Why Motivation is Overrated & What We Need Instead

This may be a controversial post for a personal trainer to write, but I want to break down the myth of ‘motivation’. I see too many clients punishing themselves for lacking this mystical power, desperately trying to locate it somewhere, and feeling exhausted and exasperated when they can’t.


They look around and see other people possessing this mystic power. They watch as friends do half marathons, eat healthily, abstain from drinking and whatever else, and they think “why don’t I have the motivation?”


Think of it like this. Back when food was scarce and humans had predators to worry about in the savannah, day-to-day movement, work, and hunting was an absolute necessity. If there were predators lurking nearby, or a rival for food, our ancestors would have to pack up and move on. The hunters would be out finding food for hours on end, sometimes a whole day and often, they might come back with nothing. Can you imagine if they woke up one day and said “I just don’t have the motivation”. They would quite literally starve.


Our modern lifestyles present us with a different kind of challenge. If you’re reading this, you more than likely don’t have to worry about hunting or predators on your tail. You probably have shelter, access to water, and food readily available just a few steps away. There is no absolute need to get up and move around, so when you don’t have the innate drive to go for a run and expend calories needlessly, you need to realise that it is a totally natural response.


Stop beating yourself up for it, because your brain has been hard wired to reduce energy expenditure as much as possible; it’s still concerned that food is scarce. That’s why we often crave high calorie foods and have to cultivate restraint when it comes to all the tasty junk foods made to tempt us all the time; your brain is telling you ”GO GET THOSE CALORIES SO WE CAN SURVIVE”.


So, now we have some context, let’s get back to motivation. After centuries of this type of priming, why do we think that this magical thing called ‘motivation’ is going to override all of that survival instinct? The problem with motivation is that it’s not a tangible concept. It is not a tool that you can wield when you need it. It’s a little bit whimsical.


It’s a bit like when you’re feeling low and somebody says “cheer up!”.. If only it were that simple. But then you speak to a CBT therapist, and they give you actual tools that you can use to lift your mood. They might say “exercise three times a week”, “say ‘no’ when you don’t want to do something”, “write your thoughts down”. These are actual practical things you can do that contribute to the lifting of your mood once you get into the habit. Habit. HABIT!


And there it is. It’s what I believe in 10x more than motivation. Habit. You cannot rely on motivation to be there every day. Some days you’ll feel full of energy and ready to train hard. Other days you’ll just want to curl up in a ball and watch trash TV, even though you know it’ll make you feel worse. But what you can rely on is habit.


Why are habits so powerful? Because they contain a reward at the end. Your brain becomes accustomed to the reward, and eventually puts the whole process on autopilot.





Source: James Clear, Atomic Habits


You start with a cue; let’s use anxiety as an example. You feel anxious and stressed. You usually get into a spiral of negative thinking here but now you’re making a conscious effort to interrupt that negative spiral. You shift your thinking pattern to a positive one, and you use this feeling as a cue to exercise. You go for a 20 minute run and at the end of it, you feel great.


You come back, have a shower and feel totally refreshed.


You do it for the second time.


And third.


And suddenly your brain is making the decision for you. You stop bargaining with yourself now. You get your workout gear on, have a sip of your water, put your usual playlist on; all of these cues are now part of your habit cycle. Your brain prepares itself and tells your body to get ready for a run. Your body releases stress hormones to pump you up and help you get through the run. You go through the whole process and when you’ve finished your run, your body starts settling down and your stress cycle closes. You feel great and less worried about that biscuit you might have to treat yourself - and there’s the reward.


As a personal trainer, I simply cannot rely on motivation to get me up and out. Most days I don’t actually want to exercise, but I’ve become accustomed to the habit and I know that the reward will come once I’ve done it. I’m on autopilot. I focus on my short term and long term goals, and I know that the training sessions will add up over time. I have a routine and as soon as I start implementing it, my mind and body get ready to workout.


So try this; stop bargaining with yourself. And start a habit process. First steps? Get your workout gear on and put your favourite song on in your headphones. Pump up the music and start warming up. If you don’t end up doing a full workout, or if you only do a 10 minute session, that’s fine! You will try again the next day. Implement the exact same routine and try again. Do these for five days out of your first week, and see how you go.


Over time, you’ll feel so pumped by just warming up, that you’ll want to knock out a longer session. The cue becomes the outfit you’re wearing and the music in your headphones. Your brain primes you to warm up, your blood starts pumping and BAM, all the processes are in place for a workout.


Give it a go; try this four days a week for one month. By that point, it will be a habit and you will miss it so much that you’ll want to carry on. Trust me! It works.


What have you got to lose?


Jessica Redman

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