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Should I Get Motivated Or Use Willpower? The Ultimate Guide For Taking Action When You Don’t Feel Like It

lazydog

So you want to exercise, but don’t feel like doing it?

You have two options:

  1. Get motivated (v): increase your desire to take action
  2. Use willpower (v): force yourself to take action.

By the end of this article, you won’t believe in getting motivated anymore.

The extremely popular personal development strategy of “getting motivated” is unreliable, full of false assumptions, and a giver of disappointing results. But the better alternative of willpower is frequently misused to the point that it’s even less effective, which is why many people turn to getting motivated in the first place. We’re going to cover it all, but let’s start with one man who tries to get motivated to meet his fitness goals.

Scene: It’s 12:23 AM, and a husband and wife look at their bare stomachs in the bathroom mirror

Husband: “I need get rid this beer belly. How do you stay so beautiful and fit, Snuggle Cakes?”

Snuggle Cakes: “Aww, thanks Aspartame Honey Bear.” *she kisses him and looks down at her stomach, patting it twice* “Hmm…I guess I’m fit because I exercise consistently. I don’t leave it up to hope.”

Now, some of you are already thinking, “Yeah! Don’t leave it up to hope! Let’s DO it!” Well, be careful, because this is motivation-based thinking that won’t last. It’s the reason why the husband goes through exercise programs and fad diets like a dog digs through a bag of trash, and it all starts with a seemingly harmless observation.

The Vicious 5 Step “Get Motivated” Trap

1. Exercise is traced back to being motivated (seed planted)

The husband’s goal is to exercise, so he looks back to the times he exercised before, hoping he can replicate what has worked for him in the past. He remembers feeling motivated to exercise on a few occasions, and driving to the gym shortly thereafter.”That’s it,” he thinks, “I exercise when I’m motivated.” The seed is planted.

2. When exercise is desired, you get motivated (soil watered)

It’s Friday, and the husband wants to exercise, but exercise is wholly unappealing to him at the moment. Since he isn’t motivated to exercise, he tells himself he just needs to find a way to get motivated. The soil is watered.

He starts watching motivational youtube videos, reading articles on how to get motivated, and researches the health benefits of exercise.

Motivation is a fancy word that simply means wanting to do something. So to get motivated to exercise, is to want to want to exercise; it’s the desire to have a desire.

3. Getting motivated works this time (sun shines)

The husband is fired up! He roars and bangs on his chest, which scares his wife in more than one way. He is motivated, excitedly grabs his gym shoes, and runs to the car. At the gym, he has a really satisfying workout. It feels great to do something healthy and to overcome his resistance. The sun shines!

4. Getting motivated doesn’t always work (plant dies)

Over the coming weeks, the husband has inconsistent success with getting motivated to exercise. He finds that his motivation fluctuates with his mood and physical feelings, and that when he’s tired, he can’t get himself motivated. He misses quite a few gym days because he “just didn’t feel like it” and the typical motivational fixes didn’t change that. Many times, he didn’t even try to get motivated because he didn’t want to work. The plant dies.

5. New motivational material and strategies are sought and the cycle continues (new seed?)

Even after so many years of minimal progress and poor consistency, the husband continues to seek new ways to get himself motivated to exercise, thinking that he just hasn’t found the perfect strategy. But again and again, he finds that it works “sometimes.” He notices that life’s ups and downs and his feelings seem to have more to do with his successes and failures than his strategies. What’s he doing wrong? I’ll tell you. In step one, he planted the wrong seed.

Here’s Why Getting Motivated Will Never Be A Winning Strategy

Does getting motivated work? The answer is a maddening sometimes. At times, you can conjure up the motivation to be fit or write 5,000 words, but other times, you will end up taking a nap, watching TV, or drinking beer instead. This is a huge problem…

If getting motivated is your strategy, you can’t build habits.

