When millions of people woke up after New Years earlier this month, they probably thought, “This is it. The year I finally get in shape.” They were fired up, motivated, and ready to go. Trouble is, many of them likely thought the exact same thing last year. And the year before that.
The problem with motivation is that it comes and goes. Some days, you feel invincible. Other days, you feel worse than Darth Vader without his lightsaber. “At moments of high motivation, you need to make specific plans about what you’re going to do in the future, when motivation will likely be lower,” says Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies grit and self-control.
Nobody feels “motivated” all the time. If you’re serious about getting in shape and want to stay consistent this year, forget about trying to “get motivated” and do this instead.
Don’t Wait for Motivation to Strike
There are times when I can’t be bothered to go to the gym—and I’m a personal trainer. But whether I feel motivated or not, I still get the job done. That’s because I have something that’s far more important than motivation: discipline.
When you have discipline, the fact that you don’t feel like doing something doesn’t stop you from actually doing it. “Motivation alone will only take you so far—it can come and go in a flash. Discipline is rooted in consistency, it becomes part of who you are and what you do,” says Ross Enamait, a Connecticut-based professional boxing coach who trains Katie Taylor, the reigning WBA and IBF champion.
A lot of people see discipline as a fixed and unchangeable personality trait. You either have it or you don’t. But discipline is like a muscle. If you don’t have it, you can build it.
“People who are disciplined are high in a personality trait called conscientiousness, which is the tendency to apply yourself consistently and carefully. Motivation is a more fleeting state,” says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., professor emerita of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “It’s possible for people to develop more consistent habits even if they aren’t lucky enough to have developed the personality trait. Motivation will help you in the moment, but over time, you’ll be better off if you can acquire those consistent habits.”
Over time, in other words, even small acts of self-control will make your discipline stronger and better prepared for the next challenge.
Keep It Simple in the Beginning
Most people try to change everything all at once, only for everything to go back to normal when that burst of motivation wears off. Instead, take some advice Arnold Schwarzenegger. Here’s what he had to say on the subject in his first book, Education of a Bodybuilder:
“Start small with an easy program. Don’t go trying to do everything at once. Tease yourself. Even when you want to do more, don’t. Hold yourself back. Build up an appetite, so that you want to do more. Don’t be one of these people who do it all perfectly for three weeks, then gets burned out and fed up. Let yourself stay hungry for more.”
Instead of overhauling your entire diet, for instance, change one meal. Eating one healthy meal each day is better than none at all, and will help you build momentum. If the idea of exercising for an hour seems like too much, just show up at the gym, do one exercise, and go home. I know that may sound a bit feeble, but in the beginning, what’s important is to get into the habit of doing something, no matter how small that something might be. You can gradually ramp things up once the behavior becomes consistent.
“Find a time in the day that is almost always available and schedule it in your calendar on your phone, with a push alert as a reminder,” says sport psychologist and Ironman triathlete Jim Taylor, Ph.D., author of Train Your Mind for Athletic Success. “Enlist support from friends and family. For example, make a mutual commitment to, say, two exercise classes a week with a friend. You may bail out if you are on your own, but you don’t want to let your friend down.”
The bottom line: Habits are like muscles, and they’re built in much the same way—through repetition. Just like adding strands to a rope makes that rope stronger, the physical act of doing something strengthens and reinforces the habit.
Create Multiple Backup Plans
There’s an old military saying: “No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.” The same idea holds true for getting in shape. On your way to getting fit, things are going to go wrong. There will be times when you plan to go to the gym, but work gets in the way. Or when you’re driving home from work tired, frazzled, and hungry, and you end up taking an unplanned detour to McDonald’s.
That’s why, when the inevitable happens, you’ll want to have a plan B up your sleeve. Write down every obstacle you might confront in a given week that could derail your progress, and come up with a solution ahead of time. What are you going to eat if you go to a restaurant and there’s nothing “healthy” on the menu? What are you going to do if there’s some kind of crisis at work, and you don’t have time to follow your regular training program? How are you going to deal with an attack of the late-night munchies?
Have it all written down and planned out in advance. The more options you give yourself, the better. Remembering the bigger picture can help during those inevitable low points, too: “Keeping your eye on a higher-level goal instead of just the low-level tactics helps you maintain flexibility,” Duckworth says. “Flexibility is essential—most plans aren’t totally successful from the start. They need tweaking.”
Build Habits Rather Than Setting Goals
The stock advice on goal setting goes something like this: Set a target, such as losing 20 pounds of fat or gaining 10 pounds of muscle. Then give yourself a deadline for achieving it. A commercial airplane will never leave an airport without a flight plan, the old adage goes. It requires a destination, a time of departure, and an arrival time.
When it comes to setting a fitness or weight loss goal, however, you should take this advice, tear it up, and throw it out the window. Unless you’ve been in shape before, trying to predict exactly how fast you’ll lose fat and gain muscle isn’t easy. People respond differently to the same program of diet and exercise.
To riff on that old adage, if you’ve never flown the route before and you don’t even know what type of plane you’re flying, it’s very difficult to know in advance what time you’re going to arrive.
Your ability to hit a given target by a certain date is something that’s often outside your control. Your behavior, on the other hand, is largely within your control. Rather than setting goals, you’re far better off building habits that will lead to the outcome you want.
Come up with a system that supports the goal, and you’ll get where you want to be. A goal provides direction and motivation, but committing to the process will keep you moving. Focus on doing the right things, every day, and the results will take care of themselves.