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Screw motivation, what you need is discipline (wisdomination.com)
551 points by lukasLansky on Jan 31, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 116 comments

This seems to me to be a bit like saying "screw hammers, what you need are screwdrivers."

There's a brilliant talk by John Cleese that floats around HN every 6 months or so on how to be creative; if you haven't seen it yet, and you're interested in such a topic, please please please watch it:


If you agree with Cleese's premise, I think it follows that what you need is motivation for the open mode (the blue sky, blank sheet of paper period), and discipline for the closed mode where you put your head down and get the work done.

If you try to use discipline when your job is to daydream about possibilities (whether you realize it or not), you'll just steamroll over any insights, ideas, creative thoughts with a get-it-done attitude. Your forced march straight off a cliff will be legendary.

But then, when you've got a good idea fleshed out and you just need to execute relatively mindlessly, working only when you feel motivated will be extremely counter productive, and in my mind, is where a lot of the "the last 20% takes 80% of the work" feeling comes from. You learn the true meaning of the phrase "work expands to fill the time allotted", and if you're bootstrapping by moonlighting, this is essentially infinite.

I've been stung badly by both errors in my career, with the worst case for each leaving me burned out, disillusioned and seriously considering a career change.

As an aside, I know you have to write authoritatively and with a simple premise to get good traffic to a blog, but reality is usually messy and complex, with a wealth of examples and counter examples. So often it feels like we end up with (and please forgive the straw man) a series of posts in quick succession bouncing around the blogosphere like "getting the most out of your hammer" "hammers considered harmful" "screwdrivers as hammer replacements" "hammer techniques for dealing with legacy screws" "full tool belt carpentry drowning us in complexity". And which is right? All of them, and none of them, at the same time.

For an apposite view: http://www.stevenpressfield.com/the-war-of-art/

The premise is The muse is at your writing desk. If you want to write a book, show up. Sit down. Write. Ideas will only come if you are working. Any thoughts ideas, rationalisations or fears that keep you from writing are the enemy. He collectively calls them "resistance".

You will inevitably have days and weeks without a useful page. Show up still.

I think following your motivation is great. If you are sitting around waiting for it, you need discipline. This is what this blog is about.

I'd suggest the Unquiet Grave (Cyril Connolly) as an older but richer and more creative examination of the issue.

If I took my lead from Palinurus, I'd remark that 'the war of art' demonstrates the cultural penury of our age.

But then Palinurus took that view of himself too.

Great book! If you like The War of Art, I'd also recommend the follow up book: Do The Work http://www.stevenpressfield.com/do-the-work/

So this comes up fairly often in language learning forums. Language acquisition is an especially good example since it can take quite a long time to get to a decent point of proficiency, and often times external rewards are minimal. So finding ways to carry on through the long, rough periods is essential.

Motivation is essential. Why else would anyone bother, except for either a driving need or a deep and abiding interest? It's what keep you going when you start to question if you really want to keep at it. But motivation on a daily basis comes and goes. Everyone who goes to the gym or runs know that.

Discipline is about pushing through when motivation flags. I disagree that discipline is only useful for "closed mode". Discipline can also help you with open mode by making you daydream and play with ideas rather than packing it in for the day. Many extremely creative people have a very set routine. A writer might have fixed hours for when they write, every single day, for instance.

In the end it's about using both motivation and discipline together.

IMHO the post "Screw motivation, what you need is discipline", hits the nail on the head. For many years I too thought that I need to first figure out what I love, then what is valuable to the world etc. etc.

However when I started using Pomodoro technique (http://caps.ucsd.edu/Downloads/tx_forms/koch/pomodoro_handou...) to simply complete daily tasks, I discovered that process is more important than product. When I changed my focus from goal or product orientation to simply discipline/process orientation, I started achieving more.

Somehow there is an emotional weight to thinking about results. To push this burden off, I felt I needed motivation. Ironically I started seeing much better results, when I aligned myself to disciplined execution with a certain detachment to results. Eventually I started hitting most of my objectives, even freeing my time off to do things outside of my work related goals.

"If you agree with Cleese's premise, I think it follows that what you need is motivation for the open mode (the blue sky, blank sheet of paper period), and discipline for the closed mode where you put your head down and get the work done."

I have been doing Learning how to learn at Coursera[1]. There is actually term for this 'blue sky' thinking mode, it is called the diffuse mode.

In the course they call it the diffuse mode, you can also be in the focused mode.

In the focused mode you tend to see all the details, though its difficult to get insights in this mode. Your thinking and problem solving is constrained by your natural thinking patterns and heuristics. This mode is really good when solving problems you have seen before.

In the diffuse mode, you gain new insights/discoveries by linking up different bits and pieces.

Having said that:

"If you agree with Cleese's premise, I think it follows that what you need is motivation for the open mode"

I do not understand this logic, can you clarify?

My reading of the article after having done the course is:

You can be disciplined and still do this blue sky/diffuse mode thinking, i do not think they are mutually exclusive.

[1] https://www.coursera.org/course/learning

* Edit: Added more details on thinking mode, and link to course

I recently stepped out of a job at a startup where the founders only talked about discipline and hard work and were completely oblivious to the teams motivation. After months of working unsustainable hours, we were making something that no one in the team felt was a market winning product. I appreciate the value of hard work but to shut down the signals which tell you that something ain't working is entirely wrong. I wish people take more time to step back and listen to their thoughts than mindlessly chasing the wrong goals and hiding behind the excuse that they were at least disciplined.

A really big error I've made around "discipline" w/r to software, is thinking that it means locking in all of your time so that you can crunch. It's the first two to four hours of effort, and the first 50% of your days in the month, that are important - when trying to chase after one thing all day every day, diminishing returns set in really quickly and you come out behind in terms of your whole life - unhappy and no better off on the project.

Another hour or two on top can help when the job means you have to communicate with others. But even at a "normal" eight hours, you tend to end up with slack time, which is poisonous to how you treat the job. Discipline means starting consistently and stopping equally consistently. Starting without stopping isn't disciplined, it's desperate.

I haven't seen this before and it's awesome - thank you for sharing! :-) It's completely accurate, from my experience.

One thing I could add though (not really related to creativity as such): when he talks about the time at the start of the creative time-space, where your mind gets flooded with the list of things that you should have done and forgotten about - I think this is actually one of the benefits of this exercise. I find it very helpful to write down all these things as a list, because trying to remember them is subconsciously a source of stress. Not to do anything about them then, but just writing them down to get them out of your head.

