If you’re like most people, you started the year off with a bang. You set some big goals, and blasted off like a firework to make it “Your Year.” But now, a couple months in, the picture looks a little different: your motivation has dried up, and you’ve fallen back into old habits. What happened? And how can you keep moving towards your goals without losing your drive?
Why We Lose Motivation
There are a couple reasons why our motivation gives out. Let’s explore them in more detail.
Our Goals Aren’t Realistic
A common problem is that we want to make a big change but fail to break it down into bite-sized achievements. Instead, we set goals that are either too long-term or too difficult. When we fail to meet these goals, we feel bad and the incentive to continue lessens. In short, we set ourselves up for failure.
We Lose Sight of the Big Picture
It’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day realities of life and forget why you started on your fitness journey in the first place. Then you have a rough week and all you can think about is how you don’t want to get up at 5 a.m. to hit the gym. You forget the overriding reason you’re doing this in the first place. We’ll come back to this one in a bit.
Old Habits Die Hard
If your default setting is to come home from work and lounge in front of the TV, and you’ve been doing that for years, it can be really hard to work your way out of it. This is natural, but it’s another reason why we need to look beyond motivation to build a successful, long-term routine.
The Good News—You Don’t Need Motivation
If you’re feeling a little hopeless after reading all that, don’t worry! Motivation isn’t that great, but it’s ok. You don’t need it. Here’s what you can do instead.
Find Your Why
You know you want to get in shape, but do you know why? Did you have a recent health scare? Maybe you want to make sure you stay in good health, so you can be around longer for your family. Do you want to look good in a bathing suit over the summer? Or maybe you’ve always wanted to run a marathon, and now’s the time. Whatever your core reason, it’s important to keep it at the center of all your plans.
Why does this matter? Because any goal worth reaching is going to get a little tough at some point. When you’re fighting to shed those last ten pounds (or add another ten to the bar), you’re going to have to dig deep. So next time you’re in the gym, ask yourself this question: “Why am I here?”
Use Your Why
Here’s how you can leverage your “Why” to help you push through tough spots.
- Grab a sheet of paper and write down your goal. This is something concrete, like “get my cholesterol under 130” or “complete a half-marathon.” This is what you want to accomplish.
- Now take a minute and think about your “why.” What’s the real reason you want to achieve the goal from step one? This is going to be highly personal, and any answer is valid. Just make sure you’re being honest with yourself.
- Consider how you feel when you think about your “why.” Do you feel inspired? A little nervous? Write that down.
- Now envision yourself successfully reaching your goal. You did it! What does that feel like? Write that down.
- Stick that piece of paper somewhere you’ll see it every day. Tape it to your bathroom mirror, or put it in your gym bag. You can even put it under your pillow. The idea is that you’ll see it and be reminded about why you’re doing what you’re doing and how you’ll feel when you reach the end. This can give you the extra push you need to get over a tough day or week where you feel like giving up.
When you’ve worked out your “why,” you’ll feel inspired and passionate, and you’ll have the fresh energy needed to accomplish your goals.
Make it Sustainable
Make sure not to push yourself too hard at the beginning of your program. It can be tempting to dive right into your training—no pain, no gain, right? But this is a recipe for a quick burnout, especially if you’ve been out of the gym for a while. What you want is a habit you can carry with you into the rest of your life.
To accomplish that, start slow and focus on building good habits and using proper form. This prevents early injuries and fatigue from derailing your plans. And remember, fitness is a lifelong thing. You’ve got plenty of time to add plates to your deadlift, but you won’t be lifting anything if you throw out your back.
Set Realistic Goals
While shooting for the stars and setting big goals is great, the reality is that if the goals are too difficult, it can actually be counterproductive. One of the biggest reasons why motivation fizzles out is that we set goals that we’d either never be able to reach or are only reachable with perfect adherence and execution, which is another unrealistic expectation.
Of course, you want your goals to be challenging so that you push yourself. But they also need to be achievable, so that you can feel the satisfaction (and motivation) of success and set the next goal to continue your progress.
Here are some tips for setting useful goals:
- Use the SMART framework. SMART is an acronym to help you remember the key elements of a good goal. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
- Share your goals. Rope in a trusted friend and make them an accountability partner. Share your goal with them and ask them to hold you to it. Maybe they need some accountability, too (we all do), and you can help them reach their own goals in the process.
