The secret to getting yourself motivated... and accountability without the judgment.
Coach Josh here at Training for Warriors Portland and I wanna talk about some of my favorite topics in fitness and in life: motivation and accountability.
Almost everybody asks me about this when they first step into Training for Warriors Portland. They want help with it, they want to know how to get it. I think this is a topic that is poorly understood, so let's get into the weeds today!
What is motivation?
Motivation in its simplest form is what's moving you. Picture somebody you know who is motivated. It might be that person at the office, someone on a sports team you've played with, or someone in your family that is super motivated. They're excited, they're enthused, they're imbued with fire and passion, right? Or... maybe they're not. Maybe they are simply a person who goes to work diligently every day and puts hard work, time and energy into the thing that they wanna create or they wanna get out of it.
Maybe you've seen somebody transform their body, start a business or put themselves through school while they're raising a kid. How do they do it? How do they have access to so much seemingly boundless energy, when it's so tough for you to get out of bed sometimes? You're trying to get started going for a run, it could be hard just to get up 30 minutes earlier than normal. Why is it so easy for some people (at least apparently) and so challenging for the rest of us? I wanna get a little bit into the definition of motivation.
There are two sources of motivation:
- Moving toward something that you want
- Moving away from something that you don't want
If you think of anything in life that gets you out of your bed and what moves you, there's pleasure and pain. Between those lies the tension in everything you do. Even when it comes to sitting in my chair as I write. Whether or not I get up out of the chair is dependent upon how much pleasure (comfort) I derive from staying seated, and how much pain (discomfort) I will feel if I don't get up and go to the bathroom. Pleasure and pain are the two things that motivate us. Is one better than the other? I don't know the answer to that because I have been extremely motivated by BOTH of these things.
Is fear the most effective motivator?
I'm really "impressed" at the kind of long-term energy source that fear brings for many of us. A lot of people I know have spent decades working; motivated by the fear that they're going to become destitute if they don't give 150% at the office. Or the fear their family will go hungry, they're not gonna be able to pay their bills or something bad will happen to them. Fear is a motivator when it comes to fitness, too. You might get a diagnosis from a doctor, be placed on blood pressure medication and that may be in conflict with your identity: who you are, who you wanna be. The fear that you are not going to live up to your own expectations might get you moving.
There's nothing wrong with fear being a motivating force. However, I think that over the long haul, our quality of life is better if we're motivated by pleasure, things we're excited about, and things that we're excited to bring into our lives. In regards to financial motivators, maybe you want to earn money so you can take an amazing trip, get a nicer apartment or nicer clothes or nicer food, or reward yourself with some concert tickets. These are things that are positive motivators or pleasure-seeking motivation that also get you going.
Friction and losing motivation
Mind you, the outcome is the same, no matter which motivating force is propelling you into action. This leads into how motivation causes some friction in our lives and how we lose motivation. The only time that motivation is bad or a motivation can be negative is if it's not really yours. There is a difference between being motivated by fear and being ambivalent about a situation.
Everything that we do in our lives has a cost. For example, I am trying to be as lean as possible, but I really like beer. It's not as if I don't understand that drinking beer is gonna make it harder for me to be lean. I'm not an idiot. It's not like I'm confused or that I don't really want my goal. I want two things and that creates tension between the two, which can create a sort of ambivalence.
The approach to this tension might be that because I want to be lean right now, I decide to lay off the beer. I'll get in really great shape, wonderful! Then in a couple years, I might decide to take up microbrews again because I really like them. Maybe I still want to be lean but my motivation has changed because my identity has shifted. Maybe I'm not so attached to being cut that I'm willing to give up the fun things in life. Our motivations change as we change and it's important to be aware of that and of our shifting concerns. That's because what will often happen is: in absence of our own motivation, we'll take somebody else's.
