Not being motivated to work out is a common issue, but there is a solution. By fulfilling three traits you can get, and stay, motivated to work out. You’ll also receive some additional tips for igniting your workout motivation that has proven effective for my clients. Let’s first see what science has shown to be effective for getting motivated.
How to Get Motivated, According to Science
An excellent book that provides science-driven information about attaining, and maintaining, motivation is Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pink uses Self-Determination Theory (SDT) to explain how people become motivated and provides three basic psychological needs that must be fulfilled. Based on Pink’s research and SDT, the three needs that must be met to increase motivation are:
- Autonomy: you have some amount of control.
- Competence: you feel like you’re good at what you do.
- Relatedness: you’re part of a community and feel a sense of connection with others.
Achieving motivation can be as simple as fulfilling those three needs. It’s important to note that Pink’s research is aimed primarily at helping people become motivated for their careers, but I’ve noticed this can also be applicable to attaining motivation to work out and improve one’s health and fitness.
So the question now becomes: How can you satisfy those three needs (autonomy, competence, relatedness) to become, and stay, motivated to work out?
You can achieve this in your fitness regimen by ensuring you have flexibility. For example, if you have to miss a workout or two this week, do you know how to respond? If you get injured and can no longer perform some of the exercises in your program, do you know how to adapt? If your workouts have to meet a new 30 minute time limit instead of your usual 60, can you make that happen? Are your working at your own pace or are you trying to do too much too soon and getting burned out?
The individuals who fail to work out consistently don’t know how to respond to the above scenarios; when their workout schedule or program doesn’t go as planned, they give up completely because they don’t know how to take control and adapt to the situation. They don’t know how to fulfill the need of autonomy. Or they try to follow a program that’s not practical for their lifestyle and when they miss a workout, they give up because they have an all-or-nothing mindset; they either follow the program completely or they don’t do it at all.
How to have autonomy: Know how to adapt when you’re short on time (e.g., cut the workout in half, but make very damn set count), you get injured (e.g., focus exclusively on exercises you can do, and get better at them), a certain exercise causes discomfort (switch to a similar movement), or some other situation inevitably occurs. Following a proven strength training program is a great place to begin, but you must be willing to adapt when life demands it. (This is one reason why many of my programs have built-in flexibility and exercise options.)
Most people won’t stay motivated to continue doing something they don’t have a bit of early success with. This is why I always encourage beginner strength trainees to learn a few basic exercises first. This way, from day one, they can have success and quickly learn how to properly perform the exercises. Realizing, “Hey, I can do this,” from the first workout is important.
I’ve seen coaches introduce someone who has never lifted weights to a very complex lift like a barbell or dumbbell snatch on their first day. They fail to learn the movement because it’s beyond their experience level, and so they feel incredibly discouraged. It’s like asking someone to host a Thanksgiving feast when they’ve never learned to scramble an egg; it’s setting them up for failure.
How to achieve competence: Begin with the basics you can learn quickly, and build momentum. This will establish confidence from day one and make the trainee realize that lifting weights isn’t nearly as complicated or intimidating as they thought, and they’ll want to come back. When in doubt, begin with the proven, basic principles of health and fitness. No one ever regretted becoming efficient at the basics.
Feeling like you’re part of a community can be a powerful motivator. Regardless of the qualms I have with some (read: not all) Crossfit gyms, they have done a spectacular job of achieving the relatedness-factor that’s proven to be crucial for many people. I’ve met dozens of women who refused to strength train until they were introduced to Crossfit; they love the group dynamic.
So how can you satisfy relatedness to increase your motivation if you work out at a commercial gym, or at home? If possible, recruit a friend or two to join you. This way you can work out together, hold each other accountable, and enjoy the journey together. Another option, if you simply can’t make this work, is to schedule a “challenge day” once a month or so with friends. Perhaps the first Saturday of every month you can gather at a local park and come up with some workout challenges (I’ve done this before with nothing but a few kettlebells and suspension trainer).
