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3 Techniques to Use If Motivation Is a Barrier to Exercise

Part 4: Everything you should know for when it's hard to act on your intentions.

Before your head hits the pillow, you make a mental note to exercise tomorrow morning. The next thing you know your alarm is going off. You hit snooze. Twice.

It’s too late to exercise now; you tell yourself you will do it after work. But when work ends, you’re tired and you want to watch your favorite show instead.

You are likely aware of the fact that good intentions do not always lead to action. Perhaps you lack motivation?

Motivation has a reflective side and an automatic side. Reflective processes involve planning to act on your intentions as well as the evaluation of the behavior as good or bad. It’s analytical. Automatic processing involves emotional reactions and desires.

When it comes to motivation, we need direction to implement the behaviors we want to do. Next, it is beneficial to increase our strength to go against the counterproductive impulses we may have. Last, it is going to be beneficial to have automatic motivation on your side.

In my last post of this series, I discussed what to do if capability is an issue. In this part we focus on motivation with three techniques: widening the options, the behavioral contract, and temptation bundling.

Widen the Options

When we think of behavior in terms of this-or-that, we have failed to examine the multitude of choices we have. "If I don’t exercise at 3:00 p.m., I won’t have time to do it today." "If I go for a run, I won’t have time to spend with my family."

Change can seem unappealing if you go to black-and-white decision-making. Stop thinking in terms of only having two options and think of the plethora of choices you have at hand.

In terms of exercise, don’t get married to one method. If you don’t have time to go to the gym that does not mean you cannot go for a walk, do a body weight circuit at home, follow a yoga video, or go for a run. Don’t be so quick to latch onto the first option that pops into your head.

If you think the path to fitness means buying a fancy piece of home exercise equipment, joining a gym, or joining boot camp-style classes, you need to widen your view on the available options.

Behavioral Contract

One of my clients wanted to reduce his phone use. It made him unproductive at work and interfered with his plans to exercise. He tried giving it to his wife during the day but was very inconsistent with that. He talked about getting a burner phone that had no internet service but that was a bit extreme. Nothing was working. So, we tried a behavioral contract.

This client decided that he would put down a monetary incentive that would be painful enough to lose. He decided to pick a political candidate to donate to that he believed would not win (but wouldn’t mind if this candidate did). If he looked at his phone when he wasn't supposed to, he would need to donate $100 to this candidate’s campaign.

If you want to stop doing something, or start doing something, find a cause to donate to. Make the behavior crystal clear:

· I will work out three times this week

· I will walk 8,000 steps every day

· I will lift weights twice per week

Put down a monetary amount that you are comfortable with but not happy about losing. Find a friend to check in daily or weekly. If you break your contract, you need to ante up.

Temptation Bundling

Before she was a professor at the Wharton School of Business, Katherine Milkman was a graduate student at Harvard. She had gone to the gym frequently during her undergraduate career but now lacked the energy. In an interview with NPR she said at the end of the day she just wanted to “watch TV or read Harry Potter.” Milkman found a way to pair what she wanted to do (indulge in Harry Potter) with what she needed to do (exercise).

One way to make the behavior more attractive is to link something you want to do with something you know you should do. Milkman loved fantasy books and was only allowed to listen to them while she was in the gym. She paired something she had to do with something she wanted to do, and it worked! Milkman calls this technique temptation bundling.

With temptation bundling, think of either something enjoyable you can do while you exercise or think of a reward that is contingent upon you exercising.


In this series you have learned that motivation, opportunity, and capability are the determinants of behavior. These determinants may be influenced by your cognitions, social networks, or structural environment. Behavior change techniques should target the sources of influence that are affecting the determinant that needs improvement. In the last part of the series you will learn how to examine and create opportunities for exercise.

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