Your parents may want you to go to medical school. You might find that you've been in a relationship of convenience for years and it is not actually a relationship that's working for you. If our motivations are inauthentic or if we change, you might realize, "Oh, the reason why I don't have any energy to put into ________ is that I actually don't really care about the outcome." Your purpose, your inner fire, your passion has shifted... and you gotta acknowledge that.
How to deal with the friction within you
So friction, things that come up and sap your motivation or energy is one: Not having a clear, visible goal or a goal that's in line with your purpose. If you've got this goal to be in as great shape as possible (like, I'm going to have six-pack abs"!) but it's not in line with the long-term vision for who you want to be or how you see yourself in the world, then there will be built-in friction on your path. You will be rubbing up against your own sense of identity and who you are, and other things that you care about, as well.
When the irresistible force meets the immovable object, the thing with the most momentum usually wins. When this happens, you either need to:
Build up some serious momentum for your north star
Take it back to the lab and reassess your goals
Reasons why friction may arise and reduce your motivation:
- You don't have a clear goal
- You don't have a goal that's lined up with your true inner purpose
- You don't have the self-awareness to know what your actual inner purpose is and where you wanna be, and who you are.
It's pretty common to NOT know these things. It's worth asking yourself questions like, "Hey, am I certain that everything is in line with my long-term visions, in line with my short-term vision and who I am today?"
The friction that you get from others
If you have all the above mentioned, great! However, another source of friction is other people's points of view and perspectives. If your friends expect you to go to happy hour with them all the time but you're trying to get in shape, you're probably going to have to let some people down in order to get what you want. If you care more about what other people want, well... that's definitely going to cause some friction. So, what will you decide? You're going to need to reconcile the two, and admit that you will have to "let some people down" in order to be who you want to be. More importantly, you will have to let go of their points of view as a primary concern. That is going to free up your mental energy in a huge way and reduce your friction.
Other sources that will sap your motivation
There might be pain or suffering associated with your goal or with getting what you want. This happens a lot in relationships in which your friends might not be the most supportive. Maybe you're trying to get in shape but your friends aren't in shape, and they're trying to encourage you toward "bad behavior". By which I mean, doing the same old things you always do, like go out for happy hour and stay out all night drinking. I know that's what I used to do. When there is pain involved with your growth process, every time you make a decision to abstain from hanging out with your friends, it will cause you a little bit of pain, and that's (you guessed it) more friction built into your goal process. That might be something you have to endure, or it might be something you have to negotiate with yourself. Once you reconcile that, you're gonna free up a lot of mental space.
Whenever there is friction or conflict, there is an opportunity to unlock some extra energy. Take advantage of that and that's how you can really build some serious momentum in your quest for change.
Pain is built into the process.
It's common to associate pain with action steps. What often happens in fitness is there's a pain associated with doing something new in the gym. There's a pain associated with looking silly in front of other people. Sometimes there's physical pain associated with exercise like an injury or you've had a bad experience in the past where you tried to get in shape and you got hurt. Maybe you injured yourself running or did something in an aggressive class and you got a minor (or major) injury. That can put a bad taste in your mouth! When you start to associate progress with pain, that makes for extra friction. Again, that's an opportunity to unlock some extra energy in your process.
What story will you tell yourself?
By many of our perceptions, somebody who takes consistent action and is enthusiastic about it is a motivated person. One of the other ways you can increase your motivation is to apply gratitude to the process you're in right now.
Let's say you're trying to lose 100 pounds. That means you have a lot of lifestyle changes ahead of you. You're going to do a lot of things that you never did before. Maybe you will change the way you eat, your habits around movement, your sleep habits around sleep. You can have the perspective that everything is getting taken away from you. That you can't eat your favorite foods anymore, you have to be on an eating schedule and you have to be precise about how many meals you're eating and what you're eating every day, and making sure that you're getting in enough veggies. You can be of the mind that this is happening to you, that you have to do this, that it's been forced on you.
OR, you could be of the mind that you GET to do this. That you have the opportunity to become more healthy, to change your life to the positive and to bring yourself more energy, vitality, and longevity by making different choices. Then you get to go through that growth process and unlock even more hidden benefits like your own personal sense of empowerment that comes along with changing your fate. All of this can be a benefit or a burden but it has everything to do with your perspective and your mindset.
