Posts Tagged ‘motivators’

Finding Motivation

When I talk to people about losing weight, one of the questions I’m often asked is “How do you find the motivation?” It’s a reasonable question that I wish I had a better answer for. I’m clearly motivated but until I started writing this post it was something I didn’t really think about much.

First of all, what does “motivation” mean? What changes in you when you’re motivated? When I think of motivation I think first of “motivational speakers” and then those strange Successories posters that douche-bags hang in their offices. Is that what motivation is: platitudes and trite quotations laid out aside stock photography?


I think in the general sense people mean “inspiration” rather than “volition” when talking about motivation as an influence on behavior. Inspiration is an external influence, a push from the outside to enact some (usually positive) movement in the person being inspired. Volition is your internal mechanism for choosing to do something. It’s your decision-making mechanism, sometimes called The Will.

Motivation is usually lower-level than inspiration or even volition. It’s a catalyst to action, for sure, but motivation is to action what the Id is to the psyche. It’s in that lizard part of your brain. Hunger is your body’s motivation to eat – it creates an unpleasant sensation that eating can extinguish. It’s not that big of a decision. I’m hungry. I should eat something.

Volition is your mind making choices. Should I eat this or that? Must I eat now or can I wait for a bit? What shall we do after dinner?

Volition is a big part of what makes us human, but is there something to motivation as an external influencer? Can someone else motivate you to act?

Motivation can come from without rather than within if there’s a reward involved. When you were a kid you probably were motivated to do chores by the promise of an allowance, or the threat of punishment if you didn’t complete them. Both the reward and the desire to avoid punishment are external motivators, but you still had to make the choice yourself.

In vs. Out

Motivation is an intrinsic force. It always comes from within. Using “motivate” as a verb is a bit of a misnomer. It implies an extrinsic reward for doing a thing that you otherwise would not want to do. In that sense, you can’t motivate yourself without giving yourself a reward.

Maybe you don’t really want to lose weight, but rather want to be fit. There’s a big difference.

Your desires are entirely in your own mind, and under your own control (although it doesn’t always feel that way). You either want to do something or you don’t. If you do, you’ll probably do it. If you don’t want to do something, external motivation will only get you so far[1].

I can hear the voices from the peanut gallery now. What’s that? You want to lose weight but find yourself unable to? You lack the motivation to eat less and move more?

You don’t need motivation. You need to just do things that you know you need to do. Or not. Maybe you don’t really want to lose weight, but rather want to be fit. There’s a big difference.

I’ve been fat for most of my life – through the entirety of my adolescence and adulthood, and a large part (excuse the pun) of my childhood. I’ve lost nearly 180 pounds and I’m still fat. Sure, looking at photos from four years ago (or even earlier this year) you can see a difference, and next year I’ll look back on how I look now with a bit of amazement that I was this heavy, but if I simply wanted to be thinner I never would’ve come this far.

So what motivates me? What is it that drives my Will towards eating better, less, and getting more exercise? Let’s come back to that.

Motivation vs. Willpower

You can’t talk about diet and exercise without the word “willpower” rearing its ugly head.

Willpower is the negative inverse of motivation. Motivation is doing something that you want to do to get some reward. Willpower is not doing something that you want to do. It’s the stick to motivation’s carrot. It’s criticism instead of encouragement.

For example, you may be motivated to exercise in the morning because it makes you feel more energetic all day (it really does). At breakfast, though, you need your willpower to order the yogurt and fruit cup you know you should have rather than the donut you want to have. That’s a hard decision to make before you’ve had your morning coffee.

So what do you do? You take the decision out of it, or at least reduce the choices down to only those things that fit into your breakfast calorie budget. You may enjoy the donut for the 30 seconds it takes you to stuff it down your craw, but the good feeling you’ll get from eating a healthier option will last you for hours, and make you feel good about yourself for having made a good choice. You’re not depriving yourself, you’re eating what you want to eat. You just want the healthier option more.

I’ve always found that positive forces overpower negative ones, except in one area.

Pleasure vs. Pain

While we like to think we’re usually pursuing happiness, most of the time we’re motivated by the desire to avoid pain[2].

