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Motivation - Whoo-Hoo! And Discipline - Boo


Specializes in ED, ICU, Public/Community Health. Has 19 years experience.

How do you motivate and discipline yourself?

In the midst of an ongoing global crisis and with extra pressure being heaped upon everyone, but especially healthcare workers, there is a need to persevere. Nursing students may need an extra dose of stick-to-it-ness while navigating the pandemic.

Motivation - Whoo-Hoo! And Discipline - Boo

Do you remember when you decided and were excited to become a nurse?

Or if it is something you’ve always known, do you remember times when just the thought of it filled you with a sense of purpose and eagerness? Maybe you looked up to another nurse in your family and knew that’s what you wanted to do. Maybe it was personal experiences of being a critical part of someone’s life as a caregiver. Or maybe it was just some sense of who you were deep inside, even if you couldn’t explain it.

Whatever it was or is now, this feeling of a higher purpose and calling is inspiration. Inspiration is great, isn’t it? It feels good. It opens up possibilities and makes us dare to imagine great things we can be a part of. Sometimes, it even galvanizes us to action.

Inspiration is a great motivator

An internal motivator (now that we’re not school kids who need the promise of a treat for doing our homework) that helps us focus on the future and keep sight of our goals. Motivation with a capitol M. That’s all we need to keep us going, day in and day out, willing to sacrifice and work tirelessly for that end goal.


Okay, reality check.

Who is motivated all the time?

ALL the time. Answer - no one. Motivation is great, and when a person is feeling inspired they would be wise to take that inspiration, turn it to motivation, and work their dreamy, high expectation butts off. But let’s face it, motivation is a short-lived and fickle friend. 

That’s because motivation is based on emotion. It’s easy to work hard when we want to work hard. When we are in the right mood. Getting started on that project or studying for that big exam when we are properly motivated is called “tackling” it. It’s not a chore, it’s a game. A game we are primed and pumped up for. That’s what motivation does.

But because motivation is based on emotion, it’s going to run out. It’s normal. It’s human. So the question becomes, what do we do when motivation has petered out? After all, homework doesn’t stop. Exams are still coming. Clinicals continue to be demanding. Educational rigor does not coincide with our internal moods and whims. 

When motivation is running low, the answer is the dreaded D word. That’s right.  Discipline. Cue the eye rolls and groans. But hang in there. Keep reading.


Discipline is doing something when we don’t want to. When we’re not in the mood. It sounds hard because it is. But what if discipline had less to do with the person, and more to do with the environment? Maybe then we could get on board to make some changes that actually produce desired outcomes.


Most of us are easily distracted. When we talk about being undisciplined, that’s really a lot of what we mean. We get sidetracked into nonproductive, lazy, energy-sapping activities. (This is different than self-care, which we should engage in.) Distractions are, of course, huge time wasters. So how do we minimize them?

Physical space

It is helpful to conduct an audit of the physical space where we work. Many of our habits (which lead to distractions) have a visual prompt or trigger. For example, a good book sitting out, a pile of laundry, or a stack of mail all beg for our attention. A beautiful sunshiny day calls for us to go outside. The proximity of food is nearly impossible to ignore, and suddenly we’re starving. There are a multitude of visual cues that sabotage our efforts to stay on task. Our job is to identify what distracts us and remove or hide those things from the physical environment as much as we can. 


Clutter can be part of the visual cues. This doesn’t mean we have to Marie Kondo our whole living space in order to study better (unless that's what you want to do). But maybe just moving that clutter or covering it up is enough to do the trick; punt kick that best-selling novel into a different room. It may be worth it to finish up some chores or obligations, like laundry or mail, before studying to close those loops instead of having open-ended obligations running in the back of our heads while trying to concentrate. There’s not a lot we can do about a sunny day, but maybe we can invest in some curtains and open them a crack to let just the right amount of light in. In short, remove the prompt, make it hard access, and the distraction will follow suit. 

Cell phones

Cell phones have got to be ranked number one on the offender’s list of distractions. Is there any way that sneaky little devil can live in a different room while we study? If not, how about silencing the darn thing, or at least turning off less important notifications? Just the ringtone or notification ping disrupts concentration and a good work flow. In fact, a University of California study concluded that when interrupted, it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back to the original task at hand (source). That adds up to a lot of wasted time, and our little pocket buddy cell phones have much to do with that.

Cyber space

Other visual prompts that are extremely distracting come from our cyber space, not our physical space. Social media, for example, is famous for luring us down rabbit holes. The daily amount of social media use has grown steadily and now rests at over two hours per day (source). School requires students to access online information, but is there a way to avoid those time-wasting distractions? Who is disciplined enough to not watch the adorable kitten swatting at a ribbon? 

Turns out there are great apps and extensions that block ads, recommendations, comments, and more so that we can stay on track. Some notable ones include:

  • Remove recommendations Youtube vk facebook
  • Momentum
  • Ad blocker

Again, controlling the online screen environment can make it so that we don’t have to have the discipline to not click on or scroll through giant time-wasters. The goal is to use social media, not get used by social media.