Your mindset has so much to do with your level of motivation. If you could only focus on your mindset, you could probably get all your motivation from that.
Other easy tricks to try
Try associating pleasure with the process. Set up workouts with friends. Do something you actually like to do. If you like to play a sport or do something recreationally, set up a standing appointment with yourself to play basketball 2-3 times a week or whatever. Make it fun, make it something you do on the regular and you've got some built-in rewards for your brain.
For the pain approach, you usually don't have to apply too much pain to get a result! Something simple: some people call a gym membership a pain (by just investing in yourself). You pay that chunk of cash to a gym, and you're paying it whether or not you go. That creates a little bit of a spur, a little bit of a needle in your side. You might say, "Hey, I'm already investing in this, I better use it." That gets some people motivated.
This example might be extreme for most of you. You can try writing out a check to a political body that you loathe, like Nazi Party of America or something, and if you don't hit your 12 workouts that month, then your friend has to mail that check. Or if you're Republican, mail that to the Democratic party. If you're Democratic, mail it to the Republican party. Whatever. Use something that you would cause a lot of pain, you'll be committed to avoid this sword of Damocles and get things done.
What does it mean to be accountable?
How are you holding yourself accountable? How are you holding somebody else accountable? How do you hold people accountable, Josh? Accountability is often misunderstood. When we think about being held accountable, we usually think about being punished for something that we failed to do. My personal definition of accountability is bearing the natural consequences of your actions. No more, no less. Often times, being held accountable is simply being measured, literally. "Hey, you said you would bench press 150 pounds by this date. You did or you didn't." All we're doing is witnessing your actions and the outcomes your action created. Yes, sometimes that can be painful. If you've failed in front of somebody you trust or care about, that failure will be painful. I've done it enough times to understand that pain.
Where does accountability go wrong?
What happens along the way is we start to beat ourselves down with negative self-talk, with what we perceive to be logical observations. It's really just mental bullying we put on ourselves. For example, if we're late for a workout or if we don't get up on time, we'll start to beat ourselves up. We'll say like, "Oh yeah, there I go again. I'm always lazy, I always mess this up and this is just something that I always do. Screwing things up before we even get started."
In reality, we should not call this being held accountable. That's self-inflicted mental abuse. Over time, we start to get numb to our own voice because you can't just hold somebody over a fire continually. Instead, we build up "calluses" and we get tough. We start to forget. We start to become numb and anesthetized to that kind of criticism. Then when we have our weigh-in, we step on the scale and we're numb to the fact that the number is heavier than it was last month, or lighter than it was last month because we've been beating ourselves up. Whatever it is that you're trying to accomplish: take a strength test, or whenever it's time be held accountable. It's almost as if we're no longer embarrassed by our actions or lack thereof, but we've lost that sensitivity.
A better way: accountability without judgment
A part of being held accountable is taking the judgment off yourself and putting it back where it belongs, which is on the plan. When you measure yourself, it doesn't mean you're measuring yourself as a person. You are measuring the effectiveness of your plan or your ability to adhere to the plan. Being accountable is simply being accurately and honestly measured. Hopefully, you're in a tribe that you trust and you're being witnessed by people you value. That way, when it comes time to adjust the plan, get critical feedback and make adjustments, it comes from a great place and YOU are being taken to a great place.
How to be held accountable? Be measured, be witnessed. How to be motivated? Act like you chose to do what you're doing. Have fun while you're doing it. Make sure you got some clear pleasure points you're moving towards and things in the future that you're wanting.
Obviously, your goal means something to you.
You associate something positive with it. You might have some pain points that you're running away from. Those are built in and then everything else is just massaging the friction and sending out the stones in the path so that all of this can happen quickly and smoothly. But anybody can get started and there is NOTHING stopping you from getting motivated and bringing out the warrior within.