Habits require repetition and consistency, and when your exercise program is dependent on a hearing a rousing speech, listening to a funky beat, or getting motivated in other ways, you’re unlikely to ever develop the habits that will bring you long term success in your pursuits. Motivation is not reliable because it’s based on how you feel, and we’ve known for centuries that human feelings are wacky and unpredictable.

Deep Existence subscribers know how much I love habits, because of how much I’ve badgered them about habits stressed habits this past month. I’m also writing my next book on habits (read about my upcoming Mini Habits book here).

Think about how this Bruce Lee quote relates to getting motivated:

“If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.”
― Bruce Lee

Don’t get me wrong here. Motivation itself is great. In fact, here are the great benefits of being motivated.

The Impressive Benefits Of Motivation

  • It increases your desire and likelihood to take action
  • It gets you excited and is exciting
  • It boosts your determination
  • It generates positive thoughts

Clearly, it is better to be motivated than not to be, which is what makes people want to get motivated. But as we’ve already discussed, the “get motivated” strategy is inconsistent, and a recipe for confusion and frustration. If you’ve been baffled by your inconsistency exercising, it’s because you’ve been relying on motivation, which is NOT consistent. If you’re looking for a reliable alternative, it’s coming right up!

The Two Huge Secrets That Motivational Authors Don’t Want You To Know

I’ve got the secrets of life here. Seriously, these two ideas could change your life if you let them soak in and act accordingly. Are you ready for them?

  1. You can take action even if you’re NOT motivated to do so. (tweet this important factThis is much easier than it seems with the right strategies.
  2. Taking action FIRST is the best way to motivate yourself. (tweet this powerful truth) Many times, taking action is the only way to motivate yourself, which is a dagger in the heart of the “let’s get motivated first” strategy.

Last night I wrote 1,000 words for my book. No big deal, right? Actually, it was a big deal, because I had a headache, was dead tired, and wanted to sleep. I was not motivated, but I took action. After I started, I became motivated to write more. If I can write even in those rough circumstances, my streak is likely to continue. I’ve averaged about two thousand words a day for 55 127 300+ days (updated) in a row.

Success is showing up

When you rely on motivation, you don’t always show up.

One reason taking action first (using willpower) before you feel motivated works is because the mind and body have an intimate relationship. When you act first with your body, your mind will tend to “align” with it. Did you know that it is scientifically proven that body language alters the brain in powerful ways? Check out this excerpt from my post, The James Bond Guide To Ultimate Confidence:

In an experiment by social psychologist Amy Cuddy, one group was instructed to assume a high-power pose and another a low-power pose, both for two minutes. The high-power pose group stood tall and placed their hands on their hips or held their arms out (open, wide, and taking up space). The low-power pose group folded their arms inward and slouched (closed, confined, and taking up less space).

After just two minutes, the high-power pose group’s testosterone levels increased 20% and their cortisol levels decreased 25%. In addition, the high-power group was far more willing to take risks than the low-power posers. As for the low-power pose group results, their pose had the inverse effect – testosterone dropped 10% and cortisol increased 15%.

But what do these results mean? I’ll tell you, and it’s pretty cool.

The high-power pose group became more like James Bond!

James Bond is fictional (right!?), but if he were real, we would find that he has low cortisol and high testosterone levels. Bond’s low cortisol levels are what allow him to remain calm when he looks death in the eye. His high testosterone levels are what make him confident, aggressive, and willing to take risks.

Amy Cuddy: “Two minutes led to these hormonal changes that configure your brain to basically be either assertive, confident, and comfortable, or really stress-reactive and feeling kind of shut down.”

Think of your mind and body as teammates that always want to be on the same page. When you body acts confidently, your mind will try to match it, chemically. It works the other way too.

Jessica Tracy, PhD, found that blind and seeing people do the same thing when they win at a physical competition. They will lift their chin slightly and raise their hands to the sky. In this moment, a winner’s brain releases chemicals that causes a physical reaction. This is very interesting because blind people have never seen the classic victory pose to know to imitate it – it’s instinct.

