It is perhaps not surprising to learn that fitness goals continue to dominate the list of most popular New Year’s resolutions. Anyone who visits a gym in January knows the frustration of waiting for your favourite piece of equipment as the freshly committed flock to the gym with the good intention of losing those extra 10 or 20 pounds. Sadly, the vast majority of these well-intentioned neophytes are destined to fail in their quest, and come February, your favourite elliptical will once again be available.
Motivation is a tricky thing. When it is properly shaped into action, strong motivation can be truly life changing. When it goes untapped, it dissipates quickly and we are left wondering whether it ever truly existed. So what goes wrong? Why is it so hard to keep motivated when the end-goal is something so worthwhile as our own personal health? Why do we repeatedly fail in our diets, workout routines, or healthy lifestyle changes?
The answer lies, according to Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation, in our approach. We rely on our own good intentions and diligence to carry the day. Unfortunately, our brains are not wired to maintain diligence for long periods, let alone months. Temptation whispers softly to our baser selves to short-circuit our best intentions in the age-old battle of impulse versus restraint. The stakes are high – minor lapses can undo days and weeks of diligence, thereby sapping precious motivation and sabotaging any chance of long-term success.
Understanding why this happens is straightforward applied anatomy and psychology. Most of our impulses derive from our limbic system, the “reptilian brain” for lack of a better description, whereas our planning and restraint comes from our pre-frontal cortex, the thinking part of our brain. The limbic system controls things such as our “fight or flight” response and is wired deep into our very being. It behaves like a fast twitch muscle (see candy, eat candy), flooding our system with adrenaline on demand, or raising our heart rate, respiration, dilating our pupils, etc. In an evolutionary context, this is a good thing, because we don’t want to waste precious seconds considering why the angry bear is charging toward us before high-tailing it out of there, we just want to make our legs pump faster.
The pre-frontal cortex is responsible for our foresight, planning and restraint. It behaves more like a slow twitch muscle (I’d better not do that or else …), by overlaying base desires with feelings of guilt, shame, pride, accomplishment, etc. The pre-frontal cortex also behaves like a battery in that it drains when used and needs to be recharged. This is where we can apply Dr. Steel’s strategies.
To be truly successful, we should slow the rate by which we drain the juice from our pre-frontal cortex by making the “fight” to be good easier and recognize when our restraint is drained so that we can initiate a recharge.
Every choice you make takes energy and drains your willpower; the more difficult the decision, the more energy is required. One need only look at the myriad of RRSP products on the market to discover how draining making a choice can be. So an effective strategy is to simplify the decision.
Choosing between going to the gym and ordering a second grande latte is surprisingly hard. The gym has an immediate negative price to pay (sweat) and long-term benefit (health), and the latte has an immediate benefit (deliciousness and caffeine) and long-term price (hypertension). Balancing these options makes your brain to do some sophisticated mapping of preferences against time value to arrive at a decision. Give your pre-frontal cortex a break by increasing the attractiveness gap between the two options.
Use Rewards & Games
Make the benefit of going to the gym more immediate by attaching a reward to the behaviour. Make the latte a reward for an hour on the treadmill, or set aside a splurge fund that is only accessible if you go to the gym. Want to watch an hour of The Bachelor tonight? Make it conditional on 30 minutes on the Stair Master. A note of caution: don’t make the reward so extravagant as to counter the benefits of the healthy behaviour. Also, make sure that you don’t trigger the reward unless you actually follow through, otherwise you’d be incenting the wrong behaviour.
Another technique is to set up a game where you self-compete. For instance, measure how quickly you can get changed into your gym gear, then try to do it faster the next time. Time how quickly you can walk from your desk/car/front door to the elevator/gym door/yoga studio. Track these results over time. The gym equipment is well designed to help you with this task. Most treadmills and ellipticals have timers and distance meters built in to help you track your performance. Write down your best & worst times of the day and try to beat them the following session.
Enter into a wager with a co-conspirator and track each other’s progress regularly. Make the wager significant enough to hurt if you forfeit, and timely (i.e. monthly or quarterly instead of annually) to ensure you keep your motivation high.
Pre-Commit for Success
Decrease the attractiveness of avoidance tactics by applying a penalty system. Remember that splurge fund? Give it to your significant other if you miss the gym. Ensure that you are transparent and verifiable, lest temptation sway you from your path. Enlist the aid of a gym buddy to keep you motivated. Skipping a day now has the additional “penalty” of letting down your partner. If you can’t find a gym buddy, join a running club, recreational volleyball team or other regular organized group class. Make the cost of skipping out higher to increase the likelihood that you will follow through.
The very worst thing that you can do is to announce your goals or intentions to your friends or colleagues without verifiable tracking or a penalty for missing out. Research shows that announcing your goals increases the “social reality” in your mind, which triggers feelings of accomplishment similar to actually achieving them. This REDUCES your likelihood of following through.
Recognize Moments of Low Willpower
Remember that willpower is energy, and it ebbs and flows with your general levels of energy. This means that you are most vulnerable to temptation during periods of low energy: just before noon, late afternoon and late at night. Also, the end of trying days are particularly vulnerable, which is why it is such a pleasure to relax with an extra glass of wine, chocolate treat, dessert, or whatever your particular vice.
When you feel frazzled, indecisive or easily annoyed, it’s a good bet that your willpower is running on empty. Learn to recognize your cycles and behaviours, and take effective action.
The number one way to recharge your willpower is to get a good sleep. Nothing drains your energy faster than lack of sleep, so make sure you incorporate proper rest into your fitness plan.
Ironically, exercise is also a great way to recharge. If you can’t cut out to the gym or go for a jog, stretch your legs and head to the wash room for a few minutes; climb a set of stairs or two to get your blood pumping just a bit faster, or go for a brief walk.
Eating is also helpful, since your willpower is tied to your glucose level. Keep a healthy snack at hand to boost your energy, especially in late morning or late afternoon. Carrot sticks, celery, snap peas, a piece of fruit, low fat yogurt – mix it up to keep it interesting. So if you feel like opting out of that afternoon stroll, grab a handful of veggies, and check back in 10 minutes – your commitment should rejuvenate.
With the recent news revealing that only one in ten Canadians are in ideal heart health and the well known and documented link between obesity and osteoarthritis, we could all use a little help to achieve our fitness goals.