Simple mental tricks for improving motivation and making change easy

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.

20 Responses to Simple mental tricks for improving motivation and making change easy

  1. John Myers 19 October 2012 at 6:31 pm #

    I have to enthusiastically endorse Richard Feinman’s comment. I’m a graphic designer and I have many annual design projects, some of them are just enormous in terms of time spent working on them.
    It’s easy to put them off until later because they seem so daunting.
    I’ve found that if I just make some simple effort (a first step as he puts it) things tend to snowball in a good way. It can be as simple as making a new folder on my computer for the project. Next step – erase the template from last year and rename the file in the new folder. It takes a minute.I hope that isn’t too ‘in the weeds’.
    I wish I would have realized this when I was in college. I dreaded writing term papers and other such big projects. I would sometimes start on them the night before deadline and just beat myself up with all-nighters needlessly.
    Ain’t no step for a stepper.

  2. Denis Dillon 19 October 2012 at 8:27 pm #

    I agree that swimming is the 2nd best form of exercise. I swim front crawl 2 to 3 times a week a minimum of 40 lengths (1 km) each time. I have noticed I am more supple generally & particularly in the winter I do not seem to be affected so much by the cold weather. I do not suffer with back ache as much as I used to & generally swimming with a bit of walking & cycling allied to a paleo diet leaves me in very good health (1 minor cold in 2 and a half years).

    Thank you Dr Briffa from someone who has followed your reasonable, accurate advice. I have given up on advising my peers on diet because of the ridicule I get from the brainwashed.

  3. DanC 19 October 2012 at 9:02 pm #

    Dr Briffa’s best blog. Sometimes it takes clear and intelligent thinking to reduce supposedly complex issues to simple-to-understand concepts. More pleasure (feeling good about oneself) by doing the right thing, more pain from the consequences of doing the wrong thing.

    Rita: Well said. I learned commitment to myself as making a contract with myself. When I made a contract with myself to quit smoking, it worked (along the lines of feeling good about myself when I stopped coughing and the air seemed so fresh in my nose and feeling bad about myself for all the hacking and the smell of my clothes). Btw, I used hypnosis to accomplish this.

  4. Susan 19 October 2012 at 9:04 pm #

    Certainly the mental aspect to achieving optimum health is paramount. For many years I was stuck in a rut of thinking “I am fat, I want to be skinny, it will take forever and be so difficult to get from fat to skinny.” Then a few years ago I decided to change my thinking to, “I *am* skinny,” and then it was just a matter of bringing my daily, hourly, minute-ly behaviours into alignment with that thinking. Thanks in part to that shift in mindset (plus a whole lot of new behaviours), today I am some 100 pounds lighter.

  5. Enam Hussain 19 October 2012 at 9:07 pm #

    I started writing a log of all the exercise I do and it pains me to see blank spaces and I get satisfaction by writing in all the things I’ve done.

  6. John Walker 19 October 2012 at 9:19 pm #

    Quote: I have given up on advising my peers on diet because of the ridicule I get from the brainwashed. : Unquote
    Me too Denis.. I know what you mean; exactly.

  7. Richard David Feinman 19 October 2012 at 9:24 pm #

    I think your points can be generalized to the benefits of keeping time records and maybe just records of anything so that, in essence, you know what you’re up against. For many people, a switch to low carb may mean learning to cook more, frequently especially vegetables. This can seem like something that is too hard, especially at the end of the day. If you time how long it takes to core a cauliflower, for example, and put it in a pot and steam until done, you find out it is very short and since the steaming does not require your intervention, it turns out you only need 5 minutes. Also, a technique based on principles of successive approximation from behavioral psychology helps. It is easy to drive to the gym every day. If you can do that as a habit, you can then tell yourself that as long as you’re here, you can at least go in. If that is habitual, you can then tell yourself, you can certainly do one set of presses, etc. Of course, it is easier if you have a partner but you can train yourself. Surprisingly, the first step is the hardest. I think you have to really make the first step habitual and not actually go to the final goal until it is.

  8. Jean 19 October 2012 at 9:32 pm #

    Rita, I love your analysis, you should write a blog – you make so much sense and the way you put your thoughts across is so clear and understandable, thank you! -Dr Briffa watch out!