It’s important to note that not everyone wants, or needs, this relatedness factor to be fulfilled. Personally, I prefer to work out by myself most of the time, but I do occasionally enjoy the challenge that comes from training with another person in the room, so I’m partial to the “community challenge day” mentioned above.
How to achieve relatedness: If this is important to you, recruit a friend or two to work out with. If that’s not an option, schedule a challenge day once a month or so with friends; this can be at a gym, local park, or someone’s garage. If all else fails, you can also join an online community, too.
So if you struggle with getting, and staying, motivated to work out, your assignment is to come up with an action plan to fulfill all three of the above criteria. Come up with that plan, and then execute it, immediately. You can’t get results unless you take action.
For example, analyze your current strength training program, or choose a new one. Have a plan in place for what you’ll do when you miss a workout, you’re short on time, or you can’t perform certain exercises due to injury or equipment limitations to fulfill the autonomy need. For competence, make sure you’re starting with a few basic exercises you can learn quickly, and improve your strength with those movements. (If you’re not new to strength training commit to improving your workout performance, gradually, when possible.) If relatedness is important to you, recruit a friend to join you in the gym or schedule a challenge day once a month.
Have a plan. Then execute it.
Still having trouble getting motivated to work out even though you’ve fulfilled the above needs?
First, are you sure you’re not bullshitting yourself? Are you actually taking consistent action to fulfill those needs? So many people say they’re taking action when they’re not; don’t do that. Be different, do what needs to be done.
Here are some other helpful tips my clients have practiced to help ignite their passion to work out, and to keep the fire properly stoked.
Shorten your focus. For individuals who are out of shape or have a substantial amount of body fat to lose, the long road ahead can be intimidating. Don’t think that far ahead; narrow your focus. Find one action you can take every day that will lead you in the right direction. Go for a walk. Do a strength training workout. Make better, albeit simple, food choices you can do every day. Do something that makes you feel great about yourself today. The results you seek will come as long as you do these things daily.
Get to the edge of your comfort zone, then take one step forward. Competence is important, as explained above. We want to be good at what we do, and things like strength training are no exception. But once you reach, for example, a good base-level of strength, you need to consistently get out of your comfort zone. Challenging yourself regularly with new exercises or heavier weights is a worth-while endeavor. It’s how you grow physically, and mentally, and will keep you motivated to come back for more. It’s also a tremendous habit to embrace to keep you hungry for seeing what else you’re capable of doing.
When all else fails, show up and do something anyway. Nothing is foolproof, and the science-driven information to achieve motivation is no exception. Some days, even if you’re fulfilling the needs above, you still won’t want to work out. It’s going to happen. But show up anyway and do something. Even if it’s an abbreviated version of your program, or you work hard for just 15 minutes, or you skip the gym and do a bodyweight workout at home — do something anyway.
Too often people use lack of motivation as an excuse for not taking care of themselves. Do it anyway. As a personal example, for over two years straight I had zero motivation to strength train. Two whole damn years. Going into my garage and lifting weights was the last thing I wanted to do, but I did it anyway. My compromise was to work hard for a short period of time and get it over with (I usually stuck to the Lift Like a Girl template); at least three days per week, for two years, that’s what I did even though I didn’t feel like it. It wasn’t until recently that my motivation mysteriously returned; now I actually look forward to my workouts and find them enjoyable.
I’m not naive; I know in the future motivation will wane, or disappear entirely, but I won’t stop lifting just because I don’t feel like. I’ll get my butt in my home gym, and do it anyway. Thanks to autonomy I’ll adapt and do shorter, or less frequent, workouts. Not strength training just because I’m not motivated at any point was never, and will never, be an option.
Motivation oftentimes develops as a result of taking consistent action. Don’t wait for it to arrive in full force; start doing something immediately.
Like most things in life, there isn’t any one plan that will work for everyone. Adopt and use what works best for you. Find the combination of the above information that gets you on the right track. Begin first by fulfilling the needs of autonomy, competency, and relatedness and see how far that takes you. And don’t forget to take action today — you can’t acquire motivation or achieve anything else without working for it.