Mastering Motivation Amidst Challenging Life Circumstances
It seems the hot fitness topic of 2020 is learning how to adapt and stay motivated when your gym is closed, events are canceled, and the awesome motivators of group energy and camaraderie are kept at a distance. Interestingly, some folks have been thrown entirely out of whack, with COVID-19 prompting “the COVID 20” in the same manner as the proverbial Freshman-15. Others have adapted and even thrived when forced to modify their fitness regimens. We can definitely take tips and inspiration from them, but if you are struggling in recent times, don’t stress about it. Falling off your A-game in 2020 doesn’t mean you’re lazy or undisciplined. Personality types who favor tight structure and carefully cultivated environments can really get thrown off. Others who are more self-directed and creative can keep going through all kinds of and obstacles and redirections.
My high school running buddy Steve Dietch ran a 2:47 Boston Marathon at age 49 despite an insane international business travel schedule for 200 days a year. New day, new city or country, new running route, new PR—no problem. In recognition of the closure of his gym back in March, 2020, Primal Health Coach (and frequent Primal Blueprint Podcast guest) Dude Spellings of Austin, TX set an hourly alarm on his computer to perform 35 pushups, 15 pullups, and 30 squats. Hit that 6-8 times a day, five days a week, for six months, and it’s easy to see how Dude reports being in his best shape in decades at age 50. Granted, setting an hour alarm and getting the job done to the tune of hundreds of pushups, pullups, and squats every workday is easier said than done. As Sisson says all the time, “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.” The trick is to discover motivators and environmental triggers that work for you, take baby steps in the direction of your goals and never get discouraged when you fall short of the ideal. Let’s cover an assortment of suggestions that will hopefully make you impervious to distraction, inconvenience or busyness, and allow you to elevate your fitness endeavors into the hallowed category of “automatic” — daily behaviors that characterize a healthy, active way of life.
When a goal feels personally meaningful, and when the rewards bolster your sense of who you are or who you want to become, you will likely find it easier to engage in goal-directed behavior, avoid the temptation to stray from the path and be resilient in the face of setbacks. – Lindsay Taylor, PhD
Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation
Intrinsic motivation describes doing something to achieve self-satisfaction, while extrinsic motivation describes doing things for external recognition. While intrinsic and extrinsic motivators can undoubtedly complement each other, research suggests that being intrinsically motivated is much more predictive of success and long-term adherence. Dig this quote from MDA’s very own Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., a social and personality psychologist by training in addition to her role as supermom, keto cookbook author, Ironman triathlete, and Keto Reset Digest queen: “When a goal feels personally meaningful, and when the rewards bolster your sense of who you are or who you want to become, you will likely find it easier to engage in goal-directed behavior, avoid the temptation to stray from the path and be resilient in the face of setbacks.”
Cultivate deep intrinsic reasons for taking action while leveraging extrinsic motivators with a healthy perspective. Go ahead and strive for results, but focus on the process and release the attachment of your self-esteem to the outcome. Sisson tends to draw giggles when he touts “LGN” (Looking Good Naked) as one of the major benefits of a primal lifestyle. But it’s not really a joke. Sure, everyone wants to feel healthy, vibrant, and energetic, experience optimal digestion and elimination, and deliver good blood work. Still, few forces are as powerful as the LGN—whether it’s through the skin you show on Instagram or whether it’s lurking deep in your subconscious.
Create A Winning Environment
Set yourself up with success by making it easy to be fit and active. Get all the equipment and apparel you need, keep everything neat, organized, and in top working order, and find convenient and enjoyable venues. This can mean a go-to running or hiking trail, joining a gym that’s easy to get to and has everything you need, hiring a trainer to guide you and keep you accountable, or getting involved with group exercise programs or clubs. Most importantly, set up your home environment to encourage activity. If installing an Endless Pool or converting a bedroom into a rubber-floored home gym is not in the cards, realize that you can create a fantastic fitness experience with extremely minimal space and budget.