This is one of the real gems of understanding that I got from reading David Allen's "Getting Things Done". Having these things written down on a list frees your mind from having to try and remember them and also makes it much easier to go through the list and sort it in terms of importance or even get rid of some items altogether! For me it has definitely improved my productivity and also helped reduce the stress of forgetting to do things that are important because I got distracted doing something else.

Thanks for the video! I find this submission and the video you linked talking about being in an "open" or "closed" state ironic for me, because I just made a relevant comment on the football thread yesterday [1].

My argument was that rather than focusing so much on the reasons why people are or aren't interested in football, we should be concerned about the amount of time that debate and following football itself consume and how it is hardly beneficial to our long term growth. Having fun is important and people should spend time doing whatever makes them happy, but it would be better if we weren't so consumed by these pass-times and allowed ourselves to be disciplined. At the same time though we shouldn't completely shut everything else out. I used the term "open minded", and my intention behind the use of that term really vibes with the "open" state that Cleese talks about.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8974997

Sports and other games aren't simply a pass-time - its a group dynamic and show of very high levels of cooperation and mechanical skill in a fast-changing environment with many factors. Its one of those things that humans can still do much better than machines. Its also pertinent to many people's lives because if you work in a group you can see in full HD an example of a relatively diverse group of people working together all specialized towards their own goal.

Why do you assume that it's about discipline being for pushing through mindless tasks? What if my discipline is to do 3 hours of creative thinking each morning?

The point here is that you pick the things that are important to you (not mindless tasks) and start doing them every day no matter what and keep showing up even if you don't feel like it or know that the result won't be that great. Because the main goal is to build the discipline and then great things come out of it.

This is probably the best post to hit HN all month. It's a thing that I notice over and over again, the ability to execute and persevere is strongly correlated with individuals that show (self)discipline. The ability to get out of bed (even when you don't want to) to work real hard (even when faced with a hundred or more distractions, or on something that you may not even like) and the ability to keep a long term goal in the cross hairs even when the going gets tough has 'discipline' written all over it.

And over time that translates into success. (For sure people will think of it as achieved 'overnight' but don't let that bother you.)

Motivation is something that gets mistaken by many for discipline, but in fact motivation is what makes you go downhill faster, discipline is what gets you uphill and most of the times you'll be going uphill.

I dunno - I think that it makes some good overall points, but paints too black & white a picture that, if you follow it literally, will eventually lead to a breakdown where you can't accomplish anything.

I think a better perspective is to think of yourself as having a "discipline budget". (This is actually born out by a lot of fMRI studies, which show that when you will yourself to do something unpleasant or difficult, your brain expends a lot of glucose, and when glucose levels drop below a certain level, you simply can't exert any willpower at all, and often end up making questionable judgment calls without any awareness that you're doing something stupid.) And then your conscious job is to figure out how to spend that discipline budget in the way that will give the greatest returns to you - recognizing, of course, that no matter what you try to achieve there will always be parts that are unpleasant and that you just need to power through. But then, this also recognizes that you are not superman, and sometimes you have to drop the difficult stuff and re-charge just as your natural self.

When you think like this, you pick your projects and profession carefully. You understand that you better pick something that you mostly enjoy, because most of the time, you're going to be running on cruise control and it's a lot easier to do that when you're going downhill than uphill. But you also understand that even if you do that, there are going to be some things that you have to do that are just work, they're not going to be fun, and you might as well get them done with without fussing or stressing about them.

Isn't that what being your authentic self is about, anyway? Understanding who you are and what you're good at and then choosing a place within the world where that naturally fits, but also understanding that the world is not automatically going to mold itself to your preferences and that no matter where you choose to go, you're going to have to do some shaping of yourself as well.

Running any company, of any size usually has more 'uphill' bits in it than 'downhill' bits. I used to think otherwise but over the decades this one factor kept staring me in the face: it was so much fun in the beginning, where did that go? And then I realized that it was fun in the beginning because it was the beginning! Everything was fresh and new, nothing had entered maintenance, no technical debt, all sales and hardly any support and then little by little normality crept in and what was effortless became a serious effort indeed.

I think it takes about 3 years to establish an actual business and by the time you're there most of your 'motivational energy' will have burned out or dissipated and you'll be going on discipline exclusively for the majority of the time.

There's nothing wrong with that, that's where the money is made.

And that's why many people choose not to run businesses, and that's fine too. Some make money in other ways, and some don't mind that they don't have a whole lot of money.

If you're succeeding in your businesses, that probably means that it's close enough to "enjoyable" for you to make it worth your while (if not - man, I'm sorry).

I knew folks at Google who had zero interest in ever founding a company. Why? Because they knew exactly what it entailed, and figured they wanted to spend their budget on things like hard technical problems or dealing with office politics rather than on building a business. Ultimately, I decided that wasn't what I want, and a good portion of the reason why is that I wanted the challenge of stretching myself in ways that I couldn't inside a large corporation. But that's a choice as well - I looked at the schleps needed to have some level of sustainable self-determination within Google vs. the ones needed to have some level of sustainable self-determination in a company, and decided I wanted the latter. I don't actually disagree with any of the facts you've put out, I'm just pointing out that one shouldn't immediately leap from those to the article's conclusion.

Do you have any references to the fMRI studies? I've never gone to the source for that sort of thing, and would appreciate a lead in getting started (not really sure where to even start looking).

The idea that we can biochemically run out of what powers willpower is a neat one. I feel like that implies there's something we can do to just replenish it, but making assumptions like that about complex things like brain chemistry is a great way to look smart while being not-smart.

Do you know of any adults who have successfully cultivated discipline? Based on those I've known since elementary school and still know today, perhaps 80% of the discipline I see in people can be explained by how much discipline they had at 10 years of age.

Ok, so what can one do? I have a genetic discipline disorder, as 23andMe could confirm you, if I could be bothered to do the screening. I possess exactly ZERO self-discipline, and in retrospect, I guess I never had any. I own my career to not having enough discipline to do my math homework at 13 - that's when I picked up programming. The lack of self-discipline is becoming an obstacle in professional lie though. How does one fix this?

