Posted by on Jun 16, 2014

Georgie Fear is a registered dietitian and pro nutrition coach. She is the co-author of Racing Weight Cookbook: Lean, Light Recipes for Athletes.

Do you suffer from acute bouts of motivation to get fit, eat better, or change in some way, only to find that your resolve vanishes after a short spurt?


If so, guess what? You’re human. It’s a common problem I hear from my clients all the time: “How can I stay motivated, day in and day out, year after year?” Most of us struggle not because we don’t know what actions to do, but because our emotional brains interfere with us doing those actions consistently enough to reach our goals, or we don’t sustain the behaviors permanently to maintain our results. I’d like to share some advice on how you can set yourself up for lasting motivation, resolve that won’t fade at the first whiff of cinnamon rolls, and the oomph to get your butt to the gym when planting it on the couch sounds far more appealing.


First, don’t set a goal that is simply a WHAT. Add in the WHY, and make it a genuine, meaningful reason for you. Remind yourself daily of your WHY. You might find it helpful to write your reason on a card you carry with you, set it to pop up on your phone display, or put it into a phrase you say to yourself when needed. Does this sound a bit silly? Yes. And does it work? Yes. You can decide if a little silliness is worth it to you or not.



Seriously. Why?


Second, when settling on that WHY, know that positivity-based goals outlast goals based on avoiding or preventing the negative. My clients often hear me say that goals based on fear or pain do not work. Here’s why: if your goal is based on fear or pain, you have to remain in a state of fear or pain to maintain the motivation to act. Our brains evolved to avoid pain. We are hard-wired to not want to dwell on things that hurt. Fear is not a state we like to settle into long term. Fear and pain based goals make a person prone to self-sabotage, also known as acting in direct opposition to a goal you supposedly “want.”


If we attempt to make a change driven by a PAIN or FEAR motivator, we will take the right actions as long as we keep that fear and pain foremost in our minds. Let’s say a person decides to diet because as they gain weight, their spouse is losing attraction to them. That hurts!! Or someone’s parent has a heart attack, so they swear to give up fried foods.


That pain and fear will operate for them as long they stay in a pained, fearful place. But no one’s brain is going to voluntarily hang out in a fearful, painful place. It’s going to want an escape. So when the temptation comes, you’re brain is saying “Okay, I can wallow in fear and pain, or I can escape fear and pain in this moment by eating the donut.” And you’ll let the pain and fear go for a moment, and engage in that self-sabotaging behavior. Worse yet, you’ll keep doing it, because now you’ve associated going off-plan with a relief of your fear or pain. What gets rewarded gets repeated. Associating undesired behaviors with positive emotions like relaxation, stress relief, and social bonding creates a minefield of temptation out of the world.


Just as you’d think, we like to do stuff that feels good. Our brains like to do what feels good. We have no problem doing that over and over.


Thank you, Flickr user clotho98.

Make your brain feel good!


Luckily, you can use this neurology know-how to your benefit. Since your brain will gravitate toward the things that feel good, use positive motivators. A vision of yourself as you want to be, happy, strong, lean and fit. Maybe crossing the finish line of a 10K or wearing a clothing style you’ve always admired. A feeling of being confident, capable, and acting in line with your values, such as showing the world that you care about your body enough to take good care of it. These are positive motivators. These are the ones that stick long term.


If you are working toward a juicy, meaningful goal that brings you joy, you are much more resilient against temptation, because the process is rewarding.


When you can visualize each action as a step closer to your positive aspiration, ordering the healthy lunch instead of the greasy one becomes it’s own reward, because it makes you feel good emotionally and physically. Completing a workout brings a sense of pride and accomplishment. Going off track becomes associated with a loss of those positive feelings – and it reinforces your desire to get back on plan, back to the good sensations of moving forward. Pat yourself on the back for taking the stairs, choosing the vegetable side instead of chips, or having water instead of a soda. Celebrate every positive action, let yourself feel proud and accomplished, and give yourself credit for even the smallest step forward.


Want to really seal the deal? Stack the cards in your favor by increasing the rewards for the behaviors you want to continue. Can you find a way to couple the desired behaviors to scenarios that produce good feelings for you, such as unwinding on Friday evening with a healthy meal, or kicking back with a pal and bonding over some tea, (instead of double-mocha-frapuccinos and scones)? If you normally celebrate happy occasions with indulgent meals, what would change if you instead celebrated with your favorite delicious but healthy meal? Associating good feelings with your desired actions can go a long way toward putting you on the autopilot to success, with less effort and greater ease.


Featured image “Keep it Up” courtesy of Steven Depolo. “Why?” courtesy of Mark Heybo and “Happy Brain” courtesy Flickr user clotho98. All are used under a Creative Commons License.

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