Beating the Elusiveness of Motivation

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A stranger at the gym approached me a couple of months ago, and asked a very simple question: how do I stay motivated? Al shared with me that he is 73, and had recently suffered a mild heart attack. His doctor said that, if he wanted to be around much longer, he needed to exercise. In his few gym visits, I was one of the constants, so he sought me out.

I was flattered, but also stunned that he was struggling with motivation, after an experience like a heart attack and hearing advice like that from his doctor. If I were in his shoes, and my life depended on it, they would have to lock me out of the gym, yet he was struggling with motivation. That’s how elusive motivation can be for some people; even the prospect of death can fail to motivate.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Motivation is actually easy to find by asking three questions:

  1. What do I want?
  2. What am I willing to do to get what I want?
  3. How can I habitualize doing what I need to do to get what I want?

What do you want? A want is something that you don’t currently have, and it can take many forms – both material and otherwise. When I was younger, the desire to add muscle and to bench press more than my friends were the wants that brought me to the gym. Now, my vanity has taken a backseat to practicality, and my motivation to exercise regularly has become driven by my want to be as physically active as possible.

I actually have an unfair advantage here. Because God blessed me with a fragile physical condition, I’m more keenly aware of my body than most, feeling the benefits of frequent exercise AND the repercussions of not exercising more profoundly than most. I know that my legs will be stronger and more flexible, if I exercise at least three times per week. I will also have more energy, and as I approach age 45, energy is at a premium.

I want that strength, flexibility and energy.

What are you willing to do to get what you want? For most, this is the more difficult question to answer, because it requires effort/movement. Newton’s First Law of Motion states that an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

When we are at rest, we tend to stay at rest, i.e. in our comfort zone. Motivation is the force that moves us toward our goals, and without it, we don’t progress. If I stay at rest, my body will deteriorate much more quickly than an average person, and ultimately, life’s simple tasks will be much more difficult than the most strenuous of workouts. Because, I’ve done both, I know that it’s much more pleasant to spend five to six hours per week in the gym, pushing my body past its limits than it is to struggle to the breakfast table in the morning. I’ll choose exercise over that any day.

I am willing to spend an hour at least four days per week in strenuous exercise, because I want that strength, flexibility and energy.

How will you habitualize doing what you need to do to get what you want? Though the word habit often has a negative connotation, habits can be equally positive. Habits are behaviors that become assumed recurrences through repetition, and they are very powerful. Just like smoking is a bad habit that is hard to stop, exercise, eating well and reading are good habits that can be hard to stop too.

I tell people that I think of going to the gym like I think about brushing my teeth; it’s just something that I need to do, and I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. That’s how powerful a positive habit can be. Like a smoker will light a cigarette without even thinking, I find myself in the gym without even thinking. A habit like that requires the kind of strict consistency and discipline I have practiced over the years, because it can be undone in a fraction of the time it took to develop it.

I protect my exercise habit by spending an hour at least four days per week in strenuous exercise, because I want that strength, flexibility and energy.

Several weeks passed before I saw Al in the gym again, and I had grown concerned that he had given up. As he saw me approach, a smile spread wide across his face, and he took a break from pedaling his stationary bike to tell me a story.

“I want to thank you for motivating me that day,” he began. “You want to know what really stood out?” he asked rhetorically. “You said, I want to live. I want to live, and that’s why I’m here.”

I honestly don’t remember being that profound, but I was happy with the outcome. Al and I are going to keep each other alive and active.

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  1. #1 by Todd Dawson on April 13, 2015 - 4:41 pm

    Great post Mitch. Couldn’t have said it better!

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