Start small and don't expect results any time soon. How small? I.e touch the phone when you wake up until you count to 20.. do it for a week. Add another small task (i.e clear kitchen table before going to sleep) and work on both of them. Try to do each task for 4 weeks minimum. After six months you will be doing so much of the small stuff that I will begin to impact your life in a really positive way, and you're self-discipline will grow.. Big time.

That's very good advice.

Check out my comment above about:


His basic philosophy is to anchor a very small habit to one you already do. For example, is there one thing you always do first at work? Make coffee, open email? Then choose a tiny habit you would like to form (it should take less than 30 seconds) and do it right after that normal routine habit. (I don't know, maybe write down one task you promised someone you would do and pin it on your monitor). Then after you have done the tiny habit, give yourself a small celebratory high-five. (Cheesy as it sounds, the tiny habit where I didn't do this little celebration didn't stick after the week long program).

Check out and sign up for his 1 week program (its free).

Try to decrease your reliance on self discipline.

IE, get external forces working in your favour. You could use a coach or psychologist. Commit to tasks. Make sure they check up on you. Work closely with others. Pair programming or an environment where someone is waiting for you to finish something so they can start something else. Seek environments where you can't hide procrastination. discipline thrives in public.

Basically.. cheat.

That's what works for me. When the task is boring, the guilt of letting other people hanging pushes me to finish it. It doesn't quite work for personal improvement, though, at least for me.

This seems like awful advice to inflict yourself as a burden (pair programming, always seeking review and validation) rather than being self disciplined, autonomous and professional.

I'd suggest to stop thinking of yourself as someone without self-discipline. It's very hard to behave in a way if you believe it's against your nature.

For example, I've always considered myself to be a smoker. I tried quitting dozens of times, but I always gave in because I knew I was a smoker deep inside. But at some point, I realized that there's nothing about me that makes me a smoker. And then it was easy to quit smoking.

It's possible to change yourself. Nothing really prevents you from becoming a disciplined person. The first step is realizing you don't have to be a procrastinator (or whatever you consider yourself to be).

I don't have the motivation to stop thinking of myself as someone without self-discipline :)

(I'm only half-kidding)

Yes. My boss is one of them. Cal Newport writes quite a bit about doing deep work. [1] Tobias Lutke of Shopify seems to be another. [2]

Most people are similar to how they were when they were in school, because most people don't deliberately put themselves in contexts in which they are forced to grow and develop.

Discipline, in my opinion, is seldom something that you develop entirely for its own sake– rather, it tends to be something that you develop to achieve some greater goal. Along the way you may find that discipline is a worthy pursuit by itself, but few people wake up at 20 and go "Jeez, I want to be really really disciplined!"

It's more like, you have some itch you want to scratch, and you realize the only way to do it is to train yourself.

[1] http://calnewport.com/blog/2012/11/21/knowledge-workers-are-...

[2] http://visakanv.com/marketing/tobi

I'm a different person due to the supplements and food I eat. I'm obsessed about always improving my nutrition and supplement stack. It's paying off in terms of how much work I'm capable of doing. "Give your body the right food and it will do the right thing" is something I believe in.

That combined with the routine of going to a 9-5, then afterwards going to a coworking space for my startup, I'm really getting a lot of work done. Before I would stay at home and do the bare minimum of contract work, waste time on the internet, and dream about doing a startup. I'd say I'm about 3 times as productive as I was when I worked from home.

Care to share what that means for you, food wise?

Listing everything I do for nutrition probably won't help anyone - people can't be told to add/remove certain foods without a strong belief that it will be beneficial to them. It's like politics. You can't convince a die-hard conservative to suddenly become a liberal with a comment on the internet.

For example if I went back in time I could tell my teenage self everything about nutrition. Unfortunately it would be pointless. Even though I'd listen, without the years of experimentation, forming beliefs and learning I would never have the discipline to think "These foods are poison. Other people can eat them, but not me."

So it's a long process and I think people should discover what works for themselves. But since you asked, here's what I eat and don't eat as of now...

NEVER EAT: HFCS, DAIRY, processed foods, greasy foods, red meat, brominated/bleached flour, unfermented soy (especially soybean oil), alcohol, artificial flavored foods or things that you don't recognize the ingredients, basically avoid all restaurants even supposedly healthy ones

EAT: Tons of organic vegetables/fruit, things cooked in coconut or olive oil, organic chicken, organic eggs, sprouted wheat, high-quality spring water, home cooking flavored with herbs/spices instead of sugary/salty sauces, foods with high omega 3s or high antioxidants, cook everything yourself using basic ingredients

Things that are listed "never eat" I make no compromises for no matter the pressure... "Oh hey - it's our company's annual pizza taste-testing competition, you can make an exception this time can't you? Don't you want some of this amazing pizza with cheese, soybean oil and brominated wheat flour in it. NO!?! What's wrong with you? Are you going to risk your job by not participating???"

YES - I will quit my job before eating pizza... it's poison to me, I won't eat it.

I channel some of my motivation into cultivating discipline. I also apply discipline to periodically remotivate myself.

In practice this means I'll do a hackathon to build something I want, while limiting myself to using one new technology that has to be relevant to my startup.

To stay motivated I pitch everyone I can because nothing motivates me as much as other people getting excited.

As someone that used to lack motivation and discipline, this has kept be going on my startup for 4+ years.

I'd offer myself up as an example. I used to suck at it but it got gradually better over the years.

Well, that's in line with the marshmallow experiment.

"The ability to get out of bed (even when you don't want to) to work real hard."

If you have problems getting out of bed, I recommend that you work on it first.

If you have problems getting out of bed it is because you don't sleep enough, or if you are fat or old you can interrupt your sleep at night(sleep apnea).

Both motivation and discipline is needed for success, but the basics are your food, exercise and rest.

If you don't sleep well, eat what you need, exercise, or rest, your body will prioritize it over anything else.

As an exercise, try not to sleep for two days, and try to think in something, it is really hard.

Do the same two without eating. Write down what you perceive in detail.

Try to stay in bed one entire day if you believe exercise is not important.

You will learn how your body reacts to extreme situations and you will be able to identify the same perceptions much more attenuated in your normal life.

"If you have problems getting out of bed it is because you don't sleep enough, or if you are fat or old you can interrupt your sleep at night(sleep apnea)."

Or because you are depressed, or any number of other reasons.

