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Why can’t you motivate yourself at work any more?

Is motivation at work a problem for you?  What’s the difference between motivation, willpower and self discipline? How can they help you to feel happier at work? Why can't you motivate yourself at work any more?

Bear with me while I go in to a little depth on the differences and whether you can develop these characteristics.  I’ll then explain how they can help you at work.

For years I thought I struggled with motivation. Or lack of willpower.  Turns out it's not motivation or willpower that cause the problems, it's poor self discipline. Once I realised the difference, I started working on developing better self discipline to good effect.  So what are the differences?  Let’s start with some dictionary definitions


Cause a person to act in a particular way, stimulate the interest of a person in an activity

Motivation can be

  • Extrinsic – something else motivates us to action
  • Intrinsic – we are able to motivate ourselves to action


​Control exercised by deliberate purpose over impulse; self control

​Self discipline

​The act of or ability to apply oneself, control one’s feelings etc; self control

And a bonus definition…

​Self control

​The power of controlling one’s external reactions, emotions etc

They don’t sound all that different – motivation sounds like things that make us act, so a pull towards, if you like.  Willpower or self control sound a bit like the opposite, we have to resist temptation, not do something that’s bad for us..  And self discipline? Both, by the sound of things, the discipline to do something we should, or not do something we shouldn’t.


You can see there are two types of motivation

Extrinsic, like getting paid for your work, not getting in the bosses bad books, meeting the customer’s needs so that they don’t get angry.  Or so that they are happy with us, we’re motivated by the approval.

Intrinsic – it comes from within ourselves, we’re able to get on with something that we really want to, just because we want to.  This is where I used to fail.  I’d want to lose weight, but instead of going to the gym I’d eat cake.

One of my favourite quotes ever is Zig Ziglar on motivation.  He said people often complained that motivation doesn’t last,  and his reply? Neither does bathing, that’s why we do it every day.  I used to wonder what I had to do to motivate myself every day, because as much as I love the quote, it doesn’t really tell me the answer. I wrote more on how much this annoyed me here.


So I read that willpower doesn’t work.  We run out of it, it’s a finite resource.  A bit like energy, if you use it all up one day, you have to rest and recharge to build up your supplies again.  What this means is that if you start your day stressed getting the kids out of the house for school, college or whatever, and making sure they have a decent breakfast before they go, and have got all the kit they need for the day, and having a healthy breakfast yourself, then battling with traffic or the public transport commute, the bus is late again, you have to stand on the way in, and then you’ve got to be nice to your boss and your incompetent colleagues, and not lose your temper with a dissatisfied client, you run out of willpower to make a start on that massive report that you know you should be working on, but it’s ok because it’s not due for a couple of weeks yet.  The best thing I’ve read on willpower is actually called ‘Willpower doesn’t work’, written by Benjamin Hardy.  You can find my review of this book on You Tube.  Spoiler alert – it’s worth a read.

Self discipline

So if will power doesn’t work, is self discipline the answer? I mean, it’s not that different by the sound of things, both require self control.  Well, yes and no.  It is, but the trick is to develop it.  It’s not something you either have or don’t have.  It’s like a muscle.  Exercise it, build up its strength and it will get stronger.  And much like exercise, the way to do this is through a regular habit.  Start small – you can’t go into a gym and lift 85kg the first time you go in, if you’ve never lifted weights before. Especially if you’re an unfit overweight middle aged woman like me.  Hell, I couldn’t pick up the 20kg kettlebell this time last year. I mean, literally couldn’t lift it from the floor.  But I did in fact lift 85kg a couple of months ago, after a programme that built up from what I could do, and now I regularly lift 60-65kg. And look at that, I now have the self discipline required for a regular exercise habit.  Pretty amazing considering all my life I’ve struggled with this and never made exercise a regular part of my life.

What's the answer?​

And so it is with any habit. Start small.  Use tricks to make sure you’re reminded to do what you said you’d do.  Make sure your environment supports your new habit, make it easy to do. 

