Demystifying Motivation

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

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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.

3. Break your goals into smaller steps

Sometimes, when looking ahead at a long-term goal, it can seem daunting. You may feel so overwhelmed at the idea of all the work that is required that you feel like giving up even before you start. In such instances, step back from the big picture and set your sights on the step immediately ahead. Then break that step down even further, if necessary, until you get to an action that you are willing to take.

That is the key to this whole process: If you break a goal down far enough, you can almost always find some part of it that you are willing to do. Then you will be off and running (jogging? walking?) in the general direction of your goal. By taking the first step, you will have set into motion the momentum that can then propel you forward to the next step.

4. Use small successes to get to larger ones

Success breeds more success. The small steps you make toward a long-term goal are the truest measure of your potential to reach your long-term goal. With the right attitude and a focus on your progress, you can set up a success cycle that reenergizes itself and continually feeds your motivation. Each small step, once taken, gives you a boost to help you get to the next step. The momentum generated provides the fuel you need to keep going. And as this momentum grows, so does your motivation.

5. Focus on what you want

When considering long-term lifestyle changes, we often think about all the things we’ll have to give up. I know that’s what I did when I first got my diabetes diagnosis. “Oh, no!” I thought. “No more daily chocolate! No more treating myself to dinners of popcorn and ice cream when my husband is away! This can’t be my future!”

Fortunately, it wasn’t. After taking a nutrition class from a diabetes educator, I learned that I did not have to give up my favorite foods; I just had to be more mindful of how I incorporated them into my diet. With a deprivation mindset (focusing on my “can’t haves”), I could not have sustained the healthy eating habits necessary to keep my condition under control. The process would simply feel too punitive. By realizing that I do not have to give up my treats – but instead better monitor my consumption of them – I’ve been able to create a more mindful, disciplined approach to eating.

So instead of focusing on what you don’t want or can’t have, focus on what you do want, and move toward that goal. It is always more motivating to imagine ourselves moving toward a positive experience than moving away from a negative one. Our brains are hard-wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. And pursuing pleasure is more fun and more motivating.

Using positive self-talk is one way to keep your focus on what you want and to keep moving in the direction of your goal. Positive self-talk simply means making encouraging – rather than discouraging – statements to yourself in your head. For example, whenever you make a choice that supports your goal for a healthier lifestyle, congratulate yourself (“Good choice!”). Even if your choice did not reinforce your intent, use positive, encouraging self-talk anyway to motivate, rather than punish, yourself. For example, “I didn’t exercise the full 30 minutes that I intended to today, but I did exercise for 20 minutes and that is good. Next time I’ll try for 25 minutes.”

By always using positive self-talk instead of negative, you will feel motivated rather than disappointed in yourself, and you’ll be more likely to stick with your goal.

6. Reinforce the habit of discipline

Once you’ve made a definite decision, taken appropriate action, generated momentum, and found the motivation you were seeking, what’s next?

Now your challenge is to maintain your motivation over the long haul. Recognize that what you have created is the beginning of new lifestyle habits – habits that will serve you well over your entire lifetime. Habits take conscious effort and willpower to start, but once they are set, they require much less active awareness to maintain. Consider the act of brushing your teeth: You probably perform this habit twice daily, every day, without giving it much thought. You “just do it.” Since the act has become habituated, it has fallen below your conscious awareness, so you notice it – and the effort it takes – less.

Similarly, habits such as planning meals around healthful ingredients, reading food labels at the grocery store, and setting aside time for exercise can become more automatic the more you do them. They still require willpower and mindfulness to carry out, but they will feel less burdensome as they become regular parts of your daily life.

Habits are the key to discipline, because discipline is, in effect, habits that you create because you want to achieve a certain result. Discipline sets up an internal rhythm that your mind responds to automatically, sending out motivation-like energy signals at predetermined times (based on your habits).

For instance, I usually do my regular exercise routine first thing in the morning, before breakfast. If for some reason I am unable to perform this routine, I get a sensation or feeling that something is just not right. My body is reacting to the fact that it is out of sync with its normal rhythm. These body—mind sensations help me stay on track. I feel much better and more in sync when I maintain my disciplined habit.

7. Remain flexible

Sometimes the best-laid plans go awry. There will be times when, despite your best efforts and determined intentions, you are simply not able to carry out one or more of your healthy lifestyle habits. You may be on a business trip that leaves no room for personal time, so you cannot go the gym as you normally would. Perhaps you are at a restaurant with friends and they insist on ordering for everyone. When the meal arrives, you find yourself staring at a table full of food that you would never choose on your own.

At times like these, focus on your original intent, review your options, and make the best choices possible under the existing conditions. You can usually achieve part of your goal, if not all of it. So you can’t go to the gym. The original intent behind this habit was exercise, and you may be able to exercise in other ways. For example, you may be able take a walk around the convention center or the airport or to do a simple exercise routine in your hotel room. At the restaurant, pick out the least offending food choices and pass on the rest. Or take small portions of everything so you don’t go hungry but don’t overeat, either.

Habits and discipline work best when they can be regularly maintained. But if that is not possible at times, don’t give up entirely. Keep your focus on your original intent and your long-term goals, and learn to be flexible in the specific actions you take to pursue them.

8. Reward and reinforce

Worthwhile goals require effort, commitment, and discipline to maintain. But when the intended outcome is important enough, the required effort is well spent. While the goal of a healthier life is a significant reward in itself, you should also reward your hard work and discipline and take pride in the positive, new attitudes that you create. Mindful motivation begins and ends with attitude, because attitude determines everything. The thoughts that you focus on, the mindset that you hold, and the mental habits that you create determine your choices, your actions, and therefore your life.

So if you decide to become your own best friend and take charge of the mental habits that determine your life, reward yourself for creating this positive, life-changing attitude. Be proud of yourself. Congratulate yourself with positive self-talk. Do something nice for yourself. Generate positive feelings about yourself and your ability to make a commitment and follow through. The emotional energy generated by such positive feelings will reinforce your commitment and motivation further, helping you to maintain your success cycle over the long haul.

Develop a mindset of mindful motivation, and you will see that you can motivate yourself to do anything that you really want to do.

Originally Published November 21, 2011

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