Writing it off as something as simple as being fat, old, or not sleeping enough is oversimplifying something.

"As an exercise, try not to sleep for two days, and try to think in something, it is really hard." This is how I got through my university exams, not staying awake studying for 2 nights before, that would imply I revised, but I cannot sleep for the few nights before an exam, I usually head to lie in bed with hot chocolate around 3am and watch TV until 7, then get up and load up on cappucino.

"Do the same two without eating. Write down what you perceive in detail." Again, there are people who, for whatever reason, hyperactivity, lack of appetite, or some faddy diet, do not eat for a couple of days, and manage to function perfectly fine.

"Try to stay in bed one entire day if you believe exercise is not important." Load up 120GB of David Attenborough documentaries, and you wont get out of bed for a week.

    If you have problems getting out of bed it is because you don't sleep enough,
    or if you are fat or old you can interrupt your sleep at night(sleep apnea)
Losing weight requires discipline. I know because I have none and I'm fat.

I have been thinking, reading and writing about motivation / discipline / procrastination / akrasia for years now. I'm always looking for really good material on the subject. Unfortunately for some strange reason, most of the posts I've seen that get to the front page of Hacker News are woefully oversimplistic.

Even discipline is something that requires some sort of motivation to cultivate. It is something that you have to want to do, and getting yourself to want to do something isn't (in my opinion) nearly as trivial as a lot of people pretend it is.

So screw motivation, screw discipline, what you need is a comprehensive, holistic solution that encompasses almost everything– that's why it's so difficult to change your life.

1- You need to figure out your expectancy of accomplishing tasks. Discipline won't help you if you bite off more than you can chew.

2- You need to figure out what's valuable to you. There's not much sense in getting disciplined at doing something you hate. PG wrote in one of his essays- paulgraham.com/love.html, I believe, where he talks about a doctor who became a doctor because she was so focused and disciplined– despite the fact that she never actually loved medicine.

3– You need to engineer your environment + choose the right peers. This is way more than half the battle, and it also involves taking more drastic action than a lot of people are comfortable with.

4- You need to chop up your tasks into things that have nearly-immediate feedback, because otherwise hyperbolic discounting makes things seem irrelevant and unimportant to us (especially bad if you have ADHD).

5- You need to have a vested interest in doing all of the above. That means having some sort of reason or motive... which you might also call "motivation."


Motivation / discipline / getting-stuff-done is a lot more complicated than "screw X, do Y".


"Screw X, do Y" seems to be a rhetoric device writers use when want to drum up strong feelings in people, dividing people into Camp X and Camp Y. Once you learn to see it, it actually gets rather boring and underwhelming. If you skip all the rhetoric, what the writer is saying is to develop habits. "Start small", that's it.

Would've been more interesting to read a post about the specific development of habits. Because, often you'll find, you end up needing some motivation to getting around to changing your habits, too.

>I have been thinking, reading and writing about motivation / discipline / procrastination / akrasia for years now.

Would you mind sharing your blog? I love to read about those kind of things. I don't write (in public) about them but I feel like it's fun and useful to think/meditate about.

>Screw motivation, screw discipline, what you need is a comprehensive, holistic solution that encompasses almost everything– that's why it's so difficult to change your life. You need to figure out your expectancy of accomplishing tasks, you need to figure out what's valuable to you, you need to engineer your environment, you need to choose the right peers, and you need to have a vested interest in doing all of that in the first place.

The one thing that compasses this all is, in my opinion, this:

1) The ability to break things down to their bare minimum 2) The ability to execute those tasks 3) Keeping the goal in sight, always.

Humans are stupid. I am stupid. We are all stupid. We forget trivial stuff. We have to constantly remind ourselves why and for what we are doing something. This is not bad per se, just a lot of people don't. A lot of things can help you in your goal. Motivated peers are, to me, a HUGE motivator. People should also critically examine what exactly makes them happy.

Thank you for sharing your understanding - personally I found this much more useful than the parent article.

It is certainly true that discipline is required for accomplishing a task, but to focus on that alone, trying to make your "feelings inconsequential", is frankly unwise.

Before you can succeed at achieving something you must know:

* What you are trying to achieve

* Why you are trying to achieve it

This is the source of the motivation.

Incidentally, asking "why" is a good way to find out the "what" one level below the current task - something that in my experience is a very useful tool to understand yourself and what you want in life.

Once you have "what" and "why" you can determine "how" (i.e. plot a route) and then it is time for discipline (i.e. just walk the route). But it is much easier to be disciplined if you have the real motivation that comes from a clear understanding of "what" and "why".

It may also be the case that you realise that the reason you have to force yourself to do something is that you shouldn't be doing it. If you hate your job and the spreadsheets that come with it then why are you doing it? The answer could be simple: "money" but in that case there is always the possibility to do something else to achieve that - it is incredibly liberating!

Blindly focusing on discipline is a sure way to one day wake up and realise that what you have been doing is of no importance and that is a hard realisation to come to. If you are lucky, then it is still not too late to do something about it, but the best thing is to never get to that situation in the first place.

Anyway, just my 2 pence - it's worked out pretty well for me so far... ;-)

Amen. Also loved the book 'The Willpower Instinct' [1] in that respect. No magic solutions; just a collection of insights into the multitude of relevant dynamics at play here.

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10865206-the-willpower-i...

Also good seems to be The Procrastination Equation [1]– the key insight is that there are (at least!) 4 variables involved in why we don't do things that we say we want to do:

* Expectancy, which is your own estimation of how likely you are to complete a task

* Value, which is how important something is to you

* Impulsiveness, determined by the environment that you're in

* Delay, which is the amount of time between whatever you're doing, and the consequence or implication of the thing you're doing.

Getting things done requires dealing with all of the above variables. "Screw Motivation, You Need Discipline" essentially addresses Impulsiveness- it says to be less impulsive, by cultivating good habits. Sure, but that's just 25% of the battle.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/The-Procrastination-Equation-Putting-G...

I think part of the discipline problem is the solipsism of our times.

In an army, your environment provides discipline and (often) fosters motivation for (for example) fitness. A fitness class reduces the need to discipline & self motivation to getting yourself to the class. After that, the environment takes care of itself. Self discipline and self motivation is a problematic subset of discipline and we're not really wired to run on it exclusively.

