If you look anywhere online, you’ll see plenty of memes and videos about “killing it”, “crushing it”, being motivated, and achieving your fitness goals. Usually, these are also filled with numerous images of ripped and lean fitness models, athletes, and competitors with the idea that this will motivate you.
This is absolute horseshit. Motivation has very little to do with willpower, and even less to do with looking at and comparing yourself to the successes of others, who are likely to be at very different levels of skill and training than yourself. In fact, I don't think motivation is very important at all for success - except in the earliest stages of the process.
I used to look at how big Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biceps used to be every day, but it didn’t motivate me one bit. In fact, all it did was make me jealous and upset that I couldn’t have the same amazing arms he had.
Most people think of willpower and motivation like a fixed number.
The Willpower Stat
In Dungeons and Dragons, this is represented by a single stat, your will save. Yes, I'm that kind of nerd, fight me.
Whenever you encounter powerful magic that attempts to control your mind, or whenever you have to deal with particularly psychologically challenging obstacles, you use your will save to see if you succeed or not.
The will save is made up of three things: your wisdom, your level bonuses, and your dice roll.
Wisdom is a base character stat: it represents your innate skills and qualities. Here’s what the Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 edition manual (3.5 will forever be the only edition I play) has to say about it:
Wisdom describes a character’s willpower, common sense, perception, and intuition. While Intelligence represents one’s ability to analyze information, Wisdom represents being in tune with and aware of one’s surroundings. Wisdom is the most important ability for clerics and druids, and it is also important for paladins and rangers. If you want your character to have acute senses, put a high score in Wisdom.
Already, we’re off to a weird start if we’re thinking about this in terms of real life: after all, the acuteness of your senses has nothing to do with your willpower. How does having sharp eyes improve my willpower? Clearly, this isn’t really the way that things work. Either way, you get a bonus based on your wisdom stat.
Second are the bonuses you get from your level and character class. As you get more experienced, your character levels up and gets bonuses to all kinds of stats depending on what class they choose. A class defines your role on the team: whether you’re good at hitting things with a hammer or good at casting spells or good at picking pockets. So, certain characters are also given high bonuses to their will saves.
Last one is the dice roll. This is meant to simulate chance - you’re rolling a twenty sided die and getting anywhere between 1 and 20 on your roll. When you’re a lower level character, this has a bigger impact on your results. As you get more experienced (and as your bonuses from wisdom and class levels increases), chance has less to do with it, and it’s more about those innate skills.
You add your bonuses to your dice roll, hope it beats the right number, and boom. You’re done. Somehow, willpower is a very simple and easily calculated number.
What’s the problem with this conception of willpower? Because ultimately it boils everything down to two numbers: innate ability and outside luck.
This is how a lot of people think about willpower, even in the real world. We boil our willpower down to the simple idea of innate ability: some people are more motivated than others. If your willpower is strong enough, boom, you win. The end.
The reality is that it’s not. Motivation can be related to willpower, but it’s usually only a small part of the equation.
The Classical Approach
In my personal training certification manual, I was taught primarily that there are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.
Intrinsic motivation is what we call innate ability. It’s raw willpower. It’s exercising or pursuing our intellectual pursuits simply because we enjoy them, and because our willpower is strong. As the story goes, if you like your job, you never work a day in your life.
This isn’t really true. No one is perfectly intrinsically motivated. All of us have jobs that we love that we also sometimes wish we could just physically strangle. But, it gives you an idea of what we mean.
In contrast, extrinsic motivation is what we call outside factors: events in our lives that can motivate or demotivate us. A personal trainer or coach who keeps us on track, the looming threat of poor health, or a competition we have planned for the future - these are all factors that can keep us interested in improving our health.
On the reverse end, there are factors that can demotivate us - a long day at work, an argument with a loved one, unexpected car trouble, overtime. Ideally, we get as many of the positive factors and as few of the negative ones as possible.
The classical view is that intrinsic motivation is superior and willpower is the most important. But the reality is that many of the most highly “intrinsically motivated” people are also actually the most highly extrinsically motivated.
Consider a pro level athlete - they’d be the kind of person you think of as highly internally motivated, right?
But what if that’s the only thing that they know how to do professionally? What if it’s the one real talent they have, and they didn’t bother going to a university to pick up other marketable skills? What if they exercise because they're being paid to exercise, and don't have anything else to do with their time?
