Simple mental tricks for improving motivation and making change easy

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Most individuals believe that physical activity is beneficial, but many at the same time may find themselves leading quite sedentary lives. The time that exercise can take can be a perceived barrier for some who believe there’s simply ‘not enough hours in the day’. I don’t judge this point of view because I can fall foul of it myself. But I also think it’s worth pointing out that even if someone were to put in a good 8 hours of solid, productive work each day, and sleep for 8 hours each night, there’s still 8 hours each day left over. Even if work stretched to 10 hours, that still leaves 6 hours. OK, so there are usually other commitments and pressures in life. But sometimes it’s worth challenging the idea that we don’t have enough time to do something, when in reality even very busy people have some ‘free’ time in their day which could be dedicated to exercise or activity or something else that enriches life in some way.

However, once someone perceives that they do have more time than they thought, this won’t necessarily lead to them taking action. Some people simply find themselves lacking in motivation, and this can certainly be true for some people contemplating becoming active. It helps, of course, to find something that we actually enjoy. In my case I actually enjoy walking, so do a lot of it.

My other major form of exercise is swimming. I don’t think I’m a natural water person, and I’m not sure if I actually enjoy the act of swimming as such. However, I keep a diary of my swimming exploits and this reveals that in the last 150 days I have swum on 140 of them. This got me thinking about what it is that motivates me to be consistent and persistent with something that I don’t feel naturally inclined towards. So, what really is my motivation?

For me, motivation is all about pleasure and pain. If in our minds we decide that doing something will give us more pleasure and/or less pain than not doing it, then we’re immediately motivated.

I have a friend who is an exercise professional and sometimes asks groups of people if they, say, take a walk at lunchtime. Most do not. The he asks, ‘would you take a walk at lunchtime if your life depended on it?’ Everyone usually agrees that they would. The reason they would is because they are now motivated to do take the walk, because the ‘pain’ of taking the walk is much smaller than the ‘pain’ of associated with an early demise.

Now, in my case (and this is very personal) I have realised that I get pleasure from swimming because i believe that it’s an exercise that has benefits for my fitness, strength and flexibility. Another motivator, I realise, comes from me keeping a ‘swimming diary’. Each day I log whether I have swum or not. I get a certain satisfaction from logging a swim and, to be honest, leaving a day blank causes me some ‘pain’. When I thought about this recently it occurred to me that the pain of leaving a day blank outweighs for me the ‘pain’ of taking the time and effort to swim. The beliefs and emotions I have around this are inherently motivating.

Of course this approach may be applied not just to exercise, but other things as well. Let’s take healthy eating as an example. I believe I eat a generally healthy diet, but I do eat rubbish sometimes. I even like eating some rubbish foods. I, for example, find pizza to be a very rewarding food. I can chomp my way through a pack of biscuits in short order too. So, what motivates me not to make a habit of such unhealthy eating episodes? Lots of things, but here’s one: If I make a habit of these foods it’s likely I’ll end up significantly overweight, and that would erode my self-esteem to some degree, and might even affect my ability to do my job effectively.

Now, the pain associated with these consequences far outweighs any ‘pain’ I might experience by reigning in my intake of rubbish but rewarding foods. Now, quite simply, I am very motivated not to let me eating habits run out of control.

Again, I’ve used very personal examples here, and each of us is different and may have different things that we perceive bring us pleasure or pain. But it occurs to me that for those who find they are not motivated to make changes, they might think about focusing on related ‘pleasures’ and ‘pains’ in a way which aids motivation and helps change be a natural, pain-free and enjoyable process.

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Walking versus running

I recently read an interesting editorial in the Journal of American College of Cardiology about the relative benefits of walking and running [1]. The editorial

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