This is part of why you need a partner to start a startup. Having discipline and motivation together is easier than alone. It's why I don't think online education can replace institutional education (though I think it can make it much better) as the default mode. It's why even in one-on-one sports like tennis or boxing young athletes are on "teams."

When in college, I saw my friends, who were once in the military, power through learning at time frustratingly difficult subjects. It didn't take long to see that their consistent efforts yielded progress in excess of what the rest of us "self-motivators" were making. I don't know why that came as a surprise. After all, my Dad, who was a staff sergeant, raised three boys by himself-our mother died when we were 3, 2, 6 mos-while running an architecture firm.

Some may say we need a holistic approach in how we get ourselves to do what can be unpleasant but also life and career enhancing tasks; I think that makes things more complicated than they need to be. The times when I've applied the disciplined approach to work have been my most productive. Other people's mileage may vary.

> Having discipline and motivation together is easier than alone. It's why I don't think online education can replace institutional education (though I think it can make it much better) as the default mode. It's why even in one-on-one sports like tennis or boxing young athletes are on "teams."

I'm very passionate about this!

I think people completely misunderstand what online education is going to be like. Currently, it tends to be approached from a "Just like school but in the cloud" POV.

That's like saying online music is "a record store but in the cloud"- it's not! There's streaming and remixes and downloads and all sorts of interesting things that are enabled by the new model that simply weren't present before.

Similarly, "online education" isn't about sitting through video lectures and then doing tests. It's about reaching out to real people, building real relationships, working on real projects. It's simply self-directed learning, with the guidance, help and support of peers.

There are a lot of things you can learn to do online, and a huge part of it is getting into the right communities, building relationships with the right people, etc.

If you are interested in creating habits, try this free 1 week course from this site:


I did it and it really worked out quite well. The guy who runs it BJ Fogg, also has some quite interesting insights into habits and habit formation.

The habits I worked on were to load my personal kanban every morning while I make coffee, and also to plan my 3 most important todos on it while I have my first smoke of the day. This has resulted in a huge increase in my productivity. Give it a shot.

Very well said! Do you have any particular blog post (or other writing) where you go into more depth about this stuff?

I completely agree with this article. I would like to share a story of my own journey in this.

For a long time I had wanted to lose some weight and to remove some bad habits. It dawned on me that I could eliminate the habit altogether by scaling back to extreme levels. For example, I completely stopped eating sugary foods such as chocolate for 8 months. I stopped buying coffee from coffee shops every day. I replaced my meals with crazy simple meals such as rice, tamago kake gohan, potatos, eggs and vegetables. It is surprisingly easier to just cut something out of your life and then add things back as necessary.

It occurred to me if you can do this, you can do anything. You're replacing daily motivation - which can be depleted (ego depletion) - with a unwavering commitment everyday - to eat simple things or forego things you did not even think twice about before. You just don't do X. There is no way for you to self justify any more.

It is surprising how after a while, you do not really even miss the daily coffee or chocolate because you feel happy that you were disciplined enough to give it up. You're strong.

In my case, my journey cross fertilised another goal: to cut down on expenses. It is shocking how much money we all spend for very little benefit!

I am sure someone will reply saying 'life is for living' and all that. The question is, are they strong enough to do the same?

My problem with this is someday I'll rationalize that its not a big deal and go on a spending/eating spree...

Nicholas Nassim Taleb calls this solving problems 'via negativa'

Ah, but what is discipline? Shifting the vocabulary burden around doesn't accomplish much. Discipline easily translates to will power (to do even in the face of adverse circumstances).

But haven't we learned recently to consider will power a finite resource? Something that cannot be switched on at will arbitrarily[0]?

The author himself escapes this accusation only by the skin of his teeth in the next-to-last paragraph:

   How do you cultivate discipline? 
   By building habits – [...]
Habit. This word, comparatively unprepossessing as it may sound, sits really at the core of the discourse[1].

Whenever my thoughts stray to punishing myself for lack of discipline, I try to remember to leave that martial outlook towards life to the Spartans[2] and reflect peacefully on my habits instead.

[0] Except, tongue-in-cheek, if you add sugar.

[1] Lest I leave an opening: It already is in Covey's seminal 1989 'Seven Habits', https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seven_Habits_of_Highly_Eff...

[2] In this way, trying to force discipline may easily lead to results that are as devastating as those that the author foresees for motivational strategies.

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. ~ Aristotle

I disagree.

Discipline is learned. You need something that structures and builds your discipline.

You need a minimum amount of purpose that comes from outside. You can't learn discipline by yourself, it needs to be encouraged and taught.

It's usually the role of society to put people into a position of productivity and personal progress. It's very tricky. Sometimes it just doesn't work because people just can't see how their inspiration could bring value to society, often because society is not set to recognize certain domains of work. That's a major source of stagnation.

The author talks like individuals work alone for personal achievement. Nobody works for personal goals. Everyone works in a societal context.

Discipline is another word for a very structured habit in a society of productivity. Procrastination is just caused by lack of insight and unbalanced processes, so it's usually a plain lack of communication, management or motivation.

Discipline is just civilization regulating habits to create motivation out of thin air. Without a minimum amount of motivation, discipline won't happen.

Did you ever notice that nobody ever talks about how to cultivate disciplne? If it wee as easy as "just go do it" than everyone would.

The latest analogy of discipline is of a muscle. Do more and it gets bigger, right? Not exactly. While true in some aspect, it leads to bad choices on later decisions you make, at least in creative work.

Three ways to improve discipline:

1. Develop a mindful meditation practice. It will produce more awareness, which in my experience helps me get started and work through to the edge of where I am making bad decisions, and recognize if I'm bored or actually tired and adjust accordingly. You will know if it helps you within a few weeks.

2. Develop a choice minimal lifestyle. Arbitrary choices seemingly come from the same pool as discipline. Where possible, turn choices into a habit. "I start at 9 because I start at 9' not because I choose to start at 9." It seems odd but it works.

3. Closely related, excersise will increase your mental endurance, which is as good as discipline in many cases. Diet also increased it -- while a quick glycogen hit can help for 15 minutes, I have found great benefit to dropping sugar and simple carbohydrates out of my diet while working. It's worth seeing if it works for you.

Meditation has been the best practice to cultivate discipline for me. Where it reveals itself is when you start down a road of procrastination, a conversation with yourself to avoid doing something, you can just stop that internal chatter and get back to what you should be doing. "Just doing it" is the product of that meditative mind.

