Motivation is one of those “squishy” ideas. We intuitively know what we are talking about when we speak about motivation, but it can be very difficult to define and put concrete ideas around it. Motivation is often defined as either:
1. The general desire or willingness of someone to do something.
2. The reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.
The way I like to define motivation is “behavioral inertia,” it is the energy and direction behind the behaviors that we make. So, how do we attempt to change the energy and direction behind those behaviors? This article will lay out a few tips on how you might be able to affect your motivation. You can find many of these ideas and concepts within the NASM Personal Trainer course.
How to get motivated to workout
Tip 1: Use external and internal motivation
We often think that motivation is something that comes from within. Something that we must muster up every time that we should go workout. However, motivation does not just come from within (internally), it can come from outside (external) sources as well.
Internal motivation often stems from the internal rewards you get from engaging in a task or activity, like exercise. For example, you may be motivated to exercise because you find it enjoyable or satisfying. Or maybe the motivation comes from you identifying as a person who values exercise, which makes your identity a motivator for you. Identifying, labeling, and focusing on those internal motivators can be helpful for many people.
External motivation stems from gaining an external benefit from engaging in a specific behavior. One example of this is rewarding yourself for engaging in exercise. This might look like buying yourself a new workout outfit after you exercise 5 days a week. Or maybe you pay yourself five dollars for every workout that goes toward your “spending money”.
The field of psychology and sports psychology has deep literature on these different types of motivation, but both types can be utilized.
Tip 2: Don't rely on motivation, utilize it
One of the rarely talked about dirty little secrets about motivation is that it is FAR better for keeping you going with something than helping you start it. Most people look toward motivation to get started with behavior like exercise, but in reality, motivation is far more useful once you have started something.
Look at motivation as the source of energy that keeps you engaged and working through something during the early stages of it, but not as the catalyst that kick-starts the behavior.
Tip 3: Force the issue
This is a vast oversimplification, but there are two ways to find motivation: 1) wait around and hope you find it, 2) force the issue.
Waiting around looks something like this:
- When I mentally feel ready, I will go exercise.
- I will try and use internal motivation cues to motivate myself to do it.
- I will watch a few motivational YouTube videos to get pumped up to exercise.
Here is the problem with this approach: you don’t control when or if the feeling of being motivated comes.
Forcing the issue looks something like this:
- I scheduled my exercise in my calendar, so I have to do it.
- I registered for a 5k event 6 weeks from now, so I have to exercise.
- I sold my car and bought a bike, so I have to ride my bike to work.
Forcing the issue is another way of saying, “shape your environment”. Do not rely on the whims of your emotions or feelings to dictate your behaviors, but rather structure your environment so you limit your ability to be “unmotivated”.
Tip 4: Move past motivation
Motivation is just the transitory feeling of being between behavioral states. Most people don’t need to be motivated to brush their teeth. When they were young, they did, but eventually, it became a behavioral state or a habit.
When you truly think about the role of motivation, it is indeed behavioral inertia. It is the force that helps you change from one behavior state to another. The true goal of getting motivated to work out is to make it a behavior state, it has become a new habit.
Tip 5: Growth over outcome
We often lose motivation or stop chasing a goal at least in part because we start to focus very intently on an outcome. If an outcome becomes too difficult or too far away or too ambiguous our motivation often falls away.
The late Kobe Bryant had an interesting insight on success and failure that can help individuals maintain motivation.
Once Kobe was asked by a reporter a question along the lines of, “as an athlete, are you driven by your love of winning or by your hate of losing”.
Kobe responded by saying, “I’m neither, meaning that I play to figure things out. I play to learn something. Because if you play with a fear of failure or play with a will to win, it’s a weakness either way…[failure] doesn’t exist, it is nonexistent. What the heck does that mean? I mean seriously, what does failure mean? It doesn’t exist. It is a figment of your imagination”.
This idea leads to the concept that the real goal is growth, not an outcome, and when you focus on learning, improving, and finding ways to grow, there is always a reason to stay motivated.
How to stay motivated to workout
One of the best ways to sustain motivation over time is described by author James Clear in his book Atomic Habits as juxtaposing motivation vs. intention. In the book he describes that motivation by itself is not an effective way to sustain motivation, rather it needs to be coupled with intention, or planning. Having a specific, actionable, time-sensitive, and measurable plan immediately adds intention to the feelings of motivation that one relies on when developing habits.
One of the best formats of planning or creating intention is to follow a formula around behaviors. For example, an “When X happens, I will do Y” formula.
In the case of exercise this might look like, “When my alarm goes off, I will get out of bed and put on my gym clothes and drive to the gym”.
The more specific you can make your intentions the better. For our example, a better intention might look like, “When my alarm goes off at 6:00 AM Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I will get out of bed and put on the gym clothes that I laid out the night before on and drive to the gym and exercise until 7:15 AM”.
This can also be used to stop or redirect behaviors that move someone away from their goal. For example, a redirection intention might look like, “On days I cannot make it to the gym for exercise, I will take a 15-minute walk at lunch”.
When to take a break from working out because of lack of motivation
It is important to understand that the path to success and forming new habits is not linear. There are always ups and downs, and sometimes you need to take a break from working out. However, it is important that this is an intentional, thoughtful idea and that it has some boundaries around it. Do not let the break be the result of habits slowly falling apart.
This might look like saying to yourself, “I am currently feeling like I am unmotivated to exercise, and I am going to intentionally take the next 7 days off of all forms of structured exercise and I am going to travel, rest, engage in play, and then I will resume my habit-forming behaviors on X day and will start with Y behavior.”
This is important for two reasons:
1) It provides a clear rationale for why there is a behavior change and requires the person to be thoughtful about why they are stopping and when exactly they are going to begin again.
2) It requires taking ownership of the immediate behavior change.
Motivation can be thought of as behavioral inertia; the energy and direction behind the behaviors that we make. Motivation is an important part of how we change from one habit to another.
However, motivation is not something that should be viewed as a fleeting emotion or feeling we are trying to bottle whenever it strikes. Instead, shifting how we think about it, structuring our environment, moving past it, and focusing on growth, can help develop sustainable motivation.