When your body “acts motivated” by taking action before you feel like it, your mind will usually join it. I’ve experienced this delight firsthand so many times in 2013, and I bet you can recall a time when you didn’t feel like doing something, started anyways, and then got into it. I wish that getting motivated first provided the same type of results for me, but instead it got me almost nowhere after 10 years of trying.

How “Getting Motivated” Failed Me For Ten Years

From high school to my last years of college, I was interested in personal growth. For about a decade (age 17-27), the following list is the process I went through. Pay close attention and see if this sounds familiar. My example is about exercise, but this pattern could apply to any planned change in your life (writing more, reading more, etc.).

  1. I’d get motivated to exercise
  2. I’d get motivated to do DO IT! YEAH!
  3. I’d do it for maybe 1-4 weeks (usually about two weeks), with varying success.
  4. I’d quit. Life would “interrupt me,” I’d gradually drift out of it, enthusiasm/motivation would slowly fade out, or I’d give up suddenly for reasons I never understood until now. I thought that if I didn’t feel motivated to do something, I couldn’t or shouldn’t do it. That was one of a few lies I trained myself to believe about getting motivated, and here they are.

The 4 Lies People Believe About Getting Motivated

1. Getting motivated is the only way to take action (lie)

As getting motivated has been established by parroting self-help “gurus” as THE way to get yourself to take action and improve your life, very few people question it. The widespread popularity makes it super easy to assume it’s the best or only way. I’ll admit that getting motivated is a better strategy than nothing, but here’s a truth bomb.

An effect can have more than one cause. 

  • The desired effect: Exercising
  • THREE possible causes: motivation, willpower, habit

The main alternative to motivation is willpower, which is forcing yourself to do something you don’t want (i.e. are not motivated) to do. Once you repeat a behavior enough, you can do it out of habit (this is ideal). When you do something from habit, you no longer need motivation or willpower!

Willpower can run out, however, so it comes with the same unreliability problem as motivation. Many people choose getting motivated because if you rely on motivation, you’re less likely to “burn out” like you can from using willpower. But there are two reasons why using willpower is far better than getting motivated.

  • Willpower can be strengthened like a muscle. Leading self-control researcher, Professor Roy Baumeister, found in 1999 that students who had exercised their willpower to improve their posture for two weeks, “showed a marked improvement on subsequent measures of self-control” compared to those who hadn’t worked on their posture. (source)
  • Using willpower, you can schedule an activity like exercise, and choose to do it whether you are motivated or not. This alone makes willpower a better strategy because it allows for consistency, but the big flaw remains – how can we keep from exhausting our willpower resources and maintain consistent success? The short answer is The One Push-up Challenge. The long answer is in my book, which discusses how to take “stupid small steps” and turn them into powerful, healthy habits.

 2. Getting motivated is a reliable technique (lie)

Getting motivated will fail you when you’re tired, in a bad mood, or feeling down for whatever reason. It is a strategy inherently dependent on how you feel, which is why it will work wonderfully sometimes and fail miserably other times. The lie people believe is that they’re doing something wrong when it doesn’t work. The great news is that there’s nothing wrong with you if you can’t get motivated on a particular day for whatever reason. The problem isn’t with you, it’s with thinking that you can simply turn on motivation like a switch at any time.

3. I will always want to get myself motivated (lie)

This is a wrong assumption. Here is the scenario (it’s about to get a bit tricky, so try to follow along).

Problem: Your primary goal is to exercise, but you don’t want to do it. After this common issue, there are TWO possibilities if you follow the “get motivated to take action” strategy in life.

  • Your goal is to get motivated: This means that you want to want to exercise. This is the possibility that many people assume happens 100% of the time. But that’s not true – there is another possibility. If it was always the case, motivation would be more reliable (though still not perfect).
  • You aren’t motivated to get motivated: This means that you… bear with me here… don’t want to want to want to exercise. Yes, that was three “want to” sequences in a row!