Traditionally, discipline was often "improved" by a third party.

Sometimes I'm really grateful for my Dad who insisted chores were done and done properly, I was out of bed on time, and that homework was done to spec. I resented it at the time, and I guess I still do in a way, but I've never had a problem getting work done, and probably have him to thank for that.

Now, if he had just taught me to be a better negotiator and womanizer....

It's actually easy to "Just do it"

I will roundly reject your 3 steps to discipline, as they are wishy-washy and completely irrelevant to actually creating self discipline.

Here's a few steps that might help someone who isn't trying to be a massive poseur.

1. Be really really hard on yourself. Tell yourself constantly that you are not good enough, and you MUST do better, in fact it's pathetic how little you have accomplished.

2. Work, work, work, work, work... think you have time for fun? Think again smart girl|boy, now, WORK HARDER.

3. Develop a sense of humor about the horrible pain you are putting yourself through. That way, you'll be able to pile some more on, while telling yourself to wipe that stupid grin of your face.

Also eat well, otherwise you may get sick or fat or die... all of those things would be pathetic, beat yourself up some more.

Alternatively, join the army.

Of course, you can side step all this pain and suffering and just get on with it! Now get back to work!

(I hope my parent commenter understands this is firmly tongue in cheek, but I'll point that out anyway.)

(PS. of course, much truth is spoke in jest.)

(for a real response, see Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.)

I'm not saying that Covey doesn't have good points, but they are better fit to the manager schedule, not the maker schedule.

What I am saying is that that "just do it" method of discipline building is rather useless for creative work. I have seen my fair share of people who have failed with this advice.

I failed with that advice for years.

I solved my problem with the three above.

Being a professional is knowing how to get into a high quality productive mode regularly and consistently.

It might mean doing things you don't want to currently do at that time but it is fueled by long term goals over short term goals.

That said, part of that process is knowing where to target your motivation. Creativity can take motivation and that does play a role in design and developing products.

As someone struggling with motivation even more than the average first world person, this hit right at home. Lacking the motivation to cook, do the dishes or the laundry is one thing. Lacking the will power to do generally "fun" stuff like going outside, hanging out with friends, dating, creativity is another.

Hitting the gym is one of the few activities I still pursue with a relative consistency but wouldn't be there without the minimal self-discipline required to get my butt of my chair or bed and go even when I don't feel like it. In fact that's the hardest part; huffing and puffing for the next hour or so is easy in comparison.

Wow, this hits so close to home for me. I have intentionally been trying to cultivate better habits to underpin my own efforts to become more disciplined and effective, and in fact, I wouldn't have even been awake yet[1] to see this on HN if I hadn't been taking steps in that direction already.

From what I've observed, the most successful/effective/<insert positive adjective here> humans of the present and past (and presumably, the future as well) have been know for the rigor of their habits and schedules[2]. I'm curious to know what steps some of my fellow HNers have taken to cultivate better habits/routines for themselves.

I'll leave you with a quote from the legendary artist Chuck Close:

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

1. It's before 7am CST, and I've been awake for almost two hours: https://twitter.com/thisisbrians/status/561486866914869248

2. This list is just of 'creatives' (whatever that means), but you get the idea: https://podio.com/site/creative-routines

I second the OP. The "emotional" motivation has brought me quite far in my life. I always enjoyed learning. I got into programming because it was easily triggering the "reward circuits" in my brain. But as life follows, there are more and more things that need to be done, but require quite some mental effort to start.

So I decided it is time for a paradigm shift. I would rather do things I consider worth doing, instead of doing those that my brain finds attractive and immediately rewarding. I am following this paradigm for a few months now, and can confirm that satisfaction coming when the job is finished is truly rewarding.

Related reading: "The obstacle is the way", by Ryan Holiday. A very concise introduction to stoicism philosophy. The life approach presented by the author has many common points with those of OP.


Thanks for this, I needed to read something like this. I seriously burn out on ideas halfway through execution because I rely too much on motivation, but lack the required discipline.

Be sure to read to the end and notice that habits are what you need. Those unconscious self perpetuating mechanisms that actually drives most things.

On forming a habit, I found this insightful: http://www.bristollair.com/2008/inner-game/identity-beliefs/...

Note: It's from a PUA dude but this isn't about PU, it applies to all areas.

The "problem" is framed to support the author's sentiments about discipline. "Motivation vs discipline" is not a useful description of the problem at all ("x vs y" arguments seldom are). In my experience, people who frame the problem in this way are accustomed to doing what other people want them to do. They get depressed and unmotivated and wonder why they can't "make themselves" do things. So they decide to misuse the idea of discipline to complete their transformation into an automaton! Try this instead: Do whatever YOU want to do. Find what motivates you and pursue it. It really is that simple.

I forced myself to go to a job I hated. I lasted two months. Each day I spent more and more time reading shit on my phone in the bathroom. My breaks got longer and longer. When they started to call me out on this I just quit.

Just discipline they said!

You had other options: get the job done, then quit, and get it done in record time so you can quit faster. Chances are that if you had gone that route that in the end you might not even have quit.

What? No, I did get the job done. Then I'd get more work I didn't want to do. I just decided not to do the next assignment.

This article gets some important things backwards in order to take on its overconfident alpha dog tone.

Notably absent is how goals are chosen. Certainly some goals are better than others? And won't we be more motivated to pursue good goals and less motivated to pursue bad goals? And then mustn't we pay attention to a lack of motivation as the sign that we've chosen our goals poorly?

That said, I agree that discipline is important because even when you've chosen good goals, there will be hard, boring work required to achieve them.

I find that I can force myself to do a task that I extremely dislike, that is discipline. But an important prerequisite is motivation.

Case in point: I could force myself to improve upon a real-time bidding algorithm, resulting in more winning bids and targeted advertisements to appear on a largely captive and passive audience. Perhaps aspects of the bidding system could be improved to use less CPU cycles, memory, saving cost on the infrastructure to run it. I could get into the finer details of the time-complexity of every operation.

