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Motivation 101: Don’t Dig Deep

Manipulating motivation to make exercise fit your life

Think of your willpower as a muscle that gets tired with use. You may push yourself to get the report done at work, push yourself to choose salad over pizza at lunch, and then push yourself to call your mom on the way home like you said you would. Then, in the evening, you have no willpower left to do the next "should." Your willpower muscle is fatigued. What do you do when you don't have a "push" left for your next "should?"

Find a pull! Rather than relying on some internal sense of motivation, look outward for help with your next goal. Make the first step especially easy to start, and make sure you have clear reminders of your goals. Rather than thinking of yourself as motivated or not, think of yourself as having lots of motivations. All these motivations are competing with one another. Your motivation to exercise, for example, has to compete with your motivation to watch television, eat a cheeseburger, or take a nap. Which behavior you choose depends in part on which motivation you are most reminded of. That is, seeing your running gear when you walk into the house will have a very different impact than seeing a comfy pillow on the couch.

Also, it is important not to rely on any single motivation to win the competition between motivations. Instead, think of ways of combining individual motivations together to create a better pull for a behavior you want to do. Let's take exercise. On any given day, it is easy to skip exercise, because there are so many other options grabbing your attention. To help yourself go running, ask yourself what else you can link to your running time. How about music! Listening to your music is probably higher on the motivation list than going running. Combine the two: running motivation plus good music motivation = higher motivation. You can get that motivation even higher with a reminder: the running shoes sitting out in the hall with your iPod, with a note tucked into a shoe that says, "mood." Running motivation + music motivation + a reminder of the mood benefits = even higher motivation. What else could be combined to get you to exercise?

Here is a way I recently tied together my goals to get in a run after writing my last blog. I didn't really want to go running, but I needed to make a quick trip to the bank and I wanted to get my exercise out of the way for the day. My running partner was also encouraging me to get out for a run with her. So, I put the tasks together. The bank is under a mile down the road, but it was a particularly steamy Boston day. I put my deposit slip and check in a zip lock bag to keep them free of sweat, pulled on my running shorts, and headed out. When we got to the bank, my running partner took an extra lap around the block, and I went into the bank.

After a few moments devoted to shuffling in line I presented my crisply dry deposit slip, put my receipt in the zip lock, and went back out to the steamy day to rejoin my running partner. We then finished the run, finding a new route to our favorite path. On arriving home, it seemed like the run happened for free. That is, I did not have to use any extra motivation to get myself to run. My focus was on fitting the trip to the bank in between my work responsibilities; the exercise was simply a handy commute that gave me a good break from my midday writing responsibilities. And this episode illustrates something important about keeping motivation high for regular exercise. It is important not to have to dig deep for motivation to exercise, but to link exercise attempts to as many reminders and other tasks and motivations as possible. Today, I did not have to be motivated to run; I just had to be motivated to get to the bank and to avoid a hot car. My running partner also helped. Exercising with a friend or family member helps you rely on shared social motivation. When you schedule running with a friend or with a family member, the social demands help keep you on time and in the groove.

The key to getting your goals met is not to dig deep to try to find some internal motivation, but to use your environment to make sure your valued goals are on the top of the motivation pile. In other words, never leave it up to your willpower alone to guide you to success. Instead, cheat the system by relying on multiple motivations with lots of reminders to keep your important goals on the top of the motivation list (above the television, cheeseburgers, and naps). That is a strategy you can bank on.

Copyright Michael Otto

Drs. Michael Otto and Jasper Smits are authors of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well Being.

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