Recently I asked my Facebook tribe “What is your biggest struggle in health and fitness right now?”
I expected to hear people struggling with fat loss or perhaps not knowing what to do in the gym. But I was surprised to learn that motivation was among the biggest challenges people face.
In the past, others have looked to me and claimed “wow, you’re so motivated to stay fit” as though I was born with some innate passion to drag myself to the gym each day.
I don’t. In fact, this so-called motivation isn’t something any of us are born with but a quality we cultivate over time.
Yes, motivation is a habit, meaning we must learn how to navigate moments of laziness, frustration and just plain “not feeling it today”-ism.
Motivation ebbs and flows. This is evident across gyms nationwide during the New Year. Everyone is motivated to undo their sugary, alcohol infused holidays in January and by February the crowds get smaller and smaller.
What is it about motivation that keeps us stuck in this hamster wheel of consistent action and then inaction?
The missing key to motivation
Scientists have studied the psychology behind motivation for several years and found that mindset has a lot to do with motivation as much as biology does. This Forbes article demonstrates how we create resistance around certain tasks by how we frame it. For example:
“I have to go to the gym” versus “I choose to go to the gym”.
No one likes being forced into something and exercise isn’t any different. When we select the second phrase, we immediately open ourselves up to the benefits of hitting the gym.
Instead of relying solely on motivation, we should focus on turning that specific behavior (i.e. going to the gym) into a routine or habit. Naturally, this is easier said than done but scientists have found that setting a routine creates the discipline needed to succeed in something rather than depending passively on a feeling like motivation or willpower.
Believe me when I say we all struggle with motivation. Lately, I’ve experienced my own challenges around motivation and have relied a lot on the Triple A Framework I’ve developed to get me working out.
Triple A Framework: Announce, Accountability and Application
Announce: This is a lot like goal setting except that you publicly announce what action you plan to take (and ultimately turn into a routine or habit). Taking the exercise example above, let’s say you struggle to workout consistently. You decide that the best routine for you is to hit the gym four times a week regardless of how busy you are or what mood you’re in. Historically, you’ve attempted this but let it drop off after two weeks. This time around, you announce the goal and actions you’ll take publicly.
Post it on Facebook, tell your friends and co-workers when they ask “how are you?” Air it out! “I’m going to the gym 4x a week for the next 30 days!”
There is power in a public declaration because sure enough, people will ask you “so are you still working out 4x a week like you said a while ago? How is that going?” It’s human nature to want to please others and not let them down. The public declaration puts you on the hook to do something about it because you don’t want to disappoint anyone. We’ll likely do it just because we don’t want to feel ashamed for not doing it!
Accountability: The next step is to set up an accountability system. Now that others know what your aim is, you can get a support system. Now, this isn’t someone who just asks you how it’s going. This is someone or something that ensures you make it no matter what. Here are a few ways of doing this:
– You hire a trainer or coach to meet with you 2x a week
– Your partner helps you out of bed in the morning to get the workout in when you’d rather hit the snooze button
– You set up workout dates with your friend or co-worker
– You join a community that enables this effort, like a running group or Weight Watchers club
– A money jar in which you put in money every time you do hit the gym. Watching money grow is a huge motivation factor!
– You plug in your workouts into a gaming app like Fitocracy to “win” points for each workout
Application: This comes down to the reward system. Many of us mistakenly set up really uninspiring rewards for our new behavior or we treat ourselves to junk food, which only backfires on us.
I have a strict rule against using food as a reward system. You are not a dog. Ice cream is not a prize for using the elliptical for an hour. You do not “earn” food, you eat it because otherwise you’d die.
In the Power of Habit, the reward cue is crucial to changing our behavior. The reward sets off the pleasure drug dopamine into our brains, and studies have shown a link between dopamine and motivation. In this scenario you can apply your reward in small doses, such as on each day you complete the task of going to the gym, or at the end of your 30-days. Rewards might be a getting a manicure or massage, buying new shoes, going out for a movie, or booking that weekend gateway you’ve been dreaming of. The reason this works over using food is because the chemicals in food triggers its own set of dopamine and oftentimes causes us to overeat and diminishes the results of our hard work at the gym. If you struggle with motivation already, seeing yourself gaining weight as a result of too many food rewards will have the opposite effect. You’ll quit the gym and blame fitness for making you fat (yup, I’ve heard this excuse before).
Think critically about your reward cue and choose something that excites you!
Motivation is not enough to keep us going when the going gets tough. Over the last few weeks I’ve suffered my own bouts of depression and lack of motivation to workout. But, because I’ve created a habit of working out consistently throughout the week, I’m still able to workout even if I’m operating at about 40% capacity. I skip the weight room for a hike, or swap out my regular run for a yoga class. I know this is just a phase and I’ll eventually get back to the supercharged, and energized version of myself at the gym but for now I must rely solely on my routine because motivation is few and far between.
Know that you too will go through these phases and habit is what will keep you consistent even when you lack all the motivation in the world to stick with it. So let’s review. How do we morph motivation into a habit?
We use the Triple A Framework:
Announce your goal to the world
Set up accountability systems or people around you
Apply a reward system or cue that is exciting and motivating in and of itself.
If you start applying this system now, you’ll slowly start building this into a habit. Apply it for 30 days. Then 40 then 60…keep applying because when motivation wanes and you have zero willpower to keep things going on your own, you’ll have a built-in system to rely on.