Home It's All Mental The Science of Motivation: How to Develop It, Keep it, and Achieve With It

The Science of Motivation: How to Develop It, Keep it, and Achieve With It

by Erika Nicole Kendall

We’ve been talking about motivation and what it means to be motivated for a while, here. In fact, once upon a time, a #bgg2wlarmy member shared how she’s accepted that she won’t always feel motivated to do whatever task is in front of her—she just know that, because it is a thing that needs to be done, she gets up and gets to work.

For lots of people, that’s crazy.

If you’re not busting your hump at work, you should be doing something that brings you joy, right? You should be doing something that makes you happy, not grueling, sweaty exercise, right? If I’m exhausted and/or frustrated from leaving work—even when you love your job, it can still frustrate you—how am I supposed to then move on to doing something that doesn’t motivate me or bring me joy the way my favorite TV show does? Or going out with my friends does? Or snuggling up with my boo-piece with a bag of chips and a couple of beers?

For some of us, the general bore of our day to day lives means that whatever we do in the evening time away from work and the kids needs to excite us, make us feel something, and entertain us. Food can certainly do that—it can give us an escape, it can make you feel good, and it can definitely be entertainment, but the problem is that making this a habit ultimately can become bad for your health.

In researching my book, I came across a passage that discussed the motivation behind why people abuse substances (or behaviors, for that matter, because shopping can be an addiction, too.) The general understanding is that people are motivated to abuse because they value whatever it is they get out of it. Be it the escapism, the ability to forget pain or grief—whatever it is, it feels good enough that the memory of that feeling encourages them to do it again.

As silly as that sounds, far too many e-mails I’ve received from people imply that the reason they abuse food is because, quite simply, “it makes me feel better.” That’s not irrational or unreasonable, but it is key to understanding why you’re not motivated to work out.

There are ways to feel good during and after a workout, but we rarely hear about that. We don’t talk about the endorphins, the adrenaline, the feeling of accomplishment when you hit a new personal best. Those aren’t things we’re taught how to value; we’re not taught to appreciate those internal rushes of energy we feel in the throes of an intense workout. We’re not taught to look for that second wind that pushes us over the top and through to the end of that rigorous sweat fest. If anything, many of us are taught that intense exercise is the enemy—it sweats out our hair, or it makes us smelly and un-feminine.

The moment in which you prepare to decide between working out and sitting on the couch watching The Walking Dead, you’re literally taking a balancing scale and putting your reasons for watching TV on one side of the scale… and your reasons to get up and go work out on the other. When you don’t have the tools to help you understand how to value exercise in a way that motivates you to do it, you will never have enough reasons to outweigh the reasons you have for watching your favorite TV show.

Even worse, there’s a phenomenon known as “delay discounting” that makes it super easy to discourage yourself from ever getting up, meaning that “delay discounting” is what’s preventing you from fully acting on your motivation.

Have you ever found yourself sitting on the couch and thinking, “I should just get up and go to the gym?” Have you ever found that, the longer you sit there, the more you rationalize with yourself about how you shouldn’t go—all the reasons you should stay put, all the reasons why you aren’t ready, all the reasons why the gym is scary and you should just stay on your comfy couch?

That’s delay discounting—the value of what you want is discounted the longer it takes you to actually get to it. If it takes you a while to get yourself ready to work out, all that time is likely to be spent discouraging you from actually making it happen. When this happens at the same time that something that provides instant gratification is nearby—say, junk food—it’s pretty easy to completely give up on working out in favor of vegging out.

It’s not intended to be the motivation killer that it ultimately becomes. It’s actually intended to steer your body to what you know to be a sure thing. “Climb this tree to get this fruit, or cross this lava to get the fruit over there?” Your brain directs you to the sure thing. “Pick these vegetables from this bush with the soft leaves that I know to be sweet, or reach through this thorny bush to get this weird fruit that smells good but will surely draw blood?” Again, sure thing. It works against us when it comes time to change what we know and depend on to be a sure thing, though—”Go in the kitchen and get that food junk food, or get my tail up and cook something?” What’s the sure thing? More importantly, is the “sure thing” the same as “the thing I need to choose in order to be great?”

This is why I always talk about the trouble with external motivation—another person can only push you but so far, and so many times. If, at the end of the day, you still cannot counter the negative messaging your brain naturally relies on to navigate you through your day, you will always be at a loss.

But how do you do that?

For starters, recognize when you are trying to talk yourself out of doing what you know you need to do. This is an important trait for us all to have for any number of reasons… especially us procrastinators. (Notice I said “us” in there. I’m a work in progress.) Recognize that you have a goal to accomplish, and that you have to value that goal and the steps it takes to get there just as much as—if not more that—you might value that couch potato time or those extra calories.

Secondly, you have to create a script to help you not only recognize you’re talking yourself out of making it happen, but to empower you to get up anyway. It’s not quite enough to say “Ahh, I’m gonna just do it.” You really need to tell yourself, “Yeah, I know discouragement when I hear it, but I want this and it’s important to me, so I need to just get up and go.”

Next, listen to the things you say to yourself—are there legitimate barriers in there that need to be addressed? A barrier for me used to be that I worried about my little one when I wasn’t around, so I’d discourage myself by saying “Oh, all these little things that need to be done for the baby…I don’t really have time to go to the gym.” But, funny enough, 45 minutes after I discouraged myself from getting up and just putting his little tail in the kiddy day care, I’d…still be on my bed, bull jivin’ around. Sometimes, your discouragements are problems that genuinely need to be solved. For me, I got my mother-in-law to watch Sprout for a few hours a few days a week (thank goodness for grandparents!) so that I could get it in. And, because her care is as good as mine—if not better—there’s one less thing I can haunt myself with when it comes to discouragement. Some of what you’re telling yourself might need this treatment, too.

You should also be listening for things that are nonsensical, too, if for no other reason than to laugh at yourself. I also used to say to myself, “See, you’re gonna have to lug that stroller down all those stairs, taking it on the train during rush hour…it’s gonna be a straight up sardine can in there and probably smell like one, too…” and the longer I went on, the more I’d sink in my desk chair. Once I followed it up with “annnnnd you’ve got a ton of work to do?” It was a wrap. I had to start laughing at myself. Like, of course I’d tell myself I need to stay put and do work—and then, 10 minutes later, I’d be playing FreeCell or Uno & Friends like a professional level procrastinator. Now, I laugh at myself and say, “The work will still be there an hour later after my workout is done, and I can play FreeCell on the train on the way there.”

Lastly, this requires practice. Practice, practice, practice. I wasn’t always as good at identifying when I was delay discounting the benefits of my workout routine, and I’m still not perfect at it but I’m definitely better, and realizing that this is a natural reaction to changing my habits helped me realize that my goal should be setting a new normal, I feel more confident that I can get back to the old me. Hopefully, this helps you, too.

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