Alas, most well-meaning fitness enthusiasts have a bunch of cool stuff in inventory, but it’s often gathering dust in a basement, garage, or closet. The trick here is to arrange your fitness gear so you could pretty much trip over them during your daily routine. You want your kettlebell in plain view, smiling and saying hello in plain sight every time you pass by. Go ahead, paint a smiley face on it! You want your Mini Bands to be as accessible as your rubber bands or paper clips. It’s also great to implement some clever guidelines, incentives, and payoffs to trigger winning behaviors. How about not leaving the office until you accumulate three sets of 20 deep squats throughout the workday? If you were too busy or unmotivated, I guess you’ll have to hit three sets in a row at quitting time.
Beyond my morning routine, I’ll discuss shortly, I’ve established assorted rules and benchmarks for fitness and activity that have become etched in stone—a sign I respect both myself and the importance of being healthy, fit, and active every day. I have a hex deadlift bar loaded with moderate weight, located along my side yard path to the garbage barrel. Every time I take the garbage out, I have to do a minimum of one set. Ditto for when I enter my storage closet with a pull-up bar in the door frame. One set of 12—automatic. I don’t have to question whether I’m motivated or have enough time or energy because it’s only one set. If I’m feeling energetic, I’ll take the opportunity to do a second, third, or fourth set right away or by returning to the apparatus over the ensuing hours. The hardest part here is not completing the tasks, it’s convincing yourself that these seemingly trivial, OCD covenants are actually incredibly important and beneficial in the age of hyperconnectivity, distraction, and our endless pursuit of luxury and decadence.1
Visual cues are an essential part of the picture here.2 The difference between having an X3 Bar strapped up and ready for action versus tucked away in a closet is astronomical. Here’s another comment from Dr. Lindsay: “All of our behaviors are triggered by something, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Keeping your fitness gear out in the open plants a suggestion in your brain that exercise is important, convenient, and accessible right now. It still takes discipline to get started, but once you start, you’ll most likely finish. Even a small obstacle, like having to unpack or set up fitness gear, can make you less likely to do it. Similarly, leaving a plate of cookies on the table makes you more likely to grab one!”
My morning flexibility/mobility/yoga/core and leg strengthening routine has been such a life changer that a whole article about it will appear here shortly. First thing in the morning is the best time to build a winning habit that you can leverage into becoming a more focused and disciplined person throughout the day. Some key attributes can make or break your success. First, create a firm commitment to advocate for yourself and complete some kind of mindful movement routine every single day, no matter what. It’s a better energizer than coffee! Second, make your routine short enough to ensure that it’s no problem to complete. On uniquely time-crunched mornings, do a makeup session later in the day. Third, do the exact same thing every day, no matter what, so you don’t have to apply any willpower or creative energy. You can revise your template over time, adding or subtracting exercises as you wish to establish a new fixed routine going forward. Fourth, custom design a routine that works for you and that you enjoy. Perhaps it includes movements that address muscle weaknesses or imbalances, helps you prepare for specific fitness goals, or helps you awaken gracefully. Fifth, add an element of mindfulness where you strive to focus entirely on your breathing or proceeding through the repetition counts for each movement. This will give you a chance to hone your focusing skills and experience a refreshing mind/body connection, something that will be tough to come by as your day gets busier and more fragmented.
The Dog Factor
Being part of something bigger than yourself is a fundamental human desire. This is what fanaticism in sports, religion, social causes, or politics are all about. If you find yourself lacking motivation or consistency with your exercise routine, perhaps you can extend your perspective beyond the whims of your moods, desires, and distractions and do it to honor one of the highest purposes imaginable: the needs and desires of your dog! Establishing a rock-solid accountability partner relationship with a human works here too, but there is something magical about answering to a pet 3 that has worked for me throughout my life. When you visit the shelter or breeder and make that initial heartstring connection with an animal that you eventually bring home, you are making a solemn vow to care for it for its entire lifespan. This means filling the food and water bowls daily and keeping updated on vaccinations, but it certainly should also mean giving your pet daily access to the outdoors and exercise.