But why should I be expending my effort, a part of my lifetime, on helping to sell something people don't need? To the benefit of big corporate brands while they pay me a pittance of their enormous profits? A major problem with this "screw motivation" philosophy is that it encourages more mindless work in favor of the status quo. The quintessential codemonkey churning out code as if that is its purpose to follow orders from above. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Eichmanns

Another misconception the author has is that someone has to be in the right emotional state to be motivated to do something, to which I reply emphatically FUCK NO. Things don't just get done out of an emotional urge to do things. I am not always feeling enthusiastic about my side projects but I am highly motivated to do them even if it involves dry reading of technical specs. With lots of discipline and little motivation I could plod through the boring parts and forget about what I was trying to do (and this is what I feel most schools optimize for).

Heuristic: The people who talk most about motivation have it the least.

I'm quite accomplished by an reasonable standard in at least a few fields (academics, athletics, hopefully programming skill), and I haven't concerned myself with motivation since my early years of high school. Thinking in terms of motivation seems to me to be a solution to an ill-posed problem. Rather than asking, "how can I get motivated?" you should be wondering, how can I find something to work for so that I don't need motivation. Once I started focusing my attention on things I was good at and that were intrinsically rewarding, I found that I didn't need to force myself to do things that I "should" do. Instead I was doing things I wanted to do, and that also were beneficial to my long term goals.

This wasn't all positive however, in athletics it created some conflict with my teammates, since their outlook was so outcome focused (we have to win, we have to get our times down to such and such a number, etc.), while mine was much more process focused (let's figure out how we can practice effectively, let's acknowledge that this was a bad practice and try to see how we can improve it in the future, etc.).

This author has obviously never had to deal with ADHD... If you replace work with going to the gym, discipline says "go to the gym" but regardless of discipline you cannot lift the 300 lb weight." Likewise, discipline can get me to sit at my desk, but it alone cannot make me do the work. It is not physically possible. There really does need to be something else. Motivation, incentive etc.

> discipline says "go to the gym" but regardless of discipline you cannot lift the 300 lb weight.

That's not true. The only reason I was able to lift 300 lbs is by going to the gym three times a week for a year. Discipline/willpower is what got me to the gym consistently, without missing days.

I don't know other people's experiences so this is all just my subjective view.

I am so sick of all the bulls* posted on social media. Places like r/getmotivated or Facebook sites with daily quotes about motivation... Imagine a head shot of a marble statue of Napoleon Bonaparte, dark background and white floating text with a nice font that reads "If you wish to be a success in the world, promise everything, deliver nothing. - Napoleon"

It does literally nothing except to incite a state of mind that is more temporary than cigarette smoke fading into the air.

Discipline (+ coffee?) is the only thing that reliably brings you anywhere. I am a grad student with multiple jobs and looking at stupid pictures or videos to do my work is not even remotely helping me. What helps me is managing my time such that I can sleep more than 4-5 hours a night. I have difficulty with that and no "motivational app/ website/ media" will truly help me with that struggle. I am not doing the jobs next to grad school because I enjoy being stressed... I don't have a choice.

I agree completely that discipline is the key to building good habits, and after you have a set of good habits maintaining them is relatively easy.

However, motivation is a little more important than the author is making out, and that's in setting an initial direction. Why would you be disciplined if you don't know what you want?

Let motivation tell you what you want, and discipline let you get there.

G.D D.MN this is so well written:

"I do not consider self-inflicted episodes of hypomania the optimal driver of human activity. A thymic compensation via depressive episodes is inevitable, since the human brain will not tolerate abuse indefinitely. There are stops and safety valves. There are hormonal hangovers."

Incidentally, I am reading Cal Newport's "So Good ..." and the thoughts in this article resonate with some of those expressed in Cal's book. Half way through the book right now, and I can say that it is an unusual advice made to a society that harps the passion hypothesis. An interesting thing is on Amazon, the book that allegedly started/fueled the passion hypothesis (What Color is your Parachute?) gets 5 stars from 62% of the reviews, whereas "So Good ..." gets 5 stars from 56% of the reviews!

If you are born and brought up in a setup where passion hypothesis is predominant, the advice "passion is rare and is a side-effect of mastery/hard-work" and "skill trumps passion" comes as an eye-opener.

Daily Rituals (book) which covers the work habits of ~160 famous writers, artists, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians. Nearly every single one had a strict schedule to force work into specific time slots rather than letting inspiration strike, they tended to be morning people, and they tended to work shorter days but worked everyday. While still anecdotal, an interesting read on how many great minds spent their work days; nearly each one seemed to follow this same notion that you favor discipline over motivation.


I really enjoyed this read, and I think the author has a very valid point. I spent the first portion of my college time for example very much in the "I'll wait to feel motivated" camp and had not so great results. I eventually transitioned into the "I need to do stuff right away to be successful" state of mind and have been there ever since. Honestly I think I'd pin most of the successes I've had since then on that world view. These days I actually love being an engineer and look forward to taking care of many of my daily tasks -- be it work and chores.

Speaking of which, I should probably clean the house. lol.

Motivation is the goal. Discipline is the means.

Love the focus on discipline. Most of us cringe or struggle with the idea that discipline will somehow constrain or cause us pain, but it's really come down to one thing for me to remember.

Always build my ability to build discipline and all other habits can be improved or developed because I have discipline.

Discipline creates freedom from things by doing what is needed to be done in the short term for a long term.

Wisdom is to know that discipline is the master skill to develop, whether it's the discipline to be creative (and for how long), and the discipline to power through the things that need doing, serves or transfers as skills.

As many have said, it is more complex.

But there are two great insights here:

1. Productivity is a system, not a sequence. Many things are interrelated and motivation is often generated by simple completion of tasks.

2. Motivation without other parts of that system may be insufficient to be productive.

Personally, I've found lack of productivity or motivation to come from unclear or disorganized states, and systems like GTD go a long way to clear that up. When you frame this inflammatory article in terms of discipline just being systems like GTD or just lists that work, it makes some sense.

But mostly, it says a lot of words that seem to be angry at abstract concepts.

Basically true. Glad to see that it's still something from oneself(self-discipline) instead of anything imposed by the outside world. However there's one thing that I can't really agree with:

> Trying to drum up enthusiasm for fundamentally dull and soul crushing activities is literally a form of deliberate psychological self-harm, a voluntary insanity: “I AM SO PASSIONATE ABOUT THESE SPREADSHEETS, I CAN’T WAIT TO FILL OUT THE EQUATION FOR FUTURE VALUE OF ANNUITY, I LOVE MY JOB SOOO MUCH!”