Athletes are often paid huge sums of money, provided that they’re skilled enough. They’re motivated by the presence of coaches and trainers, teammates, and the desire to succeed in competition. All of these factors are, strictly speaking, external. In short, they’re not really highly motivated so much as they have a lifestyle that’s designed specifically to motivate them and keep them going.
I'm going to talk about an idea that I think is a lot more important than motivation: lifestyle design. By this, I mean taking steps to design a lifestyle where exercise is a necessity - leading you to exercise whether your motivation on that day is low or high.
When I lived in Chicago, I had a job that was about a couple miles from my apartment. I didn’t have a car or bike at the time, and public transport didn’t really shave much off my commute, plus it would cost money I didn’t feel like spending. So, I was forced to walk to work about 20-25 minutes to work every day. When I was running late, I was forced to run.
In this example, I had no choice but to exercise every day. It was my method of getting to work, and getting to work was my only way of paying my bills and supporting myself. In short, no matter how motivated I was internally, I had to take that walk - and I took it, every day, with 100% success. Some days I hated it, some days I enjoyed it, but I did it all the same.
Over the span of the time that I worked at that job, I burned about 200-300cal per day on those walks, 5 days a week, for 4 months. This adds up to roughly 16,000 calories burned - enough to lose a solid 5 lbs during those 4 months if I wasn't eating enough to make up the difference. Would losing an extra 5 lbs make a huge difference in your life?
I think that internal motivation is overrated. Some people have it, sure - but many more of us can ensure our success by setting up external sources of accountability that will keep us on track.
Something I absolutely hate are those "what's your excuse" bits of disability porn. You probably know what I mean - the video where you see a disabled athlete performing well and it's always accompanied with strong praise along the lines of "WOW look how motivated this person must be! Shocking!"
This sort of thing turns the disabled into a spectacle - if they're not superathletes, we don't give a crap about them, but if they are, we can use them as a tool to shame each other with. And here's the thing - they're not necessarily any more or less motivated than anyone else, aside from societal expectations about what they should and shouldn't be able to do.
Their personal level of ability is normal to them, and not something that we should see as "demotivating". It would be like me looking at you and being like "oh man, it sure sucks that you don't have a third leg so you can lift more weight". Who cares? Move on. The athletic achievements of the disabled shouldn't be a tool for shaming.
The reason that trainers and coaches are a powerful motivator is that they provide a social factor: we don’t want to let our trainer or coach down, so we work harder than we would otherwise, even if the coach or trainer isn’t providing us with any more knowledge than we already have. We all know the battle cry of a personal trainer in the wild: "one more rep! one more rep!" Let's be honest - you would try taking that rep, even if you knew you wouldn't actually be able to complete it, just because your trainer was there.
Likewise, there are many other forms of social motivation we can use to our advantage. Finding a training partner or group of friends, entering a local competition, or setting regular challenges for ourselves can all be methods that work really well at keeping us motivated.
A simple method for motivation is to announce our intentions to our friends and ask them to bug us about it and keep us accountable. This is a simple, cheap solution that works well at creating social motivation.
A method I recommend is by setting a bet with yourself and giving a friend the money. Let’s say you bet $100 this month that you’ll accomplish your goal of training five days per week. Then, you give that $100 to a friend, tell that friend to check in with you, and create a system for alerting your friend every time you go work out. Then, at the end of the month, you get your money back if you succeed. If not, your friend gets to walk away $100 richer, and you repeat the bet next month. It doesn’t have to be $100 - just a significant enough amount of money that you don’t want to let go of it.
Similarly, services like stickK help you by automating this process. You pick a goal and time frame, ante up a certain amount of money, and find a referee. If you fail, your money is sent either to a charity or an anti-charity (a charitable organization you absolutely hate, and definitely don’t want to send money to) automatically.
Here’s a fact: even coaches hire coaches. Entrepreneurs hire business coaches to keep them motivated and working hard. Even pro athletes have trainers and coaches to keep them on track. The best coaches will seek out other coaches who challenge them or fill in gaps in their own information, so that they can be even better for their clients.
There are idiots out there who would say that it’s “shameful” for coaches to hire other coaches. They’d claim that it just shows that you don’t really know enough to be a good coach. It doesn’t matter what they think. They’re idiots.
