January 20, 2020 4 min read

We ask an expert why sticking to good habits is tough, and how you can get better at it.

No-one, and we do mean no-one, can stay motivated all the time. Even the most dedicated Olympians have moments when they want nothing more than to ditch their training and sit on the sofa with a family pack of crisps, and all those influencers posting pictures of their healthy meals and constant workouts are just wisely not taking photos of the motivational crises that arise in between.

So, if all your past efforts to lose weight have fizzled out, don’t worry – you are absolutely not alone. To get to the bottom of what makes motivation such a fickle friend, and how we can get better at staying committed to the things we really do want to do, Coach spoke to Juliet Hodges, a behaviour change advisor for Bupa UK.

We assume that when people try to lose weight they start very motivated but quickly lose that – is this what you’ve observed?

Yes! There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. We’re intrinsically motivated to do activities that we genuinely enjoy, like spending time with friends or eating delicious food. Extrinsic motivation, however, drives us to do things for the outcome or reward, like studying to get good marks on a test. As you might expect, intrinsic motivation is much more sustainable in the long term. Unfortunately, weight loss is an extrinsic motivator and people often don’t enjoy the changes they make to achieve it, like working out more or eating a healthier diet. Even worse, results are typically slow to appear. This means people often find themselves doing things they don’t enjoy, for results they aren’t seeing quickly enough – a recipe for motivational disaster.

How long does it usually take for motivation to fade?

There’s no set amount of time. Motivation alone isn’t enough to make and sustain a change – there are lots of other factors that can determine whether or not you’re successful. It may be partly down to your capability, which involves physical skills, knowledge to make the right changes and willpower to keep going. You also need to consider your environment, like the time and money you have available, and whether you have support from your family and friends. Even if you are motivated, there are lots of things that can prevent you from achieving your goal, like not finding the time to work out or being tempted to order a takeaway. No matter how motivated you are, it’s easy for life to get in the way.

What are the main reasons people lose motivation?

We lose motivation for a variety of reasons. You might not enjoy your new diet or exercise regime, so you’ll need more willpower to stay focused. In a normal day, you use up your reserves of mental energy getting out of bed when your alarm goes off, navigating your commute, solving problems at work and dealing with difficult colleagues. So by the time you get home, it’s difficult to motivate yourself to exercise.

It’s easy to fall victim to the “what the hell” effect too. This is when we slip up in a small way, like having a sweet treat in the office. Once this happens, it becomes easier to get tempted by more. A cheat day could then turn into a cheat week or month.

Our present and future selves are also disconnected. In other words, our future self feels like a separate person to us. This can make losing weight a challenge, because it feels like someone else will benefit from the hard work we’re putting in now. So you might find it harder to give up immediate pleasures, like having a pizza or pressing the snooze button.

How can you stay motivated?

Motivation isn’t a permanent state, so it’s unrealistic to expect to feel motivated all the time. Just think of the last time you felt really fired up to start a new gym routine, only to press the snooze button when your alarm went off the next morning. Instead, it’s important to remember that feeling motivated isn’t necessary to get started, and find ways to make sure you keep going even when you don’t want to.

One way to harness your initial enthusiasm is to use commitment devices. Try booking an exercise class with a cancellation fee or agreeing to work out with a friend you won’t want to let down. This will help you stay focused, even if your motivation has dwindled.

There are even some Stickk, which allows you to set yourself a goal, a time period in which to achieve it, and an amount of money you’ll lose if you don’t stick to it. If losing money isn’t punishment enough, you can also choose where this money goes: to a friend, a charity or cause you support, or one that you hate – like a rival football team!

Another example is Bupa Boost, an app which allows you to compete against your colleagues on a virtual leaderboard based on health-related goals you set yourself.

Lots of us fall off the wagon because we aren’t enjoying what we’re doing. So try to combine something you love with your new behaviour. A great way to do this is to listen to your favourite music or podcast when you’re at the gym. This can add some much-needed enjoyment to keep you going.

Finally, the most important thing to remember is not to beat yourself up if you do slip up. We’re only human, and making big lifestyle changes is incredibly difficult. People who treat themselves with compassion when they make mistakes are much more likely to keep trying, and ultimately achieve their goals.

Written by Nick Harris-Fry for Coach and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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