  9. Barry Danser 19 October 2012 at 9:52 pm #

    There are several aspects to exercise motivation.
    Can you do it now and without extra equipment other than your own body. I practice Tai Chi . But when I don’t have time I practice chi gung . I can do this in 5 minutes . I have my own product on the website but if you don’t want to pay me money you can also get workouts on chi gung on You Tube.
    I have found several things have happened when you do this .
    You do 5 mins a day and its easy and I feel people then feel they can do a little more and so if you did 5 minutes a day you would end up doing 35 minutes a week .
    What happens if you then decide that the 5 mins a day has started to motivate you a little more ?
    You could work your way up to 15 mins a day on average thats over an hour and a half!

    Never mind about raising your heart rate , improving your metabolism and all that stuff.
    Just get out and do something and underachieve that way you will always have energy in reserve.
    Somehow I find this has the opposite effect and people that follow this modest guideline normally end up doing more regular exercise than those who “burn out”.

    So don’t knock yourself out but please please please just do something

  10. Remy 19 October 2012 at 10:03 pm #

    Aren’t you concerned by so much chlorine exposure ?

  11. Monika 19 October 2012 at 11:08 pm #

    I think, essentially, mindfulness is the key. In attempting to be more mindful, life becomes more meaningful and so then does everything we do. How to be more mindful? Like everything else – LOTS of practice (I’m still working on it…….:-)

  12. Rita 20 October 2012 at 12:01 am #

    The question is how to motivate ourselves to do something that’s good for us. What you’ve provided here, while not unhelpful, are essentially mental tricks designed to jumpstart and manipulate our willpower. The tricks that involve threat of pain operate on fear of something, such as getting fat or, in the case of not filling out a log, letting ourselves down. These techniques reveal that we’re grappling with an opposing force within ourselves, the one that prefers to sit on the couch eating chips or is “just lazy.” In essence we’ve set up a war within ourselves in which we hope our better angels will prevail. Everyone knows someone — maybe even ourselves at some point — who starts out strong with the new diet or exercise regimen, only to slack off when things start to improve. Slowly the tension in the internal battle starts to break down and before you know it, the war has been won…by the other side. Your daily log is designed to combat this, but having tried the daily log approach in the past, I can tell you with 100% certainty that it doesn’t always work.

    What you, Dr. Briffa, and what I and what all successful exercisers and diets have really done, if you analyze it at the fundamental level, is make a commitment to be healthy. We choose health as an organizing principle of our lives. It sounds crazy that anybody would choose anything else, but the way many people live demonstrates that on a daily basis they do not consciously choose health. If they did, they wouldn’t eat pizza for lunch every day, they wouldn’t drive when they could walk, and so on. Folks who join the gym and then lose interest haven’t made that fundamental commitment; they’re still operating at the level of internal struggle, guilt and ambivalence. Sure, there are times when I wake up tired and don’t feel like going to the gym, but all it takes is a moment of reflection to remember that I lift weights because I have chosen to live into old age with as much health and vigor as I can. I don’t have to convince myself of this; it’s fundamental and there is no part of myself that disagrees. My forward motion in the direction of the gym then becomes a one-way arrow to the door, rather than a tug of war with the more sedentary part of myself.

    This is a long way of saying that although you may employ mental tricks to keep yourself on track, motivation is really just a reflection of a conscious commitment to yourself. Once you make the commitment, manipulating your willpower with tricks, admonitions and threats becomes unnecessary.

  13. Nadia 20 October 2012 at 10:23 am #

    @ Rita. Nicely put! I am exactly one of those people that has all the intentions of going to the gym but finds motivation kind of dies of once the results start coming in. It is incredibly annoying. Like John, I enjoy swimming, but have to confess that I only enjoy it in the privacy of my parents outdoor swimming pool in the south of france. On a dark wintry evening in the UK, the appeal wears off considerably and the sofa frequently wins. Although I am pretty much there where my diet and weight are concerned, I could really do with moving around more. Having read what you and John have written, I have decided that perhaps I won’t cancel my gym membership afterall and take your points on board and give it another go! 🙂

  14. Richard David Feinman 20 October 2012 at 11:28 pm #

    I’m afraid you’re telling us to shape up, be a good person. In short, you’re blaming the patient for a lack of will power. Whatever the value of such an approach, there is an entire body of knowledge in behavioral psychology which looks at stimuli and responses and tries to arrange, as it’s called, “contingencies of reinforcement.” Of course, if they work, the little person in the brain, can’t take credit for high moral qualities. In any case, behavioral psychology puts emphasis on the environment. It is true that it is not clear cut because, as behaviorists point out, the environment is of our own making. When we keep high carb stuff out of the refrigerator we have made an environment that does not provide the right opportunities and we don’t have to confront our piggy nature.
    Naturally, if you can make a commitment and it works you don’t need to go beyond that. It’s just that not all of us are so lucky.

