Motivation is a funny thing. Some days you’re on fire, smashing every single thing you wanted to achieve for the day. Other times it’s all you can do not to just lie down on the floor and stay there. Something most of us have missed is that motivation is an emotion. We’re well acquainted with our other emotional patterns, and the things that trigger our emotions.
In the same way that you’re not happy or angry all the time, none of us are motivated all the time. It’s just not possible to experience an emotion at all times, every day.
You know what makes you happy, sad or angry—but not necessarily what makes you (and keeps you) motivated.
Fortunately, though, the unpredictable nature of motivation doesn’t mean that your goals have to suffer.
Maybe you want to hit a new squat PR by the end of the month, but when you’re working out, you just don’t want to face doing the mobility and single leg work that will help you get there.
Maybe you want to tighten up your diet to shed a couple of pounds for an upcoming event. But the day your mom pops around with freshly baked cookies? You start mentally ticking off all the reasons you would be justified in eating a few.
It’s not that you lack the motivation or drive to achieve these goals.
When you feel motivated, you’ve got it in spades. But it’s an emotion: you don’t feel it all the time — and this is where your habits come in. If you’ve got the right habits, reaching your goals becomes automatic. You just go through your daily routine and you’ll get there.
Sounds simple, because it is. You might think you don’t have the right habits, but that’s easily fixed. See, Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, believes that your habits are not set in stone.
Once you understand your habits, you can adapt them so that they consistently serve you.
Duhigg made a great video explaining what he calls “the habit loop”: the three elements of a habit that you need to be familiar with if you are going to change it.
First, there’s a cue. This is what sets the habit in motion. Maybe it’s a time of day, the action of another person, or an emotional state. In the video, it’s a time trigger: every day at 3pm, he was getting a craving for a cookie.
Next up is the routine. These are the steps you follow every time you act on the habit. In Duhigg’s example, he would get up from his desk, walk to the elevator and head up to the cafeteria. He’d buy his cookie, then chat with colleagues for 10 minutes before returning to his desk.
Finally, you get the reward. This is the “why” of the habit — the underlying reason that you are compelled to act. Your habit might meet a physical craving, or it might be driven by a desire to socialise. Figuring out the reward is a very important part of changing a habit.
You can see yourself with this new habit and all the benefits it’s going to bring to you. Now you just need to figure out how to change it. Fortunately, there are a couple of simple steps to this process. Let’s take the squat PR example. You’re already training regularly, but you want to really step your game up and start hitting even bigger numbers. Here’s the habit as it currently exists:
Step 1: Identify the cue that triggers the habit you want to replace. What sets you in motion?
You look at the clock and see that it’s 11am. Gym time! This is the time you train every day, so it’s time to roll out.
Step 2: What’s the routine you go through to complete the habit?
You pull on your favorite workout pants, that cute GGS tank you’ve been rocking lately, and your lifting shoes. You grab your training bag and jump in the car. Driving to the gym, your mind is between the work you were doing this morning, and your upcoming workout. You get into the gym, warm up a bit, then hit the squat rack.
Step 3: What’s the reward — the underlying reason you’re following through with this habit?
You want buns of steel, lean legs and a PR that your lifting buddies would kill for. Every time you increase your reps or add an extra plate, you get a rush of satisfaction at how much more awesome you are becoming.
Step 1: The cue changes just a tiny bit.
Instead of getting ready at 11am, you set daily reminder to start getting ready at 10:50am.
Step 2: The routine also only changes a tiny bit.
You still put on super-lifter training gear, and drive to the gym. Only when you get there, you head to the foam rollers and roll it out for 10 minutes. You’re still on track to start training at your regular time, because your cue was 10 minutes early. When you get to the rack, your first couple of sets are split squats, followed by your normal squat scheme.
Step 3: The reward takes care of itself.
You get closer to to your PR goal, and you feel pretty darn pleased with yourself. Note that this process does not involve finding any extra motivation anywhere. It’s just a slight variation of the habit you already have. Within a few weeks—the more frequently you do it, the more “worn in” it becomes in your brain—it will have become effortless and automatic.
This will allow you to stop relying on mercurial motivation, and to stop beating yourself up you haven’t forced yourself to do something outside your normal pattern. Adapting your habits like this will make your daily routine and decisions much simpler and effective. If you’re a trainer, this framework can be used to help clients who are struggling. And if you’re new to training, it gives you a leg-up to start building solid habits from the very beginning of your journey.
You’ve been working towards a goal you think you should focusing on. Maybe something like…
But what if, down in your heart of hearts, those are not the goals you want to be working on?
What if you want to just be at a healthy weight so you can keep up with your family and avoid developing illnesses later in life? What if you just want to train to feel strong and confident in your body’s ability — not for the bragging rights of the big numbers? What if you eat well and train so that you can be successful and focused in other parts of your life, instead of having your body as your biggest focus?
These “heart goals” are known as intrinsic motivation (they come from inside you), as opposed to extrinsic motivation (which is put on you from the outside). If you want to know more, here’s a great introduction to this concept. These intrinsically motivated goals often don’t get discussed much. They might not be particularly exciting or sexy. But they’re just as valid and important as working towards fat loss, gaining mass, or hitting PRs.
Getting clear about what drives you is vital for two reasons:
Spend some time now and ask yourself: What truly drives me? What is it I want from exercising and eating this way? Is this what’s going to make me happy and satisfied in the long run?
You need to slow your roll, girl. Maybe you’ve been hitting #crushstatus in the gym for months and months on end, and suddenly you’re lethargic, bored and completely unmotivated. Chances are your body is in open rebellion because it needs a rest.
Don’t mistake this for a lack of motivation and try to push through. Take a week or two (or even a month or two) off. Like, off off. Don’t try to convince yourself you should just deload. Don’t push yourself to do lots of active recovery. Instead, do what makes your body feel good. That might be sleeping a lot. Or going for very slow and calming walks. Having baths or getting massages. Listen to what your body wants and needs — not what your ego is pushing you towards.
It takes time, experimentation, and incremental improvements on a regular basis. But it’s also an opportunity to get to know your body, and your inner self. To learn what works for you specifically, and what doesn’t. To figure out what drives you, inspires you and frees you to live as the truest expression of yourself.
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