If you want to have more motivation, it’s important that you stop thinking of motivation in the way you’ve been taught.
When you don’t feel like doing something — especially something you haven’t tried or succeeded at before — you might say, “I don’t feel motivated.”
To get going, maybe you read quotes, listen to music, or watch an inspirational moving hoping to find your spark.
But, here’s the problem: boosting motivation doesn’t work that way.
We think motivation leads to action, when — in reality — taking action increases motivation.
We think motivation leads to action, when — in reality — taking action increases motivation.
If it seems like a backward process, well, we would agree. It almost seems unfair that you need to dive into something even if you don’t have the mental support and energy. But, that’s how it works.
While we didn’t design the human body, we can help you work with it to ensure that if motivation is low — or hasn’t even been created because you’re trying something new — that you can still set yourself up for success.
What is Motivation?
Motivation comes from the Latin word movere, which means “to move.” So, in theory, it makes sense that motivation helps you go places in life.
But, if you want to feel motivated, you need to move (or, more appropriately, take action) first and then the motivation comes.
Neuroscientists have studied motivation and found that if your brain can understand your challenges, goals, and hurdles, then you’re more likely to have the type of mental energy needed to achieve your goals.
It’d be great to have lots of motivation, but that’s not the default mode for many new tasks. When you try something new or want to achieve a goal, a part of your brain (your right prefrontal cortex) lights up that creates doubt and disbelief. Your brain is capable of helping you take on the world, but unfamiliarity can lessen your drive.
If you want more motivation, you need to tap into the left prefrontal cortex, which increases mental energy and focus. This other side is fueled by hope, inspiration, and a belief you can succeed.
What separates drive (left side) vs. dive (right side)?
Your brain needs to understand the actions it’ll take to achieve the goal, and it needs to feel realistic.
If you can accept this concept, you will have the motivation needed to succeed with many diet and fitness plans.
Why You Have Low Motivation For Diet and Fitness
Many diet and fitness plans are a trap. One that is designed for you to start and stop with limited success. We help clients achieve every goal from fat loss to muscle gain, and we see a common pattern that we work to undo. The pattern usually falls into two categories: :
Option 1: You want to start a plan and maybe buy a book or diet program. It’s possible you join a gym. But, you never really start or gain momentum. It’s frustrating from the start and you blame yourself.
Option 2: You start a plan and feel excited. You get new workout clothes, buy healthy food, and dive in with extreme compliance. You likely see some initial success too. Eventually (usually around the 4-week mark), you’ve suddenly lost motivation, almost as if it was sucked from your body. Going to the gym is harder. Eating healthy is no longer empowering; instead, it now feels stressful.
In both options, you end up in a similar position. The pressure starts getting to you. You sneak in desserts or snacks that are not part of the plan. Piece-by-piece, you start making decisions that you know are less than ideal, and — as a result — you give up on the vision of what you want to achieve.
So, why is it such a likely outcome when your desire to change is so strong?
The bigger issue is you’re missing a basic concept that allows you to succeed.
Motivation is real, but relying on it is likely to lead to frustration and failure.
Why You Lose Motivation
There are two primary reasons that make it hard to rely on motivation. Instead of thinking of motivation as a jumpstart or a first step, think of it as a refuel.
Motivation is much more likely to keep you going and help you reach your goals rather than help you get started. Luckily, getting started doesn’t mean crushing a month’s worth of workouts or eating all the superfoods. It’s much easier but requires you to rethink your typical approach.
Your brain is amazing, but if you want to make it work for you, it’s helpful to know how it works.
As we mentioned, action increases motivation. Your brain is wired to increase motivation for the things we’re confident about, have tried, and understand. The habits we build create feedback loops that make it easier to repeat them. The habits we haven’t built are harder. So, you need to think about how you can make it easier to build a habit before you just jump in and begin a new plan.
The motivation will come…if you give yourself the right tools.
There’s another important reason why it’s hard to rely on motivation when you’re beginning a program. The area of your brain that controls motivation and willpower is the same part of your brain that also handles your day-to-day tasks, short-term memory, and focus. It’s more overworked than your Instagram feed.
Take a minute and think about everything you have to manage on a daily basis. And now, imagine that same overworked employee also has the responsibility of dragging your butt to the gym, eating the right foods, and preventing you from half a dozen old fashions at the end of the day.
If you really want to transform your body, the most important plan starts not with your body or meal plan, but instead an approach that will strengthen your mind.
The Science of Increasing Motivation (And Powering Body Transformation)
For many years, scientists tried to figure out how to increase motivation. Turns out, you don’t increase it directly. Instead, you make it easier for your brain to feel motivated.
That is accomplished with intention and commitment—two acts that turn your goals into a clear framework that your brain can get excited about. If you can train your mind to understand your goals (and what you’ll do to accomplish them), you can trigger motivation.
It’s the difference between visualizing a goal in a way that your left prefrontal cortex lights up and gives you the power to persevere and succeed, or having your right prefrontal cortex shut you down.
This might seem like a joke, but the facts are undeniable: there are countless studies showing how making a commitment—and preferably writing down your intentions in specific details—make it much more likely that you’ll not only stay on task but also achieve your goals.
It’s behavioral psychology 101, and, while it’s not as sexy as meal plans and new workouts, if you make commitments first, then those plans will become more effective.
Research from the British Journal of Health Psychology suggests why this gets the job done better than “just starting.” Scientists focused on helping people become more consistent with workouts. In the experiment, one group tracked their exercise [the control group], and another group tracked exercise but also tried to increase motivation [the motivation group] by reading about how exercise prevents disease. The idea here was that your brain could better understand why your goal was so important.
A third group [the intention group] did the same thing as the motivation group, but they also had to specify their intentions in the following way:
During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].
The results? “Compliance” was considered exercising 1 time per week. In the control and motivation group, about 35 percent of participants exercised, at least, once per week.
As for the intention group, they had an astounding 91% compliance rate.
Other research, such as work done in Norway, found that those that formulate a plan for their diet eat healthier.
How To Boost Motivation (And Never Run Out)
If you want to increase your motivation, there are several steps you can take. Researchers from Australia found that moving slowly helps you achieve your goals faster. Instead of trying to master multiple habits, it’s more effective to take a step-by-step approach, such as building one habit at a time. This helps reduce cognitive load, which means your brain can both learn a habit and increase motivation.
In simple English: when your brain has less to process, it makes it easier for you to eat more vegetables or consistently find your way to the gym.
When you create big tasks (I’ll lose 20 pounds), your brain relies on precedent. So, unless you’ve succeeded at this goal before, then there’s a chance your brain will remind you on a subconscious level of past failures, and that can trigger learned helplessness. Fail enough and you come to expect failure.
Instead, if you can focus on attainable small goals, find ways to make it clear why they are important, and set intentions, then you’ve created an environment for good habits, less stress, and more motivation.
You still have to work hard, put in the effort, and stay consistent. But, when you make your goal simple, clear, and easy to follow, you reinforce a process that makes success a more likely option.
It might seem basic or even ridiculous. But, in no time, you won’t worry about lost motivation. Training your brain for success will build a mindset that will guide you to success.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.