  15. Sue 21 October 2012 at 10:53 pm #

    I agree with what Dr. Briffa says as well. Another system that is quite similar but with a slightly different thought process is to determine what motivates each individual most. Some of us move towards pleasure (for example a motivation of looking younger), yet others of us move away from pain (similar to Dr Briffa’s example of motivated to avoid pain and suffering, weight gain, an early death…). By determining which type of person you are, you can find the type of motivation that works best for you and then hopefully, be more successful. Now go out there and carpe diem! (seize the day!)

  16. Patrick Pope 22 October 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    Remember the classic ‘Don’t break the chain!’ episode from Seinfeld? This is a really powerful habit forming technique where every day you mark a cross on a calendar once you have swum etc, and it builds up a very powerful incentive not to break the chain of crosses! Not linked to this software in any way, but ‘Streaks’ for the iPhone which enshrines this approach has worked a treat for me … I too have only missed 4 days of swimming since February!

  17. Peter 23 November 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    My experience with regular exercise is that I have to make it as easy to start as sitting on the couch and turning on the TV. Thus, I have cancelled my gym membership and invested in a set of dumb-bells. They are in a drawer in the kitchen.
    It takes me a minute to ger there, take them out and do some exercises. I dont even have to change. I do 20 minutes at most ( high intensity) . I listen to the radio or TV while I do it. My young boys are somewhat bemused but ask questions about exercise and fitness and it is my chance to evangelise. I do them every second day. I am becoming much better toned. I am about to purchase a set of resistance straps ( traks, or rip 60). They cost about £80 but will last years. The dumb – bells cost me £20.
    My aerobic exercise is through walking. I walk over an hour a day by walking to and from work. It’s natural, a great de-stressor and necessary ( i have to go to work!)
    So, my tip is, make exercise as easy to start as possible

  18. Jackie Wilkinson 18 February 2013 at 11:15 am #

    Peter – I’ve given up on gyms too since I lost money when the one I was in went bust – then I joined another and that one went under too. I now have a stack of dumb bells behind the settee and weight train while I watch TV.

    To make life really easy, I slip mini exercises in during the day. I do a few lunges while a programme loads on the computer, I go on an exercise bike when I read, I do squats or stretches while the kettle boils, I do a T’ai Chi exercise which involves standing on one leg on tip toe while I wait in queues in shops. These exercises take no time out of the day at all.

    I agree with everyone who has mentioned keeping records (my book Succeed in Sport describes a visual chart I developed for just this purpose) so I get the satisfaction of seeing that I have done all these little bits of exercise. The benefit really does add up, especially with some high intensity work.

    For motivation, as I said to someone who recently gave me a hard time for not eating an unhealthy provided lunch, I know how I’ll feel afterwards. I’d rather eat good natural stuff and feel good!

  19. Rita 27 February 2013 at 9:19 pm #

    Hi Richard David Feinman,

    I know it’s been awhile but I’m just seeing your reply to me now. Anyway, I think you misread my post. In fact, I’m saying just the opposite of “blaming the patient for lack of willpower.” I make clear in my post that willpower manipulation doesn’t work. Willpower is beside the point. Focusing on willpower is what dooms us. “Why am I not strong enough? Why do I lack willpower? Mea culpa, I’m a bad person” etc. etc. Yikes! Guilt tripping yourself doesn’t work.

    I’m talking about switching the emphasis away from trying to do what I think is good for me and then being in a constant battle with the part of me that would rather take a nap.

    It requires a bit of readjustment of your thinking, but once you remind yourself that being healthy is what you WANT TO BE, and exercising is what you WANT TO DO, things get easier.


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