- Set a deadline for yourself. This is part of the SMART goal system. For example, if your goal is to bench press 225 pounds, look at where you’re at now and give yourself a challenging but reasonable deadline. Then set smaller milestones along the way to keep yourself on track and moving towards the larger target. If you want to hit 225 in six months, you can set a goal of 200 for three months, or a weekly goal to add 5 or 10 pounds to the bar.
Build Strong Habits and Discipline
You won’t always feel like hitting the gym or eating another meal of chicken and rice, but by creating small, daily habits you can keep moving the needle on your goals even when your motivation fails.
These habits can be exercise-related or diet-related. For example, you could run every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning. Or you could eat chicken and a vegetable for lunch every day. The idea is to create an action that happens automatically, without your thoughts or emotions needing to be involved. It’s Wednesday? Grab your running shoes. Coworkers heading to McDonald’s? No thanks, you brought your lunch.
The Role of Discipline
In a similar vein to building good habits, work on your discipline. Instead of waiting for a day when you feel like working out, discipline yourself to go to the gym every day, whether you feel like it or not. Over time, it’ll become second nature to get up and go, and you won’t even have to think about it.
The nice thing about discipline is that it carries through to other areas of your life outside of fitness. It can help you lose weight, get more exercise, file those TPS reports on time, and cut the grass even in the dead of summer.
How to Hack Your Habits
Building good habits takes time and effort, but there are some things you can do to minimize your natural resistance to new routines. Here are a few ideas:
- Set your gym gear out the night before. Nobody wants to get up and go run or lift at the crack of dawn. Not at first, anyway. At first, you’ll look for any excuse not to. So, handle your excuses ahead of time so there’s no way out. By waking up with your gym clothes already laid out and your bag packed, you have one less reason not to go.
- Prep your meals in advance. This is the same idea as wearing your workout clothes to bed, but for food. If your lunch is already made, it’s one less reason for you not to take it to work, and one less excuse to eat fast food.
- Unplug your TV. If you’re prone to Netflix binges (aren’t we all?), and these are eating up time you could be using to exercise or meal prep, make it harder to sit down and watch. If you have to plug the TV in every time you want to watch it, you have another opportunity to catch yourself before you waste four hours watching The Office again.
- Reward yourself. If you successfully perform your new habits for a week, treat yourself to something nice. Grab a coffee at Starbucks, or watch a couple episodes of your favorite show. Positive reinforcement works really well to cement your new behavior patterns ass the correct ones, so you’ll be more likely to choose them automatically in the future.
See how this works? Set yourself up for success.
Hire a Coach
One of the best things you can do is have someone who’s also invested in your success to encourage you and keep you going. Sometimes a friend is too close to be honest with you, though. Or maybe you need some pro know-how.
This is where a wellness coach can really come in handy. A good coach can help you stay on track to reach your goals and offer unbiased advice. And you often get the benefit of a custom-tailored workout routine and meal plan, too.
How to Pick a Wellness Coach
Choosing a coach is a big deal. You want someone who can strike the right balance between providing positive reinforcement and encouragement while also challenging you and holding you accountable. Here are a few tips for picking a great coach:
- Deep knowledge is a requirement, not a bonus. A fitness or wellness coach should know a lot about obscure exercise variations and proper form. They should also be knowledgeable in good, healthy nutrition. This is the foundation for pretty much any wellness goal, whether it’s related to weight, performance, or general health.
- It’s all psychological. The right wellness coach for you is the one that can find the unique way to motivate and push you without taking things too far. There’s a surprising amount of psychology involved in this. The coach should understand your personality, hang-ups, and concerns regarding fitness, and they should be able to work with those to build a plan that works for you.
- Try them out. Don’t just go with the first coach you meet! You should interview several potential coaches to see how things feel. The right balance of tough love and encouragement can vary from person to person, and there’s no way to tell how a coach is going to work without spending some time with them.
Finding a wellness coach that’s a good fit can make all the difference, so it’s worth putting some time into.
Above all else, remember: fitness is a journey. This is a long road, with many milestones and goals to reach along the way, and it’s something you'll hopefully continue for the rest of your life. Start with good practices now, and you’ll make things much easier for yourself down the road.