And that, there is the answer.  You have to practice self discipline, and develop yourself so that you are better at it.  How? Are you screaming at me now?  Tell me how!  I will come to that.  But first, you want to know how they can help you be happier at work.

How to be happier at work

Do you often complain about having to go in to work?  Do you complain about your boss, your incompetent colleagues who leave everything to you?  Do you feel miserable at the prospect of another work week?  I’m sorry to break it to you, but you’re doing this to yourself.  These feelings and responses are bad habits.  If you want to feel happier at work, you  have got to put some effort into changing your approach.  Look back at that definition of self control – controlling one’s external reactions and emotions.  Daniel Goleman found that people who have good emotional intelligence do better at work, and part of this is managing one’s own emotions.  

There’s loads of recent findings that suggest that happiness comes before success, and let’s face it, mostly we only want to be successful because we want to be happy. So it makes sense to work on being happy.  Aristotle is often quoted as saying that ‘We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit’.  (He apparently didn’t, but that doesn’t make the observation less true.)  We are what we repeatedly do.  If we repeatedly complain, we’re a complainer.  If we are repeatedly cheerful and enthusiastic…. well, you can work that out. Being happy, cheerful, optimistic, enthusiastic, motivated… these are all habits we can develop.  This is good news!  You’re not doomed to this miserable job for the rest of your working life! You can turn it into something you love. You can move on when you’re ready, for the right opportunity, rather than jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.

Start small

My favourite mantra at the moment is start small.  But I also think it is worth thinking about what will make the biggest difference.  In Atomic Habits, Clear talks about habits that have a ripple effect.  In the Power of Habits, Charles Duhigg talks about keystone habits.  For me, exercise was a keystone habit, exercising has a knock on effect of helping me to eat more healthily too. What you need to do is work out what you could do that would be simple to implement, but would have a similar ripple effect.

Two things that worked really well for me were

  • Making a public pledge on
  • Using is a website where you make your commitment; I committed to exercise three times a week for eight weeks.  If I failed on my commitment in any week, I would be fined.  I got people to referee and support me, so people checking up that I was following through.  Although in fact, it was more the matter of pride that ensured I followed through. is a website where you sign up for a 50 minute work session, and it pairs you up with a random person on the internet who wants to do the same thing.  At the beginning of the session, you tell each other what you’re working on, and at the end you say how you’ve done.  Throughout, you have your computer’s camera and microphone on, so they can see if you’re still sat there working, or hear if you have YouTube videos going.  I’m sitting here now with Jasmin, who is working on transcribing interviews for her Masters degree while I finish this article.  But the bit that really works for me on this is if I book for a session at 9am the next morning, I have to be at my desk at 9am because someone is depending on me to be there when I said I would.  It is also easier to focus on one task for a 50 minute sprint, and not get distracted by Facebook.

So I wholeheartedly recommend starting small, and trying one of these web tools.  If you want to understand the process behind how our brains work and how to change your habits, read Willpower doesn’t work, and also read Atomic Habits by James Clear, they give so much useful – and scientifically backed – advice on how to stop habits you don’t want, and start the ones you do.

​You can watch my review of Atomic Habits here

​The Power of Habit here​

And Willpower Doesn't Work here

Clear, James, 2018.​ Atomic Habits.​ Random House Business Books, London

Duhigg, Charles 2012.The Power of Habit​. ​Random House Group, London

​Hardy, Benjamin,  ​2018. Willpower Doesn't Work. ​​​Piatkus, London

About the Author Lindsay Milner

Lindsay is the owner of Silvern Training. Before that she had a very varied working life, doing everything from admin, volunteering, sales, teaching, training, fundraising, management and chairing a board of charity trustees. Now wants to change the world of work by improving workplace cultures so that people can look forward to Monday mornings. Also likes to support individuals to speak up, be better listeners and to take action.

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