If you’ve wanted to lose weight but haven’t been able to, it’s not because you’re under-motivated. It’s because the pain of being overweight isn’t as significant as the pain of eating right, eating less, and exercising. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “No pain, no gain.” That’s only partly true, though. You can succeed without causing yourself pain.

You may think that your being overweight is causing you more pain than eating better for one meal let alone eating better most of the time, but at a certain point you have to look at your actions to see what actually motivates you, regardless of what you think motivates you.

Decisions, Decisions

I’ve said before that losing weight is a decision. You choose to do the right thing instead of the wrong thing (where “right” and “wrong” are relative to your goals). You don’t even have to change your mind right away – just start doing the right thing and you’ll start being the right thing. Your habits and actions will become who you are.

I will say that while changing what you want is sort of a decision, it’s also hard sometimes. The trick I use is to act as-if I was already fit. It doesn’t matter if you’re overweight, you can be fit in your head first and then act accordingly. Act as-if.

Move the Reward Closer

I’m not eating right and exercising so I can be fitter later. I’ve changed my lifestyle so I can feel and look better now. If you haven’t exercised – ever, or in a long while – you’ll probably be surprised by how much better you’ll feel after even a short time. I couldn’t believe my improvement after only 2–3 weeks. Instead of feeling more tired after exercise I felt more invigorated. The first few times I probably overdid it and felt worse[3], but over time I came to appreciate muscle aches and feeling more energized.

As a positive force, reward is fine, but in order to be effective the reward has to arrive sooner rather than later. Sure, it’s nice to think about how much fitter your body will be after a year of exercise and healthy eating, but that’s far enough in the future that you won’t feel motivated to do the requisite steps to get there now.

Now is always nearest, so plan for rewards as close to now as possible, and enjoy the intrinsic fitness rewards like feeling better. You get to the next milestone by just taking little steps. It helps if those little steps are also immediately rewarding.

The Snowball Effect

Seeing the positive effect of your efforts in your waistline and on the scale every morning (or week) is a huge motivator. There have been times where I’ve craved Chinese food or pizza but decided to skip it because I’ve been doing so well. That’s good motivation. I’m not depriving myself; I’m choosing to eat better because the (albeit minor) thrill of seeing my weight go down a little tomorrow (near future, close to now) is stronger to me than the desire to enjoy pizza for the two minutes it’ll take to eat a slice.

Of course, as long as I count it toward my daily calorie budget, I can eat all the pizza that I want, which is around four slices… if I eat nothing else all day.

So that’s how I stay motivated. I just choose to do the right thing so it’s not a major decision every time I eat. I don’t always feel like hitting the treadmill every weekday morning. Most mornings I would prefer not to. It’s far easier to just surf the web, watch TV, eat a Pop-Tart and skip my morning workout. You know what I actually do? I get up and walk on the fucking treadmill.

  1. The whole idea of a “motivational speaker” is absurd. If you need someone else to tell you to do the things that you want to do, you’ve got bigger problems than they can help. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy reading and hearing people talk about how to get things done, improve your personal power, and become a better person. I just don’t put too much stock into their motivational power to propel me to go great good.  ↩

  2. Speaking of motivational speakers, I think I first heard about pain-avoidance as a base motivator from informercial motivational speaker extraordinaire Tony Robbins.  ↩

  3. The first time I went to the gym I did way too much too soon and was dry-heaving into the drain in the shower after my workout (good thing I didn’t have breakfast first). It took a good two weeks of regular exercise to not feel sick to my stomach after working out.  ↩

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. I'm just some guy who lost a lot of weight and studied up on nutrition, diet, and exercise in order to improve my personal fitness. The contents of this site in no way contains medical advice. You should visit your doctor before making any dramatic changes to your diet or activity. While I make every attempt to be as accurate as possible regarding current knowledge and scientific studies (please feel free to let me know when I'm wrong about something), and may from time to time post updates to correct inaccuracies in previous entries, the information on this site is provided "as-is" for entertainment purposes only. Don't do something stupid and then sue me. I'm just trying to help. Thanks.