This second possibility happens far more often than people realize. When I had a headache last night, I did not want to get motivated.

If you don’t want to get motivated, and getting motivated is your strategy for doing things, you have lost the battle before it has begun. Since this was not my strategy last night, it didn’t matter that I had a headache. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t motivated. And it didn’t matter that I have weak willpower. I still won.

4. My enthusiasm will remain steady or increase (lie)

Many people associate motivation with the typical enthusiasm it provides, but be wary any time you start a plan very excited and with high energy, because that feeling will decrease with time. If your foundation for doing something is “feeling motivated,” you will fail. It’s better to do something because you choose to do it, a solid foundation that does not fluctuate wildly.

The longer you do something, the more routine and less exciting it becomes (this is a benefit for habit-building, which thrives off of even-keeled consistency). Lack of enthusiasm is actually a positive sign that means the behavior’s management is beginning its transition to the more stable and automated parts of the brain like the basal ganglia.

Despite everything I just said, don’t worry, you can still enjoy your routines very much. You’ll always be a human with feelings and emotions! It’s the “I’m gonna DO this!” feeling that decreases. The only people who need that feeling to do things are the “let’s get motivated” people who believe they need it to do things.

This predictable enthusiasm decrease is why you see so many people drop their exercise plans when their enthusiasm runs out (usually after January). Despite their success exercising, they’ll notice, “I’m not feeling motivated anymore,” and stop going. Perhaps if they understood why they didn’t feel motivated anymore, they’d be encouraged and continue, but the best thing for them to do would be to not rely on feeling motivated in the first place.

Motivation comes fast when you take action first. (tweet this)

As a main strategy, motivation might be good enough to get you by in life, but it’s a poor choice compared to willpower. While willpower is the best strategy, most people don’t know how to use it and drain their willpower reserves quickly.

How People Misuse Willpower (And How To Use It Correctly)

“Willpower is the key to success. Successful people strive no matter what they feel by applying their will to overcome apathy, doubt or fear.”

- Dan Millman

Willpower is the clear winner here, but there is a reason it isn’t popular. First, willpower is less comfortable and positive than getting motivated – it’s forcing yourself to do things. Second, the poster child for willpower happens to be New Year’s Resolutions, which have an atrocious 8% success rate. In late December, people decide that they are going to finally lose 100 pounds by exercising 5 times a week, or some other massive goal. And they are going to do it no matter what. Do you have any idea what this does to willpower? Poor, poor willpower.

These difficult goals drain willpower fast.

Willpower is “the muscle of the mind.” People think that the effect on the brain is equal to the amount of work they physically do, but a bigger part of the equation is what the brain thinks it has to do. If order my brain to lose 100 pounds, even if it’s over the course of a year, it will fatigue just thinking about it. This is something that many people don’t realize, but this example explains why.

Think about how people ask for favors. There are two strategies you commonly see, listed below. Notice the difference in how these two requests make you feel.

  1. “Hi, can you do me a quick favor? It will just take two seconds!”
  2. “Hey, I need you to do me a HUGE favor!”

The second sentence is much more overwhelming, isn’t it? They need us to do them some gigantic favor. Oh God, I bet they want my kidney.

But these two requests could be different ways of asking for the same favor! In the first sentence, the person emphasizes how easy and non-time-consuming the favor is. In the second sentence, the person emphasizes that doing the favor would help them out a lot and that it’s very important to them. In each case, the favor could be “please give this note to Mr. Thompson.” See how that favor makes sense with both requests?

People are going to be more receptive to the first sentence’s phrasing before they hear the favor. And guess what… so is your brain!

When you ask your brain to do you a HUGE favor and help you lose 100 pounds by being on board with your goals this year, starting with an intense 45 minute workout, your brain cringes at the long commitment, the hard work, and the changes it is going to have to make. Keep in mind that your brain resists change. It’s designed to resist change. Lasting change only happens after a lot of repetition.