Desirable habits

On the flip side, desirable habits and focused behaviors can be stimulated by introducing visual prompts into our environment. Discipline is largely constructed from our behaviors, so anything that encourages good behaviors needs to be accessible. Make those cues for work obvious, easy, and even fun and it becomes easier to play out good habits. A few suggestions:

  • Study materials out and ready, including pencils, paper, calculator, etc.
  • Water bottle
  • Glasses
  • Fan or heater—whatever is needed to keep temperature optimal
  • Earbuds or headphones
  • Playlist (if it helps focus)
  • Tissues
  • Garbage can
  • Mug of coffee
  • Good lighting

There’s probably a hundred more items that could be added to the list. Maybe a stress ball. A picture of your kids or pet. Motivational cat poster. The point is, customize it so that whatever items or conditions are needed to keep focused are part of the work space that encourages high concentration and discipline. It need not be dank and dismal to encourage discipline. A bright, cozy work place can provide energy. Having the optimal environment, whatever that looks like for you, will go a long way in the discipline it takes to engage in work when motivation isn’t reliable. 

Our brains

So, yes, environment can definitely aid discipline. But let’s touch on another part of discipline. Perhaps the hardest distraction to acknowledge and control is our own powerful brains. Wandering thoughts are wonderful, creative escapes—in the right setting. This topic could consume entire books, and probably does. The end point, however, is that we can train our brains to stay focused. It is a skill that can be practiced and honed. Our brains are awesome, and when they need a break, we should pay attention to that. But tapping into the flow of a focused state is well worth the effort. We get more done in less time.

Sometimes it is just the thought of getting started on something, especially something daunting, that is enough to tempt us into blowing it off and giving into our lazy natures. The inner struggle we engage in to just begin is draining. It steals our energy and desire. The best thing to do? Make the battle short and sweet. We don’t have to be in the mood to do it. Usually just starting is enough to overcome the initial resistance. Co-founder and former CEO of Instagram, Kevin Systrom, abided by a simple trick when he didn’t want to start something. “If you don’t want to do something, make a deal with yourself to do at least five minutes of it.”

When our brains are being bogged down by random thoughts, we can’t get into that good, productive focus. Because our brains are as unique as our lives, the intervention for dealing with random, disruptive thoughts requires us to know ourselves and why our thoughts are sabotaging us. Is it sleep deprivation? Unhealthy eating? Do we cope well with stress, or could we use some help in that area? Maybe it’s as simple as training our brains to refocus and maybe it’s more along the lines of needing therapy and a highly structured routine. It’s as individualized as, well, individuals. But here a few tips that might help:

  • Have a plan for studying—what, when, how long, etc.
  • Do some physical activity before getting started.
  • Brain dump before getting started. Write down things bothering you and when you will take care of them (if, indeed, you can).
  • If a thought keeps popping up, write it down and when you will take care of it.
  • Listen to your body and take breaks when needed.
  • Try to make your breaks truly restful. Meditate, take a walk, take a nap, etc. Resist temptations to engage in mindless online content that drains energy.
  • Set up morning and evening routines that include prepping your work environment.

And here are some behavior and time management theories that might resonate with some:

  • Pomodoro Technique for time management
  • BJ Fogg Model grounded in behavioral psychology (note: it is meant for managers and change behavior, but can be applied to individuals) 
  • Ultradian Rhythm for energy and productivity 

Our own motivation

Motivation is wonderful, and when we’re in it, we should squeeze every last drop of high energy focus and work we can. But motivation isn’t reliable. Discipline then becomes the answer. And really, it gets a bad rap. We sell ourselves short when we say or think we are not disciplined. We’re human, and so sure, we get distracted and waste time. We give in to laziness. And that’s fine! As long as it’s not all the time. Making some changes to our environment and mind set can make a big difference in our ability to stay on task. That looks an awful lot like discipline. When we get good at it, we can do anything. Discipline might not feel good in the moment, but at the end of the day it sure does. And who knows, maybe we can become our own motivation. Our own inspiring selves.


What Is the KonMari Method?

The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress

How Much Time Does The Average Person Spend On Social Media?

The 5 minute trick that helps Instagram’s CEO crush procrastination

Take it From Someone Who Hates Productivity Hacks—the Pomodoro Technique Actually Works

BJ Fogg Model Explained

Tapping Into Your Ultradian Rhythms For Max Productivity

Specialty areas include ED, ICU, Public/Community Health

3 Articles   6 Posts

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3 Comment(s)

The Seasoned Nurse, BSN, RN

Specializes in Trauma ICU. Has 7 years experience.

Focusing on my long term goals always helps me maintain the discipline to keep going. It is a challenge to stay motivated but so worth it to see your goals through to the end. I like the advice from the Instagram founder about making yourself do something for just five minutes. That is a good mind trick to get you started on a project or reading material just long enough to feel motivated to do a little more. 

Thanks for a great article!


Specializes in Neurosciences, stepdown, acute rehab, LTC. Has 8 years experience.

This was very helpful actually ! I’m launching into a ton of projects with work and school right now and this advice will help get me through ! 

Edited by anewsns

First, thank you for the great article! I appreciate the thought and compassion that went into this. 

I will occasionally find myself needing ways to motivate myself, especially during finals or when there are multiple reports and/or exams due in the same week or day. I have heard of the Pomodoro technique but not the others. I follow the Instagram CEO's technique since it's the easiest thing to get my mind to do something. The way I see it is if I spent 5 minutes on my task, it means the next time I get back on it, I'll be done 5 minutes sooner. 

Another thing that comes in handy for me is to set a goal after I finish a task. (ex. finish studying for 2 chapters, I get 20 minutes of yoga). 

Stay safe and Happy New Year!