Lost Your Motivation? Stop Focusing on the Big Picture
How’s your year going so far?
Are you still killing it with your goals? Or have you lost that spark of motivation and started to slide into the same old habits?
It can be super frustrating if you’re on Team Backslide, but you’re definitely not alone.
So why is that? Why do you set out to make real changes to your health, full of enthusiasm and willingness, only to crash and burn a few weeks later?
It might have a lot less to do with you — and your lack of willpower — than you might think.
There’s no question that diet and exercise are the foundation of a healthy lifestyle, but the culture that surrounds them doesn’t always set you up for success — sometimes it’s even a trap that dooms you to failure.
Everywhere you turn there’s a “best exercise”, “3-week, fat-loss plan”, or “superfood” that promises to change your life. And while those things might be beneficial, they’re not the foundation that most people need to make lasting changes to their health.
What if you walked into the first day of Kindergarten, your teacher handed you a copy of War and Peace, and told you to have it read for your exam on Friday? It wouldn’t matter how much you wanted to succeed. Clearly, you’d be set up to fail.
You haven’t learned to read yet. And even if you somehow manage to sound out the words, you haven’t developed the comprehension to understand what those words mean. Sure, those symbols will eventually take on meaning and become instinctive for you, but you’re not there yet.
Diet and exercise work the same way. Much like that Kindergartener needs a step-by-step approach to learn reading skills, you’re missing the basic skills that will allow you to make lasting change. (And I hate to break it to you, but you’re still at risk of falling into this trap even if you’re not new to the fitness game.)
When you rely on motivation instead of developing the process, you’re treating the symptom, not the problem.
Where Did the Motivation Go?
There’s no question that your motivation was real, so why does it fizzle out?
The prefrontal cortex is the area in your brain that controls willpower — along with your focus, and short-term memory. It’s also the part responsible for managing your day-to-day activities. Everything that gets thrown at you falls on the prefrontal cortex.
Stop and really think about everything you have to deal with on a daily basis.
Your prefrontal cortex has to manage all of that — making it pretty overworked, even on the best days. Now you’re expecting that same, overworked assistant to drag you to the gym everyday, eat healthy, and keep you from stuffing your face with Oreos at 10 p.m. — and be excited about it.
It’s no wonder that your willpower and motivation just can’t keep up after a few weeks.
But if you can’t rely on willpower, how do you make lasting change?
Focus on the Process, Not the Outcome
Your brain is an amazing machine. It’s sole purpose is dedicated to keeping you alive. And one of the most important ways it does that is by learning from past experiences.
But while memory can keep you from harm — like learning not to touch a hot surface after you’ve been burned — it also messes with your head sometimes. And this becomes especially true where motivation is concerned.
Because your brain relies on precedent, your past experience plays a huge role in the story it tells you. Have you failed at losing weight in the past? Like that school yearbook that never lets you forget a terrible 3rd-grade haircut, your brain is there to subconsciously remind you of that failure.
So how do you overcome this negativity and continue to succeed when motivation fails?
By focusing on the process instead of the end result.
Instead of saying, “I’m going to lose 20 pounds,” focus on a small, specific behavior that will advance your goal. Start with something like, “I’m going to go to the gym for 45 minutes everyday this week.”
You’re not committing to 6 months, just a few days. Which not only makes your goal easier to accomplish, but it makes it more difficult to fail. And when you’ve successfully completed that goal, commit to doing it again the next week.
Now, instead of remembering all those failed New Year’s resolutions to go to the gym, you’ve basically hijacked your brain to start remembering the positive outcome.
You’ve also started to internalize the process of going to the gym and taken small steps to create a habit for the behavior. You don’t always need to be motivated to go to the gym, it’s just something that you do — like brushing your teeth.
This is also where the idea of habit stacking comes into play. Here, the goal is to establish a pattern of simple behaviors to create repeatable routines that advance your goals.
A stacked habit routine might look like this:
- You start by laying out your workout clothes at night before you go to bed.
- You wake up at the same time each day.
- You stretch for 5 minutes.
- You take 5 minutes to plan your meals for the day.
- You fill up your water bottle.
Before anything else, you’ve done 5 activities to you advance your goals. You’ve reduced your mental load — you don’t have to think about what needs to be done, you just do it. And because you’ve created habits around these activities, you’re more likely to return to the routine, even if you’re occasionally thrown off course.
As you incorporate more healthy habits overtime, you’ll find you’re no longer trying to force change, but have adapted to a healthier lifestyle.
On the surface, this might seem basic — but that’s the whole point.
By focusing on the steps and creating small habits that reinforce your behaviors, you won’t need to worry about losing your motivation. You’ll be on your way to reaching your goals in no time.
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