Photography: Patrik Giardino
If you’ve ever tried something hard – running a marathon, getting a six-pack, learning to box, writing a best-selling dystopian novel where children fight each other – you already know that just wanting it isn’t enough.
Motivation can get you started, but what gets you to the finish is persistence: the ability to push on through obstacles and in spite of difficulties. The bad news? Humans are lazy creatures, primed by our psyches and society to resist change while we dawdle along the path of least resistance. The upside? Science has brought us more ways to fix this than we’ve ever had before. Read on to find out what they are.
Step 1: Choose A Better Class Of Goal
Want to get lean? You’ll need to be more well-defined. Or, to put it another way, vague plans like “lose weight” or “put on muscle” are too imprecise. “Lose 3kg by June” or “add an inch to my arms” is slightly better, but there’s still a problem: you aren’t entirely in charge of the results, and anything short of hitting them counts as a (de-motivating) failure. Instead, aim to make goals that are based on processes, not results.
“The key is to scale the overall goal down into pieces,” says personal trainer Alexander Edwards. “Break it down: what do you need to do, on a week-by-week basis, to get to where you want?” To stay focused on the process, pick goals like “learn to cook one new meal a week”, “go to the gym at least twice a week” or “do 50 press-ups a day”.
Process-based goals are more satisfying because you get a tiny jolt of success every day and you’re fully in control – which ultimately makes you more likely to succeed.
Step 2: Stack The Odds In Your Favour
Got your processes in place? Excellent. Now it’s time for some more motivation. “Motivation in a fitness context can generally be divided into two categories, intrinsic and extrinsic,” says Jack Coxall, a sports psychologist who works as a performance director.
“Intrinsic refers to an individual’s motivation centred around the individual themselves, whereas extrinsic motivation centres on the idea that an individual wants to perform well for an external source, such as a parent or spouse.”
Which one should you use? “In my opinion, in a health and fitness context, a balance between both types of motivation is the ideal scenario,” says Coxall. “So someone who’s motivated to become fitter and healthier to improve their life and daily performance for themselves and their own sense of achievement, but also has the motivation to accomplish the same for external reasons like performing better for their five-a-side team, or being able to play for longer with their children in the garden.”
Extrinsic is easy, but intrinsic is tougher. Focus on finding exercises you’d like to master or the endorphin rush you get from a good session. And calm down on the post-workout treats – in studies, volunteers who were offered rewards for completing a task put less effort into it than people doing it for the incentive of a job well done.
Step 3: Avoid The Instant Dip
In the gap between starting and seeing your first results, apathy is inevitable: you’ve given it everything you have, everything feels hard, and you’ve got nothing to show for it.
“Focus on processes that give you positive reinforcement,” says John Brewer, professor of applied sport science at St Mary’s University London and 18-time London marathon finisher. “A great example of this is when you’re racing, and split times show that you are on for a great time or a PB. This has the effect of motivating you to keep going and possibly run even faster, whereas if early split times are poor, the negative feedback from this can have the effect of making things even harder – and slower.”
With a new training programme, easy wins in the early going will have a knock-on effect that helps you gear up for later workouts. So start with weights slightly lighter than the heaviest you can handle, but aim to add weight, reps or sets – or just reduce your resting time – every session. And when it starts to hurt, make sure you’ve got an exit strategy.
“Sports psychologists often recommend a mixed technique using both association and disassociation,” says Brewer. “Association means you focus on your body and how it’s feeling, and concentrate on doing the best that you can. With disassociation, which is often used when the going gets tough, you disconnect from thinking about your body and focus on the external environment.”
If all else fails, use the idea of “non-zero” days. If it’s approaching bedtime and you’ve done nothing towards your chosen goal that day, then do the bare minimum: one press-up, one glass of water or one line of your epic space-fantasy trilogy. It’s about building the habit, not hammering yourself every day.
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Step 4: Think In Blocks
It’s easy to get after it when you’ve just started a new regime, especially since you’re adapting to new movements and the results are coming fast. But there’s a point – usually after about four to six weeks – when things slow down. That’s when it’s time to embrace the grind.
“I believe that you can only train hard in blocks of two, four, six and maybe eight weeks. Then you slide back to medium,” says strength coach and author Dan John. “Most of the time, you need to do what I call ‘punch the clock’ workouts. I suggest doing all the basic movements – push, pull, squat, carry and ‘hinge’ with a swing or a deadlift – do any corrective work you need, improve your technique on one or two exercises, break a sweat and get the heart rate up. Then pat yourself on the back.”
Despite all the well-meaning advice from social media, not every workout has to be a fight to the death. Just getting something done three days every week beats the occasional all-out effort followed by a fortnight of indolence.
Step 5: Summon Strength
Don’t wait for it to strike – go out and get it. “Keep a log of your successes and refer to it when you’re in a slump,” says Edwards. “And sit down every couple of weeks to question how things are going. What are you finding easy? What are you finding hard? Have your goals stayed the same, or do you have new ones? Are there any simple changes you can make to help the process along?” By writing things down, you’ll make the details concrete – and you’ll have a record of how far you’ve come.
Step 6: Ride The Setbacks
“There isn’t a single athlete who hasn’t had a setback at some point in their career,” says Brewer. “Injury, illness and bad days are occupational hazards in pretty much every sport. It’s important to accept that you are not alone, and retain confidence in your own ability.
“If you’re injured, concentrate on what you can do. Take the opportunity to work on your technique in a different set of moves, or work on a new discipline – if you’re a runner, for instance, I’d suggest cycling or swimming to keep up the cardio with low impact on your joints. If you are a committed racer, it may be worth entering events that you have never run before so that the temptation to make comparisons with previous performances is less.”
If you’re a runner, try a 7K or 12K race instead of the usual 5/10Ks to give your training a different focus. If you’re lifting, keep track of your PBs in half a dozen different “indicator” exercises and try to improve one or two at a time: if your deadlift isn’t going up, shift the focus to your pull-up and front squat for a couple of months, and get over the slump. Then keep going.