When discipline wins against motivation

The power of discipline

Many of my students talk about motivation, but discipline can be more powerful. While motivation comes and goes, discipline will set you up for long-term success. I learned that in 2016 when I started studying Italian.

At that time I was already speaking Spanish and Portuguese relatively fluently. Another language should be easy, right? No. Italian hit me like a ton of bricks. It was so similar, and yet so different. It's a far more complex language. Also, I wasn’t planning to live in Italy, so I had no urgent reason to study it. Why was I doing this?

I opened up my old Spanish vocabulary files and felt weak. I was so motivated back then. I was in love with the language and the Latin culture, and I knew that I would eventually end up living in South America.

Finding the motivation to study Spanish was easy. Most days, for 2-3 hours, I studied grammar, wrote emails, chatted with language partners, watched films, read children’s books at first, then books for teenagers, before finally progressing to literature meant for native adult speakers. It took 3 years to get to upper-intermediate fluency, and it was a pleasure. I felt like it was what I was meant to be doing.

But I couldn’t seem to do it again. Why was I even trying? For some months I couldn't find the answer. I studied for a few weeks, stopped for a few weeks, on and off, on and off. Little progress was made.

The answer

I found my answer in the gym. I don't train because of the end goals. I don't train to be the best. I don't train because others expect me to do it. I simply train because this is who I am.

From that moment, I saw the parallel—learning Italian is just like working out at the gym. So I slowed down. I was never going to be able to replicate my passion for Spanish. But could I find one hour per week? Of course I could. Two thirty-minute sessions is even easier!

If I can’t be motivated, I can still be disciplined. Study not because you want to or need to, but study to value the process.

You do need to maintain that discipline consistently over time, even if it’s just a couple hours per week. After all, eight hours a month is better than zero.

My old teacher used to say, “Don’t let the great be the enemy of the good.” That is, doing less (every week) is infinitely better than doing nothing at all.

You may have deadlines every day and have to work on weekends. Your passion may be for things other than the English language. But, finding a little time to study means progress. That's what I learned.

hit (one) like a ton of bricks [idiom]—have a strong emotional effect on someone. 
parallel [noun]—similarity.
to replicate [verb]—to make or do something again in exactly the same way.
to value (something) [verb]—to feel something is important.
infinitely [adverb]—very much.