Dogs love routines and have an incredibly acute awareness of their circadian rhythms, so perhaps you can create a habit of getting your pet out at the same time every day? Twice a day would be ideal, maybe a really short outing paired with an extended outing. If you’re not feeling motivated, are facing inclement weather, or are too busy engaged with a screen to make it happen, try gazing into your dog’s eyes and explaining the reason why you can’t make it today. Seriously, try this technique out (we all already talk to our pets anyway!) It can be a highly effective strategy to help change your mind on the spot and get out the door—especially if your dog is inclined to pace around and moan on cue first thing in the morning or around sunset. I always get a perspective reset when I’m fretting about leaving a warm home for a snowy winter trail excursion and watch my dogs go gangbusters out the door and attack the snowdrifts with pure joy. Why can’t it be the same for the soft and overly coddled modern human?
Again, this is such a revolutionary topic that it deserves an entire post. In the context of this article, micro-workouts shine because they don’t require much motivation to complete. When it comes to getting out the door for a dark five-miler after a tough day at work or getting your butt onto a seat for a 6:00 am spin class, low energy and motivation can be a legitimate excuse for mere mortals. But doing one set of kettlebell swings after a long stint at the computer? Or two quick sprints up a flight of stairs after a long meeting in the conference room? These are natural human inclinations that deliver a burst of energy and mood elevation!
To build momentum in this area, find a sweet spot where you can enjoy a quick burst of physical effort, don’t have to strain to total muscular failure or muster the energy for additional sets, and don’t experience any stress over clogging up your busy daily schedule. The anecdote about Dude Spellings doing pushups, pull-ups, and squats on the hour may be too daunting for most people due to the fitness requirement, if not the scheduling logistics, but couldn’t you devote at least one work break per day to bust out robust sets of pushups, pull-ups, and squats? If we were to check back a year from now and you’ve completed one fitness break every single workday, you can imagine the enormous fitness gains this simple commitment can deliver.
Monitor Your Workout Stress
Your subconscious is very good at pushing you away from activities and behavior patterns that cause discomfort and fatigue. This is a genetically hard-wired protection mechanism against breakdown, burnout, illness, and injury. It’s great to open up the throttle once in a while and achieve a fitness breakthrough. Still, many enthusiasts of all ability levels follow workout schedules that are simply too stressful, especially when combined with other stresses in hectic daily life. Thanks to the cultural pressures and manipulative marketing messages that glorify pain and suffering, we have been programmed to disrespect and disregard the subtle and not-so-subtle messages from the subconscious to back off. Advertisements for fitness programming and equipment, sugary beverages, or sexy apparel routinely feature imagery of chiseled specimens sweating and suffering for the great reward of a toned physique. Why jog around the block when you can sprint to the top of the mountain? Consequently, we feel compelled to plug away until we get into a rut and eventually fall apart.
Don’t be that guy or gal! Make sure that your individual workouts and your schedule as a whole are enjoyable, convenient, and feel natural and easy to sustain. Make sure every movement results in an elevated mood, energy levels, and general well-being in the hours and days afterward. Get a simple spiral notebook and make subjective evaluations of your workouts in addition to the statistics and logistics. I’ve been journaling my workouts daily for decades, and it’s been extremely helpful to look back after occasions of burnout or injury and notice the clear warning signs that I was out of balance and heading for a derailment or a full train wreck.
When your workouts are fun, convenient, and energizing, and become an automatic fixture in your daily schedule without needing to willpower, creativity, or extra stress to shuffle other responsibilities, then you don’t have to worry about repeatedly summoning enough motivation to get moving. Instead, things just happen in accordance with your values, beliefs, and personal goals. Good luck, and if you take anything away from this article, it would be to start small and build momentum over time.
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