Motivation, Discipline and Reward
Updated: Jun 16
Alcoholics and drug users find it tough to stick to a treatment programme. Motivation comes and goes. Discipline is something different. It’s a planned, concentrated effort, sustained over time. It involves practise and the build-up of good habits. Staying sober requires discipline.
It’s important not to get tied down by rules, however. The purpose of discipline in recovery is to achieve the ultimate reward. The prize is freedom. When the going gets tough, keep your eyes on the prize.
Sometimes I just can't do it. I can’t get started on the article I should be writing. I easily get distracted. Alternatively, it’s a day when I really ought to go for a run. But I look out of the window and just can’t be bothered. I know what I ought to do but I just can't wake up. I feel sluggish. There are many excuses. I've lost the motivation.
Actually, it reminds me of when I was younger. I used to splash cold water all over my front before playing for the school football team. It was a way of waking up. Then when I played for a non-league team, the coach told me to kick the cat or pick a fight with my mother- in- law before the game. The point he was making was that I often seemed to lack the motivation. I performed better when I was fired-up before the game.
I was talking to a friend who is in the armed forces about motivation and he told me this. He was shown an interview with a commando as part of his training. The soldier said you can't rely on motivation alone to get things done. That's because motivation comes and goes. This is obviously true and we all experience the feeling.
Instead, he said, what is needed is discipline. You know what has to be done. So you need to make a plan, stay focused and execute it. Get it done.
Alcoholics and others suffering from addiction disorders can easily relate to this. When I started to recognise that I had lost control of my drinking and it was causing me harm, I felt motivated to cut back and be more watchful of my consumption. I would write down the units of alcohol consumed over the course of a week. But the enthusiasm soon waned. Sometimes I could abstain altogether for days or even weeks but my old drinking pattern always returned and steadily got worse.
The need for focused discipline in the military is very understandable but it’s also true for those suffering from addiction. When alcoholics reach rock bottom and enter treatment, they usually start with good intentions. To be sure, they are full of trepidation but they are motivated to get well. Unfortunately, the motivation tends to slip over time and the alcoholic is constantly vulnerable to relapse.
We can use discipline to build up good habits to replace “substance use disorder”. Habit is how we think and act in the world through repetition and memory. We may well be disposed to do what is right and good for us. We presumably do not choose deliberately to undertake repeated actions that we know are harmful. But our reasoning is flawed. We are often unable to truly discern the good from the bad. We make wrong choices when we become enslaved by our passions and this is revealed in our habits.
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote on the subject of habit in Repetition in 1843. He argued that repetition through time is part of our “becoming”. We work out who we are and become the persons we are through repeated practise. In other words, habit is part of our identity. We reveal our identity to others, at least partially, through our habitual actions. Changing or developing our identity as a person means changing our habitual practise.
The disciplined performance of habit individually or collectively sometimes takes the form of “ritual”. It’s not unthinking. When we look at organised religion or spiritual practise, we observe the purpose of ritual. It’s symbolic, it’s a reminder and it’s collective – what you do, why you do it, and who you do it with.
What disciplined actions do we have in mind? Here are some suggestions. Choose a favourite non-alcoholic drink for the beach or a dinner party. Stick with it. Decide ahead of time how you will respond when offered alcohol. Similarly, prepare for what to say when somebody asks why you are not drinking. If you find it helpful, then perhaps commit to attend fellowship meetings on a certain day every week. Make it a habit. Be disciplined about it.
There are a couple of additional points to be made here. First, you can't get better on your own. Motivation and discipline are hard to maintain on your own. It’s easier if you do it with others. This allows you to lean on others when you are flagging. Others can be looking out for you and impose a form of external discipline.
Second, it’s important to keep it simple. Don't be overambitious. Set some simple targets like “one day at a time”. Don't make it so complicated that you then beat yourself up because you can't keep to it.
Also, the important thing to keep in mind here is that the discipline is serving a higher purpose. We don’t want to replace one form of enslavement with another, living our lives bound by rules. The promise of reward is what provides us with hope to endure our current suffering. It's interesting to me that several mentees have asked how they can replace the supposed “reward” of drink or drugs.
Ultimately, we can think of the reward as the prize. With regard to addiction treatment, the prize is freedom. More generally, the prize of spiritual well-being is freedom from all forms of enslavement. Freedom from enslavement to drink or drugs, to material possessions, from worrying about what others think of us, and from fearing things that we cannot control.
We are running a race. We need disciplined habit to reinforce motivation. We also need perseverance until the finishing line. Keep your eyes on the prize!