What gets you motivated isn't the same as what keeps you motivated to stick with healthier habits.
When people call me, one of the things they say they struggle with the most is staying motivated. They liked how good it felt to eat better, exercise and get enough rest and water, but they couldn’t get themselves to stick with these healthier behaviors. Jennifer was one of them. She couldn’t understand why she would quit her walks and Zumba classes, since she enjoyed them when she went. And she actually liked vegetables and whole foods more than junk food, yet she never stuck with them. It drove her crazy, and she wondered what was wrong with her that she would keep going back to choices that left her feeling lousy.
I asked her what got her to pick up the phone to call me, and she said, “I have just been told I have pre-diabetes, and I have got to change my lifestyle to avoid getting the disease.” She had found her motivation to take action, yet as I explained to her, this motivating catalyst was based on something she didn’t want, and it probably wouldn’t be enough to stick with healthier changes long term. Here’s why.
There are five steps to getting and staying motivated.
1) The Catalyst Motivator
It starts with being motivated by what it is you don’t want to have happen, feel ashamed about or don’t like about yourself. These are catalysts that propel you into action, and the most common ones are a diagnosis or clear risk for chronic illness, seeing a photo and realizing how big or out of shape you are, being shamed by what someone has said or what a doctor has written, or not being able to do things anymore. For some people, it takes repeated experiences like this before one specific event becomes the wake up call and catalyst to do something about it. And even then, if you don’t act on it fast enough, you can lose the motivation very easily.
2) The Endurance Motivator
Once you are determined to make a change, you need something positive to look forward to and fight for when sticking with your new changes feel like too much effort to bother. Change is not easy, and you need to know why it really matters to you to overcome your inner chatter that tries to derail you.
So why do you really care if you are overweight, can’t do all the things you used to do or are at risk for disease? What is your vision of what your life can be (or can still be) if you have your health and fitness? How do you see yourself at your best, and why is that worth sticking with new changes no matter how hard that will feel? What are you trying to achieve or be physically capable of doing that matters to you? Maybe you want to participate in a fundraiser walkathon or be able to get around when you travel abroad. Once you know this, have ways to remind yourself everyday, and keep your eye on the prize.
3) The Success Motivator
Within a few days or weeks of starting your new routine, it becomes harder to reach all the goals you set for yourself or to feel confident you can really succeed at keeping up with your expectations. This is much tougher if you set high expectations, embarked on too many changes at once or picked too extreme a change to sustain each week. As you struggle to stay on track, find yourself not fully following the program or missing a day here or there, it is easy to see yourself as bad, a failure or incapable of success. Any of these thoughts will de-motivate you, and it won’t be long before you give up.
Whereas, if you set very small goals, make only one or a couple of changes at a time, and start off with baby steps, you have a greater chance of success. When you have a success, no matter how small, you become motivated to see how much more you can do. And when you focus on what successes you do have each week, rather than on the failures, you will feel more confident in your ability to succeed and even more motivated to continue.
4) The Accountability Motivator
It really helps, particularly in the first six to twelve months of starting to exercise or eat better, to have someone who you are accountable to and who champions you. This could be a buddy who joins you, or a friend who is doing something similar and you acknowledge each other successes and brainstorm what might work better when you were challenged. It could be a class instructor, a lifestyle coach, personal trainer, classmates, team or anyone else who is involved in your new changes.
5) The Day-to-Day Motivators
From day to day, most people have to figure out additional ways to stay motivated, and there are lots of tools or techniques to make this motivating. You may be motivated by reaching certain numbers, and if so, pedometers, accelerometers (calories burned) or distance tracking work really well. You can have daily or weekly goals for this. Tracking calories and your weight on the scale can also work for some people, but for the majority, tracking these kinds of numbers often backfires, and I don’t recommend them. Instead I encourage clients who like numbers to track their hunger levels and how they feel on a scale of 0-10.
Other types of motivators are having a weekly fitness log where you record what you did, or having a calendar where you check off your goals. These work great for list people. Some people like to put gold stars on their calendars when they completed their goals. Others like to reward themselves with small celebratory non-food gifts periodically, such as a massage, special bath, manicure, inexpensive accessory or something else meaningful. And many people find all they need is a fixed-date goal when they need to be physically fit and healthy enough to participate in an event.
The key to motivation is to find ways to celebrate your successes, build your confidence, focus on what you want to be able to do, and how good you feel. You may find that your day-to-day and accountability motivators work for only so long, and that you need a new type of motivator. If that happens, consider it an opportunity to experiment with different types of motivators.
You CAN stay motivated. By addressing all five types of motivators as specific steps, you have much greater success of sticking with your new healthier behaviors and loving how you feel.