When you think of the word motivation, what do you think of? For me, I get a few different images that, honestly, aren’t too pleasant. Being in the fitness industry, the first image I see is that of a trainer/coach yelling at or pleading with a client to “push harder…”, “one more rep…”, “let’s get out and get some work done…”. The other image is of a typical person who thinks of his or herself as “lazy” with the common phrase we’ve all uttered at least a few times in our lives: “I want to ______ but I just can’t get motivated.” Then there’s the flip side: “That person is a real go-getter. He/she is super motivated to ______.” It seems to me that in our society, motivation is a vague, but loaded concept that tends to bring either a positive or negative connotation with it. Being a “motivated individual” is a very positive attribute that many people tend to be envious of, while the opposite end of the spectrum seems to carry with it a negative label leaving one with feelings of guilt and shame.
Motivation seems to not be a fully understood concept and the emotional charge it carries with it can sometimes give it a bad name. What is motivation, really? Is it an emotion? Is it an action? What does it really mean? Here’s the definition from Wikipedia.com: “Motivation is a psychological feature that arouses an organism to act towards a desired goal and elicits, controls, and sustains certain goal directed behaviors.” In essence, motivation is an emotion that, when strong enough, can drive one into action. This seems relatively common knowledge and I think close to what most people would come up with if they were forced to define it. I say that it’s not fully understood because we tend to look at motivation only for the “big” or “difficult things” in life and don’t realize that, at the most basic level, motivation is what causes us to do everything we do every day.
Dr. Eric Cobb of Z Health Performance Solutions offers this definition of motivation that helps put it into a more accessible light: “Motivation is the cognitive and emotional comparison of potential outcomes.” Simply put, we consciously compare the potential ramifications of doing or not doing a certain task and make a decision to act or not act on it. I know that if I don’t brush my teeth every day, my teeth will develop cavities, begin to possibly rot, and cause me a great deal of pain and hardship down the road (not to mention the bad breath that would probably drive clients away!). So, I’m motivated to brush my teeth. I go to work every day because I know that if I don’t, I won’t make enough money for myself and my family to survive. Therefore, I’m motivated to go to work every day. In everything I do every day, at some point I’ve weighed the cost and benefit of doing or not doing them. I’ve made the recognition that the cost of not doing them outweighs the cost of doing them, and I proceed. As I make these choices enough times throughout my life, they become habits. If we look at it from that perspective, then we can possibly take it a few steps further and say that 1. Motivation is brain-derived: Motivation starts in the brain (the limbic “lobe” or “system” to be exact!).
2. Motivation is actually a skill: We had to learn, at some point, to weigh outcomes and take action on what we wanted to do. Some of us are better at that than others!
Dr. Cobb goes on to explain that many of the things that motivate us tend to share 3 common characteristics:
1. They are fulfilling.
2. They produce some form of pleasure.
3. They create a sense of loss when missing.
This is a very important concept for those of us who coach individuals for a living, and for those of us who are “trying to find the motivation” to exercise, diet, or do something towards improving our health. As trainers and coaches, we typically have fewer problems exercising and eating healthfully than most of our clients do. For us, these meet the 3 criteria stated above and so we’ve chosen to do the activity enough times that we’ve gone from being motivated to start it to it becoming habit. Many others have followed that same path.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Because we, your coaches, work in the industry and it’s such an integral part of our lifestyle, we understand the ramifications of not eating healthy and moving regularly. We’ve done it enough that we know it’s enjoyable and fulfilling, and when we go for a period of time without it, we definitely miss it. Most of our clients don’t have that same experience; at least not yet. They know the consequences if they don’t, but they’ve not yet experienced the fulfillment and pleasure enough to miss it if it were gone. It’s our responsibility to help them find that.
If you’re not a trainer, but one who has tried, or is trying to find the motivation to start an exercise program or change your diet plan, this is also key for you. Chances are, you’re not a lazy person. Chances are you are very skilled at weighing outcomes and taking action towards things you believe will meet some or all of the criteria above. Unfortunately, you aren’t yet able to envision fully how exercise or the change in diet will meet those 3 criteria. You may be able to see it, but the emotion isn’t strong enough to fully drive you towards taking action. Your past experience with diet and exercise, either through personal or observed experience may not have been pleasant and fulfilling enough to keep you going, get you started, or get you to start back up again. You know you need to, but…. It can be scary. We sometimes get overwhelmed with the vastness of options or what we don’t know. Habit change is challenging. Habits live in the non-cognitive area of the brain, and because they supply short-term pleasure, even though we know the long-term ramifications of them, that cognitive information is not quite strong enough and will hardly affect the habitual, or “automatic,” behahavior (that habit being not exercising, or your current eating habits, etc). Until our brain experiences something better, it will defer back to the automated pattern.
So, what can we do about it? The truth of the matter is that nobody is really at fault(though societal pressure and our own sense of guilt will suggest otherwise). However, we all have a responsibility, either as the coach or the client.
If I’m the client, it’s my responsibility to recognize that motivation is a skill that I’ve developed over my lifetime. I have the ability to choose what will fulfill me and give me pleasure. My job, once it becomes important enough to me, is to look for something in the diet or exercise realms that may tip the scales in that direction or find someone who can help tip the scales for me.
As coaches, we have similar responsibilities. Our first responsibility is to remember this so that we can take care of ourselves, enabling us to better take care of our clients.
We also have the responsibility to help our clients find a way to move and be active that gives them the ability to feel that the benefit far outweighs the cost. Each person is individual and has his or her own opinion of what is pleasurable and not. Somewhere there’s the “sweet spot” of some temporary discomfort at a tolerable level that gives them a result that’s pleasurable enough, soon enough, and helps them stay motivated to continue. It is our job to help you find that sweet spot.
Motivation is a skill. It’s a skill we’ve all developed in many realms throughout our lives.
If we can see that, and more importantly see how we do that, is it possible that we can become skilled enough at motivating ourselves so that anything we want to do is within reach?