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Demystifying Motivation
How to Take Action — Even When You Don't Really Feel Like It

by Rita Milios, LCSW

How many times have you said to yourself, “I’d really like to [lose a few pounds…exercise more… change my diet], but I just can’t find the motivation.”?

As a psychotherapist, I hear these words on a regular basis. And as a person newly diagnosed with diabetes, I’ve come to understand even more the dilemma of people who find themselves unmotivated to make lifestyle changes that while clearly important, feel somehow overwhelming.

When you have diabetes, committing to healthier habits is a big deal. There is much more at stake than vanity. It is about reducing the risks of some pretty serious health complications. But with so much at stake, why is it still so hard to find the motivation to do the things you know you should?

What is motivation?
Motivation is simply a concept, a mental construct that has no real substance, yet it holds the key to success in all our endeavors. Motivation is a mindset — an attitude — that when activated, pushes aside our normal tendencies toward apathy and inertia and gets us moving toward a goal.

Motivation is a great mind tool. We all enjoy it when we have it. But because we misunderstand how it works, we too often sit around waiting for it to appear, and when it doesn’t, we wonder why we’ve been unable to find it.

The truth of the matter is, however, that motivation is not like a mosquito. It’s not going to land on you, no matter how long you wait. You must initiate it and create it by an act of will. Then, once the pump has been primed, so to speak, the motivation you seek will begin to flow.

The following eight steps can help you get your motivation flowing and put you in the proper mindset to pursue any goal you may have.

1. Start with the right attitude
When seeking to stir up motivation, an attitude that incorporates mindfulness is important. “Mindfulness” is a fancy term for “paying attention.” It’s about really knowing what you’re doing when you’re doing it, so that you can make an informed decision about whether to continue your actions or to change them. Mindfulness takes into account not only your behaviors, but also the thoughts and attitudes behind your behaviors.

Many of our actions are based on habits that have become so ingrained that we don’t really notice them any longer. Much of the time, our mind’s habit-making function serves us well. Consider driving your car: You really wouldn’t want to have to consciously think through every motion (&ldquo:now turn the wheel to the right…now let up on the gas…”), would you? But the very same mental function that puts repetitive tasks on autopilot sometimes does the same for actions that don’t serve us as well. Then we must work against the “mindlessness” of habit by using the mental tool of willpower.

Willing ourselves to exercise in opposition to our desire not to is what the tennis-shoe–making folks have in mind when they encourage us to “Just do it!” Will trumps emotion. Willpower is powered by intent, the act of deciding in a very determined way. Once you make a definite decision, you are more likely to muster up the will to follow through.

So first make a conscious, definite choice and intend to follow through. Then act on your commitment, whether you “feel” like it or not. Once you act, you will likely find the motivation you’ve been looking for. This is because motivation follows action; it does not precede it.

2. Set realistic goals
Let’s face it. You’re never going to “just do it” if “it” seems impossible. That’s why you must think carefully when setting your initial goal. Let’s say you’d like to take your doctor’s advice and make certain lifestyle changes that can help lower your cholesterol level. Instead of deciding to completely overhaul your diet and start an exercise program tomorrow, consider your current lifestyle and habits, and think about which of your doctor’s recommendations you could easily start following in the near future. Perhaps you’re willing to switch to low-fat or nonfat dairy products and to start reading the labels on other types of foods to identify which are high in saturated or trans fat, but you’re not ready to increase your level of physical activity just yet. It is more motivating to set smaller goals and achieve them than to set unrealistic goals and fall short.

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