Anthony Bourdain has summed up the key problem of motivation in a single, relatable quote:
“I understand there’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons and old movies. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy.”
Motivation is a hard problem and everyone brings a different tool to the party. Some tell their friends about their plans and hope that social shame or celebration will spur them on. Some go down the Instagram influencer route and follow and surround themselves with examples of people doing what they want to do, or be able to do. They encourage and support each other with what I consider trite and saccharine clichés. I was going to pick one, but hell, they’re all good (and by good I mean abysmal).
Me, I’m a cynical middle-aged man. Convincing myself to do something hard because there’s an outcome I want at the end of it is perhaps easier than it is for other people – I’ve experienced decades of sacrifice and mentally unpleasant things to achieve other goals before. I think my clichéd, inspirational image of choice is this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon featuring Calvin’s Dad uttering the astute observation, “The secret to enjoying your job is to have a hobby that’s even worse.” If you get me started on the subject of training, I’m as tiresome on that subject as I am about NP-complete problems and AI, but I’m not like the vegan / crossfit stereotype – I’m happy to keep my mouth shut and head down.
I know I’m lucky though. Changing behaviour is hard, but that’s what’s required. This is the reason why pretty much the first thing this series of writings said is that you have to make a lifelong change and it will require commitment. We can make this easier by making the initial training sessions not too taxing and focus on establishing the routine. We can set the scene for a lot of the issues you need to address by forewarning you. In the end, once the diet changes have been made to the weekly shop, and the calendar reorganised to include time for the training sessions, it still takes mental strength to see it through every day.
Everyone is different so what it might take for you… I don’t have a definitive answer. I do have some suggestions and advice though. First is to be honest with yourself. Don’t write down what you want the measurement to be. Don’t eat food without researching and recording the accurate calorie amount (if you choose to count calories that is, you may not wish to – but if you do, do it properly). Don’t lie about the number of quality exercises you did, or even pretend that didn’t miss an entire session when you did. If you know you lie to yourself, correct this character flaw now – it will sabotage any attempt you have to improve your fitness.
I mocked the ‘inspirational’ instagram pictures and “Your workout is my warmup!”-style phrases above. To me, they are empty and meaningless – but if they inspire you, that’s all that counts. I used to have this despair poster on the wall opposite my desk when I was writing my doctorate – I found the potential of failure to be motivating. You might have unstoppable determination, as Arnold Schwarzenegger describes how Muhammad Ali trained, “I only started counting when it started hurting.” Others like to workout with someone else to keep each other motivated. A large part of Crossfit is creating a tribal feeling pushing individuals with peer pressure (not a bad use of peer pressure; shame about the poor form though). I mostly like to consider me being in competition with my previous self ― at any time I’ll know how far away I am from my personal bests.
Jerry Seinfeld had a writing technique that helped him to continue when everything was telling him slack off. A friend of mine did something similar when giving up smoking: he put money in a jar every day equal to the amount of money he would have spent on cigarettes. He said that if he ever gave in and smoked again, he was going to burn all the money in the jar. Again, it takes strength to go through with the threat but it helped him keep the chain going.
Philosophy unlocks the complexity within the human self and can produce models which help you understand what drives you and what makes you want to give up. I encountered one of the most powerful in a book called Happy: Why More or Less Everything Is Fine by Derren Brown (yes, that Derren Brown).
There are two selves: the experiencing self, and the remembering self. The experiencing self is the one who gets to enjoy actually eating the chocolate cake, but it’s the remembering self who has to pay the consequences around the waistline. On balance, it’s not such a good deal for the remembering self. Given you may eat about a thousand meals every year, how many do you remember? The remembering self is not happy in the skin of an impulsive person with varied calamitous consequences to pay for. If you want the good things in life, the financial security, the view at the top of the hill, the partner of your dreams, you often have to tell the experiencing self, “No. I know you don’t want to but we’re fucking doing it anyway. Suck it up!”
I’ve found this concept be true again and again in so many different areas of life – and getting fit, is definitely one of those.