By Amanda L. Dale
As a personal trainer, you might assume my world runs on motivation. The new year (or, in the typical expat cycle, the new school year) comes around and suddenly, folks decide it’s time to get in shape. They double down on training sessions, swear to keep to their intermittent fasting hours, or Keto diets, or Whole30 detoxes, and commit to finally changing the bad habits that have been sabotaging their fitness and health for years. For some, this “once and for all” approach works, but for a commanding majority, it does not. Why?
The answer: motivation, despite its best intentions, is a myth. It is fleeting, fickle, and time-bound. Motivation peaks when there’s a carrot on the end of the stick – a wedding to get ready for, a tropical vacation on the horizon, or losing baby weight – and falls to a silent lull once these moments have passed. An empty stick doesn’t hold appeal for most of us, especially when the “carrot” was invested with significant personal or emotional value. So, what tools do we have if we want to actually make healthy changes and stick to them?
The answer is actually simpler, and perhaps more obvious, than we all think. In his article, The Mundanity of Excellence, Daniel Chambliss explains the success of certain Olympic swimmers over their equally talented peers by noting that, “excellence is accomplished through the doing of actions, ordinary in themselves, performed consistently and carefully, habitualized, compounded together, and added up over time.” In other words: achieving excellence is no secret, it is simply the repetition of the correct actions over the proper amount of time.
And herein lies the tough part about sustaining healthy changes: they are often boring and take a lot of time to make. Investing the time and handling the boredom is where folks tend to fall short. Sure, swapping out your lunchtime hamburger for a fresh, crisp salad may be fun for the first few days, but returning to the same salad bar over and over means suddenly the burger beckons you back, even if just for variety.
This is where author James Clear of Atomic Habits provides a workable solution. He asserts that the steps to making a good habit, or breaking a bad one, is simply two sides of the same coin. To make a good habit stick, it must be obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. To make a bad habit disappear, it must be invisible, unattractive, difficult, and unsatisfying.
For example, if you are trying to eat cleaner at home, you must make healthy foods obvious (place them front and center in the fridge), attractive (wash and prep your fruits and veggies so they’re ready-to-eat), easy (pre-portion snack-size bags of nuts or fruit so you can grab and go), and satisfying (find healthy recipes you are truly excited about making, and cook them at home with the family).
On the flip side, you must make junk food invisible (do NOT bring it into your house), unattractive (store unhealthy foods as far away from your healthy snacks as possible), difficult (ask your partner or family member to move any junk food to a location you don’t know), and unsatisfying (make sure to write down how you feel after eating poorly and keep that note squarely on the fridge door). Until your better habits become second nature, set up environments and structures that force you to stay on the straight and narrow.
Speaking of strategy, a quick word on ‘goals’; a word that often goes hand in hand with ‘motivation’. Goal-setting in itself is a productive act. Individuals and organizations need clearly articulated and timely goals to stay accountable to their greater purpose. However, goals and motivation both suffer from the same problem of short-sightedness – once the goal has been reached (or, worst case scenario, forgotten or abandoned), if there is no established structure keeping the person or group on track, motivation wanes and the steps once taken toward the goal tend to slow down or cease entirely.
This is where the second solution – discipline – comes into play. In addition to forming healthy habits, one must also cultivate a sense of self-discipline, whereby acting in a way that is consistent with your greater purpose becomes second nature, rather than guilt-inducing series of daily choices. As Clear notes in Atomic Habits, instead of saying that you’re going to work out every day for the next 30 days, commit to becoming the type of person who doesn’t miss their workouts. Tie your healthy intentions to an identity that is consistent with them – joining a weekly running group, for example, to reinforce your goal of becoming a better runner – and don’t allow yourself to lose focus.
If all of this habit-and-discipline talk has you feeling overwhelmed, remember: the best way to start any lifestyle change is in small, measurable pieces. Focus on what you can do today and commit to repeating that same action tomorrow. Especially in the beginning, consistency trumps grandeur in terms of the action taken. It is better to run a single mile every day than to run a marathon once in your lifetime and never again.