The president has a board of advisors, as have most rulers in history. Coaches learn from other coaches, from education, and from practical experience with their clients. You don’t just magically appear one day as a perfect coach.
When you've got other factors like these going on, willpower isn’t always a huge part of the equation. When you have invested yourself significantly within a certain path of action (by whatever definition you have for a significant investment), you’re going to be more likely to succeed. Psychologically, when you spend important resources on something, you want to follow through - it’s pretty simple.
By investing in and structuring your lifestyle a certain way, you can create a lifestyle where you’re essentially expected to work out - and so you do! Create external pressures that keep you accountable and guide you in the right direction, and you’ll find yourself more easily following that path.
The Problem With Will Stats
The other issue that I have with the idea of thinking as will like a fixed “stat” is that it’s constantly changing.
As mentioned above, external factors can have a huge impact on our willpower. A bad boss, a difficult week at work, living in a situation where it’s hard to get food without a long trip, or having a gym that’s a long commute away - all of these obstacles will make it harder to stay motivated. What’s important to recognize is that many of these obstacles can cause huge fluctuations in our base willpower on a regular basis. We shouldn't think of these obstacles like the roll of the dice, but like changes to our actual will save.
What this means is that willpower isn’t a fixed stat. Instead, it’s a moving target. It changes constantly. Some days we’re highly motivated and we crush our workouts. Some days we’re not motivated at all, and we either get in crap workouts or don’t go at all. Willpower may be a finite resource, or it may be more like a kind of emotion with necessary ups and downs.
When we use up our willpower dealing with other things throughout the day, we may have less left over to spend on stuff like our workouts. What this means, as the above linked articles suggests, is that “motivated” people are actually just better at structuring their lives so that willpower isn’t a factor. This helps them conserve willpower so that they can spend it when they need it.
If you’re just trying to use your willpower as if it never has ups and downs, you’re going to constantly challenge yourself with stressful workouts, burn yourself out, and end up quitting. You only have so much energy and time in the day, so you need to be smart and conserve your usage.
Again, these changes are sort of approximated by the dice rolls in Dungeons and Dragons. But the problem is that the game is still designed to reward innate stats as you get stronger - making the chance of the dice roll less and less of a factor.
While this is sort of how willpower works in real life (more motivated people will be less impacted by external demotivating factors), it’s more consistent to say that not only should we have dice rolls, we should have a moving willpower stat as well.
Maybe the stat should be decreased temporarily after regular usage, or maybe it should simply increase and decrease in relation to other events throughout the day. Having the stat be fixed just perpetuates the myth of innate and fixed willpower.
So it shouldn’t be a matter of simply trying to “willpower your way through” your workouts and your efforts at self improvement. Instead, you should be looking to make your workouts easy. You should be looking to find ways to enjoy your workouts, avoid stress, and minimize difficulty.
This doesn’t mean you should do no work - obviously, workouts are hard! But it does mean that you shouldn’t be making your workouts hard for the sake of being hard. Making your workouts more difficult, longer, or more challenging than they have to be only saps your willpower and makes it harder to accomplish your goals over time.
Adam Said Willpower Isn't Real!
Yeah, this just isn't a fair assessment of what I'm saying here, and I'd like for that not to be your sole takeaway.
Here's the thing: I think willpower is real - I just don't think you should solely rely on it as your path to success. Willpower is fickle. It can blow up in your face. Instead, I think you should focus on lifestyle design and extrinsic motivation as a way keeping yourself accountable and on track.
Willpower matters. I think that in particular, beginners have a rough time of it because they're just figuring out the first steps of their own lifestyle design. They're just now learning and practicing these skills for the first time, so they're going through a lot more than the average exerciser who's been at it for a while.
I think beginners have it the hardest of anyone. My workouts are so exhausting that I can take an hour to just get through a single exercise when you factor in all the rest periods - but it comes naturally to me. The effort doesn't bother me or stress me out.
Beginners stress about everything - going to the gym, eating right, not "messing up" and ending up in the latest Gym Fails youtube. Beginners don't know what the best practices are, so they struggle the most to design their lifestyles, workouts, and diets in ways that are productive and helpful.
In this case, willpower can certainly come in handy! You've got a lot going on, so a certain ornery ability to just dig in and keep at it will really get you over that first hump.
Likewise, willpower can be one helpful tool among many when your normal lifestyle design fails. You can use your willpower to get yourself to the gym when your normal schedule is falling apart.
