Updated: Dec 23, 2021
We've all been there... Knowing we should hit the gym, but having no motivation whatsoever. Motivation is a tricky beast, seeming to only come around when it's least convenient and rarely when it's needed.
Motivation comes down to more than just "feeling like it". I've found myself too busy, too sore, or just plain too unmotivated to work out for days or weeks on end. I've given every excuse in the book. A lack of motivation can feel like an insurmountable obstacle, like doing the thing will cause you physical pain, but there's a secret to it.
It's the classic story of the kid home alone after school. She has to do her homework, wash the dishes, and take out the trash before mom gets home at 6. She doesn't have the motivation to do it, so she procrastinates and watches TV until she hears the phone ring. It's mom, and she's 15 minutes away! All of the sudden she has all of the energy and motivation in the world to get those chores knocked out! Where did the motivation come from?
There are two different kids of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. EXtrinsic motivation comes from EXternal factors, like your crush paying attention to you. INtrinsic motivation comes from INternal sources such as the pleasure or gratification of solving a puzzle (without a gun to your head). Here's how to tap in to each one.
Extrinsic motivation comes from having a positive or negative consequence that you can anticipate from doing (or not doing) a task.
Find an accountability buddy - An accountability buddy will check in with you regularly to make sure you're staying on track with your goals. This can provide both positive reinforcement from a successful streak, and can potentially also provide a negative emotional consequence when an objective is missed. Talk with your accountability buddy and let then know how you best respond to these motivational cues.
Reward yourself - Before or after your workout, give yourself something to look forward to. Compounding rewards, where the reward gets larger the longer you stay on track, are great for building lifelong habits. It's best not to use treats as an incentive, since it can deepen an unhealthy relationship with food. Try a soothing sauna session or a massage.
Get competitive - Winning a trophy or an award can be extremely rewarding, and also tends to last longer than a day or two. Sign up for an event where you'll have to be at your best, tell all your friends, and you'll be sure to make some fast improvements. You can sign up for a local race, a weekend warrior challenge, or any number of local or online events. You could even make a bet with a friend that you'll reach your goal.
Keep a win-list - Write a list of the ways you've benefited from your training. If you're proud of your progress, you'll want to go to the gym to keep it up. Feeling down on your progress? Looking at your win-list can remind you what used to motivate you, and can create a feeling of competition with yourself. Only you know your truest motivators!
Gamify it - Gamification adds a layer of artificial reality fun to your boring real-life day. Apps like Zombies, Run! create a story around your workouts, allowing you to "pick up" supplies and out-run imaginary zombies. If you need more real-world consequences, Beeminder will literally make you pay... Set a price and lose it if your tasks aren't completed.
Extrinsic motivation isn't always the answer though. Relying too much on extrinsic motivation sources can dampen your ability to motivate yourself without rewards, and the rewards often have to keep growing or changing to continue stimulating your interest and motivation. These methods work best for beginners who are establishing a lot of brand new habits, and when you're really in a slump, but you can use them any time.
Intrinsic motivation comes from a genuine desire to participate in a task. It's basically the holy grail of personal motivation. It's even more elusive than external motivation, but it can still be cultivated and harnessed.
Challenge or competition - Intrinsic challenges are different from the extrinsic competition in that the extrinsic competition relies on a reward, or the aversion of loss as the outcome. Intrinsic competition is the enjoyment of pursuing goals and striving to reach new achievements. These goals often relate to a sense or self-confidence and personal performance.
Take control - A sense of control over your life is a breath of fresh air these days. Most of us have obligations and people depending on us to do things whether we want to or not. Reclaiming your mind and body for a workout is you standing up and taking control of your time, however little it may be. You could even go to the gym and just sit in the sauna or read a magazine. You're in control.
Curiosity - Curiosity is the first spark of interest, and when you're genuinely interested in something, you can easily tap in to that unlimited motivation and focus for hours. Pay close attention to the sensations in your body. Pain, imbalances, and obstacles can quickly turn into a passionate journey of self-discovery if you tune your curiosity to them and get excited to explore your options.
Positive self talk - When you're feeling accomplished, or a friend notices your progress (extrinsic motivation), let those kind and good thoughts replace your negative patterns. Create a habit of noticing your positive attributes and efforts to reinforce your confidence and keep you coming back for more.
Know yourself - Nothing is one-size-fits-all. Sometimes motivators have an opposite effect, or we just get there in our own way. Understanding what drives you to reach your goals is the surest way to grow your stores of motivation and keep them full. Look deeply at the motivators that work for you and try to find out why, because most motivational tools will only work for a little while before the fun wears off and it feels like work again.
Use the tools of motivation to expand your ability to self-discipline. There will always be days where you just don't wanna, but motivation can increase your stamina and mental focus, making your workouts much more effective. There's nothing wrong with motivating or tricking yourself into a good workout, and there's certainly nothing wrong with getting up and doing the work anyways, but balance is key. Motivation and self-discipline work hand in hand, each picking up the slack when the other is running low.