Your goal doesn’t have to be as big as 100 pounds to cause willpower failure. Asking your brain to do a 20 minute workout a few times a week might be enough to exhaust your willpower over the course of a few weeks.

But when you ask your brain to do a small favor, like, “hey, I know you were set on watching TV all day and gorging on candy, but could you just do one push-up for me real quick?” Then the brain says, “Pssh, yeah. That’s easy bro.” And when you get down and do a push-up, it’s easy to coax a few more out of your typically stubborn, lazy brain. Bonus: the brain likes increased blood flow that results from exercise.

By this time, you’ve already begun, you’re warmed up, and the brain becomes less resistant to the idea of exercise. This is your breakthrough moment. You’ve successfully leveraged a tiny sliver of willpower to get yourself to do much more!

“Ok, I guess we can do a bit more. It’s not so bad.”

~ Your brain

And don’t tell your brain this, but you just completed a full workout, which was step one in your plan to lose 100 pounds. When you start small and use willpower, you gain these amazing benefits (that “getting motivated” won’t give you).

The benefits of combining “stupid small steps” and willpower are…

  • Nearly unlimited willpower stamina: how much willpower does it take to do a single push-up or write 50 words? Not much!
  • Momentum: this simple formula is designed to do one thing – get you started. Once the ball is rolling, physics take over.
  • Awakening your dormant desires: Here’s the thing – you want to exercise and be in shape, but you don’t always feel like it. You want your dreams already, but the work to achieve them can be daunting or even boring. This is the spark that activates your dormant desires, because seeing yourself take action is more inspiring than any thought can ever be. (tweet this exciting quote)
  • Consistency: willpower-based strategies mean you can schedule them on the calendar. Small steps mean that you will always have enough willpower to start. This is the formula for consistency!

What Happened When I Stopped Trying To Get Motivated

I changed strategies in 2013, and now I’m writing like a scribe, reading books again, and I’ve worked out 3-6x a week for almost four months in a row now. And guess what? I’m not special. I have relatively weak willpower, but because I understand and plan for this limitation, I have more success now.

Please know that I type this as passionately and sincerely as I can. Personal development is not a brute force deal where if you can muster up so much motivation and energy that you start screaming and turning red, you’ll change your life. In that moment, sure you might run 7 miles or climb a tree in uncontrollable excitement, but life tends to normalize into its peaks, even ground, and valleys after that. Nobody stays high all of the time (if there was ever a time and place for a drug joke, it’s between these parentheses).

If you look around you carefully, there are hordes of people who don’t live by getting motivated. They might not bash it openly like I am, but they’re silently benefitting from knowing the truth about how to change your life. They’ve found the right path, but they may not know or care to communicate it.

We Already Have All The Motivation We’ll Ever Need

Answer this question honestly: Do your wildest dreams really require an extra motivation boost? Is it that you don’t want them enough or is it more accurate that it’s hard to put in the work to live your dreams when you’re stressed or tired, or that you doubt the likelihood you can reach them?

View motivation as a bonus, not a requirement for action. When you use the stupid small steps and willpower combination, you WILL become more motivated. How do you think it felt when I looked in the mirror after a couple of months of consistent exercise and saw bigger muscles? It felt great.

Have you ever wondered why motivational content motivates you? It’s because it “activates” desires inside you that you already have. It doesn’t give you the courage to do anything, it shines a light on your existing courage. When I tell you that you can do it, I don’t mean for it to be motivational, I mean to be practical. You can literally do it if you use willpower and small steps. But if you rely on motivation, success is unlikely.

At a basic level, we are already very motivated to live the life we want to live – the statement is self-evident. We want to do what we want to do. It’s the doubts, fears, and feelings we have that stop us. Too often, we try to engineer motivation to run down dream road when we only need to take one small step forward.

If this message connected with you, please share it. It can change lives. It has already changed mine.

photo by kretyen

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