However, I will continue to say that I don't think it matters much long term. Long term, you can't count on willpower and you need to focus on other factors in order to get the kind of success you want.
Hell, the only reason I'm still lifting after ten years is that I compete - most days, I'd rather not work out at all, but only the fact that I know that I'll be messing up my training schedule (and thus killing my chances of doing well in competition) keeps me on track.
So What Should You Do?
If you struggle with motivation, you need to stop thinking about willpower and start finding ways to design your lifestyle so as to make it easier to get to the gym.
Find a gym that’s close to your work or home so that you don’t have to travel as far to get to it. Bonus points if it’s near your work, so that you’re forced to work out on your way into work in the morning or home at night.
Find a gym that you like and that fits your schedule.
Find a gym that provides you with the level of privacy that you’re looking for. Consider buying gym equipment for your home or apartment so that you can do workouts without needing to go anywhere.
Set alarms and notifications in your phone to remind you when it’s time to workout. Set more if one doesn’t usually work.
Start tracking your workouts and your diet somehow. Use a notebook or an app to make it easy to compare data from previous days and aim for incremental improvements. Keep a diary.
Set yourself regular goals and make efforts to check in on those goals. I keep a calendar above my desk to remind myself of various work deadlines, calls, and other life events. Now I only have to look up during a moment of writer's block
Just get the ball rolling - tell yourself you're going to drive to the gym and just do a single exercise. Force yourself to get started, and often the momentum follows.
Find friends or social pressure. Join a facebook group and get active. Look for a workout buddy. Tell all your friends about your resolution to become more active, and ask for them to keep in touch with you. Make the $100 bet.
Join a competition. It doesn’t have to be anything more than an easy, local competition. You don’t have to be good, you just have to show up. Training for that competition will keep you motivated. Invite friends to compete too.
Act like a fitness person. Read fitness blogs, watch youtube videos, hang out on fitness forums. (But for the love of god, do your best to avoid looking at dumb fitness memes.) These may not be good sources of information, but the time you’ve invested will make you feel more like the kind of person who “does” fitness - and you’ll feel more motivated to follow up with action.
Buy fitness products. Like with hiring a coach or putting $100 on the line, the money you’ve invested will make you feel more motivated to follow up with action.
Hire a coach or trainer. We work well for a reason: we’re a source of regular motivation and accountability. If you’re looking for a coach, I can help keep you on track.
Focus on developing a habit. Aim to work out on consistent days and at consistent times. Set aside time in your schedule for working out so that you can't later complain that you don't have time.
Why It’s Hard To Succeed
Let’s be honest. Success isn’t easy. It’s not simple either. There’s no perfect solution. I’m not here to sugar coat everything.
The reality is that self improvement, whether that comes down to fitness or anything else, is hard work. The reality is that you have to invest time and effort if you want to get a good return. But if you don’t invest anything, or invest very little, you’re not going to feel any pull to follow through.
Motivated people succeed because they invest themselves - money, lifestyle, social groups, and more - in order to force themselves to succeed. You just don’t succeed if you’re trying to willpower your way through, because your willpower doesn’t last. I tried to willpower my way through an acting class in college, and I still sucked.
To succeed, you need to find a strategy and lifestyle that works for you. This takes work. But by investing and trying out new things, you automate the work of willpower. You make a scenario where you don’t have to think, you just have to keep acting.
That’s how people succeed. It’s not about will, it’s not about leveling up or character stats. It’s about creating the right scenario to enable yourself to succeed. If you’re struggling with your fitness goals, it's probably not just you - it's your scenario.
- Motivation and willpower can be powerful tools for success, but don't work in the way most people think.
- Willpower varies from day to day and isn't constant - so it's not reliable.
- Instead, designing your lifestyle is usually a more productive use of your time. Design your lifestyle so as to be more conducive to working out, and you'll do so much more easily.
- Likewise, investing time, effort, and money into something makes you more likely to follow up with more - so you can often trick yourself into motivation simply by investing significant amounts.
- Even the most motivated in the world need lifestyle design to keep them accountable.
- How the Hell Am I In Shape?
- Winners Always Quit, And Quitters Always Win
- The "Easy" Way To Master Any Skill
Are you interested in perfecting your deadlift and building legendary strength and muscle? Check out my free ebook, Deadlift Every Day.
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