I had one of those days today. You know, the ones where you have no desire or motivation to do anything, and it seems like things which used to interest you or matter just seem insignificant. Since this can happen so easily to anyone, in this article I’d like to dig a bit deeper into the psychology behind why we do things, and give you a few tips on how to get motivated to workout even when you are feeling like it’s the last thing you could possibly want to do at the time.
The Dreaded (and Warm and Snug) Comfort Zone
Getting motivated to exercise, eat healthy and take care of your body is not the only area in life where a lot of people struggle to find motivation. Be it career progression, bettering your living situation or finances, or seeking out new social circles, it can be difficult to expand beyond your comfort zone to make a change.
Ah, the comfort zone. We know it’s bad for us, but it just feels so good that you don’t want to leave! But, this is precisely what keeps us stuck in that same old rut year after year.
Why Do We Do Anything?
To break the pattern, let’s look at the psychology behind why we do things.
It seems obvious, once you know the concept, but it’s something I only learnt about 2 years ago and at the time I remember thinking that this was revolutionary stuff. How is it that we go through life without understanding or paying attention to the reasons why we do what we do?
In any case, understanding why you do things will allow you to tweak the odds into your favor so that you are no longer operating on autopilot but captaining your own direction.
Carrot and the Stick
Have you heard of the carrot and the stick theory for motivation before? This describes motivation by either the promise of a reward (the carrot), or otherwise to avoid punishment (the stick).
Basically, there are two main reasons why you will do anything:
- To gain pleasure
- To avoid pain
That’s it. We humans are pretty simple creatures sometimes, aren’t we?
One of the other most important concepts is to understand that we are driven by emotion.
Humans are Driven by Emotion
It’s not enough to just logically know something.
You could know that smoking is bad, it may give you cancer and you would die a horrible death. But it’s not until you feel the real meaning of that statement – that your cancer would devastate your loved ones, that every breath would be a physical struggle, that you’d waste away and be powerless to stop the cancer insidiously destroying your body – now that’s when you’ll care enough take action.
Let’s look at how this concept works in real life.
Scenario 1: You’re in your nice, warm, comfortable bed. Your alarm goes off. It’s 6AM and dark outside, and you don’t have to get up to get ready for work for another hour and a half.
Unfortunately, 6AM is also the time that yesterday you decided future you would be springing out of bed and off to the gym for a serious workout. You have 5 pounds of holiday weight gain to lose, and it’s time to get your butt into action.
- (a) Think that yesterday you was a fool. There’s no way you’d be getting out of this warm, snug bed if it wasn’t absolutely critical. You cancel your alarm and fall back to sleeping your cocoon of comfort until you actually have to get up.
- (b) You’re awake, but the thought of trekking all the way to the gym in uncomfortable gym clothes, only to put yourself through the torture of a workout session where you end up gasping for breath and your muscles are screaming and aching at you from all angles is not something you feel you can deal with today. You go make breakfast and use the extra time to relax in front of the TV.
- (c) Think about how good and accomplished you’ll feel after you work out, and though you don’t exactly feel like it, kick off those covers (with a fair amount of grumbling of course) and proceed to get dressed to head to the gym.
- (d) Remember how flabby your thighs are getting (it’s seriously worrying, you can barely stand with your feet touching together, and if they get any bigger you wonder if your partner will still find you attractive), and use this as motivation to get out of bed and to the gym.
What Just Happened?
Hopefully you can see that there are only two main outcomes:
- You don’t go to the gym
- You go to the gym
There are also different pain and pleasure ideas associated to each of these two outcomes, and the combination of each leads to the four responses you might take in the scenario we considered. See if you can understand how each of the options described in the scenario we considered earlier matches up with the following:
- (a) The pleasure associated with not going to the gym
- (b) The pain associated with going to the gym
- (c) The pleasure associated with going to the gym
- (d) The pain associated with not going to the gym
It’s important to note that nothing about the situation is different in any of the four possible responses you might consider. For example, if you chose (a), that you would stay in bed, it doesn’t make option (d) the fact that your thighs are growing steadily flabbier any less true. What is it that makes you take the action of (a) or (d) then?
The answer is focus. Whatever you focus on will drive you to action.
If you chose to stay in bed, it’s because the amount of focus you placed on the comfort of your bed in that moment is more real to you than the thought of your partner losing interest in you because you’re letting yourself go with your flabby thighs and decreasing fitness, which you probably pushed to the back of your mind in that moment.
Using Pleasure and Pain to Your Advantage
Now that you know how it works, you can use these principles to your advantage – pretty much in anything you do, but most definitely when it comes to getting motivated to work out as well!
Try making a list of all the pain and pleasures you’ve associated in the past with working out and not working out. The key here is to make your list real, attach emotion behind it, and really feel those positives and negatives – that’s the secret to getting up the motivation to actually take action.
By the way, I’m happy to report that I successfully used a combination of pain and pleasure to motivate me to work out even from the depths of my initial non-caring, by focusing on both how good I’d feel after I worked out, as well as really getting disturbed about how out-of-shape I’ve gotten recently!
What thoughts do you use to motivate you to workout? I’d love to hear your thoughts.