Nonsense. "Cutting the link between feelings and actions" is to prevent the short-term irrational and counterproductive effects brought by fickle emotions. That's totally right. However, if you don't have a fundamental, long-term passion for what you're doing, then you'll definitely have serious troubles. If the author doesn't like filling spreadsheets, that's fine. I don't like it either. However he cannot plainly declare that everybody who says he/she likes it to be insane. This is quite hilarious.

Of course, "interest" and “passion” in most cases are actually brought about by consistent devotion and hard work in the first place. Then a positive feedback loop is formed. That’s true. You can’t expect most people to “love” what he/she does without he/she mastering it and deriving joy from it first. However if you just choronically feel your job is dull and “soul crushing", then you should probably seriously consider seeking something else to do. That is totally different from admitting that cake is more seducive than broccoli, but just rationally and correctly deciding to eat broccoli for the sake of health. In the latter case, the problem is that our currently technology pretty much doesn't allow you to enjoy a cake-flavored broccoli. So you've got no rational choice but to eat broccoli. However in the case of jobs, you're a free person. If you really can't like a job even after you've learned to do it systematically and with discipline, just change one which you have more passion for. There's definitely no problem to it.

I generally understand what the author is trying to emphasize here. I am probably just being a bit picky and feel he didn’t employ the appropriate words/example in this place.

Very good article. I'd like to add that motivational posters and nice one-liners from famous people are nice for a nice fuzzy feeling but ultimately doesn't do that much for me.

This is very true. I realized this a few weeks ago myself. I've seen a video on youtube where a guy talks about discipline being greater than motivation - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMnMp-d5pKs

I like the idea when he talks about 'becoming a machine', that attitude can help in many situations.

I disciplined myself by hiring an intern to come and work at my home office 3 days a week. This required me to get up early and work.

If you want to accomplish something, what you need is discipline and motivation to be one and the same, or at least so interrelated that they are inseparable.

To others it looks like you have discipline, because they can't imagine anyone working so hard at something. But to you, it's just what you love.

"Because real life in the real world occasionally requires people do things that nobody in their right mind can be massively enthusiastic about, 'motivation' runs into the insurmountable obstacle of trying to elicit enthusiasm for things that objectively do not merit it."

This book has been a big help for me: http://www.amazon.com/Flourishing-Maureen-Gaffney/dp/1844882...

A long read, but worth it and something I return to regularly.

Discipline is not really a conscious choice since you can enhance it through medication. So if you have the right makeup then you don't need motivation to do things while others can get roughly the same effect by taking Ritalin.

"A choice", i. e. free will, and something that can be changed via medication aren't mutually exclusive. I'd think most people would agree that getting up early is somewhat in your control, but it gets a lot easier if you have an energy drink at 4am.

There's the theory (see the book by Baumeister) that willpower is like a muscle. It can both get tired and be trained. So the right mindset might not be "I will be disciplined today" – because you will fail and feel bad about it as you would fail if you just decided to lift that huge boulder. But if you chose to expend your willpower on something small but challenging, you may be able to train it and, after a while, be able to lift that heavy boulder.

Yes, I was a bit too simplistic in my post. But the point is that a person who builds discipline like a girl builds muscle will be out of the competition no matter what he does. In such cases it is better to focus on other things to circumvent the shortage of discipline, such as finding more motivation etc, in the same way as girls shouldn't do jobs where they have to lift heavy objects.

Let actions determine mood, and not rely on mood to determine one's actions.

A simple todo list is still the best way to get things done. Writing things down helps you commit, and crossing them off is unusually rewarding.

Try making a list today before psychoanalyzing yourself.

Motivation gets you interested and starting, discipline keeps you going and improving, then motivation provides reasons to not quit.

note that this is not reducible, there's a unbreakable link.

There is a popular refrain touted by the Marine Corps: "Motivated & dedicated". Both are equally important in accomplishing a task, especially difficult ones.

Remain loyal to reinventing the wheel, if you can stay on that track to fuck the moon and go for the portal, and keep your motivation, you'll be discipline

Yes, to delay gratification is a fundamental human skill.

The short version of the advice: build an identity as a disciplined and conscientious person, and use that to motivate you.

This is both useful and dangerous. Useful, because it makes doing work feel like accomplishing goals. Dangerous, because it makes doing work feel like accomplishing goals.

If what you care about is being diligent, then any work will fill in. An hour of sending out job applications feels just as "disciplined" if you send out three instead of twenty.

Make sure your work is actually accomplishing your real goals, and then put the work in.

I got motivated and working before I finished the last quarter of the article. I'll edit this post with more details later; off to work.

Discipline costs energy to maintain. What you need is effortless routine.

and what about inspiration?

If you are inspired to move a mountain, it will get you started, but won't get you finished, unless you can stay inspired for long periods of time.

Inspiration is the spark, motivation is the challenge, discipline is the engine.

Sounds like motivation is optional ;-)

How about this: Inspiration is the spark, motivation is the fuel, discipline is the engine. :)

If you run out of fuel, the engine cant help you find more. That's why I think the OP is somewhat wrong.

Motivation is what gets you started. Discipline is what keeps you going.

The author argues that discipline is what gets you started and motivation is what keeps you going.

> The author argues that discipline is what gets you started and motivation is what keeps you going.

I don't see that argument anywhere in the article -- it seems mostly to be that motivation and discipline serve the same purpose, but discipline is more reliable and better.

But then, I don't see the original article as being worth the electrons used to transmit it, its a rant that neither seems to have any grounding nor seems to have any correspondence with my experience.

I'd say the idea that motivation being very important in getting something started and both motivation and discipline playing important roles in keeping going is true.

I'm afraid that trying to squeeze the text on the analogy made me distort the message. What I meant is in this paragraph:

"The point is to cut the link between feelings and actions, and do it anyway. You get to feel good and buzzed and energetic and eager afterwards."

So, discipline will kick things off and later you'll have the feelings that should have been generated by motivation.

Discipline is the protocol, action is the data.

Motivation != bullshitting yourself.

Motivations is a feeling of a dissonance, of a lack of quality. It is a feel of abused "artistic sense".

Read some classic about Motorcycle Maintenance.)

btw, "artistic sense" works the same way as "hard-wired empathy" does - via evolved "machinery" in a brain.

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