this is a preliminary goal on the way to a bigger goal, you sustain that sense of progress, he says, and that feeds into the process. A 2014 Finnish study found that the subjects who weighed themselves more often lost more weight than those who weighed in less than once per week. But if you've ever dieted, you know that weight fluctuates, and the scale can refuse to budge, making a daily weigh-in discouraging—if you don't feel like you're progressing, you won't move towards the disciplined state.
So whatever your goal, you want find lots of ways to track your progress so that you can see how you're improving: If you're trying to lose weight, for instance, weigh yourself once per week, but also do measurements—of your thighs, waist, arms, whatever. When you want to see progress, re-measure them all to find one that's moved in the direction you're after. Look at "before" pictures to see how far you've already come. Or use a workout-tracking app to push yourself to do more—even if it's one more second on the bike or another rep of an exercise. Seeing that kind of progress can help increase self-control.
Whether it's physical or just perceived, your self-control abilities can be improved through practice—and it doesn't have to be practicing the exact activity you're after. In his studies, Muraven has shown that by practicing small acts of self-control, participants could have a greater capacity for self-control on those and other tasks in the future.
In one experiment, Muraven had subjects remember to squeeze a hand-gripper a few times each day. Over time, making themselves do this small activity gave them greater self-control throughout the day.
"It's the same that for someone who isn't fit, walking up and down the stairs is a good way to build some fitness," he says. Such a small task might not tax someone who's already fit, but it can have an effect for a beginner. Same with self-control: Choosing a small task, like "I'm going to eat an apple every day 30 minutes before lunch," or "I'm going to meditate for 10 minutes every morning," or anything that you can try to remember to do each day, Muraven says, can help expand your capacity for self-control.
Barack Obama only wore a few colors of suits during his presidency not just to keep things simple, but to pare down the number of decisions he needed to make each day, saving his decision-making power for other, more important decisions during the day.
Removing tasks that require self-control can save some of your discipline for when you need it—especially if those "effortful" activities you eliminate are obstacles to performing the task you're really after for the day. In this way, the tip to pack your gym clothes before work, leaving them in your car so you don't have to go home between the office and your workout, really can help you get to the gym.
"You have to fight less hard to [control yourself and go to the gym] now," Muraven says. "In the gym bag example, I'm fatigued from work already. I come home—it's going to be that much harder to go out again."
Muraven also says that external motivators can help reduce the taxing of your self-control reserves—for instance, having a friend call you can keep you motivated to get your workouts in. In a study from Stanford University, just receiving a check-in phone call every two weeks to check on exercise progress increased the amount of exercise they did by 78 percent.
Make the Experience Less Unpleasant
If you hate interval cardio, but know that it's good for burning fat, you don't have to suck it up and learn to love it. Making the experience more pleasant can help you require less self-control to do it.
"We've shown that if you're in a good mood, you feel less depleted and are better at self-control," Muraven says. By doing little, mood-boosting things for study subjects who need to exhibit self-control—as small as giving them a free pencil—their ability to avoid a "bad" behavior or continuing to do a "good" one was enhanced.
You can't give yourself a free pencil as a prize, but this, Mulden says, is an argument for building a killer workout playlist. "Because it pairs a pleasant experience with the effort," he says. Same goes for performing exercises or workouts that you like, or working out with someone you enjoy going to the gym with—these things can put you in a good mood. "It undercuts the overall unpleasantness of the experience, and allows people to keep going longer."
Developing discipline—like changing your body, or quitting smoking, or making any change to your life, takes time. More time than you think, probably.
You might have heard it takes just three weeks to create a new habit—so after 21 days of dieting, you'll have transformed from a motivation-seeking, cookie-craving beginning dieter into a calorie-burning, pound-dropping weight loss cyborg.
And if you've dieted before, you've probably figured out that the 21 days thing isn't true: It's a myth that's been perpetuated thanks to misinterpreting observations by a 1950s cosmetic surgeon. Real change takes longer: A 2009 study found that it took as many as 254 days to form a new habit, with the average study participant making their habit stick after 66 days.
Pursuing the same goal over a long period, in fact, is key to the success-determining concept of "grit" described in Duckworth's book: "Grit," she writes, "is more about stamina than intensity."